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Chinese Military Modernization and Capabilities Term Paper

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Updated: Aug 26th, 2021

At the beginning of the 21st century, China is one of the most powerful countries in the region, possessing innovative defense technologies and armory. A collaboration with the post-Soviet Union and neighbors allow China to modernize its military capabilities and develop its military industry. Internal transfers constitute an important military advantage for Third World countries at war. First, indigenous production capabilities suggest less dependence upon foreign sources for resupply and a way of avoiding political pressure from one or the other superpower during wartime. Second, they imply a capability to provide significant supplies to a country’s war effort, particularly in modern, high-attrition battlefield situations.

From a historical perspective, the late 1930s fundraising campaigns for Chinese defense against continued Japanese invasions of the mainland marked a high point in the identification of the overseas Chinese with their homeland, while at the same time organizing the community in a hitherto unprecedented fashion (Dumbaugh and Grimmett 32). The Committee for Assisting the Preservation of Peace survived Dutch military authorities agreed to provide the corps with weapons on loan, military uniforms (with a special PAT badge–crossed Chinese swords surrounded by a chain, representing unity), and military training for the cadres in the police school in Cimahi. Arms, after all, we’re only available in quantity from the Dutch; that this was an uneasy partnership is shown by the fact that the Dutch provided arms for only one-third of the registered members of the force, on the grounds that they only needed weapons while on duty, and only one-third of the force would be on duty at any given time.

The lessons learned by China from its engagement with Vietnam were no less sobering. In fact, an argument can be made that China’s reliance on its own defense industries served to constrain rather than enhance its war-fighting capabilities. By any standard, the PRC- Vietnam confrontation in 1979 was a limited war. China committed no aircraft for combat or troop support, and only light infantry formations, with some supplementary armor, marched across the PRCVietnam border to “teach the Vietnamese a lesson.” It was a war that the world’s largest armed forces supported by the Third World’s largest defense industry should have easily won (Dumbaugh and Grimmett 32). China is one of the Third world countries producing major weapon systems domestically and has demonstrated significant production capabilities. But given the spread and variety of their industrial skill levels, during the Iraq-Iran war, China, reportedly in exchange for oil, has supplied tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, light arms, ammunition, and replacement parts, and Chinese technicians are assembling Soviet-designed MiG-21s (F-7s) and MiG-19s (F-6s) for the Iraqi air force in Jordan, which maintains a staging base for the assembly and shipment of Chinese fighters to Iraq (Dumbaugh and Grimmett 52).

Today, China’s leadership is faced with a dilemma: balancing their need for military modernization against their fear of economic and political dependency. Thus far, the government has moved slowly, procuring dual-use technologies such as transport helicopters and computer and civilian aircraft designs, engines, and plant equipment — items that will help modernize both civilian and military industries. They are also upgrading existing platforms with new weapons and components, reportedly with some Israeli technical assistance. There is some skepticism among analysts, however, about whether China can affect military modernization during a time of financial stringency and political uncertainty (Wang 80). In China, the defense-industrial capabilities of its factories have determined the age and quality of its army’s inventory, which has, in turn, generated considerable pessimism among U.S. analysts about China’s ability to defend itself. It was the imported technologies that provided the Chinese military with the few successes they did achieve (Barron 72).

In addition, a rising number of states are now producing consumables to suit a wide variety of weapon systems — not just those in their own inventory. Converting production lines to manufacture different caliber small arms and artillery ammunition is not very difficult or expensive and can be accomplished within a few weeks. Therefore, as demand for consumables has risen in recent wars, so too have the facilities that produce them (Wang 80). China received U.S. authorization to buy military hardware in June 1984. The first U.S. sale reported in August 1985 was for gas turbine engines to be used in two Chinese-designed and built destroyers. A second agreement followed in September 1985, which involved about $100 million in sales of equipment and technical help to modernize a large-caliber artillery plant. Included in the sale were about $6 million worth of fuses, primers, and detonators for 155-mm artillery. China has also purchased 24 Sikorsky dual-use transport helicopters for $140 million (Dumbaugh and Grimmett 32).

Thus, in recent wars, internal transfers have not provided LDCs with either a military or political advantage. All remain dependent upon outside suppliers for the financial or technical assistance necessary to keep their production lines open and for the advanced weapons that keep their inventories modern. Ultimately, the constraints that limit the war-fighting capabilities and political independence of nonproducing combatants limit producers as well. In recent years, despite severe economic constraints, improving military readiness has become a matter of some urgency. In response to this need, China has been attempting to rationalize its military, and there have been reports that military commanders and political leaders are now debating how to update China’s military tactics. In addition, the Chinese are shopping for new technologies and training services. Israeli technicians are currently in China in various training and advisory capacities — about 200 are reported to be helping the Chinese upgrade their Soviet arms with other Western technologies. But U.S. officials are not optimistic about China’s absorptive capacity, particularly for modern technology (Wang 80).

The lack of trained personnel and skilled technicians is expected to hinder the military’s modernization efforts severely. New weapons that have promised enhanced capabilities often have burdened the Third World recipient with requirements for infrastructure and for maintenance, logistical, and operational skills that are rarely available. Often additions to inventory have called for changes in tactics and doctrine as well, changes requiring time, training, and foreign advisory assistance. Modern weapon transfers to LDC combatants have not, therefore, translated into short-term military power and have instead increased the combatants’ dependency upon long-term training in operational and maintenance techniques and the donors that can supply them (Yuan 51). Following Barron (2001): “China’s purchase of four new Kilo-class attack submarines provides it with another carrier-busting weapon. The Russian submarines have been upgraded to be among the quietest diesel submarines in the world, and come equipped with a weapons package that includes both wake-homing and wire-guided acoustic homing torpedoes” (72).

China is attempting to upgrade what is already in inventory, and it is buying older equipment that has been modernized. In turn, a large industry devoted to retrofitting and modernizing aging planes, missiles, and tanks has evolved to satisfy this demand. Facilities to upgrade both Western and Eastern systems have grown and expanded not only in the United States but also in China. In recent years upgrading old Soviet equipment for countries that have broken relations with the USSR and are having difficulty maintaining their equipment has become a particularly big business, offering significant savings to buyers (Mann 25). The Chinese are marketing a MiG with new avionics and some engine improvements for $10 million, in contrast to the nearest U.S. equivalent, which costs $13-$14 million. The upgrade has proved so successful, an additional 16 aircraft of this type have been ordered (Yuan 51). In spite of the publicity regarding China’s domestic military production capability, there is a consensus among defense analysts that weapons were not crucial to the outcome of wars Chinese soldiers were involved in. This conclusion is not meant to denigrate the role played by military equipment. Without it, the attacks surely would have been less successful and more costly (Yuan 51). “China is now fully capable of producing and using a complete range of modern weapons, including the much-dreaded “weapons of mass destruction,” though it still lacks some of the more state-of-the-art systems “(Wang 80).

In sum, the majority of analysts believe that whether of indigenous manufacture or not, the technologies themselves were less responsible for the military victory than the qualitative human factors of planning, training, and command. For China, the ability to produce consumables during peacetime has not translated into an ability to deliver sufficient resupplies to troops during combat, particularly in high attrition battle situations. China’s systems and creative modifications to foreign technologies filled important gaps in their inventory.

Works Cited

Barron, M.J. China’s Strategic Modernization: The Russian Connection. Parameters, 31 (2001), 72.

Dumbaugh, K.B., Grimmett, R.F. U.S. Arms Sales to China. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, 1985.

Mann, P. “Study Forecasts No Change in Weapons Sales to China,” Aviation Week and Space Technology (July 15, 1985), 24-25.

Wang, F.-L., Bigger Guns, More Missiles: China’s Military Modernization and U.S. Policy. Harvard International Review, 25 (2003); 80.

Yuan, J.-D., Sino-US Military Relations since Tiananmen: Restoration, Progress, and Pitfalls. Parameters, 33 (2003); 51.

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