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China and the Revolution in Military Affairs

Authored by Dr. Bates Gill, LTC Lonnie Henley.

May 20, 1996

54 Pages


The Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute held its Seventh Annual Strategy Conference in April 1996. This year's theme was "China into the 21st Century: Strategic Partner and . . . or Peer Competitor." One of the issues of this year's conference was China's ability to participate in the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). The two essays that follow address that topic.

Dr. Bates Gill of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), on a panel entitled, "Seizing the RMA: China's Prospects," argued that there is more to participating in the RMA than securing or producing high-tech weaponry. A revolution is an all-encompassing phenomenon with socio-cultural as well as purely technological aspects. China's prospects for seizing the RMA lie not so much in the development of technology as in the restructuring of concepts and organizations. History, culture, and philosophical values will make it difficult for China to participate in the RMA.

On the other hand, Dr. Gill believes that China may be able to develop an "RMA with Chinese characteristics" much as it took Marxism-Leninism, a Germanic-Russian innovation devised for proletarian revolution, and modified its tenets to be relevant within a peasant revolutionary context. Through sheer determination and by optimizing technology and expertise available from outside sources, China might approximate a less sophisticated RMA entirely suited to its own needs.

Army Lieutenant Colonel Lonnie Henley joined Dr. Gill on this panel. His paper argues that, over the next 20 years, China will deploy a dozen or so divisions possessing relatively advanced systems, but that overall, the PLA will remain about a generation behind the U.S. Army in terms of its ability to participate in a fully-developed RMA. Furthermore, capabilities within the air and sea forces of the PLA will be even more limited with relatively small infusions of advanced aircraft like the SU-27 and naval vessels such as the KILO class submarines. These modern weapons will make up only a fraction of what will be otherwise dated forces. According to Colonel Henley, by 2010 the PLA may be able to achieve the kind of capabilities demonstrated by U.S. forces in the Gulf War.

These papers paint a picture of China with limited potential to become a peer competitor of the United States in the next two decades. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that China's relative power in Asia and globally will grow sharply in that period. Even partial success in pursuing advanced military technology and organizing concepts could enhance the speed and impact of that rise in power.

The exploration of the issues surrounding the RMA has only just begun, and the essays that follow are worthy of consideration by anyone interested in the role that China may play in the strategic military balance early in the 21st century.

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