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The People’s Liberation Army and the Periphery

The Communist Party of China (CPC) controls the largest armed force in the world, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Since the PLA’s creation 90 years ago, it has operated as an enforcer of the CPC’s will and currently operates as China’s military. As an extension of the party instead of the state, the PLA protects China and the CPC. As the PLA’s strength has grown throughout modern China’s development, policymakers around the world are expressing growing concern over the Middle Kingdom’s power projection. These international actors fail to recognize China’s military history, the limitations of the PLA, and Asian geographical concerns. The CPC and PLA are too consumed by China’s past and the nation’s periphery. As a result, China does not threaten American hegemony currently and will not for the foreseeable future.

History guides much of contemporary China’s thought and policy, especially regarding military matters. Over two thousand years ago, the Han dynasty engaged in China’s first formal war. The enemy was the confederated tribes of the Xiongnu, who roamed the vast steppe in what is modern Mongolia and its surroundings. The Han court and the Xiongnu fought for over two hundred years before the defeat and subsequent collapse of the Xiongnu confederation. Throughout many dynasties, China has dealt with constant threats from the Eurasian steppe, many of which descended from the Xiongnu. This has come to dominate Chinese military thought both consciously and subconsciously. Even today, the CPC puts great emphasis on controlling the steppe, both economically and militarily, although it is no longer a direct threat to China’s survival.

Courtesy Image of Wikimedia Commons, © 2005
Zhang Qian leaving emperor Han Wudi around 130 BCE, for his expedition to Central Asia. Mural in Cave 323, Mogao Caves, high Tang Dynasty, circa 8th century CE.

The PLA Ground Forces (PLAGF) are, by a wide margin, the largest branch of the Chinese military apparatus. Over 60 percent of the PLA budget is devoted to the ground forces, with the other 40 percent split between four other branches. Beyond the United States, China is the most dominant power in East Asia. However, with much of its military resources being spent on the ground forces, China is limiting its potential naval and air projection.

Rhetoric out of Beijing focuses toward Korea, South Asia, and the South and East China Seas. Last year’s reforms to the PLA concentrate on five geographic joint commands. The Western theater is now the largest military command in China with the Northern theater in second place. These theater reformations would indicate interest in Central Asia, contrary to the CPC rhetoric. As always, the best method to understand a nation’s intentions is to look at their actions, not their rhetoric. China continues to show interest in Central Asia and Northern China. Both areas intersect the steppe.

There are two main reasons for this. First, with China’s push for a modern silk road through the One Belt, One Road initiative, Beijing deepens economic ties and Chinese influence in Central Asia. With the unrest and instability present in Xinjiang, China needs to be able to protect investments. Second, the CPC still looks toward the steppe and internal politics as the largest threat to continued governance. To combat both these concerns, a large ground force under CPC control is key.

The PLAGF enables the CPC to handle crises and opportunities in China’s immediate periphery, but the PLA Navy (PLAN) is what could project Chinese influence around the world. Despite policymakers’ vocal concerns of Chinese naval buildup and domination during the aughts, the PLAN is still a weak naval capability. In 2012, defense analysts wrote that Japan would likely win a naval war with China. Even after the recent PLA reforms, the PLAGF will still maintain a dominant position of control over the PLAN. Beijing’s actions show that the PLA does not plan on focusing oceanward.

China sees two adjacent geopolitical foes, India and Russia, threatening Chinese Asian hegemony. Although all three nations are part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, there is growing discord. The reasons for the eruption of the Sino-Indian War over 50 years ago still fuels disputes between the two powers. Russia and China are in a silent conflict of soft power in Central Asia. If China plans to exert influence beyond its immediate periphery, Beijing must find a path to contain its two closest rivals. Expanding the PLAN does not achieve this goal.

The Han-Xiongnu War sparked the Chinese obsession with the steppe. Trade and wealth flowed through the Silk Road. Safety was predicated on a safe steppe frontier. This thinking guided many Chinese dynasties and has instilled itself into broader Chinese thinking. Today, the PLAGF is massive and heavily deployed westward. The PLAN remains small and ineffective at projecting power. China’s domestic issues in and around the steppe still cause concern. Russia and India perpetuate a rivalry that inhibits Chinese global expansionism. The PLA and CPC continue to show interest and concern with the regions distant from U.S. interest. Policymakers should keep it that way.


David Stoffey

David is a foreign policy research analyst and M.A. candidate currently living in Washington, DC. He focuses on East Asian and European international relations with a particular interest in military history. David holds a B.A. in economics and political science from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
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