DN - Defence Notes

Is the ‘Red Dragon’ fearsome or friendly?

13th August 2019 - 08:16 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Hong Kong


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If Beijing’s leaders and its numerous mouthpieces are to be believed, China is a friendly and cuddly panda intent on holding the world together. Then again, if you talk to some of its neighbours and those who have tasted the bitterness of China’s ire, it is an excessively threatening force and a profound bully.

One thing is indisputable, however, and that is the fact that China is spending massive amounts of Renminbi on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The question that needs to be asked is why. Why does China have the second largest defence budget in the world? What existential threats does it face that require such a powerful military? Is it just an inevitable part of the rise of a new global power? Why does China have so few friends, and why is it continuously being accused of coercive behaviour?

China released a Defence White Paper on 24 July, the first from the country in four years. While it did contain more information than previous White Papers, it was little more than a regurgitation of trite phrases and rationalisations as to why China needs a powerful military.

For example, the 2019 document dramatically explained: ‘Faced with global security challenges that are becoming ever more intricate and choices that have to be made at a crossroads of human development, China firmly believes that hegemony and expansion are doomed to failure, and security and prosperity shall be shared. China will remain committed to peaceful development and work with people of all countries to safeguard world peace and promote common development.’

The truth is that the PLA is first and foremost the armed wing of the Communist Party of China (CPC). It therefore owes allegiance to the party first, rather than to the nation and its citizens. Consequently, internal security and keeping the forces of separatism at bay are part of its duties.

The White Paper thus acknowledged: ‘Guided by Xi Jinping’s thinking on strengthening the military, China’s national defence in the new era will stride forward along its own path to build a stronger military and endeavour to achieve the great goal of developing world-class forces in an all-round way.

‘China’s armed forces have the determination, confidence and capability to prevail over all threats and challenges. They stand ready to provide strong strategic support for the realisation of the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation, and to make new and greater contributions to the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.’

China is spending massive amounts of Renminbi​ on the People’s Liberation Army.


Despite cutting 300,000 troops in the past few years – an amount that greatly eclipses the armed forces of most self-respecting countries – the PLA remains the largest military force on the planet. It still possesses two million personnel, and the cuts have simply made it leaner and meaner.

Indeed, most of the cuts were made to the PLA Ground Force, which was a bloated and inefficient organisation to begin with. It also contained many unnecessary appendages that had little to do with combat functions.

As the White Paper highlighted, ‘The PLA has significantly downsized the active force of the PLA Army, maintained that of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) at a steady number, moderately increased that of the PLA Navy (PLAN) and PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), and optimised the force structures of all services and arms.’

As China eyes distant missions to protect its citizens and its business investments, the PLAN in particular is being given a heavier role to play. This explains the rapid production of new warships, amphibious platforms and aircraft carriers. The PLAN’s Marine Corps is also being greatly expanded for expeditionary purposes. Marines are already deployed in Djibouti, for instance, the site of China’s first overseas military base.

Meanwhile, the PLAAF is conducting missions farther from Chinese shores, regularly flying deep into the Western Pacific or circumnavigating Taiwan to put the island nation under more extreme pressure. After all, it is an affront to CPC and national pride that Taiwan should wish to be democratically free and not be controlled by an authoritarian one-party state.

The PLARF is keeper of China’s nuclear arsenal, as well as fielding all ballistic missiles. It, too, has an important role in keeping China safe and keeping potential foes at arm’s reach, as illustrated by its firing of six anti-ship ballistic missiles into the disputed waters of the South China Sea just recently.

The PLA has been undergoing the greatest restructuring in its history, ignited by President Xi Jinping, who wields the greatest amount of power since Mao Zedong reigned supreme over China. The following stories catalogue some of the significant changes that China’s military is undergoing, including details on its recently issued White Paper, expansion of the marines, the build-up in Tibet, the modernisation of its submarine and AFV fleets, and the creation of a carrier fleet.

Will the China Dream turn out to be a nightmare for everyone else? Readers may decide for themselves whether China is naughty or nice.

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