James A. LEWIS

Sailors from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

China’s intentions in modernizing its military are largely unclear to the outside world, but many experts believe that China wants to build forces that are superior to those of its regional peers, that create the option for quick action against Taiwan if necessary, and that are ultimately capable of defeating U.S. forces in a regional conflict.

China’s military modernization must be placed in the context of changes in the nature of warfare. Three related developments shape the current military environment. The first is the development of a high-tech, information-intensive style of combat, pioneered by the United States in the first Persian Gulf war. The second is the reaction of the United States’ potential opponents—such as China—to the conventional military superiority that this style of combat has given the United States. The third is the development of new kinds of weapons and new modes of attack. The conventional strength that the United States’ high-tech, information-intensive style of combat gives it means that potential opponents are likely to seek asymmetric advantage: They will avoid conflict where the United States is strong and attack where it is weak, and they will rely on unconventional weapons and tactics to do this.

In this context, certain conclusions about military modernization can be made by observing the kinds of military capabilities that China is acquiring, the military doctrine it is developing, and the nature of the exercises and training its forces undertake. But care must be taken in making these deductions about intent because China’s modernization could reflect military ambitions, a desire for improved defense, a wish to demonstrate prestige and status, or a combination of all of these.

Although an asymmetric approach explains some of what China is doing in its military modernization efforts, it is not the full explanation. China appears to be deeply concerned with prestige, with gaining international recognition and reclaiming its place among the great nations of the world. China would also like to be recognized as the paramount power in the Asia-Pacific region. Some of its military activities and acquisitions are made in the interests of prestige and influence, and China’s rivals for supremacy in Asia include not only the United States but also China’s powerful neighbors—India, Russia, and Japan.


A decade ago, in terms of the sophistication of its arsenal, China’s military lagged behind not only large regional powers such as India but also behind smaller countries such as Korea and Singapore. China’s determination to develop a high-tech economy has always had a military component: It has always desired to close the gap between its military and the militaries of its neighbors and other great powers.

The notion of catching up with or even leapfrogging over Western nations has also been a theme for many decades in Chinese policy. The notion that China will be able to make rapid technological advances that allows it to surpass other nations remains attractive in China, despite its many failed leapfrogging efforts, and the concept of leapfrogging reinforces Chinese thinking about the need to gain asymmetric advantage.

In fact, China could pursue two modernization strategies simultaneously; a long term strategy to build advanced defense industrial capabilities and powerful conventional forces (including a blue-water navy with an aircraft carrier and advanced submarines) and a near term strategy of acquiring asymmetric capabilities that may provide advantage over U.S. forces. The combination of advanced conventional forces and asymmetric capabilities will provide the basis for a modern military force.

China’s likely goals for its military modernization, however—regional primacy and local superiority over U.S. forces—will not be easy to attain. India, Russia, Japan, and even Korea all have formidable military forces, and the capabilities of U.S. forces far surpass those of these nations. Although the war in Iraq has seriously eroded U.S. ground force capabilities, U.S. air and naval forces remain superior to those of China or any other nation. The goal of regional supremacy is probably unattainable for China, absent major changes in the capabilities of the U.S. and other nations, but that does not mean China will stop pursuing it.

Asymmetric Warfare

U.S. experts view China’s military not as a peer to that of the United States but rather as an astute challenger. The challenge comes from a combination of increased conventional capabilities and from the pursuit of asymmetric advantage—using new weapons and tactics to attack an opponent in areas where it is weak or vulnerable. Seeking asymmetric advantage is not new, nor is China the only country to seek it. Potential U.S. opponents, including China, currently plan to gain asymmetric advantage to counter U.S. force-projection capabilities (the ability of the United States to rapidly deploy ships, aircraft, and troops to any region of the world, including northeast Asia); they are looking as well for ways to erode the U.S. military advantage by attacking information and communications assets, including satellites and networks.

China’s military is developing weapons and tactics programs to achieve these goals. The most dangerous of these programs are those targeting U.S. aircraft carriers. China has acquired many of the technologies that the Soviet Union developed to attack U.S. carriers, and China is refining those technologies and the tactics needed to use them. China is also developing sophisticated antisatellite capabilities as part of a larger strategy for information operations, but although it has expended considerable effort on both those fronts, neither has reached the stage where they pose much risk to U.S. military superiority.

Antisatellite Weapons

China’s antisatellite test in January 2007 received much attention in the West, but the test should not have been a surprise. The Chinese have been working on antisatellite weapons for at least a decade. The particular weapon China used in the test—a kinetic intercept of a low-Earth-orbit satellite—is the least sophisticated mode of antisatellite attack; the Soviets and the United States developed, tested, and abandoned that mode decades ago.

Public reports in the West speculate that China is also working on ground-based lasers and perhaps attack satellites. Other tactics that the Chinese might use against U.S. satellites include cyberattacks against the ground facilities and networks that control U.S. space assets or jamming of signals from satellites, in particular from the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Information Warfare

China’s antisatellite programs should be seen in the context of a larger effort to gain asymmetric advantage and to erode U.S. capabilities by attacking its information assets. Because a good portion of the U.S. advantage in combat comes from satellite data, potential opponents such as China are searching for ways to interfere with these services and the networks that support them. U.S. experts say the Chinese are also likely putting considerable work into denial and deception efforts—efforts to mislead opponents by denying them informativon about their military or by providing them with false information. These efforts including the jamming of satellite signals, interference with networks, and spoofing
of targets. Spoofing can involve, for example, carefully studying the signature of a target weapons system that the U.S. sensor collects and then duplicating that signature in a decoy. Such denial and deception tactics may actually be of greater concern to an opponent of China than are antisatellite efforts because a skillful combination of concealment, mobility, and deception has had some success against U.S. technical collection—that is, the collection of intelligence through the use of sensors (such as radar, infrared imagery, or photographs) or through the interception of radio signals or other electronic emissions.

As suggested earlier, denial and deception are one aspect of information warfare. If sensors collect erroneous data, the decisions based on that data also will be erroneous. Another information warfare tactic is to corrupt stored data or to damage the computer networks that process and distribute data and support decision making. Government sources in the United States say that China has targeted U.S. information systems as a vulnerable component of the U.S. style of combat.

Information technologies are a primary target for asymmetric attack. Information includes technological know-how, data, statistics, and news, and the networks and processing technologies that aggregate, process, and distribute information have become an integral part of U.S. power. Gaining information superiority, whether by knowing more than an opponent or by disrupting the opponent’s ability to know, has also become one of the keys to success in conflict in the twenty-first century.

Conflict in cyberspace is clandestine, so assessing intentions and risks can be difficult. The central point to consider in an assessment of cyber vulnerability and the consequences of a cyberattack is the linkage between information systems and military capability. If U.S. military capabilities depend heavily on information systems, cyberattacks will do great damage. If there is redundancy in information systems or if networks are resilient (that is, if they can recover quickly), cyberattacks will do much less damage. So far, vulnerability in a computer network has not automatically translated into a loss of military capability for the United States. The risks and consequences of a cyberattack are routinely overstated in the popular media; a cyberattack would not provide China with a decisive military advantage, U.S. military officials say.

One way to assess U.S. vulnerability and China’s ability to exploit that vulnerability is to ask whether a cyberattack by China launched a few days in advance of a military conflict could prevent U.S. carrier battle groups from deploying to the Taiwan Strait. China could attempt to interfere with telecommunications systems in an effort to prevent deployment, but a successful effort would have to simultaneously disrupt land lines, cell phones, the Internet, and satellite communications—a virtually impossible task in a nation with a highly developed communications infrastructure.

China could attempt to interfere with transportation, whether air traffic control or street traffic signals, to make it more difficult for U.S. carrier crews to assemble, although it is hard to see what a cyberattack could add to the gridlock and overcrowding that occur routinely on bad days. China could attempt to interfere with the electrical grid, which could complicate and slow a ship’s departure. Perhaps hackers could take over broadcast radio and TV stations and play Chinese music and propaganda or change broadcast parameters in an effort to create radio interference. But these sorts of annoyances do not provide military advantage.

China also could attempt to interfere with the computer networks that support logistics and supply chains, but because any clash is likely to be a come-as-you-are conflict, there would be no immediate effect. The Chinese also could attempt to disrupt critical civilian infrastructure. This disruption would not seriously affect the deployment of U.S. forces, although it could put China at risk of widening any conflict in exchange for little benefit, since an attack against U.S. civilian infrastructures could easily prompt retaliatory measures.

Some experts worry that surreptitious, long-term cyberattacks on the U.S. economic system might seem attractive to China as a way to weaken the United States before a conflict, but the uncertain benefits of such attacks—and they are uncertain because they might not work and are as likely to damage the economy of China as that of the United States—would have to be weighed against the serious risk and damage that would occur if the effort were discovered.

A better strategy for China in information warfare would be to seek to increase an opponent’s uncertainty. Increasing opposing commanders’ uncertainty degrades the opponent’s effectiveness. Whereas a strategy of denial and deception aims to make opponents believe that they know what is happening (when, in fact, what they believe is wrong), an uncertainty strategy aims to make an opponent unsure about what is happening.

The techniques for carrying out an uncertainty strategy resemble those for carrying out a strategy of denial and deception. One may inject false information into the planning and decision processes of an opponent or manipulate information that is already in that system to make it untrustworthy. There is reason to believe that the Chinese routinely use false or misleading information to manipulate and confuse their opponents. China will more likely pursue an information strategy that seeks to expand uncertainty and confusion rather than unleash an improbable “electronic Pearl Harbor” that would offer only uncertain results.


Overall, U.S. experts think, the United States is capable of handling the threat posed by China’s military modernization in all the areas mentioned. But one area of risk deserves greater attention: the risk that the Chinese government would miscalculate the U.S. response and the international reaction to a military adventure and that the Chinese government would miscalculate the benefits and effect of antisatellite or cyberweapons on the military balance.

The Chinese clearly miscalculated the reaction to their January 2007 antisatellite test. They did not expect the global condemnation it received: The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s lack of preparation to answer questions about the test suggests that China expected a low-key reaction from other countries, and Chinese officials admit privately that the Foreign Ministry was not consulted or kept fully apprised of plans for the test. This miscalculation reflects a degree of parochialism in Chinese security policy, a lack of experience in international politics, and a certain degree of hubris born of China’s tremendous economic success.

This miscalculation makes it fair to ask if the Chinese could similarly miscalculate the balance of power in the region. Some U.S. experts say it is not inconceivable, for example, that China could overestimate the advantages provided by asymmetric attacks and overestimate the exhaustion of U.S. forces because of the war in Iraq. At times in the past—in 1914 or 1941, for example—authoritarian regimes have made such miscalculations and initiated conflicts that appeared unthinkable.

It is unlikely that China would make this sort of miscalculation, although defense spending has increased by more than 10 percent every year for the past two decades, with a 17 percent increase in 2008 and a 15 percent increase planned for 2009. Official figures probably understate actual spending by 10 percent to 20 percent, and spending on programs to develop asymmetric capabilities is usually concealed. China’s defense budget is now the second largest in the world; over the last two
decades the People’s Liberation Army has changed from an overstaffed military with antiquated arms to a leaner force with modern equipment.

Further Reading

Federation of American Scientists. (27 December 27, 2004). People’s Republic of China. China’s national defense in 2004. Retrieved December 16, 2008, from http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/china/doctrine/natdef2004.html

Gill, B. (2007). Rising star: China’s new security diplomacy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institutions Press.

Howarth, P. (2006). China’s rising sea power: The PLA’s Navy submarine challenge. New York: Routledge.

Lampton, D. M. (2008). The three faces of Chinese power: Might, money, and minds. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lewis, J. A. (2004, August). China as a military space competitor. Center for Strategic and International Studies. Retrieved December 16, 2008, from: http://www.csis.org/media/csis/pubs/040801_china_space_competitor.pdf

Medeiros, E. S., Cliff, R., Crane, K., & Mulvenon, J. C. (2005). A new direction for China’s defense industry. RAND. Retrieved December 12, 2008, from: http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/2005/RAND_MG334.pdf

O’Rourke, R. (2006). China naval modernization: Background implications for U.S. Navy capabilities. Retrieved May 2, 2008, from www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33153.pdf

United States–China Economic and Security Review Commission. (2008). 2008 report to Congress of the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission. Retrieved December 17, 2008, from http://www.uscc.gov/annual_report/2008/annual_report_full_08.pdf

United States Department of Defense. (2008). Secretary of Defense annual report to Congress: Military power of the People’s Republic of China 2008. Retrieved December 12, 2008, from http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/pdfs/China_Military_Report_08.pdf

Source: Lewis, James A.. (2009). Military Modernization. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1462–1467. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Red Army guards in formation at the Forbidden City. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

A submarine of the shore of Shanghai, 1979. Building advanced aircraft carriers and submarines is part of China’s long-term defense strategy. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Chinese soldier in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) poses on a boat on the Li River. The famous karst (limestone) mountains in the distance are a favorite site for tourists in Guilin, Guangzi Zhuang Autonomous Region. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Military Modernization (J?n shì de xiàn dài huà ??????)|J?n shì de xiàn dài huà ?????? (Military Modernization)

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