The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is the regular armed forces of the People’s Republic of China. It is one of the world’s largest army with an estimated two million service members. The mission for the PLA was first laid out by China’s former paramount leader Hu Jintao. These missions were–to protect and safeguard the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CCP), to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China and to safeguard the country’s interests.
From the wordings, it is clear that the PLA first and foremost exists to protect the primacy of the CCP in China and that all other goals are a distant second for the PLA. It is also an interesting fact that in China, the ‘Country’ is merely a reference to the ‘CCP’ only. Even the flag officially displayed by China is that of the CCP.
For decades the CCP has used the PLA for its ambitions to bully and threaten other nations, primarily in the South China Sea. Even though China has relied on the perceived might of the PLA to try and project power, in reality, the PLA is more of a fragile giant when compared to some of the other armies in the world. It primarily resorts to displaying its sheer size to intimidate other nations into following China’s wishes. But the raw size of the PLA is deceptive, and in some cases also its biggest weakness.
One of the prime disadvantages of having a mammoth-sized army is the obvious problem faced during its modernization or introducing any other developmental changes. In the 1980s, the PLA used to comprise a whopping 3.8 million service members, when the leaders realized that their sheer size was preventing them from ever being able to develop a modern force.
One of the first chinks in the PLA’s armour is China’s policy of conscription. Most of the PLA is composed of conscripted soldiers who are often forced to serve in the PLA for two years, after which they are retired. Due to this, many of PLA’s soldiers hardly undergo any rigorous military training.
According to an article titled ‘China’s Conscription Cycle: Challenges, Vulnerabilities and Opportunities’ published in Small Wars Journal, China requires 450,000 conscripts (20% of the total force) each year to maintain its strength. Due to China’s conscription cycle, China loses a large portion of its combat power each year, after which new conscripts have to be trained all over again and this creates a potential weakness for China and restricts its training options. This glaring weakness primarily affects the PLA ground combat forces.
Moreover, all PLA operational units suffer from an under-strength dilemma for a few months each year. The PLA Army relies most heavily on conscripts due to the branch’s size as well as the lower technical requirements. Combat units that rely heavily upon low-skill conscripts experience the most significant swings in combat power due to the conscription cycle, something that does not occur in professional armies. The time, effort and resources required to train conscripts each year is substantial drainage of power for the PLA.
In light of China’s growing economy, the sub-standard conditions of a conscript have made the PLA an unfavourable option for young Chinese men. Most of China’s conscripts come from socially backward and disadvantaged sections, who are in most cases, solely responsible for their ageing parents, due to China’s previous ‘One-Child Policy’.
An average conscript in the PLA is paid 800-850 Yuan a month (the equivalent of Rs 9,000-12,000). However, an officer in the PLA is paid 10,360 Yuan, almost 13 times the pay of a recruit. Given the high cost of living, as well as the burden of ageing parents, a conscript will find it extremely hard to make ends meet.
Another major consequence of conscription, which is plaguing the PLA is the lack of qualified personnel, especially in the technical branches of the PLA like the Navy and Air force. Due to the revolving door conscription cycle of the PLA, no soldier stays in the PLA for more than two years and this prevents them from getting familiar with the sophisticated equipment. The PLA has acknowledged this glaring weakness, which forced President Xi to strategise certain changes in the PLA’s recruitment process. These changes were introduced in mid-January 2020. However, any possible improvement as a result of these changes will take time.
In recent years, the PLA has been accused of being infected by the ‘peace disease’, ‘peacetime habits’ and ‘peace problems.’ According to reports, the last time China and the PLA went to war was in 1979 and due to this, a peacetime approach to training has permeated into the PLA. This casual and peacetime approach to training greatly influence the PLA’s wartime combat readiness. Perhaps to overcome this shortfall, CCP often resorts to engaging them in coercing neighbouring states.
After new market reforms in the 1980s in China, the PLA moved into the realm of business in search of opportunities to make money. This led to large scale political corruption in the PLA and thus greatly affected the PLA’s ability on the battlefield, its military image and slowed the development of the national defence. President Xi has apparently introduced certain harsh measures to tackle corruption within the PLA since becoming CCP general secretary.
But due to internal resistance, senior officers in the PLA found guilty of corruption are now transferred and reassigned instead of being removed. The anti-corruption measures introduced by Xi has, thus, become tools of removal of the irritants to CCP’s and Xi’s authority rather than merely the corrupt ones.
Similar to China’s general population, the PLA also has a very large (57 million) pool of veterans. These PLA veterans demand post-retirement benefits, as well as better retirement deals. These post-retirement wages, pensions and living subsidies are incurred from China’s defence spending. This substantial cost which is only due to rise will certainly affect PLA’s capital expenditure in the future.
In addition to this, the PLA also has to contend with the rising cost of maintenance of equipment, vehicles and vessels. Sometimes the maintenance cost far exceeds their manufacturing and commissioning costs. These twin drains on the PLA’s budget and resources also pose a great obstacle to the Chinese military’s modernisation drive.
In addition to the weaknesses highlighted here, the PLA also has many other areas wherein they are yet lacking, such as — limited to none airlift Capabilities, open-sea refuelling capabilities as well as weak joint Operations capabilities. All these glaring weaknesses in the PLA mean that despite its sheer size it will find it hard to go against well equipped, well trained professional armies.
Perhaps being aware of its own shortcoming, China routinely chooses to use other avenues to coerce nation-states such as using soft power, taking control of the narrative to prevent criticism and using its large economy as leverage instead of relying on PLA. China realises that the PLA is a hollow shell, with its might being simply an empty threat.