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US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “Science Applications International Corporation: Capabilities of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to Carry Out Military Action in the Event of a Regional Conflict,” 2008

January 1, 2008

Economic globalization and world multi-polarization are gaining momentum....The rise and decline of international strategic forces is quickening…new emerging powers are arising. Therefore, a profound readjustment is brewing in the international system.
—China’s National Defense in 2008 1

China has “come of age” on the global stage. Like the 1988 Summer Olympics that heralded South Korea’s arrival in the international arena, the 2008 games may ultimately be remembered as the moment Beijing re-emerged as a first-order power. China’s maturation is evident on the diplomatic, economic, political and national security fronts. Over the last 20 years, Chinese diplomats have evolved from hide-bound ideologues into pragmatic participants in a wide array of international organizations. The growth of China’s economy suggests the potential for surpassing U.S. gross domestic product by mid-century. Beijing’s military modernization efforts have been equally dramatic.

In 1999, a Chinese military officer described the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as a boxer suffering from “short arms and slow feet.” While Beijing maintained a force of over 2.8 million uniformed personnel, the PLA was largely restricted to conducting onshore operations within marching distance of China’s territorial borders. China lacked air and sea lift, had few over-the-horizon intelligence gathering capabilities, and essentially planned for conducting single-service military operations.2  As researchers at RAND put it, “China today is indisputably not a ‘peer competitor’ of the United States.”

Nonetheless, they warned China was also “not just another regional power.”3 According to the RAND analysts, in 1999 China exhibited four characteristics that separated the PLA from other regional powers. First, China had nuclear weapons that could reach targets within the United States. Second, the Chinese military had fielded a greater number and variety of theater-range ballistic missiles than any other force then confronting the U.S. military. Third, the PLA’s absolute size was daunting in its own right. And, finally, China’s geographic expanse largely precluded the paralyzing synergistic attacks the U.S. armed forces had used so effectively in Operation DESERT STORM.4


Ten years later, things have changed. While China is still not a “peer competitor” for the United States military, the PLA’s regional capabilities are anything but “short” or “slow.” Equipped with satellite-based surveillance assets, top-of the-line Russian fighter aircraft, a rapidly modernizing navy, and more than 1,300 short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, the PLA can locate, track, and engage any military force operating within 500 miles of the Chinese coastline. Furthermore, Chinese commanders are learning to field and fight a military that realizes the effects and efficiencies inherent in joint warfare.

Finally, Beijing’s focus on downsizing the PLA, while simultaneously addressing logistics shortfalls, suggests the Chinese military is preparing to show up ready for a regional battle before the forces of a responding power such as the United States could be positioned effectively in the theater of operations.


This paper examines how the PLA made this remarkable transformation, and what it means for the United States and other actors within Asia. The study will first examine the strategic guidance Beijing has issued for PLA commanders and how those orders have been realized over the last ten years. The paper then delineates the capabilities the PLA has acquired or constructed—specifically focusing on assets that could be brought to bear in a regional conflict. We close by looking at the PLA’s current ability to conduct military action against Taiwan, what Taipei could do to better defend herself, and the options the United States and our allies might have in the event of such a conflict.

1 China’s National Defense in 2008 (Beijing: Information Office of the State Council of the People’s

Republic of China, 2009), p. 3. This document is the sixth biannual defense white paper Beijing has

released since 1998.

2 Zalmay Khalilzad et al., The United States and a Rising China: Strategic and Military Implications (Santa

Monica: RAND Corporation, 1999), pp. 45-47.

3 Ibid., p. 47.

4 Ibid., pp. 47-48.

For full report click [HERE]