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China: National Defense
Country Study > Chapter 14 > National Defense

NATIONAL DEFENSE


China has a long and glorious military tradition, dating back to the earliest days of recorded history. The martial exploits of kings and emperors, loyal generals and peasant rebels, and strategists and theorists are well known in Chinese high culture and folk tradition. Throughout the centuries, two tendencies have influenced the role of the military in national life, one in peacetime and the other in times of upheaval. In times of peace and stability, military forces were firmly subordinated to civilian control. The military was strong enough to overcome domestic rebellions and foreign invasion, yet it did not threaten civilian control of the political system. In times of disorder, however, new military leaders and organizations arose to challenge the old system, resulting in the militarization of political life. When one of these leaders became strong enough, he established a new political order ruling all China. After consolidating power, the new ruler or his successors subordinated the military to civilian control once again. In the past 150 years, a third factor entered the Chinese military tradition -- the introduction of modern military technology and organization to strengthen military capabilities against domestic and foreign enemies. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, all three tendencies have been discernable in the role of the military in national life. These factors have been particularly apparent in the role of the People's Liberation Army in the rise to power of the Chinese Communist Party, in the military's role in the politics of the People's Republic of China, and in the efforts of Chinese leaders to modernize the armed forces.

After decades of development from a peasant guerrilla force to a conventional military organization capable of achieving longsought national liberation, the People's Liberation Army pursued further technical competence and improved organization, with Soviet assistance, in the 1950s. Political involvement in the Great Leap Forward (1958-60) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) delayed these efforts until the late 1970s, when the People's Liberation Army embarked on a military modernization program, which had three major focuses. First, military modernization required both the strengthening of party control over the military and the continued disengagement of the armed forces from politics. These steps were necessary to ensure that a politically reliable yet professionally competent military would concentrate on the task of military reform. Second, defense modernization attempted to achieve improved combat effectiveness through organizational, doctrinal, training, educational, and personnel reforms (including recruitment, promotion, and demobilization). These reforms emphasized the development of combat capabilities in waging combined arms warfare. Third, military modernization was aimed at the transformation of the defense establishment into a system capable of independently sustaining modern military forces. This transformation necessitated the reorganization and closer integration of civilian and military science and industry and also the selective use of foreign technology.

Since the 1960s China had considered the Soviet Union the principal threat to its security; lesser threats were posed by long-standing border disputes with Vietnam and India. Beijing's territorial claims and economic interests made the South China Sea an area of strategic importance to China. Although China sought peaceful reunification of Taiwan with the mainland, it did not rule out the use of force against the island if serious internal disturbances, a declaration of independence, or a threatening alliance occurred.

The scope of foreign military cooperation has evolved gradually. In the 1950s China dealt only with communist nations and insurgencies. In the 1960s it began to provide military assistance to Third World nations to counteract Soviet and United States influence. Beginning in the late 1970s, China shifted its arms transfer policy away from military assistance in favor of commercial arms sales and began developing military ties with Western Europe and the United States. Chinese military contacts with foreign countries expanded rapidly with the introduction of the military modernization program and the policy of opening up to the outside world.

In the late 1980s, People's Liberation Army forces consisted of the various arms of the ground forces, and the Air Force, Navy, and Strategic Missile Force (also known as the Second Artillery Corps). The ground forces were divided into group armies and regional forces. Ground force equipment was largely of Soviet design and obsolescent, although some weaponry had been upgraded with foreign technology. The Air Force had serious technological deficiencies despite incremental improvements of aircraft. The Navy was developing a blue-water capability and sea-based strategic forces. China possessed a small but relatively credible nuclear deterrent force with an incipient second-strike capability. Paramilitary forces consisted of the militia, reserve service system, Production and Construction Corps, and People's Armed Police Force.

Data as of July 1987




Last Updated: July 1987


Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for China was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.

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