The major concern of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) in 2020
2020 is the year of the endgame for Xi Jinping's military reform launched in November 2015. It is also the year the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) set to "basically achieve mechanization and make a significant breakthrough in information technology." It is the first milestone of Xi's three-step development strategy regarding China's defense and military modernization. The performances of these 2 tasks are crucial indications of PLA's prospect in attaining the long-term goals laid out by Xi to complete modernization of China's national defense by 2035 and to reshape PLA into "world-class forces" by mid-century.
The "Opinion on Deepening the Reform of National Defense and the Armed Forces" released on January 1, 2016, by Chinese Communist Party indicated that the fundamental goal of the reform is to remove the leadership structural contradictions to optimize the efficiency of a better-integrated military, government, and civil society. It rolled out a plan that by 2020, the PLA would have its breakthrough in restructure of China's leadership and PLA's joint operations command system. It also set the goal of achieving significant progress in a modernized Chinese military force that prevails in information warfare.
Accordingly, the 2020 acceptance of the military reforms will focus on the restructuring of the military leadership and joint operations command. Since the reform kicked off, the Chinese Central Military Commission has replaced the 4 headquarters with 15 offices under the Central Military Commission. It has also redrawn 7 military districts into 5 major theaters and set up an army leadership entity. The Second Artillery Corps was upgraded to the Rocket Army, and strategic support forces established. All the "above the neck" changes had been made in time to meet Xi's expectations.
Xi's "three-step" development strategy for the modernization of Chinese national defense and military was a revision of the development plans of Jiang Zemin. Xi's laid out his plan during his political work report in the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. He has set a new interim goal for China to "basically achieve mechanization and make a significant breakthrough in information technology, to strive to achieve national defense and military modernization by 2035, and to reshape PLA into "world-class forces by mid-century. "
As part of the goal to "basically achieve mechanization and make a significant improvement in applying information technology," China's BeiDou-3 satellite system aims to provide global services upon completion in 2020. The system will eventually consist of 35 satellites (including 5 geosynchronous orbit satellites). Up to date, there have been 26 satellites in place. Given the record that China's Long March 3B orbital carrier rocket could launch up to 14 satellites in one year, the rest of the 9 satellites can easily finish the launch within a year. In other words, the deployment of BeiDou-3 will no doubt complete in time to meet the 2020 deadline.
Judging from Xi's leadership style, PLA will inevitably be requested to implement various measures in 2020 to demonstrate the result of the restructuring of both the military leadership as well as the integrated joint operations command system. For the ranking officers lucky enough to get an accelerated promotion by Xi since the reform, military exercises are undoubtedly excellent opportunities to showcase their well-trained and capable troops and an excellent chance for their further promotion. On that account, the probabilities of PLA's large-scale joint military exercises in 2020 increase significantly. Particularly for the joint marine-air operations, the PLA Navy is due to enter the era of dual aircraft carriers in 2020. Although the 2 aircraft carriers have no combat capabilities yet, they can serve as the hub for extraterritorial marine-air operation exercises. China will be able to advance the operational front to the western Pacific, where China conducts the anti-intervention operations against U.S. forces. The joint operations of the Navy, Air Force, Rocket Forces, Strategic Support Forces, Maritime Police and Maritime Militia in the South China Sea hence become possible.
Those joint operations help examine the integrality of China's military command mechanism. They provide opportunities to examine PLA's I.T. combat capabilities and the proficiency of the BeiDou system. Those are essential for extraterritorial battlefields, especially when the inter-troop command and control between battlefields require seamless integration among long-range radars, orbit satellites, drones, and marine-air platforms with battlefield steering functions that constitute a complete C2ISR system. Modern-day battlefield command is highly dependent on the space-based systems, while the navigation and positioning satellite functions are the soul of C2ISR. Without C2ISR, it won't be possible to integrate different combat units, firepower, and carriers to conduct joint operations according to actual battlefield circumstances. How to identify hostile targets, Coordinated combat, joint fire strikes, and avoidance of accidental attacks on friendly forces, all rely heavily on the C2ISR system. In other words, the integrality of the system decides the result of the battles.
Therefore, the joint combat training drills conducted by the PLA in the western Pacific and the South China Sea examine not only the integrality of its joint combat command mechanism across the theater of operations but also the readiness of its C2ISR capability from its strategic support troops. It also inspects the coordination between the maritime police force and the militia. The progress of PLA's informatization, notably the efficiency of the BeiDou satellite system, will be in plain sight.
Meanwhile, some other extrinsic factors are also in play. Both Taiwan and the United States are having their presidential elections in 2020. Before Taiwan's election, a certain degree of self-restraint from China can be expected. Besides, China has to consider the unfavorable weather conditions in the surrounding waters and the timing for China's annual military drills. Ergo, PLA's large-scale joint military exercises are more likely to be rolled out around May 20, the inauguration day of Taiwan's new presidency. The same goes for the U.S. presidential election. If Sino-US relations tense up after the election, the South China Sea will become more action-packed than ever. The chances of military confrontations between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea will increase, hence exacerbate the situation. However, Taiwan might get a break because of the tension in the South China Sea. Telling from Xi's management style, he tends to tackle one problem at a time, and hence the other areas surrounding China get to enjoy their status quo while Xi puts his undivided attention to his primary concern. It is what happened in the past in the Taiwan Strait, the Korean Peninsula, and the India borderline.
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