China’s Military: The People’s Liberation Army (PLA)

January 5, 2021
China’s Military: The People’s Liberation Army (PLA)

Taiwan (a self-ruled democracy over which the PRC claims
The two-million-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is
sovereignty) as the “operational target” of military
the military arm of the People’s Republic of China’s
preparations since 1993. China’s defense planners anticipate
(PRC’s) ruling Communist Party. The Trump
that a military confrontation over Taiwan could involve
Administration identified strategic competition with China
“powerful enemy interference,” an apparent reference to the
and Russia as “the primary concern in U.S. national
United States. China also has sought military capabilities to
security” in 2018 and U.S. defense officials have since said
dominate its maritime periphery and to support foreign
that China is the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD’s)
policy and economic initiatives globally.
top priority. According to a 2020 DOD report, the PLA has
“already achieved parity with—or even exceeded—the
PLA Modernization and Key Capabilities
United States” in several areas in which it has focused its
Since 1978, China has engaged in a sustained and broad
military modernization efforts and is strengthening its
effort to transform the PLA from an infantry-heavy, low-
ability to “counter an intervention by an adversary in the
technology, ground forces-centric force into a leaner, more
Indo-Pacific region and project power globally.” See also
networked, high-technology force with an emphasis on joint
CRS In Focus IF11712, U.S.-China Military-to-Military
operations and power projection. In 2015 and 2016, Xi
publicly launched the most ambitious reform and
reorganization of the PLA since the 1950s. The reforms
PLA Organization
have two overarching objectives: reshaping and improving
Established in 1927, the PLA predates the founding of the
the PLA’s command and control structure to enable joint
PRC in 1949. The Chinese Communist Party oversees the
operations among the services and ensuring the PLA is
PLA through the Party’s Central Military Commission,
loyal and responsive to the Party and Xi. Although the
China’s top military decisionmaking body, which is akin to
reforms were originally slated to conclude by 2020,
the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Central Military
officials have more recently suggested they will be ongoing
Commission also oversees China’s militia and China’s
through 2021-2022. Institutionalizing the reforms’
paramilitary police force, the People’s Armed Police, which
sweeping changes will likely take even longer.
includes the China Coast Guard. Xi Jinping, who serves
concurrently as Communist Party general secretary and
In 2017, Xi set goals for the PLA to “generally achieve
PRC president, has chaired the Central Military
mechanization” by 2020, to “basically complete” military
Commission since 2012.
modernization by 2035, and to “transform” the PLA into a
“world-class” force by 2049—the same year by which Xi
The PLA encompasses four services: the PLA Army, PLA
envisions China achieving “the great rejuvenation of the
Navy, PLA Air Force, and PLA Rocket Force, as well as
Chinese nation.” According to Xi, “To achieve the great
two sub-service forces, the Strategic Support Force, and the
revival of the Chinese nation, we must ensure there is
Joint Logistics Support Force.
unison between a prosperous country and strong military.”
China’s Military Strategy
The PLA is expanding its operational reach, strengthening
The stated goal of China’s national defense policy is to
its ability to conduct joint operations, and fielding
safeguard the country’s sovereignty, security, and
increasingly modern weapons systems. Key features of
development interests. The concept of “active defense”—
PLA modernization include:
the defining characteristic of China’s military strategy since
1949—prescribes how China can defend these interests and
PLA Navy: An approximately 350-ship navy that
prevail over a militarily superior adversary. Chinese
includes advanced platforms such as submarines,
defense writings summarize the general stance of this
aircraft carriers, and large multi-mission surface vessels,
strategy as “we will not attack unless we are attacked, but
giving China blue-water capabilities and the ability to
we will surely counterattack if we are attacked,” although
conduct sustained operations and project power
the strategy does not preclude the use of offensive
increasingly far from China’s periphery;
operations or tactics.
PLA Air Force: An air force increasingly capable of
Since 2014, China’s national military strategy (known as
conducting joint and over-water missions, featuring
the “military strategic guideline”) has been to “win
deployments of large numbers of fourth-generation
informatized local wars,” reflecting the PRC’s growing
fighters, and fifth-generation fighters becoming
emphasis on what it calls “informatization”: the application
operational or in late stages of development;
of advanced information technology across all aspects of
warfare. Military strategic guidelines have identified

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China’s Military: The People’s Liberation Army (PLA)
PLA Rocket Force: A conventional missile force
Figure 1. China’s Share of Global Defense Spending
designed to enable China to deter or defeat possible
third-party intervention in a regional military conflict,
and featuring around 100 intercontinental ballistic
missiles and hundreds of theater-range conventional
missiles, including anti-ship ballistic missiles designed
to target adversary aircraft carriers; and a nuclear force
intended to be small but survivable (DOD estimates
China’s nuclear stockpile is in the “low-200s” and likely
to at least double in the coming decade), with progress
toward a “nuclear triad” (including land-, submarine-,
and aircraft-launched nuclear weapons);
PLA Strategic Support Force: A force that centralizes
cyber and space capabilities (referred to by the PRC as
the “new commanding heights in strategic competition”)
as well as electronic and psychological warfare; and

Source: CSIS ChinaPower, “What Does China Really Spend on Its
PLA Joint Logistics Support Force: A force that
Military?” updated September 15, 2020.
facilitates joint logistics across the PLA to enable large-
Notes: Spending measured in constant 2018 U.S. dol ars.
scale military operations.
Issues for Congress
The PLA has weaknesses and limitations, including limited
U.S. policymakers and observers increasingly describe
combat experience (China last fought a war in the 1970s), a
China’s military buildup as a threat to U.S. and allied
limited capability to conduct joint operations, limited
interests. This view reflects concerns about PLA
expeditionary capabilities, a new and largely untested
capabilities (many of which appear designed specifically to
organizational structure, and a dependence on foreign
counter U.S. military power), China’s growing economic
suppliers for certain equipment and materials. The PLA is
and geopolitical power, and uncertainty about China’s
working to address these challenges.
regional and global intentions. Some Members of both
parties in Congress have asserted that meeting this
China’s Defense Spending
perceived challenge requires the United States to strengthen
The PLA’s modernization has been supported by China’s
its military advantages, and address major vulnerabilities,
rapidly growing economy, and by the purchase, alleged
vis-à-vis China.
theft, and domestic development of militarily useful
technologies. China’s defense budget has risen steadily
The annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is
since the 1990s (see Figure 1). Its officially-disclosed
a primary vehicle by which Congress seeks to enhance the
defense budget is now the world’s second-largest (behind
United States’ ability to compete with China in the national
the United States), at $178.6 billion for 2020, although
security realm. Recent NDAAs have included numerous
outside observers assess China’s military-related spending
provisions that reference China (and Taiwan) directly, as
to be much higher. China also seeks to resource its military
well as provisions that relate or could relate to China. For
by leveraging civilian commercial advances—particularly
example, the FY2021 NDAA (H.R. 6395) includes 40
in emerging high-tech areas—through a sprawling and
provisions with explicit references to China, Taiwan, or
ambitious initiative known in China as “military-civil
Hong Kong on such issues as space capabilities, U.S. arms
fusion.” PRC defense contractors sectors such as aerospace,
sales to Taiwan, nuclear weapons, cyber theft, and
microelectronics, and advanced manufacturing benefit from
semiconductor supply chain security. Dozens of other
foreign joint ventures and technology licensing.
provisions arguably relate to or have implications for U.S.
policy toward China, but do not refer to it explicitly. Many
of these are related to enhancing U.S. competitiveness in
existing and emerging technologies, advanced
manufacturing capabilities, and basic research and
development with military applications.
The FY2021 NDAA also includes a “Pacific Deterrence
Initiative” (sec. 1251) that authorizes $6.9 billion between
FY2021 and FY2022 to increase U.S. and allied military
capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region. The initiative, which
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Senator Jim
Inhofe (R-OK) and Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-RI) say
“pushes back on Chinese aggression,” seeks to establish,
oversee, and fund a long-term strategic approach to the
Congress requires both regular and one-off reports by the
executive branch and other entities to inform its

China’s Military: The People’s Liberation Army (PLA)
decisionmaking related to China’s military. For example,
Commission, created by the FY2001 NDAA (P.L. 106-
the FY2021 NDAA includes requirements for annual
398), reports annually on Chinese defense issues. Congress
reports on the U.S. operations of companies linked to the
also solicits information on China’s military through
PLA (sec. 1260H), and a report on, among other things,
hearings, briefings, and committee staff reporting, among
China’s military capabilities and activities in the Arctic
other things.
(sec. 8424). Since 2001, pursuant to the FY2000 NDAA
(P.L. 106-65), Congress has required DOD to submit an
Caitlin Campbell, Analyst in Asian Affairs
annual report on military and security issues related to
China. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review

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