China’s Regional Military Posture

By Michael D. Swaine

Some observers of Asia increasingly emphasize the growing importance of globalization and the forces of political, diplomatic, economic, social, and cultural change as key factors shaping the future of the region. Although such variables are unquestionably significant, the history of Asia, past experience concerning changes in the larger international system, and much of our conceptual understanding of how nations interact to shape their environment clearly indicate that military power remains a critical determinant of the security perceptions and behavior of all nations, and hence of the larger Asian and global systems.

In the case of China, military power has historically been regarded as a pragmatically essential, if not always ethically laudable, requirement for the maintenance of a secure and stable government. One of the primary goals of modern Chinese nationalism has been for the Chinese state to develop a sufficient level of military power to deter future aggression by other states, to support China’s long-standing desire to achieve national wealth and power, and to attain international recognition and respect as a great nation. In addition, many outside observers measure the potential threat generated by China’s rise as a modern nation-state in large part on the basis of the growing size, capabilities, and configuration of its military forces.

Thus, given China’s expanse, its critical geostrategic location astride the Asian landmass, and its overall rapid rate of growth, there is little doubt that its future military posture will exert a decisive impact on the larger security environment and hence on the shape and tenor of those nonmilitary factors mentioned above. This impact will be most keenly felt in Asia. Indeed, China’s current and likely near-to medium-term military posture is essentially limited to the Asian region. The only major exception involves those long-range strategic nuclear weapons systems of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that present a retaliatory, second-strike capability against targets outside Asia, for example, the United States homeland and European parts of the former Soviet Union. The rest of China’s strategic forces, as well as all of its conventional forces, are oriented exclusively toward regional objectives.

In order to fully assess the current and future significance of China’s regional military posture, one must first identify China’s overall defense policy objectives and intended military capabilities relevant to Asia. This is covered in the first section of this chapter. The second section outlines the major features of China’s current and likely future military capabilities and deployments in Asia. The third section assesses the possible implications of the preceding analysis for Asian security, including an evaluation of the impact of China’s current and likely future capabilities and deployments upon key countries. The overall analysis strongly indicates that China’s military posture in Asia is experiencing fairly rapid and significant change, marked most notably by a growing capacity to deploy forces along its maritime periphery. This expanding capability, along with China’s overall growing regional military presence, will increasingly affect the diplomatic and security calculations of key Asian actors, and of the United States.


China’s military posture in Asia is shaped by several fundamental defense policy objectives. First, and foremost, Chinese forces are deployed to deter or defeat possible threats or attacks directed against China’s heartland, and especially its economically critical eastern coastline. The most likely sources of such threats or attacks include major regional powers such as Japan, India, and Russia, as well as U.S. forces based in Asia, in particular in Japan, South Korea, Guam, and Hawaii.

China’s regional military posture is also designed to deal with a range of possible "local war" conflict scenarios that might occur along China’s periphery, especially in maritime areas. Such conflicts would likely arise in response to Chinese efforts to defend an array of sovereignty and territorial interests, such as claims to the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands near Japan, to Ta iwan, to areas along the border with India, and to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. They could also occur as a result of confrontations over hotspots affecting the broader regional balance, such as the Korean peninsula and the Indo-Pakistani imbroglio.

More broadly, China’s regional military developments and deployments are also intended to support-either directly or indirectly-Beijing’s overall foreign policy and security objectives in Asia. For example, the military supports in various ways (e.g., via senior military officer delegation visits) the development of more cooperative diplomatic and political relations between China and other regional states. The strengthening of the Chinese military also supports the expansion of Chinese diplomatic and military influence and leverage over nearby strategic territories claimed by Beijing, such as the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea; adds to Chinese influence within key regional entities, such as multinational economic, political, and military organizations; and enhances China’s overall global and regional stature, particularly through the display of high-technology weaponry and efforts to establish a presence beyond China’s borders. Over the long term, Chinese military power is presumably also intended to support critical strategic military objectives, such as the maintenance of access to vital oceanic routes in the event of conflict.

The above defense objectives clearly imply a significant transformation in China’s past strategic outlook, from that of a continental power requiring large land forces for defense against threats to its internal borders, to that of a combined continental/maritime power with a diverse range of domestic and external security needs. Overall, in the conventional realm, China is shifting from a continental orientation requiring large land forces for "in-depth" defense of the homeland to a combined continental/maritime orientation requiring a smaller, more mobile, and more sophisticated "active peripheral defense" capability for both inland and especially coastal areas. Such notions are based, in turn, upon several new Chinese strategic principles and combat methods such as "strategic frontiers," "strategic deterrence," and "a greater stress on gaining the initiative by striking first."1

This shift requires three general types of capabilities for China’s regionally oriented forces:

  • The ability to respond rapidly, take the initiative, attain superiority quickly, prevent escalation, and resolve any conflict on favorable terms;
  • The ability to conduct preemptive offensive strikes for self-defense as well as use forces for both conventional and nuclear deterrence and coercion;
  • The eventual development of limited power projection capabilities in Asia, enabling a prolonged sea presence and limited land and sea area denial; sea area control is probably not a desired capability over the near-to medium-term.

Over the medium to long term, the above defense policy and capabilities objectives translate into a specific set of force structure requirements. In the area of conventional forces, these include:

  • A smaller, more flexible, better motivated, highly trained and well-equipped ground force centered on rapid reaction units, with limited yet significant armored fixed-wing and helicopter transport and assault, airborne drop, and amphibious power projection capabilities, as well as a small but well-trained special operations force (SOF);2
  • A robust green-to-blue-water naval capability centered on a new generation of surface combatants with improved air defense, anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and antiship capabilities, modern conventional attack submarines with advanced torpedoes and cruise missile capabilities, an improved naval air arm, and greatly improved replen-ishment-at-sea capabilities;3
  • A more versatile, modern air force, with longer-range interceptor/strike aircraft, improved early warning (EW) and air defense capabilities, extended and close air support, and longer-range transport, lift, and midair refueling capacities;4
  • A joint service tactical operations doctrine utilizing more sophisticated command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, and strategic reconnaissance (C4ISR), early warning, and battle management systems, and the use of both airborne and satellite-based assets to improve detection, tracking, targeting, and strike capabilities, and to enhance operational coordination among the armed services.5

In the strategic realm, China possesses a small, retaliatory "countervalue" deterrent force, centered on a growing array of mobile short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. A significant portion of these forces is oriented toward targets within Asia, most likely including Japan, India, Asian regions of Russia, and key forward U.S. air and naval bases in the Western Pacific such as Guam. China is currently seeking to improve the survivability and potency of these forces.6 It is also likely contemplating the acquisition of a more sophisticated "counterforce" missile capability to defend against America’s technologically superior conventional "in-theater" strike assets. This transition implies, over the medium to long term, the deployment in Asia of:

  • A large number (possibly several hundred or more than one thou-sand)7 of short-, medium-, and intermediate-range solid-fueled, mobile ballistic missiles (with a range of less than 5,500 kilometers) and short-range cruise missiles, with increased accuracy, and some with both nuclear and conventional capabilities;
  • Smaller, more powerful nuclear warheads with potential multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) or multiple reentry vehicle (MRV) capabilities;
  • Modern strategic surveillance, early warning (EW), and battle management systems, with advanced land, airborne, and space-based C4ISR assets applicable to Asia and beyond.8


The Chinese military’s current force structure, training, and deployment patterns suggest that the PLA is currently not fully configured or trained to realize most of the above aspirations and objectives guiding China’s military posture in Asia. At present, the PLA possesses the following broad capabilities relevant to Asian contingencies:

  • A highly effective capability to undertake "defense-in-depth" against any conceivable effort to invade and seize Chinese territory, especially by neighboring Asian countries; however, China does not have a very effective defense against precision long-range attacks against Chinese territory from more than 200 kilometers beyond China’s borders;
  • Effective ground force-based power projection across land borders against smaller regional powers to within approximately 100 kilometers, to inflict punishment and to deter attacks along China’s periphery;
  • Effective power projection to dislodge smaller regional powers from nearby disputed land and maritime territories such as various border areas in Northeast, Central, and Southeast Asia, and the Paracel and Spratly Islands; only a limited capability to hold and seize such territories, especially against combined regional forces;
  • An extremely limited ability to project force against the territory or forces of the most militarily capable states near China, especially Russia, India, and Japan; the greatest potential threats to these countries are presented by ballistic and cruise missiles and, in the case of India and especially Russia, perhaps by air and ground forces deployed within contiguous border areas;
  • The ability to undertake intensive, short-duration air and naval attacks on Taiwan, as well as more prolonged air, naval, and possibly ground attacks; China’s ability to prevail under either scenario would be highly dependent on Taiwan’s political and military response, and especially on any military actions taken by the United States and Japan;
  • An effective second-strike, countervalue-based deterrent against nuclear or other WMD threats or attacks from within the region; China’s confidence in this area has arguably been low in recent years, but is probably increasing as a result of ongoing improvements in missile capabilities.9

As these capabilities indicate, China’s current military posture in Asia is primarily oriented toward defending Chinese territory (and in particular Beijing, China’s economically dynamic eastern coastline, and major communications hubs) against a direct attack while deterring any WMD-based threats or pressures.

However, Beijing is also attempting to acquire a range of conventional offensive-oriented capabilities that, if attained, would likely enable the PLA not only to undertake sizable coordinated (i.e., joint) actions against nearby countries and territories such as Taiwan and the Spratly Islands, but also to achieve the more ambitious defense objectives outlined above. These desired capabilities apparently include:

  • A multiregimental military air- and sea-lift capacity;
  • A multiregimental amphibious attack capability;
  • A demonstrated offshore medium-range bomber or strike aircraft capability;
  • An operational in-flight refueling capacity for more than one hundred aircraft (approximately four regiments);
  • The demonstrated ability to mount sustained naval operations;
  • The demonstrated ability to deploy special operations force (SOF) and marine units beyond China’s borders, probably totaling several brigades;
  • The capability to undertake true joint operations or coordinated deployments across military regions;
  • An airborne early warning and control capability and a strategic warning and real-time surveillance and reconnaissance capability.10

In order to attain such capabilities, the PLA must first overcome a variety of largely systemic obstacles that plague the entire military modernization effort. These include deficiencies in command and control, air defense, logistics, and communications; inadequate training for critical operators such as fighter pilots and for carrying out sizable offshore operations; persistent problems in the military education system; budget limitations; the lack of critical long-range support systems (e.g., surveillance and targeting); and nagging problems in defense research and development, technology, and the production of indigenous weaponry.11

Assuming that Beijing is able to overcome such problems and sustain or even accelerate somewhat the current tempo of its modernization program, one might expect that China could attain the following overall regional military capabilities by 2007-10:

  • The ability to conduct limited12 air and sea denial (as opposed to sea control) operations up to 250 miles from China’s continental coastline;
  • The ability to strike a wide range of civilian and military targets in East, Southeast, and South Asia13 with a large number (perhaps more than one thousand) of nuclear or conventionally armed short-and medium-range ballistic missiles, as well as with several hundred medium-range bombers armed with conventional bombs and cruise missiles;
  • The ability to transport and deploy one to two divisions (approximately 15,000-30,000 fully equipped soldiers) within one hundred miles of China’s continental borders via land, sea, and air transport;
  • The ability to survive a preemptive strike against China’s nuclear facilities and retaliate within the region (and beyond) with a significant number of improved-accuracy intermediate-and long-range land-and sea-based ballistic and land-attack cruise missiles;
  • The ability to overwhelm any likely space-based or air-breathing missile defense system deployed in Asia.

If one projects the above trends for another ten years or so, to the year 2020, one might expect the following general military capabilities:

  • The ability to patrol a single non-carrier surface and subsurface battle group within one thousand nautical miles of China’s continental coastline;
  • The ability to conduct both sea and air denial operations within five hundred nautical miles of China’s continental coastline;
  • The ability to undertake a sizable naval blockade, with air support, of islands within two hundred nautical miles of China’s continental coastline;
  • The ability to transport and deploy three to four divisions (approximately 45,000-60,000 fully equipped soldiers) within two hundred miles of China’s continental borders via land, sea, and air transport.

However, these are rough estimates.14 Equally important, the ability to undertake the above military operations does not imply either intent or inevitable success. As indicated above, China’s apparent objective, beyond deterring and defending against a direct attack on Chinese territory, is to protect Chinese territorial interests, to successfully prosecute a variety of possible "local war" scenarios that might emerge along China’s periphery, and to possess sufficient capabilities to augment China’s expanding political, economic, and diplomatic influence in Asia. None of these objectives necessarily implies an aggressive design. Moreover, China’s ability to prevail in any application of military force in Asia will depend significantly on the specific threat perceptions, military doctrines, and capabilities of China’s neighbors.


In the late 1990s, one American PLA expert observed that a concern about China’s growing power and influence was only one, and usually not the primary, factor driving military modernization and deployment patterns in the region.15 Moreover, PRC power projection capabilities at that time were viewed as quite rudimentary, and concerns about such capabilities were counterbalanced by China’s strong emphasis on political accommodation, its increasing economic integration with the region, and the continued regionwide presence of and regional links with U.S. forces. These factors encouraged lower-cost, nonmilitary approaches to dealing with China’s rise, such as emphases on more practicable, normalized bilateral relations, increasing economic interdependence, and the enmeshment of China in an increasing number of multilateral structures throughout Asia.16

These general observations remain largely true today for most countries of the region, despite a significant increase in Chinese defense spending and resulting military capabilities since the late 1990s. Looking at the region as a whole, there is little evidence that China’s program of military modernization and its pattern of force deployments have thus far generated a broad-based military reaction from other Asian nations in the form of deliberate force buildups or other types of compensatory or anticipatory moves indicative of an arms race or security dilemma. In general, few Asian nations explicitly refer to China’s expanding military acquisitions as a justification for their own military programs.

On the other hand, one can also perceive what appears to be a diffuse, albeit growing, impact of "the China factor" on regional threat perceptions, defense planning, and military acquisitions in certain areas and among specific nations (discussed below). Many regional strategists are particularly concerned with China’s emerging maritime-oriented security priorities, the steady expansion of the PLA’s operational capabilities-especially those relating to both naval and air power-and its foreign weapons and military technology acquisitions.

A more detailed understanding of the relationship between China’s evolving military posture and regional perceptions and behavior can be gleaned from a closer examination of the most significant subregions and major states, in particular those key areas along China’s maritime periphery, including Northeast Asia, maritime Southeast Asia, and India.17

Northeast Asia

Japan. In the past, Japanese strategists focused far more attention on the prospects for social and economic instability in China than upon any potential Chinese military threat. In recent years, however, military analysts, some politicians, and even segments of the Japanese public have expressed concern over the possible adverse impact upon Japan’s security of current trends in Chinese military modernization and deployments.

At present, Japan’s air and naval capabilities are greatly superior to those of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Navy (PLAN). Its air force includes a large number of F-15s and a growing number of newer F-2 fighters, as well as several sophisticated airborne early warning (EW) aircraft that are unmatched by the Chinese. Moreover, Japanese pilots train between 50 and 100 percent more than their PLAAF counterparts, and their training system is more technologically sophisticated.18 The Japanese navy operates several Aegis-equipped destroyers, while China’s naval surface tonnage is reportedly only about three-quarters as large as Japan’s and is far less sophisticated. Japan’s Coast Guard is "almost as large as the entire Chinese surface combat fleet and in several respects better equipped." These Japanese capabilities resulted from significant increases in Tokyo’s defense budget during the 1980s and 1990s.19

Thus, in general, China does not possess sufficient air and naval power projection capabilities to pose a major threat to Japanese forces or territory at present, nor will it in the foreseeable future. However, one notable exception is in the area of ballistic missiles. The PLA is deploying a growing number of increasingly accurate, mobile short- and medium-range ballistic missiles in South and Southeast China, many of them within range of Japan. Such weapons could be used to threaten or to attack Japanese targets or U.S. military bases located in the Japanese home islands, especially in the event of a serious crisis over Taiwan. This potential threat has added to Japan’s existing incentives-based primarily on the growing security threat posed by North Korean missiles-to expand its program of research on a ballistic missile defense system.20

More broadly, Japanese statements and policies have been more critical of Chinese military behavior since the mid-1990s, in response to Beijing’s nuclear tests, its clashes with the Philippines and Vietnam in the Spratly Islands, Sino-Japanese tensions over rival claims to the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands, and China’s use of coercive force toward Taiwan. As a result, Tokyo’s expanding definition of its security role in the Asia-Pacific-as envisioned by the U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines Review of the mid-1990s- partly reflects a concern with China’s growing military prowess. In response, China has expressed concern over the "buildup" of Japan’s military and urged Tokyo to move with caution.21

In the final analysis, however, most informed observers in Japan believe that China remains at present only a hypothetical future military threat, albeit one that is of increasing concern to a growing number of Japanese citizens. Moreover, many Japanese-as many other Asians-hope that China’s growing military capabilities can be constrained or blunted by successfully integrating Beijing into the multilateral international and regional security systems. Most Japanese appear to believe this effort has a good chance of succeeding, as long as China is not isolated or contained. Thus, the level of potential military threat from China has not been sufficient to dissuade Tokyo from seeking closer bilateral and multilateral cooperation with Beijing. Indeed, the search for such cooperation has arguably increased as Sino-Japanese economic ties have deepened in recent years.22

South Korea. China’s growing military capabilities have significant potential implications for South Korea, given Beijing’s close proximity to South Korea’s territorial borders, and China’s historically close political, economic, and security ties with North Korea. In past decades, China’s military posture in Northeast Asia was of great concern to Seoul largely because of the fear that the PLA might support Pyongyang in a conflict with the South. As recently as the mid-1990s, South Korean observers cited ongoing military-to-military contacts between China and North Korea as a significant security concern.23 These security fears have declined greatly in recent years, however, in large part as a result of China’s opening to the outside world, its reduced support for the North Korean regime, and especially the enormous improvement that has occurred in China’s relations with South Korea.24 Seoul fears that growing Chinese military capabilities might threaten the South in a future conflict on the Korean peninsula are also reduced by the fact that the chances of such a conflict are now regarded as very low by many South Korean citizens and politicians.25

Today, little evidence exists to suggest that enhanced Chinese ground, air, naval, or ballistic missile capabilities are either directed at South Korea or would be used against South Korea in the event of a Korean conflict. Even though South Korean defense planners have gradually downgraded their assessment of the urgency of the DPRK threat in recent years and have begun to plan for a "post-DPRK security environment" in which operational capacities beyond the peninsula will matter most, China has apparently not emerged as a major object of concern. In fact, some South Koreans view Japan as a more significant potential security concern than either Pyongyang or Beijing.26

Nonetheless, to some outside analysts, concern about growing Chinese power explains references by various South Korean military officials to the need for a more sophisticated "strategic force"-including AWACS, more indigenous submarines and destroyers, naval-launched attack helicopters, air-refueling aircraft, more sophisticated missiles, antimissile systems, and advanced fighters-to deal with deepening conflicts of interest in the region and threats outside the peninsula.27 Yet even though South Korea is developing the ability to project force into Northeast Asia, "its capabilities are minimal in relation to its neighbors and are likely to remain minimal for some time to come."28

Taiwan. China’s military posture in Asia obviously provokes the greatest response from Taiwan, and for good reason. Since the mid-to late 1990s, China’s military has been heavily oriented toward developing a credible threat of force and a range of coercive measures that could be directed toward the island, both to deter what is viewed as an increasingly separatist-minded Taiwan from achieving de jure independence and, if necessary, to prevail in a military confrontation with Taiwan and possibly the United States.29

In response to this growing PLA capability, Taiwan is attempting-with the assistance of the United States-to carry out a fundamental restructuring and streamlining of its armed forces and to acquire a range of new capabilities and operational procedures. These efforts center on the attempt to create a smaller, more integrated, joint and balanced force, possessing smaller, lighter, more mobile ground units, greatly improved naval and air capabilities, better surveillance and battle management systems, quicker response times, increased survivability against missile and air attack, and enhanced deterrence capabilities. This highly ambitious modernization and reform program confronts many problems, however, and has shown only sporadic success to date, despite extensive and growing levels of U.S. assistance.30

Nonetheless, if Washington continues to press hard for change and the Taiwan government continues to respond positively, albeit incompletely, to such pressure, there is little doubt that advances will continue over the medium term, that is, within the next five to seven years, in areas such as C4ISR, jointness, and training, surface naval combatants, ballistic missile defense systems, long-distance radar, and ASW systems. In addition, the size, configuration, and orientation of the armed forces will continue to adjust to the demands of creating a more credible set of deterrence and defense capabilities. Yet it remains far from certain that such developments will together produce improvements in Taiwan’s deterrent and war- fighting capabilities sufficient and timely enough to influence greatly both Beijing’s overall political, diplomatic, and military strategy toward Taiwan and any specific Chinese decision to apply coercive measures or outright force in a crisis or military conflict. Specifically, the U.S. government worries that Taiwan’s defense reforms and modernization will not take effect early enough to deal with the possible emergence of several major PRC military capabilities by 2007-10 or even earlier.31

Overall, the interactive military dynamic between China and Taiwan has produced a type of offensive-defensive arms race that arguably constitutes the most dangerous consequence of China’s regional military posture to date.

Maritime Southeast Asia

Among Southeast Asian nations, China’s developing military posture arguably exerts the greatest effect in the maritime arena. As suggested above, there is growing concern among some defense analysts and political leaders in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines that China will employ its growing naval and air capabilities to influence the security environment in adverse ways. The concern among these observers is not so much that China will apply a highly coercive strategy, but rather that China’s size and aggregate capabilities will fundamentally alter strategic realities and power perceptions in its favor.32 China already possesses the capability to overwhelm any combination of maritime Southeast Asian states in naval force-on-force encounters, assuming no extraregional assistance is forthcoming.

Many ASEAN countries have in recent years acquired some impressive combat aviation and antisurface warfare technologies, but these capabilities exist in relatively small numbers. Moreover, the integration of these technologies into the existing force structure will likely prove difficult (except in the case of Singapore), the combat proficiency of all Southeast Asian operators-barring the Singaporean Air Force-is an open question, and it is unlikely, in any case, that the more sophisticated aircraft and naval platforms of Southeast Asian states would ever face the PLAAF or the PLAN in any unified or coordinated fashion.33

In most contingencies that can be envisaged (e.g., territorial disputes in the South China Sea, or efforts to control vital maritime lines of communication or commerce), Chinese naval and air forces would have a considerable advantage vis-à-vis the forces of one or even several ASEAN states.34 This will especially hold true once China acquires the ability to conduct routine in-flight refueling of fighter-bombers.

Despite this overall assessment, few Southeast Asian nations have exhibited any clear efforts to acquire new military capabilities in direct response to growing Chinese regional power, or to coordinate their military doctrines to deal collectively with a potential Chinese military threat. The only exception is the Philippines. The Mischief Reef incident of early 1995 provided an incentive to expand the Philippine defense budget to acquire warships and aircraft. Moreover, after the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis, Philippine officials sought low-cost military equipment from the United States, including attack helicopters, air defense radars, multirole fighters, frigates, and coastal defense craft with Harpoon missiles.35 The Mischief Reef incident also seemed to incite interest in Malaysia in acquiring diesel electric submarines. However, no clear military response to China’s increasing regional capabilities or behavior has occurred in Vietnam and Indonesia,36 and Beijing’s relations with Singapore and Thailand remain extremely good. Indeed, the latter country has been a significant recipient of Chinese weaponry for many years. This is also true for Myanmar, which has arguably benefited the most among Southeast Asian nations from China’s increasing military capabilities. Beginning in the early 1990s, Sino-Myanmar military links expanded significantly, and Beijing supplied well over $1 billion in armaments, including fighter aircraft, patrol boats, artillery, tanks, antiaircraft guns, and missiles. Some observers also believe that the Chinese military is involved in a Myanmar naval base at Hianggyik Island and a radar station at Coco Island. Such a PLA presence could be used by China for signals intelligence (SIGINT) purposes and even to deploy forces in the future, thereby greatly influencing traffic through the Strait of Malacca and the strategic environment in the Indian Ocean.37 Overall, most other Southeast Asian states have sought to avoid offending China or suggesting that their military procurement is in any way responsive to a "China threat."38


Aside from Taiwan and perhaps the Philippines, China’s expanding regional military posture is arguably of greatest concern to India. Yet this concern is certainly not new. New Delhi has been focused on the direct potential threat posed by Chinese forces since the PLA decisively defeated the Indian military in the Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962. Moreover, since the 1970s, India’s security concerns regarding China have been augmented by its anxiety over the considerable conventional and nuclear assistance that Beijing has provided to Pakistan. India’s subsequent program of military modernization has thus resulted to a significant degree from such concerns. During the late 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, this program suffered considerably due to major economic and financial restructurings, cutbacks in defense spending, declines in military research and development, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, India’s major supplier of military hardware and technology.39

In more recent years, however, India has managed to devote a growing number of resources to military modernization, partly to increase pressure on Pakistan, partly to deal with China’s recent program of military modernization, and partly in support of an overall strategy designed to raise its strategic profile in Asia. New Delhi is now increasing its level of defense spending by very significant amounts (with the air force receiving the lion’s share of new funding), developing larger numbers of indigenous weaponry, and again acquiring major weapons systems and other forms of defense assistance from Russia, as well as from new niche suppliers such as Israel. This effort reflects a larger, ambitious military modernization program affecting all of India’s armed services.

Today, India’s forces along its lengthy border with China are generally regarded as superior in numbers and quality to Chinese border forces (as shown in incidents with China in 1967 and 1986-87), and there is little sign that this assessment will change in the foreseeable future. In part this is because India continues to improve its most relevant capabilities for countering any potential Chinese thrust across the border by upgrading or acquiring new aircraft, missiles, artillery, command and communications facilities, and radars. Moreover, improvements in the Indian navy, including improvement to destroyers and submarines and even the acquisition of a new aircraft carrier, are being undertaken at least partly in order to counter the expected emergence of a more blue-water-capable Chinese navy.40

Because of these ongoing force developments, as well as the significant improvement in Sino-Indian political and diplomatic relations since the 1970s, few Indian defense analysts expect the PLA’s modernization to alter the conventional balance of forces in South Asia or to result in a more assertive Chinese policy in the near to medium term. Moreover, China has for some time been most interested in developing cooperative ties with India, through high-level leadership dialogue, the pursuit of various political-military confidence-building measures (CBMs), and efforts to clarify much of the Line of Actual Control (LOAC) along the border.41 Overall, from the Indian perspective, China seems far more interested than it once was in furthering good relations with New Delhi, maintaining domestic stability, improving its overall military capabilities, and handling security problems along its eastern and southeastern borders (i.e., regarding Taiwan and the Korean peninsula).

On the other hand, Indian analysts remain concerned about arms transfers from China into South Asia and nearby areas, including Pakistan, Myan-mar, Bangladesh, Iran, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, as well as the development of air and defense ties with all of these Indian Ocean littoral countries.42 According to at least one knowledgeable observer, China’s post-1988 strategic ties and military relations with Myanmar in particular have "potential strategic implications almost as serious as Beijing’s ties with Pakistan. It allows China to have two major allies on the two wings of India while it straddles the northern borders."43

However, of even greater concern to India are China’s evolving strategic capabilities, centered on its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. For many Indians, these programs constitute by far the most serious immediate as well as long-term security threat. In response to this threat, India has sought to expand its own nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities. It reaffirmed to the world its nuclear weapons capability by exploding a nuclear weapon in 1998, and it is devoting considerable resources to the development of both medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles that are capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to any major city in China.44


From a broad perspective, the acquisition by China of even rough approximations of the kind of military capabilities projected above-and especially the development of the technical and operational capabilities to effectively control some battle spaces out to about 250 miles from China’s frontiers- would have several significant implications for the overall security situation in the Asia Pacific.

First, if sustained over many years, China’s military modernization program could prompt more Asian states to focus their own defense modernization efforts on potential vulnerabilities created by the Chinese buildup. In particular, the defense budgets, force structure plans, acquisition programs, and deployment patterns of key Asian militaries could more clearly reflect the need to counter growing Chinese power, especially air and naval power. Such a disturbing trend would become far more likely if China’s political and economic integration into the region were to falter significantly or confidence in the ability of the United States to effectively counter advances in Chinese military capabilities and deployments were to drop. Without a continued strong U.S. presence, Asian alarm over growing Chinese capabilities could eventually fuel a destabilizing arms buildup in the region as countries such as Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, India, and Vietnam seek to establish or maintain a military advantage over China in key areas. Such developments could significantly increase Chinese tensions with Japan over the U.S.-Japan security alliance, with ASEAN over the Spratly Islands, and with the United States and Western European states over continued access to Asian resources, technology, and markets. Alternatively, several Asian countries might gradually become more pro-Chinese in their foreign economic and diplomatic policies or less supportive of U.S. policies in the region, especially if Asian countries were unable to develop military forces to effectively counter the sort of increased Chinese capabilities described above.

Closely related to the previous factors, the acquisition by China of the above capabilities could significantly increase the costs and risks involved in deploying U.S. forces in East Asia, especially over the long term. For example, the acquisition by China of significant sea denial or control capabilities, or the continued deployment of both short- and medium-range missiles, possibly possessing both conventional and nuclear warheads, could complicate the U.S. calculus regarding whether, when, and how to deploy U.S. forces in the region to deter or reassure friends and allies, and more generally constrain Washington’s freedom of action in a crisis. For some observers, such a situation would fundamentally weaken, if not destroy, the entire strategy of forward engagement and put major strains on U.S. relations with friends and allies in Asia. Of course, this problem would be made much worse if the United States were to reduce the physical presence or qualitative capabilities of its forward presence in Asia. Either reduction could seriously undermine confidence among regional states.

Obviously, the above developments would have extremely important implications for the future security of Taiwan. As a result of the 1995-96 tensions over Taiwan and former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui’s enunciation of the so-called "two states" theory of 1999,45 China’s weapons programs now place an increased emphasis on acquiring capabilities to strengthen the credibility of Beijing’s military options against the island, and to deter the United States from deploying aircraft carriers and other forces in an effort to counter such options. As soon as 2010, the increased Chinese capabilities described above could lead China’s leaders to attempt a variety of military actions against Taiwan, including another, more intensive round of military intimidation through various exercises and missile "tests," a naval blockade, a limited direct missile or air attack, and even perhaps limited ground incursions, all in an attempt to establish a fait accompli in Beijing’s favor that the United States would find difficult to counter.

It is unlikely, however, that the Chinese leadership would attempt such actions unless they believed that Taiwan were about to achieve permanent independence. Moreover, it should be stressed that the ability of China to prevail in any deployment of military force against Taiwan, even by the year 2020, is by no means certain. As suggested above, China’s relative military capabilities vis-à-vis both Taiwan and the United States will be a far more important indicator of China’s willingness to employ force than the sort of absolute capabilities projected above.

Overall, the above analysis indicates that China is in the process of acquiring new military capabilities and undertaking new force deployments that will fundamentally alter security perceptions in the region and stimulate a more widespread military response among the major powers. Although this dynamic is not fated to produce conflict-even in the case of Taiwan-it will likely increase the chances of regional tension and instability, thus requiring more deliberate and coordinated political, diplomatic, and military efforts. The United States will, by necessity, play the most decisive role in this effort.


  1. The Chinese principle of "strategic frontier" is intended to encompass the full range of competitive areas or boundaries implied by the notion of comprehensive national strength, including land, maritime, and outer space frontiers, as well as more abstract strategic realms related to China’s economic and technological development. The principle of "strategic deterrence" was formulated to emphasize the nonviolent use of military power to deter war or achieve political or diplomatic ends, in contrast to the traditional Chinese emphasis on the use of military forces in actual combat. An increased emphasis on gaining the initiative by striking first (rather than waiting for the enemy to strike) reflects the need to act quickly and decisively to pre-empt an attack, restore lost territories, protect economic resources, or resolve a conflict before it escalates. For further details on these and other principles basic to China’s post-Cold War defense doctrine, see David Shambaugh, Modernizing China’s Military: Progress, Problems, and Prospects (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), especially chapter 3. Also see Paul H. B. Godwin, "Changing Concepts of Doctrine, Strategy, and Operations in the People’s Liberation Army 1978-87," China Quarterly 112 (December 1987): 573-90.
  2. See Dennis Blasko, "PLA Ground Forces after the 16th Party Congress," paper presented at the CAPS-RAND conference, "Whither the PLA after the 16th Party Congress?" Taipei, Taiwan, November 2002. Also see Blasko, "Statement before the U.S.-China Security Review Commission, December 7, 2001," in Compilation of Hearings Held Before the U.S.-China Security Review Commission, Fiscal Years 2001 and 2002 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2002), 897-909, for a detailed discussion of the ground force component of China’s rapid reaction forces.
  3. Bernard D. Cole, The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy Enters the Twenty-First Century (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001); and Christopher D. Yung, People’s War at Sea: Chinese Naval Power in the Twenty-first Century (Alexandria, VA: Center for Naval Analysis, 1996).
  4. Kenneth W. Allen, Glenn Krumel, and Jonathan D. Pollack, China’s Air Force Enters the 21st Century (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 1995).
  5. Mark Stokes, China’s Strategic Modernization: Implications for the United States (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 1999).
  6. China’s long-standing "minimum deterrence" doctrine generally assumes that China would absorb an initial nuclear attack rather than undertake a launch-under-attack (LUA) or a launch-on-warning (LOW). Perhaps most important, the effectiveness of this deterrence hinges on the inability of an adversary to destroy all of China’s WMD capabilities, especially its strategic missile force, in a first strike.
  7. The number of Asia-oriented missiles that China deploys over the next ten to fifteen years will undoubtedly depend significantly not only on the state of tensions within the region (and especially regarding Taiwan), but also on whether the United States and key Asian nations such as Japan and India deploy an effective missile defense system in the region.
  8. For a detailed assessment of the doctrine and force structure objectives of the PLA, see Shambaugh, Modernizing China’s Military, especially chapters 3 and 4; and Harold Brown et al., Chinese Military Power, report of the Independent Task Force (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2003), especially 37-62. Also see Michael D. Swaine, "The Modernization of the People’s Liberation Army: Prospects and Implications for Northeast Asia," NBR Analysis 5, no. 3 (Seattle, WA: National Bureau of Asian Research, 1994); and David Shambaugh and Richard H. Yang, eds., China’s Military in Transition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).
  9. The preceding estimates are my own, derived from more than a decade of studying the PLA. For a recent assessment of PLA capabilities that tends to reinforce these judgments, see Brown et al., Chinese Military Power, 24-62. Also see Paul Godwin, "From Continent to Periphery: PLA Doctrine, Strategy, and Capabilities Towards 2000," in China’s Military in Transition.
  10. Brown et al., Chinese Military Power, 37-62; and Shambaugh, Modernizing China’s Military.
  11. Brown et al., Chinese Military Power, and Shambaugh, Modernizing China’s Military.
  12. The word "limited" here denotes the ability to carry out sea denial activities primarily against a small number of surface and subsurface assets in selected, limited areas over short periods of time.
  13. Such targets would theoretically include all major metropolitan areas in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, and India, and most major U.S. military installations in Asia.
  14. Again, these estimates are my own. See Michael D. Swaine and Ashley J. Tel-lis, Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2000), 164-65.
  15. According to Bates Gill, regional military buildups and deployments were driven by external security concerns such as piracy, the protection of offshore resources and territorial claims, and the maintenance of open and safe shipping lanes; a growing need among many Asian countries to address the deepening obsolescence of their military forces; and a desire to counter emerging vulnerabilities associated with the enhanced influence of major regional powers or of local rivalries, such as those between North and South Korea, India and Pakistan, Japan and North Korea, and among some Southeast Asian states. These latter concerns were magnified by the fear in some quarters that America’s long-standing role in the region as a security balancer or broker might diminish in response to the collapse of the Soviet security threat. See Bates Gill, "Chinese Military Modernization and Arms Proliferation in the Asia-Pacific," in In China’s Shadow: Regional Perspectives on Chinese Foreign Policy and Military Development, ed. Jonathan D. Pollack and Richard H. Yang (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1998), 10-36.
  16. Jonathan D. Pollack, "Asian-Pacific Responses to a Rising China," in In China’s Shadow, 2-3.
  17. Russia and Central Asia are not included in this more detailed assessment of regional reactions to China’s military posture because these areas have thus far displayed little in the way of a significant reaction to Beijing’s military modernization effort. Of course, Russia has always been concerned, to varying degrees, with the potential security threat posed by China’s military, given its long border with China, its recent history of armed conflict with Beijing over disputed boundaries, and the much longer history of Sino-Russian tension and distrust. Moreover, an arguably growing number of Russian observers express concern about China’s current military buildup. But such views do not constitute the mainstream in Russian leadership circles. To the contrary, Sino-Russian relations have improved enormously since the late 1980s, and Moscow’s economic problems have resulted in China’s emergence as a major purchaser of Russian weapons and military assistance. In addition, the low level of threat from China sensed by most Russian leaders, combined with the major overall decline of the Russian armed forces, have obviated Russia’s need or ability to strengthen significantly military deployments relevant to China.
  18. Eric Heginbotham and Richard J. Samuels, "Japan," in Strategic Asia 2002-03: Asian Aftershocks, ed. Richard J. Ellings and Aaron L. Friedberg with Michael Wills (Seattle, WA: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2002), 96-97.
  19. Ibid., 96.
  20. For an assessment of Japan’s ballistic missile defense program and its relation to China, see Michael D. Swaine, Rachel Swanger, and Takashi Kawakami, Japan and Ballistic Missile Defense (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2001).
  21. Tsuneo Watanabe, "Changing Japanese Views of China: A New Generation Moves Toward Realism and Nationalism," in The Rise of China in Asia: Security Implications, ed. Carolyn W. Pumphrey (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 2002), 176-83; and Gill, "Chinese Military Modernization and Arms Proliferation in the Asia-Pacific," 29-30.
  22. Heginbotham and Samuels, "Japan," 112.
  23. Taeho Kim, "Korean Perspectives on PLA Modernization and the Future East Asian Security Environment," in In China’s Shadow, 54.
  24. In fact, as some analysts have observed, China’s leader and the Chinese military evince little enthusiasm for intervening militarily in a future conflict on the Korean peninsula. See, for example, Eric McVadon, "Chinese Military Strategy for the Korean Peninsula," in China’s Military Faces the Future, ed. James R. Lilley and David Shambaugh (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1999), 283-84.
  25. Since at least 2000 South Korea’s defense doctrine has been the subject of serious reconsideration, marked by heated debates over whether or not to drop the "main enemy" designation for DPRK forces. See Nicholas Eberstadt, "Korea," in Strategic Asia 2002-03, 162.
  26. Ibid., 163.
  27. Gill, "Chinese Military Modernization and Arms Proliferation in the Asia-Pacific," 30-31. As Eberstadt states, at the start of the new century, "ROK defense allocations were being increasingly invested in systems only tangentially related to potential DPRK aggression, but integral to the development of a regional ‘force projection’ capability" ("Korea," 162).
  28. Eberstadt, "Korea," 162-63. Also see Kim, "Korean Perspectives on PLA Modernization and the Future East Asian Security Environment," 50-67.
  29. Those areas of Chinese weapons development and military deployments of greatest relevance to Taiwan include the increased production and deployment of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, as well as improvements in missile accuracy and payload packages (including MIRVs and countermeasures); efforts to deploy land-attack cruise missiles on naval and air platforms; efforts to deploy improved antiship cruise missiles; increased deployments of AA-12 or similar air-to-air (AAMRAM)-type missiles; improvements in submunitions capable of severely disrupting air bases and C4ISR facilities; improvements in electronic warfare capabilities, including anti-electronic intelligence (ELINT), anti-satellite (ASAT), and anti-global positioning system (GPS) capabilities; the acquisition of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) to detect and track U.S. carrier battle groups; improvements in data/intelligence fusion and dissemination for battle management and C4ISR; the ability to mount sustained air sorties and to avoid friendly shoot-downs; the deployment of-or intent to deploy-large numbers of fourth-generation and third-generation fighters (Su-30s, Su-27s, J-8IIs, JH-7s, and J-10s); the development of an ability by aviation forces to support ground and naval operations; improvements in combined submarine-and-surface naval operations; efforts to increase the number of more sophisticated diesel- and nuclear-powered submarines, and to produce new types of such submarines (Kilo-class, Types 093, 094); and significant increases in the number of troops (airborne, SOF, and marines) considered deployable and supportable across the Taiwan Strait.
  30. For a detailed discussion of the problems and successes of Taiwan’s defense reform and modernization program, see Michael D. Swaine, "Taiwan’s Defense Reforms and Military Modernization Program: Objectives, Achievements, and Obstacles," in No Way Out? New Thoughts on the U.S.-Taiwan-China Crisis, ed. Nancy B. Tu cker (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). The following paragraph on the likely future course of that response was also largely drawn from this study.
  31. These could include the ability to strike Taiwan with a significant number of highly accurate, short-range ballistic and cruise missiles, to severely damage Taiwan’s offshore defenses with a larger number of more capable submarines and surface combatants, to severely disrupt Taiwan’s communication capabilities with new space-based and information warfare systems, and perhaps even to seize strategic locations on Taiwan with a significant number of special operation forces.
  32. Pollack, "Asian-Pacific Responses to a Rising China," 3.
  33. Swaine and Tellis, Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy, 166.
  34. Ibid., 166-67. Also see Derek Da Cunha, "Southeast Asian Perceptions of China’s Future Security Role In Its ‘Backyard,’" in In China’s Shadow, 119. Da Cunha states that none of the ASEAN states has the military capability alone to successfully oppose a determined military advance by China into the South China Sea, and that they are unlikely to acquire such a capability in the foreseeable future.
  35. Gill, "Chinese Military Modernization and Arms Proliferation in the Asia-Pacific," 29.
  36. Although the claim is unconfirmed, some analysts believe that Indonesia concluded a defense cooperation pact with Australia in late 1995 and purchased British Hawk fighter/ground attack aircraft-and possibly advanced combat aircraft from Russia-because of concerns about China. See ibid., 31.
  37. Da Cunha, "Southeast Asian Perceptions of China’s Future Security Role In Its ‘Backyard,’" 117-18.
  38. Gill, "Chinese Military Modernization and Arms Proliferation in the Asia-Pacific," 31.
  39. Sujit Dutta, "China’s Emerging Power and Military Role: Implications for South Asia," in In China’s Shadow, 104-5.
  40. Ashley J. Tellis, "Appendix D: The Changing Political-Military Environment: South Asia," in The United States and Asia: Toward a New U.S. Strategy and Force Posture, ed. Zalmay Khalilzad et al. (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2001), 206-15.
  41. Dutta, "China’s Emerging Power and Military Role," 105.
  42. Ibid., 100.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Michael D. Swaine with Loren H. Runyon, "Ballistic Missiles and Missile Defense in Asia," NBR Analysis 13, no. 3 (Seattle, WA: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2002).
  45. At that time, Lee Teng-hui stated that Taiwan and China had a special "state-to-state" relationship across the Taiwan Strait. For many Chinese, this amounted to a de facto declaration of Taiwan’s separateness and independence from the mainland and thus, when coupled with the 1995-96 crisis, led to a decision to acquire genuine military capabilities to deter Taiwan.

Source: "Power Shift: China and Asia’s New Dynamics“, University Of California Press Berkeley, 2005


4 Responses to “China’s Regional Military Posture”

  1. August 23, 2009 at 10:52 am

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