How the PLA Can Pose a Threat to the US

In his speech at the 19th Party Congress, Xi Jinping gave the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) three targets:

  1. Achieve basic mechanization, make significant progress in using information technology, and elevate strategic ability by 2020.
  2. Become a modernized defense and military force by 2035.
  3. Become a world-class military by 2050

The backdrop: Xi’s military reforms, which were first implemented in late 2015, have seen a 300,000 troop cut, the creation of a joint command structure, and military-civilian integration that seems to take reference from the United States military-industrial complex.

Two factors appear to be spur Xi’s decision to steer the PLA away from Soviet-era doctrine and towards a system that resembles that of the U.S.:

  1. As an aspiring world power with ambitious overseas development projects like the Belt and Road Initiative, China needs a modern military capable of fighting and winning wars.
  2. Xi has to consolidate power in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and to achieve this he must control the PLA. Through sweeping military reforms and an anti-corruption campaign, Xi has a reason to clean out opposing elements in the military and break up old power networks.

Why it matters: A modernized PLA utilizing asymmetrical hybrid warfare tactics will pose a credible threat to the U.S.

Michael Pillsbury, a Pentagon consultant, wrote in “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America As the Global Superpower” that while the PLA stood no chance against the U.S. military in a conventional engagement, the Chinese side would win when unconventional weapons and tactics were factored in.

The PLA already has anti-satellite and anti-carrier missiles, as well as technology disabling devices like high-powered microwave and electromagnetic pulse weapons. Coupled with crack cyber hacking units, the PLA can carve out an edge over advanced militaries that are reliant on networks, satellites, and the internet for communications.

Given Beijing’s plans to grow its semiconductor industry and develop artificial intelligence, the PLA might even develop more deadly unconventional weapons like autonomous “slaughter bots,” or the fictional AI-powered weaponized drones featured in UC Berkeley AI professor Stuart Russell’s short film. The CCP’s lack of moral compass or restraint when dealing with foes means that the PLA is fully capable of using such weapons to achieve its ends should they become available.

Our take: In the coming decades, America may have to contend with the world’s largest “American” military.

How may the PLA surpass the U.S. military? Check out our full report in The Diplomat.