China Report

The Chengdu Wing Loong II (‘Pterodactyl II’), military designation GJ-2, is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capable of remotely controlled or autonomous flight developed by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group in the People’s Republic of China. Intended for use as a surveillance and aerial reconnaissance and precision strike platform, Chengdu unveiled the concept of Wing Loong II at the Aviation Expo China in Beijing on September 2015. Wing Loong II has long range strike capability with satellite link.

In 2019, China’s Central Military Commission and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) remained focused on reaching the goal of achieving mechanisation of the PLA’s ground forces by 2020, improving `informatisation’, and working towards achieving the 2035 goal of armed-forces modernisation and dominant regional power-projection capabilities. The 1 October 2019 parade marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic reflected the breadth of China’s defence modernisation, with particular attention paid to new additions to China’s missile, uninhabited-aerial-vehicle (UAV) and hypersonic capabilities. Apart from hardware, the parade also seemed to reflect the organisational and doctrinal shifts in the PLA. The inclusion of personnel from all branches in the Strategic Support Force (SSF) and Joint Logistics Support Force sections of the parade, for example, sought to highlight China’s progress towards joint operational capability across services. Meanwhile, the presence of officers and scientists from the National Defense University, University of Defense Technology and Academy of Military Sciences highlighted China’s focus on civil- military integration.

The PLA continues its efforts to improve combat capabilities under realistic training conditions. The navy and air force were particularly active in 2019, though the PLA Rocket Force and SSF also conducted drills. The PLA Army conducted the Firepower-2019 exercise in Inner Mongolia, while the PLA Navy (PLAN) conducted multiple exercises in the East and South China seas, as well as near Taiwan. The PLA Rocket Force practised its ability to withstand an attack and launch a counter-strike. The SSF remains little discussed publicly, though reports point to it having also participated in joint-operations exercises and drills. The navy has been active in joint exercises in the East China Sea and around Taiwan through 2019, timing these `routine drills’ with political developments in the region. On 15 April, the day before Taiwan and the United States marked the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act with a high-level forum in Taipei, the PLA held `necessary drills’ with warships, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft around the island. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has focused on continuing to develop offensive and defensive air and space integration. Chinese media reports points to the PLAAF’s `circle of friends’ growing larger, with joint exercises with the air forces of Brazil and Russia in 2019. In 2019, Beijing also acknowledged for the first time the existence of theatre-level joint exercises, code-named North, East, South and West. A possible example is the July 2019 exercise involving all five service branches off China’s southeast coast, although there was no official confirmation of this.

China’s latest defence white paper, released in July 2019, constituted a progress report on PLA reforms, with attention given to the specific strengths and weaknesses of each service branch. Though the PLA is making progress across the board, the white paper notes that mechanisation and informatisation were behind schedule – in contrast to President Xi Jinping’s statement in 2017 at the Army Day Parade when he announced that the PLA had already achieved mechanisation and made rapid progress towards informatisation. The 2019 white paper is likely to be more accurate in its description, and it signals that the 2020 goal of achieving mechanisation and making significant progress towards informatisation may not be met. Beijing’s definition of these two goals remains unclear.

However, a breakdown of defence expenditure was provided for the first time since the 2010 white paper. The new detail, and the framing of China’s defence modernisation and military spending as `reasonable and appropriate’, signals an attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to quell external criticism of China’s military build-up. While the 2019 white paper compares China’s defence spending to that of other countries, to highlight that it represents a relatively small percentage of GDP, it is also presented in a domestic context alongside the budgets of the other government ministries with which the PLA competes for resources.

The white paper emphasises increasing instability in various geographical regions. It portrays China as the architect of, contributor to and mediator within the `community with a shared future for mankind’ in the `new era’. The US-led alliance structure in the Asia-Pacific is considered outdated and ill-suited. Although the white paper considers the regional security situation `generally stable’, it suggests that Asia-Pacific states have become `increasingly aware’ that they are part of this regional community of shared destiny. Bilateral negotiations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China over a code of conduct for the South China Sea would likely be Beijing’s preferred model for any such `regional’ security architecture.

Nevertheless, for the moment the regional security architecture is unlikely to expand to include new arms-control regimes. Following the dissolution of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between Russia and the United States, the US indicated any new arms-control treaty could usefully expand beyond the original two signatories and include China as well. However, Beijing has made it clear that INF and post-INF Treaty arms-control issues should be resolved first between Russia and the US. While China is concerned about the consequences of potential US deployment of intermediate-range missiles in the Asia-Pacific, in the wake of the INF Treaty, China’s missile development has generally been in line with `China’s national defense policies’ (for instance, a large number of its missile systems are based within range of Taiwan) and Beijing has stated that it will `in no way agree to making the INF Treaty multilateral’.

While mentioning a range of challenges, the 2019 white paper reaffirms that the status of Taiwan remains one of China’s main national-security concerns. In his New Year address for 2019, President Xi emphasised that resolving the Taiwan question and completing reunification was a historic task and could not be stopped. `One country, two systems’ and peaceful reunification were the best paths to China’s national reunification, Xi said, though he made `no promise to renounce the use of force’ and reserved `the option of taking all necessary means’. This sentiment was echoed in Defense Minister Wei Fenghe’s speech at the 2019 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue. Despite numerous military exercises and live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait and off Taiwan’s east coast throughout 2019, Beijing faces a difficult choice. As President Tsai Ing-wen gears up for the 2020 presidential election in Taiwan, China’s military drills and political unrest in Hong Kong are reinforcing narratives that reunification is not in Taiwan’s interest. Indeed, in response to Xi’s speech on Taiwan, both the Democratic Progressive Party and Kuomintang have stated that one country, two systems is no longer a viable option.

The Chinese Type 99A2 is the most modern Main Battle Tank in service with the Peoples Liberation Army.  Development started in 2003 with trials of the vehicle starting sometime in 2007 or thereafter. In comparison to earlier Type 99 Tanks it has a number of changes in terms of firepower, mobility, protection and technology resulting in dimensional changes in the hull and turret sizes.

 PLA Army

The process of re-equipping the PLA Army continues, with a focus on the objectives of completing basic mechanisation and improving informatisation by 2020. Legacy equipment, such as the ZTZ-59 tank and PL-59 howitzer, is now being cycled out of frontline units, although it is unlikely that all of it will be replaced by the 2020 target date. Additional heavy combined-arms brigades in the Central and Northern theatre commands are now finally receiving the long-awaited ZTZ-99A main battle tank. However, the Eastern and Southern theatre commands will likely continue to operate lighter tank designs – primarily the ZTZ-96A and ZTQ-15 – because of the terrain in those areas. The Central Theatre Command’s 161st Air Assault Brigade has begun taking delivery of the Z-20 medium transport helicopter – an indigenous version of the US Black Hawk design.

The army’s Stride series of exercises for its combined-arms brigades continues, albeit not at a fast pace, with only one exercise at Zhurihe (for heavy brigades) and two at Queshan (for medium and light brigades) completed by September 2019; these all involved Central Theatre Command formations as the `Red Force’ (friendly) under evaluation. Following the PLA’s participation in Russia’s Vostok-2018 exercise, China once again sent a relatively small contingent of 1,600 personnel to participate in Russia’s Tsentr-2019 exercise in September, primarily drawing on a heavy combined-arms battlegroup and aviation detachment from the Western Theatre Command’s 76th Group Army.

The Dongfeng-41 (DF-41, CSS-X-10) (‘East Wind-41’) is a fourth-generation Chinese solid-fuelled road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile operated by the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (formerly the Second Artillery Corps). DF-41 is the fourth and the latest generation of the Dongfeng series strategic missiles developed by China. The missile was officially unveiled at the China National Day military parade on October 1st, 2019.

PLA Rocket Force

New missile systems were publicly unveiled in October at the parade marking the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. This underscored the PLA Rocket Force’s continuing expansion and highlighted priority areas of capability development. The DF-41 (CH-SS-20) road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), like the existing DF-5B and DF-31A(G) ICBM variants, is believed to have the capacity to carry either multiple warheads or a single warhead and multiple jammers, penetration aids and decoys. The parade also featured two new highspeed conventional systems: the DF-17 medium range ballistic missile and hypersonic glide vehicle, and the CJ-100 cruise missile. This emphasis on additional capacity and higher speed for nuclear and conventional systems respectively reflects the Rocket Force’s approach to retaining credible capabilities in light of the improving missile defences of potential adversaries.

While the DF-17 was described at the parade as a purely conventional system, media reports in 2019 quoting unnamed officials at the China Aerospace and Industry Corporation suggested that in future the system may have both nuclear and conventional payload variants, much like the DF-26 intermediate range ballistic missile before it.

The DF-41, DF-17 and CJ-100 are all now believed to have officially entered PLA service with Rocket Force brigades. However, there is traditionally a lag between a system’s official entry into PLA service and the declaration of initial operating capability, and it is unclear if any of these new systems have reached that stage.

The Type 055 destroyer (NATO/OSD Renhai-class cruiser) is a class of stealth guided missile destroyers being constructed for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy Surface Force. It is a multi-mission design; the combination of sensors and weapons suggests a main role of area air defence, with anti-submarine warfare capabilities surpassing previous Chinese surface combatants

PLA Navy

The PLAN continues to make significant strides in filling the gaps in its capabilities in order to operate as a blue-water navy. In 2019, these included the public debut of the first Type-055 (Renhai-class) cruiser at the navy’s 70th-anniversary fleet review in April. In September, China launched the fifth of eight Type- 055s that are either currently under construction or already complete.

Another important milestone in the development of the PLAN’s power-projection capability was the launch in September of the first Type-075 landing helicopter dock (LHD) large amphibious-assault ship. Another Type-075 is under construction and it is thought that at least one more is planned; the ships are estimated at around 30,000 tonnes fullload displacement. Meanwhile, the sixth Type- 071 (Yuzhao-class) landing platform dock entered service in January, with at least two more under construction.

Beyond the Type-055, China’s output of surface combatants remains striking, with the 19th and 20th Type-052D (Luyang III-class) destroyers launched in May and a 63rd Type-056/056A (Jiangdao I/II-class) corvette later in August. Meanwhile, the PLAN also retired a number of older destroyers and frigates. The PLAN’s focus so far seems to have been more on raising the capability levels of its platforms rather than just boosting inventory numbers.

In this context, speculation continues regarding China’s aircraft-carrier ambitions. In some respects, progress remains cautious – for example, in the relatively modest operations so far of the first carrier, the Liaoning (RUS Kuznetsov class), and the extended initial sea trials of the second, as-yet unnamed ship (RUS Kuznetsov mod). A third, larger vessel is under construction. China may still be struggling with the challenge of creating an effective carrier capability, and so there is uncertainty over when the PLAN might be able to achieve a step change in capability, particularly in terms of long-range carrier deployments or integrated task-group operations. Similarly, bringing the complex Type-075 LHD into full operational service may take some time. A second Type-901 (Fuyu-class) fast large under way replenishment vessel, perhaps intended to accompany the carriers, entered service in February. However, the PLAN will need more such vessels if China maintains ambitions to deploy a truly global multi-carrier capability in the future.

While China’s defence minister gave a forthright speech at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2019, blaming tensions in the South China Sea on `foreign’ naval deployments, China’s own naval activities in the region appeared more assertive and in July it reportedly carried out a drill that included what appeared to be a first salvo-launch of anti-ship ballistic missiles in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, two tests were reported of the navy’s new JL-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile, which is intended for its next-generation ballistic-missile submarines – these may be the Type-096. This combination has the potential to provide Beijing with significantly longer-range submarine-based ballistic missile capability sometime in the next decade.

At the same time, there continues to be increased focus on Chinese `hybrid’ or `grey zone’ activities, highlighted by the tensions raised by Beijing’s deployment into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone of a survey vessel with coastguard escort. Increasing attention has been paid to the maritime militia, which is based chiefly on large numbers of supposed fishing vessels. The latest US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) `China Military Power’ report stated that the PLAN, the coastguard and the maritime militia are increasingly visible throughout the region.

J-20As fitted with the original AL-31 engines

PLA Air Force

It is known that China has been developing a next-generation `strategic’ bomber, but the US DIA in 2019 also suggested that a `tactical bomber’ in the same class was part of the PLAAF’s acquisition programme. The `China Military Power’ report characterised the latter project as a `fighter-bomber’, capable of carrying long-range air-to-air missiles (AAMs).

New air systems displayed during China’s 70th-anniversary parade included the WZ-8 high-speed reconnaissance UAV and the GJ-11 uninhabited combat air vehicle. A new variant of the Xian H-6 bomber, the H-6N, was shown for the first time. This airframe was observed with a large under-belly recess, although the anti-ship ballistic missile that some analysts contend may be associated with this new variant was not displayed.

Meanwhile, the successor to the H-6 series, likely to be designated the H-20, is anticipated by the US Department of Defense to enter PLAAF service around the middle of the next decade. Some reports suggest the H-20 is a low-observable flying-wing design. While senior Chinese officials have confirmed that a new bomber is in development, at the time of writing there has been no similar comment regarding a tactical bomber.

The tactical bomber’s association with a long-range AAM may be an allusion to the PLAAF’s PL-17 very-long-range dual-mode AAM, now in development. This missile is likely fitted with an active electronically scanned-array radar and an imaging-infrared adjunct seeker. The PL-17 appears to be aimed at countering high-value low-density targets, such as tankers, but also airborne early-warning and control, as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, aircraft. The PL-17, and a rocket-ramjet-powered AAM possibly known as the PL-21, could enter service in the early years of the next decade.

The first operational Chengdu J-20A fighter/ ground-attack aircraft PLAAF unit was formed in 2019, and production of the type is likely to increase over the next few years as more units are re-equipped with it. At the same time, the Shenyang J-31 multi-role combat-aircraft project continues, but at a slower pace than that of the J-20A.

Great-power competition and cooperation

Intensifying US efforts to clamp down on economic, technological and knowledge flows to China – based on a widening interpretation of US national-security considerations – are another obstacle to the long-term development of China’s defence and strategic capabilities. This was underscored in 2019 by US efforts to isolate Huawei by excluding the firm from access to US markets or technology. US export-, investment-, and academic-exchange controls have also been significantly tightened. In response, Chinese leaders have urged the country’s S&T establishment to step up their efforts to develop indigenous technological capabilities, particularly in emerging core areas such as AI, semiconductors and 5G.

The defence white paper makes clear that China is in long-term military-technological competition with the US and that `the PLA still lags far behind the world’s leading militaries’. The white paper warns that the Chinese armed forces need to make `greater efforts to invest in military modernization to meet national demands’ and are at risk of being surprised by technological developments elsewhere and a widening generational gap in technologies. As Sino-US military-technological competition intensifies, Beijing and Moscow are forging closer defence-technological cooperation. China is reportedly examining whether to purchase another 24 Su-35 combat aircraft to complement those it has already received. Russian arms-export officials have also been keen to market the export version of the Su-57 fifth-generation combat aircraft to the PLA Air Force, although there are no indications that a deal is close.