How China intends to become a world-class military by 2050

BEIJING - Improve your combat capabilities, and be ready for war.

President Xi Jinping delivered this directive to the People's Liberation Army (PLA) high command on Friday (Nov 3), during a visit to a joint battle command centre in Beijing, the latest indication yet that China will adopt a more muscular military stance in the coming years.

"The Central Military Commission (CMC) should strengthen the troops' sense of crisis and war, work hard at combat readiness, and lead our military to be able to fight and win wars," said Mr Xi, who is also chairman of the CMC, the supreme military decision-making body in China.

Turning the PLA into a more capable, synchronised and obedient force is clearly a top priority in the coming years, said analysts who noted that Mr Xi understands well that China's strongest leaders such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping owed their political longevity to absolute authority over the PLA, which is the military wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

China's growing overseas interests and geopolitical ambitions also mean the PLA has to evolve to meet an ever wider range of demands, the experts added.

Odds are good that Mr Xi, who sees himself as an equally epochal leader, can achieve these goals, having overseen in his first term an unprecedented restructuring of the PLA to reduce its focus on ground troops, even as he lessened the influence of the generals and concentrated more power in himself.

Last month's 19th party congress saw Mr Xi elevated to the stature of Mao and Deng within the CCP after his political thoughts, bearing his name, were inscribed in the party Constitution.

Also at the national congress, he set out a two-stage plan to complete the PLA's modernisation by 2035, and for it to become a world-class force by 2050.

The mid-century goal is likely an ambition to achieve "peer capability with the US military", the US Department of Defence said in a recent report.

"The military reforms seek to enhance the PLA's ability to conduct joint operations, improve its ability to fight short-duration, high-intensity regional conflicts at greater distances from the Chinese mainland, and strengthen the CCP's control over the military," it said.

The key here is the ability for the PLA to operate effectively far away from the Chinese mainland, said experts.

Mr Xi's flagship Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure and trade routes across much of the world has increased China's clout, but it has also opened up major vulnerabilities that the PLA needs to safeguard, said Mr Timothy Heath, a senior researcher at the US-based Rand Corporation.

This is why China has made significant strides in expanding its naval prowess, rolling out this year alone its first domestically-built aircraft carrier, a new generation landing helicopter dock and Asia's largest destroyer, even as it streamlined its coastal forces.

This is to support what China calls "active offshore defence" of its territorial interests and expand its "envelope of deterrence" in the East and South China seas and the Yellow Sea into the western Pacific Ocean, said maritime expert Collin Koh of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

The hardware enhancements also come as China takes a more aggressive posture in the disputed South China Sea, having built fighter jet hangars and runways on artificial islands it controls there and conducted naval exercises in the nearby Paracel Islands.

China is also using its growing "blue water" navy - a maritime force capable of operating globally - to secure its overseas interests and demonstrate its ability to be a bigger global security provider, such as when it evacuated civilians from Yemen in 2015, said Dr Koh.

"In sum, those priorities are not purely just for defence - we need to understand that naval power is a flexible instrument for a country's pursuit of its national interests in whichever form possible," he said.

"It's often a mixture of practical defence, security needs and the quest for prestige."

But Dr Koh noted that the next stage of China's military overhaul goes beyond just hardware or software modernisation, to a military that can operate together as a coherent force.

This means pushing through holistic reforms that reach "the level of training and doctrinal development to make full use of the hardware and software capabilities", he added.

RSIS China specialist James Char agreed, noting that Mr Xi will likely be able to effect these deeper changes having stacked the new CMC membership with his favoured generals, all of whom either share a long association with him, or have been groomed by him.

Mr Xi's promotion of PLA anti-graft chief Zhang Shengmin to full general last Thursday also signals that the anti-corruption campaign to eliminate resistance within the ranks to sweeping reforms will continue apace, China analyst Charlotte Gao wrote in The Diplomat.

"The next phase will be to inculcate the troops with what I like to refer to as the 'heartware' - military ethos and operational doctrine, especially with regards to conducting joint informationised warfare," said Mr Char. 

Correction note: An earlier version of the story attributed a quote wrongly to Ms Charlotte Gao. We are sorry for the error.