With an estimated 2.18 million troops, the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF) of China is now the world’s largest army. It is one of the major military divisions of the greater People’s Liberation Army, and was established in August 1927. With a combined 2.8 million soldiers, sailors and airmen – the PLA has well over twice the number of its citizens in uniform than the United States.
However, as the Brookings Institute noted more than 20 years ago in a report on “China’s Hollow Military,” even in the 1980s the PLA was a full million people stronger than its current numbers. However, the People’s Republic of China leadership realized that numbers of troops worked against the aim of developing a modern force. Even as the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) became the largest naval force in the world, Beijing continues to look to modernization not numbers alone.
Last week, NBC News/Reuters reported that China’s President Xi Jinping vowed that China would continue its efforts to modernize its military.
“Let the world know that ‘the people of China are now organized, and are not to be trifled with,'” Xi said in a speech in the Great Hall of the People, quoting Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China.
Xi’s speech came on the seventieth anniversary of the deployment of Chinese troops to the Korean peninsula to help defend North Korea from a U.S.-led United Nations coalition that supported South Korea during the 1950-53 conflict. In October 1950, the PLA crossed the Yalu River on the border with North Korea while the Soviet Union provided additional air cover.
During the conflict, some two million Chinese troops engaged the UN forces. The conflict ended in a military stalemate and while an armistice agreement was signed the Korean conflict is still technically ongoing. However, it showed the world the fighting capability of the communist PLA.
“After arduous battles, Chinese and Korean troops, armed to their teeth, defeated their opponents, shattering the myth of the invincibility of the U.S. military, and forcing the invaders to sign the armistice agreement on July 27, 1953,” Xi explained and added that the efforts to modernize the military are now crucial for Beijing and the whole of China. “Without a strong army, there can be no strong motherland.”
A New Cold War On Many Fronts
This month Xi also visited a PLA base in Guangdong Province and encouraged the marines stationed there to devote their “minds and energy” to “preparing for war,” and to “maintain a state of high alert,” and also to remain “absolutely loyal, absolutely pure, and absolutely reliable.”
It is saber-rattling of the highest order.
Tensions have been on the rise in recent weeks as Washington has approved a $1.8 billion sale of military hardware to Taiwan. The Foreign Military Sales (FMS) was approved less than two weeks before the U.S. presidential election and was delivered electronically to Congress from the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency on Wednesday.
The United States has engaged in its own counter efforts to Chinese bolster, and this has included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to London in July to “build out a coalition” against China.
However, the showdown with China is occurring on many fronts – from the waters of the South China Sea to the realm of cyberspace. Just last week, the National Security Agency (NSA) issued a cybersecurity advisory warning that Chinese state-sponsored actors have increased their attacks on American companies, including those that work closely with the U.S. government. The NSA warned that one of the great threats to the U.S. National Security Systems (NSS), the U.S. Defense Industrial Base (DIB), and even the Department of Defense (DoD) information networks remains hackers in China who work at the behest of Beijing.
Clearly, China has learned that it isn’t the number of men in uniform that is crucial, but rather their ability to engage in many domains. While Beijing can certainly spend beyond what were the wildest dreams of the Soviet Union, the question is what it may get for its modernization efforts.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
Image: A Chengdu J-10 fighter of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force/Creative Commons.