Dr. David Shambaugh, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs and a specialist on China, spoke about China’s military reforms to a group of about 20 students last Wednesday.

Shambaugh’s speech focused on what he considers to be a continuing, comprehensive quest to modernize the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of Communist China. The overhaul dates back to a decision made after its “miserable military failure” in a border war with Vietnam in 1979.

“No military in the world is going through as thorough reforms [as China is],” Shambaugh said. The PLA is very interested in the current talk of the U.S. war in Iraq because of its assessment of the military experiences of other nations, Shambaugh said. Most recently, it has learned the importance of having a technologically advanced military from recent conflicts such as the Gulf War, Kosovo and the past year’s Afghanistan campaign. The lethal effectiveness of precision-guided bombs and the modern “electronic battlefield” shocked and humbled the Chinese so much that they modified their military doctrine from “limited war” to “limited war under high technology conditions,” Shambaugh said.

Yet China continues to uphold “limited war” as an essential part of its military doctrine. The PLA has concentrated on preparing its military for offensive war, because the Chinese “see themselves potentially at the receiving end [of aggression],” Shambaugh said.

He expressed puzzlement, however, at the tank-building fervor in China, suggesting that the mass-production of tanks was more for domestic employment than it was for national security. China also seeks to upgrade its navy, which currently only has the capacity of a coast guard, so that it can patrol the waterways around Southeast Asia and as far as the Arabian Sea. Shambaugh specified areas of the Chinese military in which reforms are underway or needed.

First, speaking of China’s six million-man armed forces, Shambaugh said that China has sought to create smaller, less-cumbersome military units with better-educated servicemen. While military training remains minimal in the most destitute parts of China, it is now conducted not only in better conditions, but also with increased use of live fire and simulation exercises.

The equipment and technology aspects of the Chinese military are where real reform is needed, Shambaugh said. Despite China’s place as third largest military spender in the world after the U.S. and Russia, Shambaugh estimates the PLA is “still a 1960s military,” technologically speaking.

As a result of the embargo of Western cutting-edge military technology to China, the bulk of its equipment remains antiquated and poor in quality, some of it dating from the 1950s. The fact that an overwhelming portion of the Chinese military budget is spent on “all things that don’t go boom,” exacerbates the problem, Shambaugh said.

Shambaugh also provided background information on the Chinese military. The history of the PLA, founded in 1927, follows the history of the Chinese Communist Party itself. The PLA consolidated the power of the regime from 1949-1953, “[leading] the Communists to power literally through the barrel of a gun,” he said, quoting Mao Tse-tung. The party and the military “are fused” in a “symbiotic relationship,” he said. Unlike most militaries today, the Chinese military also acts as an internal security function by assisting with law enforcement and disaster relief.

The lecture was primarily intended to supplement material in Professor Sutter’s “Chinese Politics and Domestic Priorities” class, but all interested students were welcome to attend.

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Comments are closed.