China’s Military Makeover: Why India Should Stay Vigilant

Harsh V Pant

While India continues to be absorbed in its long-drawn elections, the rest of the world is moving ahead with its own priorities. Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping undertook a comprehensive restructuring of his country’s armed forces when he made a surprising decision to dissolve the Strategic Support Force (SSF), a military division he established in 2015 to merge various capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA),  including space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare.

In its stead, Xi introduced the Information Support Force, which he described as “a fresh strategic component of the PLA and a crucial support for the coordinated advancement and utilisation of the network information system”. As a result of this revised framework, the PLA now comprises four primary branches: the ground forces, naval forces, air forces, and the rocket forces. Additionally, there are now four auxiliary units: three divisions derived from the SSF, and the Joint Logistic Support Force.

Harnessing AI And Emerging Tech in Military

While Xi himself underscored the importance of the move in enabling the Chinese military to effectively “engage and triumph in contemporary warfare”, his extensive anti-corruption campaign within the PLA last year precipitated this restructuring. It implicated influential generals and caused significant disruption within the rocket force, a prestigious division responsible for managing China’s rapidly expanding cache of nuclear and ballistic missiles. The restructuring strengthens Xi’s direct oversight of the PLA’s strategic capacities and emphasises China’s aspirations to proficiently harness Artificial Intelligence and other emerging technologies in anticipation of what it terms the “intelligentised warfare” of tomorrow.

And this is critical for China as it continues to push its military to adapt to the changing strategic realities and the rapidly evolving nature of contemporary warfare. Over the past decade, Beijing has pursued a comprehensive modernisation of its military capabilities, aiming to transform the PLA into a formidable force capable of safeguarding its interests regionally and globally. This modernisation drive has encompassed various aspects, including technological advancement, organisational reform, and doctrinal evolution.

Preparing For Modern Warfare

One of the focal points of China’s military modernisation has been the development and acquisition of advanced weaponry and equipment. This includes the enhancement of its naval capabilities with the commissioning of aircraft carriers, modernisation of its air force with next-generation fighter jets, and bolstering its missile forces with advanced ballistic and cruise missiles. Additionally, China has invested heavily in cyber and space capabilities, recognising their importance in modern warfare.

Moreover, organisational reforms have been instituted to streamline command structures, improve joint operations, and enhance the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the PLA. These reforms have included the establishment of new commands and theatre commands, as well as efforts to professionalise and modernise the military personnel.

It goes without saying that China’s military modernisation poses several significant consequences for India, both in terms of security dynamics and strategic calculations. Its enhanced military capabilities, particularly in areas such as naval expansion, missile development, and cyber warfare, could potentially tilt the balance of power in the region, thereby altering the strategic landscape vis-à-vis India. The military modernisation seems to have already emboldened Beijing to assert its territorial claims more strongly, potentially heightening the risk of border skirmishes and military confrontations between the two countries. This has exacerbated existing tensions and destabilised the region.

Why India Should Pay Attention

Furthermore, China’s growing military prowess has implications for India’s defence planning and security posture. New Delhi is compelled to invest more resources in its own military modernisation efforts to maintain a credible deterrent against potential Chinese aggression, which may require diverting resources away from other development priorities.

Over the last decade, India has embarked on a series of defence reforms aimed at modernising and enhancing the efficiency of its armed forces. One significant reform has been the promotion of indigenous defence manufacturing through initiatives like the “Make in India” programme. This initiative seeks to encourage domestic production of defence equipment, reducing reliance on imports and bolstering India’s self-reliance in defence capabilities.

The ‘Make In India’ Initiative in Military

Additionally, there has been a focus on streamlining defence procurement processes to expedite the acquisition of critical military hardware and technology. Measures such as the Defense Acquisition Procedure (DAP) and the Strategic Partnership Model aim to facilitate smoother procurement processes and encourage private sector participation in defence production. There have also been efforts to enhance defence infrastructure along India’s borders, particularly in border areas with China.

This includes the development of roads, airfields, and other infrastructure to improve mobility and logistical support for the armed forces. Moreover, there has been an emphasis on promoting jointness and integration among the three branches of the Indian armed forces – the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force – to enhance operational synergy and effectiveness.

And yet there is a need for quicker reforms and broader restructuring. Indian debate on theatre commands is still in limbo, and rationalisation of the human resources and technology ratio is still at a nascent stage. China’s recent moves are a wake-up call. Making Indian armed forces fit to fight 21st-century wars should be the topmost priority for any government that takes office in June.

Harsh V Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

The article was first published in NDTV as China Is Revamping Its Military, And India Must Not Take It Lightly on May 2, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgement: This article was posted by Tanu Paliwal, a researcher at IMPRI.

Authors

  • IMPRI Desk
  • IMPRI

    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

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  • Harsh V Pant

    Professor of International Relations at King’s College London and Director of Research at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi.

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