- "Military history of the People's Republic of China" redirects here. For other uses, see Military history of China.
The history of the People's Liberation Army began in 1927 with the start of the Chinese Civil War and spans to the present, having developed from a peasant guerrilla force into the largest armed force in the world.
- 1 Historical background
- 2 Historical development, 1927-79
- 3 History of military doctrine
- 4 Timeline of military action
- 5 Military modernization
- 6 Perception of threat
- 7 Foreign military cooperation
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes
- 10 Further reading
China has a long military tradition, dating back to the earliest days of recorded history. The martial exploits of kings and emperors, loyal generals and peasant rebels, and strategists and theorists are well known in Chinese high culture and folk tradition.
Throughout the centuries, two tendencies have influenced the role of the military in national life, one in peacetime and the other in times of upheaval. In times of peace and stability, military forces were firmly subordinated to civilian control. The military was strong enough to overcome domestic rebellions and foreign invasion, yet it did not threaten civilian control of the political system. In times of disorder, however, new military leaders and organizations arose to challenge the old system, resulting in the militarization of political life. When one of these leaders became strong enough, he established a new political order ruling all China. After consolidating power, the new ruler or his successors subordinated the military to civilian control once again.
In the past 150 years, a third factor entered the Chinese military tradition—the introduction of modern military technology and organization to strengthen military capabilities against domestic and foreign enemies.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, all three tendencies have been discernible in the role of the military in national life. These factors have been particularly apparent in the role of the People's Liberation Army in the rise to power of the Chinese Communist Party, in the military's role in the politics of the People's Republic of China, and in the efforts of Chinese leaders to modernize the armed forces.
After decades of development from a peasant guerrilla force to a conventional military organization capable of achieving longsought national liberation from foreign colonial powers and the invasion and occupation by the Imperial Japanese Army, the People's Liberation Army pursued further technical competence and improved organization, with Soviet assistance, in the 1950s. Political involvement in the Great Leap Forward (1958–60) and the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) delayed these efforts until the late 1970s, when the People's Liberation Army embarked on a military modernization program, which had three major focuses. First, military modernization required both the strengthening of party control over the military and the continued disengagement of the armed forces from politics. These steps were necessary to ensure that a politically reliable yet professionally competent military would concentrate on the task of military reform. Second, defense modernization attempted to achieve improved combat effectiveness through organizational, doctrinal, training, educational, and personnel reforms (including recruitment, promotion, and demobilization). These reforms emphasized the development of combat capabilities in waging combined arms warfare. Third, military modernization was aimed at the transformation of the defense establishment into a system capable of independently sustaining modern military forces. This transformation necessitated the reorganization and closer integration of civilian and military science and industry and also the selective use of foreign technology.
Since the 1960s, China had considered the Soviet Union the principal threat to its security; lesser threats were posed by long-standing border disputes with Vietnam and India. China's territorial claims and economic interests made the South China Sea an area of strategic importance to China. Although China sought peaceful reunification of Taiwan with the mainland China, it did not rule out the use of force against the island if serious internal disturbances, a declaration of independence, or a threatening alliance occurred.
The scope of foreign military cooperation has evolved gradually. In the 1950s, China dealt only with communist nations and insurgencies. In the 1960s, it began to provide military assistance to Third World nations to counteract Soviet and United States influence. Beginning in the late 1970s, China shifted its arms transfer policy away from military assistance in favor of commercial arms sales and began developing military ties with Western Europe and the United States. Chinese military contacts with foreign countries expanded rapidly with the introduction of the military modernization program and the policy of opening up to the outside world.
In the late 1980s, People's Liberation Army forces consisted of the various arms of the Ground forces, and the Air Force, Navy, and Strategic Missile Force (also known as the Second Artillery Corps). The ground forces were divided into group armies and regional forces (see Military district). Ground force equipment was largely of Soviet design and obsolete, although some weaponry had been upgraded with foreign technology. The Air Force had serious technological deficiencies despite incremental improvements of aircraft. The Navy was developing a blue-water capability and sea-based strategic forces. China possessed a small but relatively credible nuclear deterrent force with an incipient second-strike capability. Paramilitary forces consisted of the militia, reserve service system, Production and Construction Corps, and People's Armed Police Force.
Historical development, 1927-79
From the founding of the People's Liberation Army to the Korean War
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) was built on several millennia of tradition and a century of Western military innovations. It traces its origins to the August 1, 1927, Nanchang Uprising in which Kuomintang (KMT) troops led by Communist Party of China leaders Zhu De and Zhou Enlai (while engaged in the Northern Expedition) rebelled following the violent dissolution of the first Kuomintang-Communist Party of China united front earlier that year. The survivors of that and other abortive communist insurrections, including the Autumn Harvest Uprising led by Mao Zedong, fled to the Jinggang Mountains along the border of Hunan and Jiangxi provinces. Joining forces under the leadership of Mao and Zhu, this collection of communists, bandits, Guomindang deserters, and impoverished peasants became the First Workers' and Peasants' Army, or Red Army—the military arm of the Chinese Communist Party.
Using the guerrilla tactics that would later make Mao Zedong internationally famous as a military strategist, the Red Army survived several encirclement and suppression campaigns by superior Guomindang forces. But party internal politics forced the Red Army temporarily to abandon guerrilla warfare and resulted in the epic Long March of 1934-35 (see Chinese nationalism and Chinese communism). The Red Army's exploits during the Long March became legendary and remain a potent symbol of the spirit and prowess of the Red Army and its successor, the PLA. During that period, Mao's political power and his strategy of guerrilla warfare gained ascendancy in the party and the Red Army.
The divisions of the "Chinese Workers' and Peasants' Red Army" (中國工農紅軍) were named according to historical circumstances, sometimes in a nonconsecutive way. Early Communist units often formed by defection from existing Kuomintang forces, keeping their original designations. By the time of the 1934 Long March, numerous small units had been organized into three unified groups, the First Red Army (紅一方面軍/红一方面军/Hóng Yī Fāngmiàn Jūn), the Second Red Army (紅二方面軍/红二方面军/Hóng Èr Fāngmiàn Jūn) and the Fourth Red Army (紅四方面軍/红四方面军/Hóng Sì Fāngmiàn Jūn). Some translations refer to these same units as the "First Front Red Army", "Second Front Red Army" and "Fourth Front Red Army" to distinguish them from the earlier organizational divisions. The First Red Army formed from the First, Third and Fifth Army Groups in southern Kiangsi under command of Bo Gu and Li De. When the Fourth Red Army under Zhang Guotao was formed in the Szechuan–Shensi border area from several smaller units, no standard nomenclature of the armies of the Communist Party existed; moreover, during the Chinese Civil War, central control of separate Communist-controlled enclaves within China was limited. After the organization of these first two main forces, the Second Red Army formed in eastern Kweichow by unifying the Second and Sixth Army Groups under He Long and Jen Pi-shih. A "Third Red Army" was never established, and the three armies would maintain their historical denominations of First, Second and Fourth Red Armies until Communist military forces were nominally integrated into the National Revolutionary Army, forming the Eighth Route Army and the New Fourth Army, during the Second Sino-Japanese War from 1937 to 1945.
In 1937 the Red Army joined in a second united front with the Guomindang against the invading Japanese army (see Anti-Japanese War). Although nominally cooperating with the Guomindang, the Chinese Communist Party used the Red Army to expand its influence while leading the anti-Japanese resistance in north China. By the end of the war, the Red Army numbered approximately 1 million and was backed by a militia of 2 million. Although the Red Army fought several conventional battles against the Japanese (and Guomindang troops), guerrilla operations were the primary mode of warfare.
Mao's military thought grew out of the Red Army's experiences in the late 1930s and early 1940s and formed the basis for the "people's war" concept, which became the doctrine of the Red Army and the PLA. In developing his thought, Mao drew on the works of the Chinese military strategist Sun Zi (4th century BC) and Soviet and other theorists, as well as on the lore of peasant uprisings, such as the stories found in the classical novel Shuihu Zhuan (Water Margin) and the stories of the Taiping Rebellion. Synthesizing these influences with lessons learned from the Red Army's successes and failures, Mao created a comprehensive politico-military doctrine for waging revolutionary warfare. People's war incorporated political, economic, and psychological measures with protracted military struggle against a superior foe. As a military doctrine, people's war emphasized the mobilization of the populace to support regular and guerrilla forces; the primacy of men over weapons, with superior motivation compensating for inferior technology; and the three progressive phases of protracted warfare—strategic defensive, strategic stalemate, and strategic offensive (see Mobile warfare). During the first stage, enemy forces were "lured in deep" into one's own territory to overextend, disperse, and isolate them. The Red Army established base areas from which to harass the enemy, but these bases and other territory could be abandoned to preserve Red Army forces. In addition, policies ordered by Mao for all soldiers to follow, the Eight Points of Attention, instructed the army to avoid harm to or disrespect for the peasants, regardless of the need for food and supplies. This policy won support for the Communists among the rural peasants. In the second phase, superior numbers and morale were applied to wear down the enemy in a war of attrition in which guerrilla operations predominated. During the final phase, Red Army forces made the transition to regular warfare as the enemy was reduced to parity and eventually defeated.
In the Chinese Civil War which followed Japan's defeat after the Second World War, the Red Army, newly renamed the People's Liberation Army, again used the principles of people's war in following a policy of strategic withdrawal, waging a war of attrition, and abandoning cities and communication lines to the well-armed, numerically superior Guomindang forces. In 1947 the PLA launched a counteroffensive during a brief strategic stalemate. By the next summer, the PLA had entered the strategic offensive stage, using conventional warfare as the Guomindang forces went on the defensive and then collapsed rapidly on the mainland in 1949. By 1950 the PLA had seized Hainan Island and Xizang.
On January 15, 1949, the CCP CMC decided to reorganise the regional armies of the PLA into four field armies. The forces in Northwest China were designated the First Field Army, with Peng Dehuai as commander and also serving as political commissar. The First Field Army was to comprise the 1st Corps and 2nd Corps, and totalled 134,000 men. After 1949, the First Field Army controlled five provinces - Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia, and Xinjiang. The Second Field Army took control of PLA troops in central China, with Liu Bocheng as commander and Deng Xiopeng as commissar. It comprised the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Corps, plus a special technical column, and totalled 128,000 men. After 1949, the Second Field Army was stationed in southwest China and controlled five provinces - Yunnan, Giuzhou, Sichan, Xikang, and Tibet. The Third Field Army took control of the troops in eastern China, with Chen Yi as its commander. It comprised the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th Corps plus the headquarters of the special technical troops, with a total of 580,000 men. After 1949, the Third Field Army remained on China's east coast, controllnig Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, and Fujian. The PLA troops in Manchuria were designated the Fourth Field Army under Lin Bao. The army comprised the 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th Corps, special technical troops, the Column of Guangdong and Guangxi, and the 50th and 51st Armies.
When the PLA became a national armed force with the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949, it was an unwieldy, 5-million-strong peasant army. In 1950 the PLA included 10,000 troops in the Air Force (founded in 1949) and 60,000 in the Navy (founded in 1950). China also claimed a militia of 5.5 million. At that time, demobilization of ill-trained or politically unreliable troops began, resulting in the reduction of military strength to 2.8 million in 1953.
China's new leaders recognized the need to transform the PLA, essentially an infantry army with limited mobility, logistics, ordnance, and communications, into a modern military force. The signing of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance in February 1950 provided the framework for defense modernization in the 1950s. However, the Korean War was the real watershed in armed forces modernization. The Chinese People's Volunteers (as the military forces in Korea were called) achieved initial success in throwing back United Nations (UN) troops and, despite the PLA's first encounter with modern firepower, managed to fight UN forces to a stalemate. Nevertheless, China's Korean War experience demonstrated PLA deficiencies and stimulated Soviet assistance in equipping and reorganizing the military. The use of unsupported infantry attacks against combined arms firepower caused serious manpower and materiel losses. Chinese air power also suffered heavy losses to superior UN forces. Finally, shortcomings in transportation and supply indicated the need to improve logistics capabilities.
Military modernization in the 1950s and 1960s
Large-scale Soviet aid in modernizing the PLA, which began in the fall of 1951, took the form of weapons and equipment, assistance in building China's defense industry, and the loan of advisers, primarily technical ones. Mostly during the Korean War years, the Soviet Union supplied infantry weapons, artillery, armor, trucks, fighter aircraft, bombers, submarines, destroyers, and gunboats. Soviet advisers assisted primarily in developing a defense industry set up along Soviet organizational lines. Aircraft and ordnance factories and shipbuilding facilities were constructed and by the late 1950s were producing a wide variety of Soviet-design military equipment. Because the Soviet Union would not provide China with its most modern equipment, most of the weapons were outdated and lacked an offensive capability. Both Chinese dissatisfaction with this defensive aid and the Soviet refusal to supply China with nuclear bomb blueprints partly contributed to the withdrawal of Soviet advisers in 1960 (see Sino-Soviet Split).
In the early 1940s, China's leaders decided to reorganize the military along Soviet lines. In 1954 they established the National Defense Council, Ministry of National Defense, and thirteen military regions. The PLA was reconstituted according to Soviet tables of organization and equipment. It adopted the combined-arms concept of armor- and artillery-heavy mobile forces, which required the adoption of some Soviet strategy and tactics. PLA modernization according to the Soviet model also entailed creation of a professional officer corps, complete with Soviet-style uniforms, ranks, and insignia; conscription; a reserve system; and new rules of discipline. The introduction of modern weaponry necessitated raising the education level of soldiers and intensifying formal military training. Political education and the role of political commissars lost their importance as the modernization effort progressed.
The military's new emphasis on Soviet-style professionalism produced tensions between the party and the military. The party feared that it would lose political control over the military, that the PLA would become alienated from a society concentrating on economic construction, and that relations between officers and soldiers would deteriorate. The party reemphasized Mao's thesis of the supremacy of men over weapons and subjected the PLA to several political campaigns. The military, for its part, resented party attempts to strengthen political education, build a mass militia system under local party control, and conduct economic production activities to the detriment of military training. These tensions culminated in September 1959, when Mao Zedong replaced Minister of National Defense Peng Dehuai, the chief advocate of military modernization, with Lin Biao, who deemphasized military professionalism in favor of revolutionary purity (see Great Leap Forward 1958-60).
The ascension of Lin Biao and the complete withdrawal of Soviet assistance and advisers in 1960 marked a new stage in military development. The Soviet withdrawal disrupted the defense industry and weapons production, particularly crippling the aircraft industry. Although the military purchased some foreign technology in the 1960s, it was forced to stress self-reliance in weapons production. Lin Biao moved to restore PLA morale and discipline and to mold the PLA into a politically reliable fighting force. Lin reorganized the PLA high command, replaced the mass militia with a smaller militia under PLA control, and reformulated the Maoist doctrine of the supremacy of men over materiel. Lin stated that "men and materiel form a unity, with men as the leading factor", giving ideological justification to the reemphasis on military training. Political training, however, continued to occupy 30 to 40 percent of a soldier's time. At the same time, Lin instituted stricter party control, restored party organization at the company level, and intensified political education. In 1964 the prestige of the PLA as an exemplary, revolutionary organization was confirmed by the "Learn from the PLA" campaign. This campaign, which purported to disseminate the military's political-work experience throughout society, resulted in the introduction of military personnel into party and government organizations, a trend that increased after the Cultural Revolution began.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the PLA fought one internal and one external campaign: in Xizang against Tibetan rebels, and on the Sino-Indian border against India. In the first campaign, PLA forces suppressed Tibetan insurgents who rebelled in 1958–59 against Chinese rule. The Sino-Indian border war broke out in October 1962 amid the deterioration of Sino-Indian relations and mutual accusations of intrusions into disputed territory. In this brief (one month) but decisive conflict, the PLA attacked Indian positions in the North-East Frontier Agency (later called Arunachal Pradesh), penetrating to the Himalayan foothills, and in Ladakh, particularly in the Aksai Chin region. After routing the Indian Army, the PLA withdrew behind the original "line of actual control" after China announced a unilateral cease-fire. Both campaigns were limited conflicts using conventional tactics.
People's Liberation Army in the Cultural Revolution
The PLA played a complex political role during the Cultural Revolution. From 1966 to 1968, military training, conscription and demobilization, and political education virtually ceased as the PLA was ordered first to help promote the Cultural Revolution and then to reestablish order and authority. Although the Cultural Revolution initially developed separately in the PLA and in the party apparatus, the PLA, under the leadership of its radical leftist leader, Lin Biao, soon became deeply involved in civilian affairs. In early 1967, the military high command was purged, and regional military forces were instructed to maintain order, establish military control, and support the "revolutionary left". Because many regional-force commanders supported conservative party and government officials rather than radical mass organizations, many provincial-level military leaders were purged or transferred, and Beijing ordered several main-force units to take over the duties of the regional-force units. In the summer of 1967, regional military organizations came under leftist attack, Red Guard factions obtained weapons, and violence escalated. By September, the central authorities had called off the attack on the PLA, but factional rivalries between regional- and main-force units persisted. Violence among rival mass organizations, often backed by different PLA units, continued in the first half of 1968 and delayed the formation of revolutionary committees, which were to replace traditional government and party organizations. In July 1968, Mao abolished the Red Guards and ordered the PLA to impose revolutionary committees wherever such bodies previously had not been established.
Worries over military factionalism caused the leadership to curtail the Cultural Revolution and to initiate a policy of rotating military commanders and units. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the enunciation of the Brezhnev Doctrine, the Soviet military buildup in its Far Eastern theater, and Sino-Soviet border clashes in the spring of 1969 brought about a renewed emphasis on some of the PLA's traditional military roles. In 1969, Lin Biao launched an extensive "war preparations" campaign; military training was resumed, and military procurement, which had suffered in the first years of the Cultural Revolution, rose dramatically. Military preparedness was further advanced along China's frontiers and particularly the Sino-Soviet border when the thirteen military regions were reorganized into eleven in 1970. The resulting military regions were the Shenyang, Beijing, Lanzhou, Xinjiang, Jinan, Nanjing, Fuzhou, Guangzhou (including Hainan Island), Wuhan, Chengdu, and Kunming MRs.
The PLA emerged from the more violent phase of the Cultural Revolution deeply involved in civilian politics and public administration. It had committed 2 million troops to political activities and reportedly suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties. Regional military forces were almost completely absorbed in political work. PLA units did not withdraw fully from these duties until 1974. Following the sudden death of Lin Biao in 1971, the military began to disengage from politics, and civilian control over the PLA was reasserted. Lin's supporters in the PLA were purged, leaving some high-level positions in the PLA unfilled for several years. PLA officers who had dominated provincial-level and local party and government bodies resigned from those posts in 1973 and 1974. Military region commanders were reshuffled, and some purged military leaders were rehabilitated. Military representation in the national-level political organizations, following an all-time high at the Ninth National Party Congress in 1969, declined sharply at the Tenth National Party Congress in 1973.
Along with the reassertion of civilian control over the military and the return to military duties came a shift of resources away from the defense sector. Defense procurement dropped by 20 percent in 1971 and shifted from aircraft production and intercontinental ballistic missile development to the modernization of the ground forces and medium-range ballistic missile and intermediate-range ballistic missile development.
Military modernization in the 1970s
In January 1974, the PLA saw action in the South China Sea following a long-simmering dispute with the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) over the Paracel Islands. South Vietnamese and PLA naval forces skirmished over 3 islands occupied by South Vietnamese troops, and the PLA successfully seized control of the islands in a joint amphibious operation involving 500 troops and air support.
By the mid-1970s, concerns among Chinese leaders about military weakness, especially vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, resulted in a decision to modernize the PLA. Two initial steps were taken to promote military modernization. First, in 1975, vacant key positions in the military structure and the party Central Military Commission were filled. (The state Central Military Commission was not founded until 1982; see the National People's Congress). Nonetheless, to ensure party control of the PLA, civilians were appointed to key positions. Deng Xiaoping was appointed Chief of the General Staff, while Gang of Four member Zhang Chunqiao was appointed director of the General Political Department. Second, in the summer following Premier Zhou Enlai's January 1975 proclamation of the Four Modernizations as national policy, the party Central Military Commission convened an enlarged meeting to chart the development of military modernization. The military modernization program, codified in Central Directive No. 18 of 1975, instructed the military to withdraw from politics and to concentrate on military training and other defense matters. Factional struggles between party moderates and radicals in 1975 and 1976, however, led to the dismissal of Deng from all his posts and the delay of military modernization until after the death of Mao Zedong. Within a month of Mao's death, military leaders headed by Minister of National Defense Ye Jianying cooperated with party chairman Hua Guofeng to arrest the Gang of Four, thus ending a decade of radical politics.
The Chinese leadership resumed the military modernization program in early 1977. Three crucial events in the late 1970s shaped the course of this program: the second rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping, the major civilian proponent of military modernization; the re-ordering of priorities in the Four Modernizations, relegating national defense modernization from third to fourth place (following agriculture, industry, and science and technology); and the Sino-Vietnamese border war of 1979. In July 1977, with the backing of moderate military leaders, Deng Xiaoping reassumed his position as PLA chief of general staff as well as his other party and state posts. At the same time, Deng became a vice chairman of the party Central Military Commission. In February 1980 Deng resigned his PLA position in favor of professional military commander Yang Dezhi; Deng improved his party Central Military Commission position, becoming chairman of it at the Sixth Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee in June 1981. With enormous prestige in both the military and the civilian sectors, Deng vigorously promoted military modernization, the further disengagement of the military from politics, and the shift in national priorities to economic development at the expense of defense.
In 1977–78, military and civilian leaders debated whether the military or the civilian economy should receive priority in allocating resources for the Four Modernizations. The military hoped for additional resources to promote its own modernization, while civilian leaders stressed the overall, balanced development of the economy, including civilian industry and science and technology. By arguing that a rapid military buildup would hinder the economy and harm the defense industrial base, civilian leaders convinced the PLA to accept the relegation of national defense to last place in the Four Modernizations. The defense budget accordingly was reduced. Nonetheless, the Chinese military and civilian leadership remained firmly committed to military modernization.
The 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war, although only sixteen days long, revealed specific shortcomings in military capabilities and thus provided an additional impetus to the military modernization effort. The border war, the PLA's largest military operation since the Korean War, was essentially a limited, offensive, ground-force campaign. China claimed victory, but the war had mixed results militarily and politically. Although the numerically superior Chinese forces penetrated about fifty kilometers into Vietnam, the PLA sustained heavy casualties. PLA performance suffered from poor mobility, backward communications, weak logistics, and outdated weaponry. Inadequate communications, an unclear chain of command, and the lack of military ranks also created confusion and adversely affected PLA combat effectiveness.
Accomplishments and prospects
Beginning in the late 1970s, China's military modernization program achieved success in increasing China's status as a regional power. The PLA disengaged itself from politics and concentrated its attention on military tasks. Reforms in organization, doctrine, education and training, and personnel practices brought the PLA much closer to its objective of molding a modern combat force capable of waging combined-arms warfare. Defense science and industry became more closely integrated with their civilian counterparts and began producing more civilian goods in addition to modernizing PLA weaponry with foreign technology. Nevertheless, PLA capabilities still lags behind advanced world levels, which means that defense modernization is still a long-term program.
History of military doctrine
As a component of its function as the fighting arm of the Communist Party, PLA units has served a political role within their area of operations. This role evolved during the alliance with the Kuomintang, as Communists and leftist political administrators began land reform favoring peasants in the areas conquered by the Northern Expedition army in 1927. Later, as part of the command structure, political commissars were appointed by the Communist Party to military units for the purpose directing political education efforts, and to ensure that Party decisions were implemented. In this system, each unit had a political officer who was not responsible to the normal military chain of command, but instead answered to a separate chain of command within the Communist Party, to ensure the loyalty of army commanders and to prevent a possible coup d'état. The political commissar had the authority to override any decision of the military officers, and to remove them from command if necessary. However, that was almost never necessary — the mere presence of a commissar usually meant that military commanders would follow their directives, and the day-to-day duties of the political commissar generally involved only propaganda work and boosting the morale of the troops.
Timeline of military action
- The Ten Years Civil War between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang:
- August 1, 1927: Nanchang Uprising, marking the first battle of the Chinese Red Army
- 1927: Autumn Harvest Uprising
- 1927: Guangzhou Uprising
- Kuomintang campaigns against the Jiangxi Soviet:
- 1937 to 1945: Second Sino-Japanese War
- 1945 to 1950: Chinese Civil War against the Kuomintang:
- September 10, 1945 to October 12, 1945 - Shangdang Campaign
- October 22, 1945 to November 2, 1945 - Handan Campaign
- December 17, 1946 to April 1, 1947 - Linjiang Campaign
- May 13, 1947 to July 1, 1947 - Summer Offensive of 1947 in Northeast China
- September 14, 1947 to November 5, 1947 - Autumn Offensive of 1947 in Northeast China
- December 15, 1947 to March 15, 1948 - Winter Offensive of 1947 in Northeast China
- May 23, 1948 to October 19, 1948 - Siege of Changchun
- September 12, 1948 to November 12, 1949 - Liaoshen Campaign
- October 7, 1948 to November 15, 1948 - Battle of Jinzhou
- November 6, 1948 to January 10, 1949 - Huaihai Campaign
- November 29, 1948 to January 31, 1949 - Pingjin Campaign
- October 25, 1949 to October 27, 1949 - Battle of Kuningtou
- November 3, 1949 to November 5, 1949 - Battle of Denbu Island
- March 3, 1950 to March 3, 1950 - Battle of Nan'ao Island
- May 12, 1950 to June 2, 1950 - Shanghai Campaign
- May 25, 1950 to August 7, 1950 - Wanshan Archipelago Campaign
- August 9, 1950 to August 9, 1950 - Battle of Nanpéng Island
- 1952 to 1996: Taiwan Strait conflicts with the Republic of China (Taiwan):
- April 11, 1952 to April 15, 1952 - Battle of Nanri Island
- September 20, 1952 to October 20, 1952: Battle of Nanpēng Archipelago
- August 1954 to May 1955: The First Taiwan Strait Crisis
- January 18, 1955 to January 20, 1955: Battle of Yijiangshan Islands
- October 19, 1950: The Invasion of Tibet (1950)
- 1956 to 1959: Suppression of the uprising in Tibet
- December 1951 to 1953: Korean War (under the official banner of the Chinese People's Volunteers, although they are PLA regulars)
- October 1962 to November 1962: Sino-Indian War
- 1969 to 1978: Sino-Soviet border conflict
- January 17 to January 19, 1974: Battle of Hoang Sa, a sea battle with the South Vietnamese Navy near the disputed Xisha Islands
- February 17 to March 16, 1979: Sino-Vietnamese War
- 1986: Border skirmishes with Vietnam
- May 20 to June 9, 1989: Enforcement of martial law in Beijing to suppress the Tiananmen Square protests.
- April 1, 2001: Hainan Island incident, a Chinese PLAN jet intercepting a US Navy reconnaissance aircraft collides with the US plane. The Chinese aircraft is lost and the US aircraft is detained.
The Ten Years Civil War
During the 1920s, Communist activists retreated underground or to the countryside where they fomented a military revolt, beginning the Nanchang Uprising on August 1, 1927. Defecting Nationalist troops, combined with remnants of peasant rebels, and established control over several areas in southern China. Attempts by the Nationalist armies to suppress the rebellion were unsuccessful but extremely damaging to the Communist forces. This marked the beginning of the ten year's struggle, known in mainland China as the "Ten Years Civil War" (Chinese: 十年内战; pinyin: Shínían Nèizhàn).
Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek turned his attention on rooting out the Communist strongholds in central China. Using the guerrilla tactics that would later make Mao Zedong internationally famous as a military strategist, the Red Army in Jiangxi survived several encirclement and suppression campaigns by superior KMT forces. The first and second campaigns failed and the third was aborted due to the Mukden Incident. The fourth campaign (1932–1933) achieved some early successes, but Chiang's armies were badly mauled when they tried to penetrate into the heart of Mao Zedong's Soviet Chinese Republic. During these campaigns the Nationalist columns struck swiftly into communist areas, but were easily engulfed by the vast countryside and were not able to consolidate their foothold.
Finally in 1933 Chiang launched a fifth campaign that involved the systematic encirclement of the Jiangxi Soviet region with fortified blockhouses. By September 1933, the National Revolutionary Army had eventually completely isolated Jiangxi, with the advice and tactical assistance of his German adviser, Hans von Seeckt. Unlike in previous campaigns in which they penetrated deeply in a single strike, this time the Nationalist troops patiently built blockhouses, each separated by five or so miles, to surround the communist areas and cut off their supplies and food source. Villages in the region were organized into units known as baojia, as a security measure to prevent communists from obtaining supplies and intelligence from the locals. Once the front line had been secured, a new ring of blockhouses were built to close in on the communist base areas.
Chiang's army's initial victories in the fifth campaign cause a political furor within the Communist leadership. In spite of his prior success gainst the Kuomintang, the Soviet Union and Comintern-influenced leaders of the party distrusted the ideas of Mao, who held that the rural Chinese peasants, not the urban proletariat, were the Communist party's base. A fortified perimeter was established by Chiang's forces, and Jiangxi was besieged in an attempt to destroy the Communist forces trapped within. In July 1934, the leaders of the party, dominated by the "Twenty-Eight Bolsheviks", a militant group formed in Moscow by Wang Ming and Bo Gu, forced Mao from the Politburo of the Communist Party in Ruijin and placed him briefly under house arrest. Mao was replaced by Zhou Enlai as leader of the military commission, and the Chinese Red Army was commanded by a three-man military committee, including a German military advisor Otto Braun (called in Chinese, Li De), the Comintern military advisor Bo Gu, and Zhou. The committee abandoned Mao's successful tactics of mobile warfare against the Kuomintang forces. Direct engagements with the Nationalist army soon caused heavy casualties and loss of material and territory. Mao would later write of this period:
- "By May 1928, basic principles of guerilla warfare, simple in nature and suited to the conditions of the time, had already been evolved...But beginning from January 1932...the old principles were no longer to be considered as regular, but were to be rejected as 'guerilla-ism'. The opposition to 'guerilla-ism' reigned for three whole years."
In August 1934, with the Red Army depleted by the prolonged conflict, a spy placed by Zhou Enlai in the KMT army headquarters in Nanchang brought news that Chiang Kai-shek was preparing a major offensive against the Communist capital, Ruijin. The Communist leadership decided on a strategic retreat to regroup with other Communist units, and to avoid annihilation. The original plan was to link up with the Second Red Army commanded by He Long, thought to be in Hubei to the west and north. Communications between divided groups of the Red Army had been disrupted by the Kuomintang campaign, and during the planning to evacuate Jiangxi, the First Red Army was unaware that these other Communist forces were also retreating westward.
In October 1934, the communist First Red Army took advantage of gaps in the ring of blockhouses (manned by the troops of a warlord ally of Chiang Kai-shek's, rather than the Nationalists themselves) to escape Jiangxi. The warlord armies were reluctant to challenge communist forces for fear of wasting their own men, and did not pursue the communists with much fervor. In addition, the main Nationalist forces were preoccupied with annihilating Zhang Guotao's Fourth Red Army, which was much larger than Mao's. The massive military retreat of communist forces known as the Long March over a year and covered thousand of kilometers, ending when the Communist armies linked up in the interior of Shaanxi province in northwest China. Along the way, the Communist armies confiscated property and weapons from local warlords and landlords, while recruiting peasants and the poor, solidifying its appeal to the masses. Of the 80,000 people who began the Long March from the Soviet Chinese Republic, only around 7000 made it to Shaanxi, including those who joined the Red Army en route. In November 1935, the Second Red Army, led by He Long, set out on its own Long March, driven further west than the First Red Army, all the way to Lijiang in Yunnan province, then across the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain massif and through the Tibetan highlands of western Sichuan. Zhang Guotao's Fourth Red Army, which took a different route through northwest China, was largely destroyed by the forces of Chiang Kai-shek and his Chinese Muslim ally, the Ma clique. The remnants of Zhang's forces eventually joined Mao in Shaanxi, but with his army destroyed, Zhang, even as a founding member of the CCP, was never able to challenge Mao's authority. The Red Army's exploits during the Long March became a potent symbol of the spirit and prowess of the Red Army and its successor, the PLA. During the Long March, Mao's political power and his strategy of guerrilla warfare gained ascendancy in the party and the Red Army and made Mao and his proteges the undisputed leaders of the Chinese Communist Party.
Mao wrote in 1935:
- "The Long March is a manifesto. It has proclaimed to the world that the Red Army is an army of heroes, while the imperialists and their running dogs, Chiang Kai-shek and his like, are impotent. It has proclaimed their utter failure to encircle, pursue, obstruct and intercept us. The Long March is also a propaganda force. It has announced to some 200 million people in eleven provinces that the road of the Red Army is their only road to liberation."
Second Sino-Japanese War
In 1937 the Red Army joined in a second united front with the KMT against the invading Japanese army in the Second Sino-Japanese War. The Red Army was nominally integrated into the Chinese national army forming the Eighth Route Army and the New Fourth Army units. Although nominally cooperating with the KMT, the Communist Party of China used the Red Army to expand its influence while leading the anti-Japanese resistance in north China. By the end of the war, the Red Army numbered approximately 1 million and was backed by a militia of 2 million. Although the Red Army fought several conventional battles against the Japanese (and KMT troops), guerrilla operations were the primary mode of warfare.
In the civil war following Japan's defeat in World War II, the Red Army, newly renamed the People's Liberation Army, again used the principles of people's war in following a policy of strategic withdrawal, waging a war of attrition, and abandoning cities and communication lines to the well-armed, numerically superior KMT forces. In 1947 the PLA launched a counteroffensive during a brief strategic stalemate. By the next summer, the PLA had entered the strategic offensive stage, using conventional warfare as the KMT forces went on the defensive and then collapsed rapidly on the mainland in 1949. By 1950 the PLA had seized Hainan Island.
When the PLA became a national armed force with the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, it was an unwieldy, 5-million-strong peasant army. In 1950 the PLA included 10,000 troops in the People's Liberation Army Air Force (founded in 1949) and 60,000 in the People's Liberation Army Navy (founded in 1950). The PLA also claimed a militia of 5.5 million. During the 1950s, the PLA with Soviet help transformed itself from a peasant army into a more modern one. At that time, demobilization of ill-trained or politically unreliable troops began, resulting in the reduction of military strength to 2.8 million in 1953.
In October 1950, the PVA or People's Volunteer Army intervened in the Korean War as United Nations forces under General Douglas MacArthur approached the Yalu River. Under the weight of this offensive, Chinese forces captured Seoul, but were subsequently pushed back to a line roughly straddling the 38th Parallel. The war ended with an Armistice Agreement in 1953.
The Sino-Indian War, also known as the Sino-Indian Border Conflict, was a war between China and India. The initial cause of the conflict was a disputed region of the Himalayan border in parts of Arunachal Pradesh known in China as South Tibet. Fighting began on 10 October 1962 between the People's Liberation Army and the Military of India. The first heavy engagement of the war was a Chinese attack on an Indian patrol north of the McMahon Line. The conflict eventually widened to include the region of Aksai Chin which China regarded as a strategic link, via the China National Highway route G219, between the Chinese-administered territories of Tibet and Xinjiang. The war ended when the Chinese captured both disputed areas and unilaterally declared a ceasefire on 20 November 1962, which went into effect at midnight.
The Sino-Indian War is notable for the harsh conditions under which much of the fighting took place, entailling large-scale combat at altitudes of over 4267 metres (14,000 ft). This presented numerous logistical problems for both sides.
The Sino-Vietnamese War or Third Indochina War was a brief but bloody border war fought in 1979 between China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. China launched the offensive largely in response to Vietnam's invasion and subsequent occupation of Cambodia, a war which ended the reign of China-backed Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. After a brief incursion into Northern Vietnam, Chinese troops withdrew about a month later. When China sent troops across the border into Vietnam, many observers assumed that China would win the conflict. This estimate was based on the huge size of the Chinese army and on its excellent performance against United Nations forces in the Korean War. After China failed to achieve a decisive victory, the same commentators examined China's transportation and telecommunication networks and found that, while they were very highly developed in the Northeast, they were quite primitive in the South. It was concluded that the advanced northeastern systems and the primitive southern systems were prime factors in China's success in Korea and in its lackluster performance in Vietnam. In the end, both China and Vietnam claimed victory.
Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan
During the Sino-Soviet split, strained relations between China and Soviet Russia resulted in strained relations between China and the pro Soviet Afghan Communist regime. China and Afghanistan had neutral relations with each other during the King's rule. When the pro Soviet Afghan Communists seized power in Afghanistan in 1978, relations between China and the Afghan communists quickly turned hostile. The Afghan pro Soviet communists supported China's enemies in Vietnam and blamed China for supporting Afghan anti communist militants. China responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by supporting the Afghan Mujahidin and ramping up their military presence near Afghanistan in Xinjiang. China acquired military equipment from America to defend itself from Soviet attack.
The People's Liberation Army trained and supported the Afghan Mujahidin during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. China moved its training camps for the mujahideen from Pakistan into China itself. Hundreds of millions worth of anti aircraft missiles, rocket launchers and machine guns were given to the Mujahidin by the Chinese. Chinese military advisors and army troops were present with the Mujahidin during training.
Establishment of a professional military force equipped with modern weapons and doctrine was the last of the Four Modernizations announced by Zhou Enlai and supported by Deng Xiaoping. In keeping with Deng's mandate to reform, the PLA has demobilized millions of men and women since 1978 and has introduced modern methods in such areas as recruitment and manpower, strategy, and education and training. In 1979, the PLA fought Vietnam in the Sino-Vietnamese War. In the 1980s, the PLA shrunk its military considerably on the theory that freeing up resources for economic development was in its interest.
In June 1989, party hardliners called on PLA to enforce martial law in Beijing and suppress the student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Over 200,000 troops from a dozen group armies were sent to Beijing in one of the largest mobilizations since the Korean War. Ideological correctness was temporarily revived as the dominant theme in Chinese military affairs. Reform and modernization appear to have since resumed their position as the PLA's priority objectives, although the armed forces' political loyalty to the Communist Party of China remains a leading concern. One other area of concern to the political leadership was the PLA's involvement in civilian economic activities. Concern that these activities were adversely impacting PLA readiness has led the political leadership to attempt to remove the PLA's economic enterprises. During the 1980s and 1990s, the PLA became extensively involved in creating a business empire including companies in areas not normally associated with the military (i.e., travel and real estate). Much of the motivation for this was to supplement the PLA's normal budget, whose growth was restricted. Mao's belief that people and groups should be self-sufficient also played a role in the PLA's varied business interests. In the early 1990s, the leadership of the Communist Party and the high command of the PLA became alarmed that these business transactions were in conflict with the PLA's military mission. The business interests of the PLA were eroding military discipline, and there were reports of corruption resulting from the PLA businesses. As a result, the PLA was ordered to spin off its companies. Typically, the actual management of the companies did not change, but the officers involved were retired from active duty within the PLA and the companies were given private boards of retired PLA officers. Military units were compensated for the loss of profitable businesses with increased state funding.
Beginning in the 1980s, the PLA tried to transform itself from a land-based power, centered on a vast ground force, to a smaller, mobile, high-tech military capable of mounting defensive operations beyond its coastal borders.
In the mid-1980s, Deng Xiaoping began to redefine PLA orientation radically, beginning with a reassessment in 1985 of the overall international security environment that lowered the probability of a major or nuclear war. Instead, Deng asserted that China would be confronted with limited, local wars on its periphery. The natural consequence of this sweeping reassessment was an equally comprehensive reorientation of the Chinese military. The number of military regions was reduced from 11 to 7, and the 37 field armies were restructured to bring “tank, artillery, anti-aircraft artillery, engineer, and NBC defense units under a combined arms, corps-level headquarters called the Group Army.” Between 1985 and 1988, the 37 field armies were reduced to 24 group armies, and thousands of units at the regimental level and above were disbanded.—James C. Mulvernon, 'The PLA Army's Struggle for Identity,' in The PLA and China in Transition, INSS/NDU, 2003, 111.
The motivation for these large-scale changes was that a massive land invasion by Russia is no longer seen as a major threat, and the new threats to China are seen to be a declaration of independence by Taiwan, possibly with assistance from the United States, or a confrontation over the Spratly Islands. In addition, the economic center of gravity of China has shifted from the interior to the coastal regions and China is now more dependent on trade than it has been in the past. Furthermore, the possibility of a militarily resurgent Japan remains a worry to the Chinese military leadership.
The PLA's power projection capability is limited; one Chinese general has characterized China's military as having "short arms and weak legs". There has however been an effort to redress these deficiencies in recent years. The PLA has acquired some advanced weapons systems, including Sovremenny class destroyers, Sukhoi Su-27 and Sukhoi Su-30 aircraft, and Kilo-class diesel submarines from Russia. It is also currently building 4 new destroyers including 2 AAW Type 052C class guided missile destroyers. However, the mainstay of the air force continues to be the 1960s-vintage J-7 fighter. In addition, the PLA has attempted to build an indigenous aerospace and military industry with its production of the J-10, which currently is in production. It reportedly contains technology supplied by Israel from its Lavi fighter program as well as technology reverse-engineered from an F-16 reportedly given to China by Pakistan. The PLA launched a new class of nuclear submarine on December 3, 2004 capable of launching nuclear warheads that could strike targets across the Pacific Ocean.
Perception of threat
In the late 1980s, China viewed the Soviet Union as its principal military opponent. Simmering border disputes with Vietnam and India were perceived as lesser threats to security. China's burgeoning opening up policy, its claims to the Paracel and Spratly Islands, and the presence of offshore oil deposits made the South China Sea an area in which Beijing saw potential threats to its interests. Finally, although it did not regard Taiwan as a military threat, China nevertheless refused to rule out the use of force as a means of achieving reunification with Taiwan.
Despite common ideological roots, considerable Soviet assistance in the past, and warming relations since 1982, China in 1987 regarded the Soviet Union's military strength and foreign policy as the major threat to its security. Tensions in relations between the two countries had begun to escalate in the mid-1950s (see Sino-Soviet relations). The 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the buildup of Soviet forces in the Soviet Far East raised Chinese suspicions of Soviet intentions. Sharp border clashes between Soviet and Chinese troops occurred in 1969, roughly a decade after relations between the two countries had begun to deteriorate and some four years after a buildup of Soviet forces along China's northern border had begun. Particularly heated border clashes occurred in the northeast along the Sino-Soviet border formed by the Amur River and the Ussuri River, on which China claimed the right to navigate. Border provocations occasionally recurred in later years—for example, in May 1978 when Soviet troops in boats and a helicopter intruded into Chinese territory—but major armed clashes were averted.
In the late 1970s, China decried what it perceived as a Soviet attempt to encircle it as the military buildup continued in the Soviet Far East and the Soviet Union signed friendship treaties with Vietnam and Afghanistan. In April 1979, Beijing notified Moscow that the thirty-year Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance—under which the Soviets aided the PLA in its 1950s modernization—would not be renewed. Negotiations on improving Sino-Soviet relations were begun in 1979, but China ended them when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan late that year. In 1982, China and the Soviet Union resumed negotiations on normalizing relations. Although agreements on trade, science and technology, and culture were signed, political ties remained frozen because of Chinese insistence that the Soviet Union remove the three obstacles to improved Sino-Soviet relations. Although Chinese leaders publicly professed not to be concerned, the Soviet base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, Soviet provision of MiG-23 fighters to North Korea, and Soviet acquisition of overflight and port calling rights from North Korea intensified Chinese apprehension about the Soviet threat. Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's 1986 offer to withdraw some troops from Afghanistan and the Mongolian People's Republic were seen by Beijing as a cosmetic gesture that did not lessen the threat to China.
In the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union deployed about one-quarter to one-third of its military forces in its Far Eastern theater. In 1987, Soviet nuclear forces included approximately 171 SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which China found particularly threatening, and 85 nuclear-capable long-range Backfire bombers. Approximately 470,000 Soviet ground force troops in 53 divisions were stationed in the Sino-Soviet border region, including Mongolia. Although 65 percent of these ground force divisions were only at 20 percent of full combat strength, they were provided with improved equipment, including T-72 tanks, and were reinforced by 2,200 aircraft, including new generation aircraft such as the MiG-23/27 Flogger fighter. Chinese forces on the Sino-Soviet border were numerically superior—1.5 million troops in 68 divisions—but technologically inferior. Although the PLA units in the Shenyang and Beijing military regions were equipped with some of the PLA's most advanced weaponry, few Chinese divisions were mechanized. The Soviet Union held tactical and strategic nuclear superiority and exceeded China in terms of mobility, firepower, air power, and antiaircraft capability. Chinese leaders reportedly did not consider a Soviet attack to be imminent or even likely in the short term. They believed that if the Soviets did attack, it would be a limited strike against Chinese territory in north or northeast China, rather than a full-scale invasion.
China's relations with Vietnam began to deteriorate seriously in the mid-1970s. After Vietnam joined the Soviet-dominated Council for Mutual Economic Cooperation (Comecon) and signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union in 1978, China branded Vietnam the "Cuba of the East" and called the treaty a military alliance. Incidents along the Sino-Vietnamese border increased in frequency and violence. In December 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, quickly ousted the pro-Beijing Pol Pot regime, and overran the country. In February 1979, China attacked along virtually the entire Sino-Vietnamese border in a brief, limited campaign that involved ground forces only. In March, Beijing declared its "lesson" finished and withdrew all its troops.
After the war, both China and Vietnam reorganized their border defenses. The border war strengthened Soviet-Vietnamese relations. The Soviet military role in Vietnam increased during the 1980s as the Soviets provided arms to Vietnam; moreover, Soviet ships enjoyed access to the harbors at Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay, and Soviet reconnaissance aircraft operated out of Vietnamese airfields. Low-level conflict continued along the Sino-Vietnamese border as each side conducted artillery shelling and probed to gain high spots in the mountainous border terrain. Border incidents increased in intensity during the rainy season, when Beijing attempted to ease Vietnamese pressure against Cambodian resistance fighters. In 1986 China deployed twenty-five to twenty-eight divisions and Vietnam thirty-two divisions along their common border.
Beijing considered recurring Sino-Indian border clashes a potential threat to its security. Negotiations since the 1962 Sino-Indian border war failed to resolve the conflicting border claims, and each side improved its military and logistics capabilities in the disputed regions. Since the war, China has continued its occupation of the Aksai Chin area, through which it built a strategic highway linking Xizang and Xinjiang autonomous regions. China had a vital military interest in maintaining control over this region, whereas India's primary interest lay in Arunachal Pradesh, its state in the northeast bordering Xizang Autonomous Region. In 1987, although India enjoyed air superiority, rough parity on the ground existed between the two military forces, which had a combined total of nearly 400,000 troops near the border. The Indian Army deployed eleven divisions in the region, backed up by paramilitary forces, whereas the PLA had fifteen divisions available for operations on the border. After a 1986 border clash and India's conversion of Arunachal Pradesh from union territory to state, tensions between China and India escalated. Both sides moved to reinforce their capabilities in the area, but neither ruled out further negotiations of their dispute. Most observers believe that the mountainous terrain, high-altitude climate, and concomitant logistic difficulties and economic trade make it unlikely that a protracted or large-scale conflict would erupt on the Sino-Indian border.
South China Sea
The South China Sea area was strategically important to Beijing because of the discovery of offshore oil in China's 200-nautical-mile (370 km) exclusive economic zone, increased foreign trade in the South China Sea, and China's territorial claims there. The Xisha and Nansha islands also were claimed, and some occupied, by Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Beijing's claims to these island groups predated all others except those by the Guomindang authorities. In 1974 the PLA Navy ousted South Vietnamese forces from the Xisha and occupied some of the islands, which were valuable as Chinese fishing bases and guano sites. Although Chinese occupation of the Xisha effectively expanded its exclusive economic zone, the discovery of offshore oil deposits near Hainan Island intensified China's interest in both island groups. With the expansion of Chinese foreign trade, Beijing's interest grew in maintaining a naval presence in the Xisha Islands, which sit astride the strategic Hong Kong–Singapore shipping route. Chinese fishermen also used the Nansha Islands, but most of these were occupied by Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines. In the 1980s, the PLA Navy built up the South Sea Fleet, strengthened its naval facilities and deployments in the Xisha Islands, and conducted naval exercises in the South China Sea. To strengthen its military position in the Xisha Islands and protect itself against the Soviet base at Cam Ranh Bay, Beijing also reinforced its claim to the Nansha Islands.
Taiwan does not pose a military threat to China, despite Taipei's previous vow to "recover the mainland." Tensions in the Taiwan Strait decreased beginning in the late 1970s, when China called for peaceful reunification with Taiwan and reduction of PLA forces in Fujian Province opposite Taiwan. Nevertheless, Beijing refused to rule out the use of force against Taiwan in the event that Taiwan had serious internal disturbances or declared independence. In the late 1980s, a Chinese attack against Taiwan was considered unlikely by most observers. The Navy lacked the amphibious forces necessary to mount a full-scale invasion. The Navy had the capability to mount a blockade of Taiwan, but this measure also was considered unlikely.
Foreign military cooperation
In the 1950s China limited its military cooperation almost entirely to communist nations and to insurgent movements in Southeast Asia. The Soviet Union provided China with substantial assistance, and with advice in modernizing the PLA and developing China's defense industry. China provided North Korea with arms and assistance, and the PLA and the Korean People's Army developed close ties because of their association in the Korean War. In 1961 China and North Korea signed a mutual defense agreement, and Chinese-North Korean military cooperation continued in the late 1980s. China also provided weapons and military and economic assistance to Vietnam, which ended in 1978 when relations between the two countries soured. In the 1950s and 1960s, China provided weapons to communist insurgent groups in Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
In the 1960s and 1970s, China began developing military ties with Third World nations in Asia and Africa, while maintaining or promoting cooperation with North Korea, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), and Albania. Chinese military cooperation with North Korea and North Vietnam stemmed from security considerations. Chinese military assistance to Third World countries arose from attempts to extend Chinese influence and counteract Soviet and United States influence. China became increasingly anti-Soviet in the 1970s. In the 1980s China developed close military ties and provided considerable military assistance to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka in South Asia; Egypt in the Middle East; and Tanzania, Sudan, Somalia, Zaire, and Zambia in Africa.
In the late 1970s, the scope and tenor of foreign military cooperation changed with the shift to commercial arms sales, attempts to gain some influence in Eastern Europe, and improvement in relations with the United States and Western Europe. Chinese military assistance to communist insurgents, especially in Southeast Asia, tapered off. Nevertheless, China continued to provide weapons both to the Khmer Rouge and to noncommunist Cambodian resistance groups, and it developed close relations with and sold weapons to Thailand. Traditionally friendly states in South Asia continued to have close military ties with China and to purchase Chinese military hardware under generous terms. Chinese-Albanian relations deteriorated in the 1970s, and Beijing terminated all assistance in 1978. But at the same time, China began to exchange military delegations with two other East European countries—Yugoslavia and Romania. Chinese military relations with these two countries were limited and, especially in the case of Romania (a Warsaw Pact member), served to irritate the Soviet Union.
A major change in foreign military cooperation occurred when China began developing military contacts with West European nations and the United States in the late 1970s and the 1980s. This change reflected China's desire to counter Soviet influence, especially in Europe, as well as to develop relations with modern armed forces. China needed advanced hardware and technology and organizational, training, personnel, logistics, and doctrinal concepts for modernizing the PLA. Chinese military ties with West European countries were strongest with Britain, France, and Italy. Chinese military relations with the United States developed rapidly in the 1980s and included exchanges of high-level military officials and working-level delegations in training, logistics, and education. The United States sold some weapons to China for defensive purposes, but China was unlikely to purchase large amounts of American arms because of financial and political constraints (see Sino-American relations).
Beginning in 1979, when China introduced its policy of opening up to the outside world, military exchanges with foreign countries grew substantially. The PLA hosted 500 military delegations from 1979 to 1987 and sent thousands of military officials abroad for visits, study, and lectures. China received port calls from thirty-three foreign warships, including United States, British, French, and Australian ships, and it sent two naval ships to visit Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka in 1985. PLA departments, academies, and research institutes opened their doors to foreign military visitors. In 1987 China had ties with eighty-five foreign armies, posted Chinese military attachés in sixty countries, and hosted forty military attaches in Beijing.
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