15 March 2015

China’s Military Modernization: Many Improvements, Three Challenges, and One Opportunity

Andrew S. Erickson, “China’s Military Modernization: Many Improvements, Three Challenges, and One Opportunity,” in Jacques deLisle and Avery Goldstein, eds., China’s Challenges (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 178-203.

China has exploited key technological and military operational trends to address its core security interests relatively efficiently, and with increasing effectiveness, to the potential detriment of the interests of its neighbors and the United States. Yet, despite this remarkable advancement, it confronts three mounting challenges moving forward, as well as one major opportunity.

1) While China’s land borders with all nations save India and Bhutan are settled, its major island and maritime claims in the “Near Seas” (Yellow, East, and South China Seas) remain unresolved.

2) Further increasing military capabilities to address conflicting claims is efficient technologically but may trigger negative reactions regionally and undermine China in both military and nonmilitary respects.

3) Developing long-range combat capabilities such as world-class deck aviation requires significant advances in hardware, software, organization, and integration. Achieving these reforms would be unprecedented in difficulty. Prioritizing requisite resources may be difficult given diffuse objectives amid proliferation of competing priorities.

4) China’s one great security opportunity lies in the fact that the vast majority of its growing overseas interests may be addressed through a combination of more easily achievable low-end military capabilities, nonmilitary dimensions of national power, and cooperation with other nations, particularly the United States.

This chapter begins by examining People’s Liberation Army (PLA) development and key dynamics. It then discusses the three aforementioned major challenges facing China and its military before explaining how the PLA might enhance its ability to address them. It concludes by considering the potential for China to address its overseas security interests by enhancing cooperation with the militaries of the United States and other nations.


Beyond continued improvements within existing parameters, there are three major interrelated spectra along which the nature and scope of the PLA’s development can be measured, as outlined in Table 10.1. The first is distance from China’s homeland. For now, the PLA is focused most strongly on nearby areas where it enjoys geographic and physics-based advantages; further away, it suffers from physics-based limitations and vulnerabilities. The second is jurisdiction, which influences the nature and scope of presence, deterrence, or conflict. The PLA is focused on addressing outstanding territorial and maritime claims on China’s periphery, where it requires standalone capabilities, but does not need major combat capabilities for the global commons because it can take advantage of the U.S. provision of security there. The third is operational disposition, which affects capabilities and options regarding force employment. The PLA continues to rely on overlapping capabilities clustered primarily in mainland China and radiating with diminishing intensity from there. It enjoys many workarounds to maximize capabilities and minimize limitations. To project power under contested conditions far away, it could not rely on such a patchwork of potent but uneven components, but would have to develop far more sophisticated, integrated capabilities. The PLA will likely continue to progress along these spectra, but doing so is far more difficult than strengthening existing approaches. It will be arduous, time-consuming, and expensive. …


When the “fifth generation” of Communist Party leaders in China assumed top political positions in 2012-2013, they took the helm of a country that has achieved remarkable economic growth, political stability, and international influence. Yet China today confronts challenges at least as daunting as any it has faced since the reform era began in the late 1970s. In November 2013, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee announced ambitious reforms to address vital issues, such as giving market forces a “decisive role” in the economy, strengthening the social safety net, assigning greater weight to factors other than economic growth and social order in evaluating local officials, promoting urbanization, and relaxing the “one child” policy.

China’s Challenges brings together fourteen experts on China’s social, economic, political, legal, and foreign affairs to examine some of the nation’s pivotal policy issues. Their wide-ranging analyses cover economic and social inequality, internal migration and population control, imperatives to “rebalance” China’s economy toward domestic demand and consumption, problems of official corruption, tensions between legal reform and social order, and the strained relationships with neighboring countries and the United States that stem from China’s rising power, military modernization, enduring territorial disputes, and rising nationalism in domestic politics.

This timely volume offers a broad and comprehensive look at the issues facing China today and lays the groundwork for understanding the shifts to come. How—and how well—China handles these challenges will not only define China’s trajectory for years to come, but will have repercussions far beyond China’s borders.

Contributors: Yong Cai, Jacques deLisle, Jane Duckett, Andrew Erickson, M. Taylor Fravel, Avery Goldstein, Yasheng Huang, Zai Liang, Benjamin Liebman, Melanie Manion, Barry Naughton, Daniela Stockmann, Robert Sutter, Guohui Wang.


“An excellent collection of essays with a rare combination of sophisticated analysis and extensive empirical detail. China’s Challenges is ideal for those who closely follow current debates about the future trajectories of the Chinese economy and polity.”

—Deborah Davis, Yale University

“Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang took over as China’s top leaders-the so-called “fifth generation”—in 2012 and 2013 at a time when China faced enormous economic political, social, and international challenges. The complexity of these challenges are laid out, skillfully and readably, by the specialists Jacques deLisle and Avery Goldstein have assembled here. This volume is a real tour d’horizon that will be welcomed by all students of China, whether at the undergraduate level or senior specialists. Highly recommended.”

—Joseph Fewsmith, Boston University

About the Authors

Jacques deLisle is Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law, Professor of Political Science, and Deputy Director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania, and Director of the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is coeditor of China Under Hu Jintao and Political Changes in Taiwan Under Ma Ying-jeou.

Avery Goldstein is David M. Knott Professor of Global Politics and International Relations, Director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China, and Associate Director of the Christopher H. Browne Center for International Politics at the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of Rising to the Challenge: China’s Grand Strategy and International Security and coeditor of The Nexus of Economics, Security, and International Relations in East Asia.