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Dr. David M. Finklestein’s Policymakers Seminar Series Lecture, May 20, 2005

Dr. Finklestein is the Director of Project Asia, the Asian Security Studies Center at The CNA Corporation. He is the co-editor of two recent Project Asia books published by M.E. Sharpe, China’s Leadership in the 21st Century: The Rise of the Fourth Generation (2002) and Chinese War fighting: The PLA Experience Since 1949 (2003).

Dr. Finklestein spoke on the topic of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) most recent modernization efforts (begun in the late 1980s/early 1990s). He argued that despite recent reports cataloguing the expansion and improvement of the PLA’s arsenal, US policy-makers must remember that war with China is not inevitable and that it’s military buildup is just part of a more complex picture of the PLA and its role in the PRC.

Today’s China is geographically unified (with the exception of Taiwan), relatively stable, and, integrated into the global economy, but such peaceful times have not always existed. Beginning with the onslaught of colonialism during the Qing Dynasty and lasting until the beginning of the Reform Era in the late 1970s, China’s past century and a half has been anything but peaceful, but this instability have been largely reversed in the past 25-30 years. Today, China no longer fears invasion, but enjoys economic growth a prominent role in the world economy, and a cooperative relationship with other regional and world powers.

China has undergone a remarkable transformation which is not yet complete. No one can predict what type of China will ultimately emerge nor can any external power hope to shape its emergence. The United States must focus its attention on the political forces operating on the Mainland. Coastal cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou have boomed. However, with economic growth comes increased potential for social unrest. The emergence of China is likely as unnerving for the Communist Party (CCP) leadership as for US policy-makers. The PLA may be the last institution over which the CCP maintains universally effective control.

The Gulf War of 1990 had a galvanizing effect on the PLA’s approach to reform. Since that time, the goal of the PLA’s modernization has become preparation for “local wars under modern technological conditions.” According to Dr. Finklestein, the two goals of the PLA modernization are to develop a military that first, is capable of defeating regional enemies and second, a credible threat able to deter international actors from attacking or interfering. In 1995, then-head of the Central Military Commission, Jiang Zemin, articulated the Two Transformations. According to this policy, the PLA must first, transform its war planning from preparation for total war to preparation for limited high-tech war and second, transform itself from a military emphasizing the quantity of its staff to one emphasizing the quality of its soldiers.

According to Dr. Finklestein, there are three pillars of modernization for PLA’s most recent reforms.

1. Hardware/weapons: This pillar includes the PLA’s arsenal--its weapons systems, technologies and capabilities. This pillar generally receives the most attention in Congress and in the media, whereas it is the easiest to assess. In recent years, the Chinese have been purchasing a large number of high-quality weapons from the Russians. The upsides to this are that it means (1)the Chinese are not yet capable of developing their own advanced weapons systems and (2)the US knows a lot about the capabilities of the weapons they are acquiring (given the legacy of American intelligence on Russian weapons dating back to the Cold War).

2. Operational Doctrine: Operational doctrine has changed dramatically over the past decade and a half. The PLA’s new doctrine is still in its incipient stages but it is the focal point of all plans for the future of the military and informs all decisions regarding training, recruitment, weapons acquisitions, organization and strategy. The PLA’s doctrine emphasizes joint operations utilizing high-tech equipment. One must remember that the US spent twenty years developing the joint operations and weapons systems displayed during the first Gulf War. At this point, the PLA’s doctrine remains in the beginning stages, but Dr. Finklestein argued that the PLA leaders are on the way to developing a very capable military.

3. Institutional and Systemic Reforms: this third pillar is necessary to support the first two. In order to prepare for “local wars under modern technological conditions,” the PLA must recruit better educated soldiers and officers, offer better pay, and provide better training. There are a number of factors working against these reforms. First, the economic development of the East provides China’s brightest young men and women with a number of more lucrative and otherwise more attractive career options and their parents are often able to pay the government in order to keep their children from being drafted. Second, even those who are conscripted are only required to serve two years in the military. (This was a result of pressure from rural parents who did not want to sacrifice the labor of their one child for more than two years.) Consequently, the turnover rate is enormous and a great deal of resources must be devoted to training new conscripts every year. Third, the PLA cannot cut its quantity to improve its quality easily without risking social unrest.

When considering the impact of China’s culture versus that of technology on the PLA’s military reform, it is important to consider three aspects of modernization.

1. Strategic Level: China’s culture affects its military’s modernization. Outsiders have difficulty assessing this level.

2. Operational Level: Military leaders must forge a link between strategic objectives and tactical capabilities. The level is shaped in part by universal changes in technology and the international system. In their approach to this aspect of military reform, the Chinese military leadership has studied foreign military organization but has adapted it to the institutional particularities of the PLA.

3. Tactical Level – The ways that the PLA uses existing weapons systems.

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