The 19th party congress has set a roadmap for China’s modernization and full revival as a superpower, a timetable to redeem and restore the former glory of the Middle Kingdom.

A report delivered by Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has decreed that the nation’s “socialist modernization” must be realised by 2035, and by the centenary of the People’s Republic in 2049, China wants to be a well-off, socialist superpower that is able to rule the roost worldwide.

In line with the national blueprint, the report also stipulated that its military buildup must be in sync with China’s overall development: achieving modernization of the People’s Liberation Army by 2035 and turning the PLA into a world-class force by 2049.

Pictures of late People's Liberation Army soldier Lei Feng, Chinese President Xi Jinping and late Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong overlook a courtyard in Shanghai. Photo: Reuters/Aly SongPictures, above, of late People’s Liberation Army soldier Lei Feng, Chinese President Xi Jinping and late Chinese chairman Mao Zedong overlook a courtyard in Shanghai. Photo: Reuters/Aly Song

 

Observers say Beijing has been less forthcoming when it comes to the 2049 goal for its military, as there are currently only two forces that are indisputably world-class or quasi-world-class status: the US and Russian forces.

“Beijing wants to surpass the Russian army and at least catch up with the US in strategies, weaponry, capacity and war-readiness,” Macau-based military commentator Wong Tung said.

Gap with Russian military narrowed

The PLA has transcended the British, French and German militaries on the back of China’s economic buoyancy and record defence budgets.

The size and weaponry of the PLA have almost outstripped these mid-sized military powers that once forced the precarious Qing dynasty to cede colonies and concessions during the first and second Opium Wars some 150 years ago.

The PLA has also narrowed the gap in weaponry and military technologies when compared with the Russian Armed Forces, which used to be much emulated by the infant Chinese military, particularly in the early years after the People’s Republic was established in 1949.

China's first domestically built aircraft carrier is seen during its launching ceremony in Dalian, Liaoning province, China, April 26, 2017. Reuters/Stringer
China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier is seen during its launching ceremony in Dalian in Liaoning province on April 26, 2017. Reuters/Stringer.

Wong said the PLA still had a lot of catching-up to do to get to the same league with the US military, and these areas included automation and digitalization of warfare and command, logistics and strategic delivery and deployment of troops and weaponry, coordination among land, air and sea troops, strategic nuclear submarines and spy satellites, plus ocean-going airbases like supercarriers, etc.

But the PLA has been making steady headway. For instance, it launched its first homemade aircraft carrier earlier this year. It now has two seagoing combat airbases, and Beijing expects to add two more to its fleet by 2021.

15 years to catch up with the US: Kyodo

The PLA Navy has also been expediting the rollout of new cruisers, destroyer squadrons, supply ships and other escorts to form a complete aircraft-carrier strike group.

The PLA’s intercontinental ballistic missiles and rockets are on a par with the nukes owned by the US and ensure nuclear deterrence.

Japan’s Kyodo News estimated in an analysis that the PLA may just need 15 years to catch up with the US military in all key areas, provided that ample funding is guaranteed and the West’s arms embargo is loose enough that researchers in the Chinese can get hold of more cutting-edge weapons and systems – and develop copycat versions, which has been the approach favoured by Beijing to enable “breakthroughs” for defence technology.