28 September 2015

New Congressional Research Service Report—“The Chinese Military: Overview and Issues for Congress”

Ian E. Rinehart and David Gitter, The Chinese Military: Overview and Issues for Congress R44196 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 18 September 2015).


China is building a modern and regionally powerful military with a modest but growing capability for conducting operations away from China’s immediate periphery. The question of how the United States should respond to China’s military modernization effort is a central issue in U.S. defense planning and foreign policy. Congress’ decisions on this issue could affect U.S. defense strategy, budgets, plans, and programs, and the U.S. defense industrial base.

China has engaged in a sustained and broad effort over more than 20 years to transform its military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), from an infantry-heavy, low-technology military into a high-technology, networked force with an increasing emphasis on joint operations and naval and air power. China has emphasized quality over quantity during this modernization: the number of military personnel and certain platforms (e.g., aircraft, tanks, certain vessels) has declined even as overall capabilities have improved.

From 2005 through 2014, China’s official military budget increased at an average rate of 9.5% per year in real terms, allowing the PLA to improve its capabilities in many dimensions. PLA naval forces feature quieter submarines, large surface combatants with improved air defenses and long-range anti-ship cruise missiles, and a nascent aircraft carrier program. New air power capabilities include modern fighter aircraft, more supporting platforms and a variety of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in production and under development. The PLA has increased the number and accuracy of its ballistic missiles for both nuclear and conventional strike missions. China has launched numerous satellites for military communications, surveillance, and navigation, and also has developed a variety of counter-space capabilities. The cyber operations of the PLA are harder to characterize in detail, but reports indicate that China has invested heavily in this area.

Despite the acquisition of modern equipment, the PLA has weaknesses and limitations that constrain the effectiveness of its operations, including training, jointness, human capital, and logistics. The short war with Vietnam in 1979 was China’s last major conflict, and the PLA has not been involved in sustained combat since the Korean War (1950-1953) and a limited border war with India (1962). Although PLA planning and force posture is concentrated on contingencies in China’s periphery, including the East China Sea and South China Sea, since the late 2000s the PLA has expanded the geographic scope of its operations.

Many American China-watchers assert that China’s main reason for strengthening the PLA is to ensure that the status of Taiwan is resolved on terms favorable to Beijing. Experts believe that other reasons for China’s military modernization are to weaken the U.S. network of alliances and to become the leading regional power in a more multipolar East Asia. Experts emphasize the improvements in China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities—modern aircraft, vessels, and missiles that can prevent opposing militaries from operating freely in the skies and seas near China, and can prevent reinforcements from arriving.

Congress could choose to address the issue of China’s changing military capabilities through hearings, authorizing and policy legislation, defense budget allocations, and other means. Some examples of past legislation with significant, continuing impacts include the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act; the 1991 law prohibiting U.S. arms exports to China; and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY2000, which sets guidelines for U.S.-China military-to-military contacts. In recent hearings, resolutions, and laws, especially NDAAs, Congress has provided prescriptions and guidance regarding U.S. policy toward Asia-Pacific security issues. Budget allocations for specific U.S. defense programs might also be tied to assessments of China’s military capabilities and intentions.

Selected sources cited in this CRS report:

Ely Ratner, Elbridge Colby, Andrew Erickson, Zachary Hosford, and Alexander Sullivan, More Willing and Able: Charting China’s International Security Activism (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, May 2015).

Andrew S. Erickson, Testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Hearing on “America’s Security Role in the South China Sea,” Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC, 23 July 2015.

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, Six Years at Sea… and Counting: Gulf of Aden Anti-Piracy and China’s Maritime Commons Presence (Washington, DC:Jamestown Foundation, 2015).

Adam P. Liff and Andrew S. Erickson, “Demystifying China’s Defence Spending: Less Mysterious in the Aggregate,”The China Quarterly 216 (December 2013): 805-30

Gabriel B. Collins and Andrew S. Erickson, “Implications of China’s Military Evacuation of Citizens from Libya,” Jamestown China Brief, 11.4 (10 March 2011): 8-10.

Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “Meet the Chinese Maritime Militia Waging a ‘People’s War at Sea’,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 31 March 2015.