Bates Gill
Lonnie Henley

May 20, 1996

The views expressed in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


The Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute held its Seventh Annual Strategy Conference in April 1996. This year's theme was "China into the 21st Century: Strategic Partner and . . . or Peer Competitor." One of the issues of this year's conference was China's ability to participate in the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). The two essays that follow address that topic.

Dr. Bates Gill of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), on a panel entitled, "Seizing the RMA: China's Prospects," argued that there is more to participating in the RMA than securing or producing high-tech weaponry. A revolution is an all-encompassing phenomenon with socio-cultural as well as purely technological aspects. China's prospects for seizing the RMA lie not so much in the development of technology as in the restructuring of concepts and organizations. History, culture, and philosophical values will make it difficult for China to participate in the RMA.

On the other hand, Dr. Gill believes that China may be able to develop an "RMA with Chinese characteristics" much as it took Marxism-Leninism, a Germanic-Russian innovation devised for proletarian revolution, and modified its tenets to be relevant within a peasant revolutionary context. Through sheer determination and by optimizing technology and expertise available from outside sources, China might approximate a less sophisticated RMA entirely suited to its own needs.

Army Lieutenant Colonel Lonnie Henley joined Dr. Gill on this panel. His paper argues that, over the next 20 years, China will deploy a dozen or so divisions possessing relatively advanced systems, but that overall, the PLA will remain about a generation behind the U.S. Army in terms of its ability to participate in a fully-developed RMA. Furthermore, capabilities within the air and sea forces of the PLA will be even more limited with relatively small infusions of advanced aircraft like the SU-27 and naval vessels such as the KILO class submarines. These modern weapons will make up only a fraction of what will be otherwise dated forces. According to Colonel Henley, by 2010 the PLA may be able to achieve the kind of capabilities demonstrated by U.S. forces in the Gulf War.

These papers paint a picture of China with limited potential to become a peer competitor of the United States in the next two decades. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that China's relative power in Asia and globally will grow sharply in that period. Even partial success in pursuing advanced military technology and organizing concepts could enhance the speed and impact of that rise in power.

The exploration of the issues surrounding the RMA has only just begun, and the essays that follow are worthy of consideration by anyone interested in the role that China may play in the strategic military balance early in the 21st century.

Colonel, U.S. Army
Director,Strategic Studies Institute



Bates Gill


This paper is organized into four principal sections. The first section will introduce a framework for analysis by first broadly sketching the meaning of a revolution in military affairs (RMA) and offering general background points about China's relationship to past and current RMAs. The body of the paper consists of two principal sections which focus respectively on economic and socio-cultural factors and which affect China's capacity for change, innovation, and adaptability particularly in areas of activity critical to grasping the current RMA. A concluding section will assess how socio-cultural and economic factors will affect China's progress in grasping the current RMA in particular, and its military effectiveness overall.


Lonnie Henley

As China looks ahead to the next century, there is remarkable agreement among its leaders and citizenry on the basic interpretation of modern Chinese history--namely, that China was for millennia one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations on Earth, and that since the early 19th century it has been denied its rightful place among the great powers through the concerted effort of imperialist nations. There is equally widespread agreement on the long-term objective of China's security policy: to become the economic, diplomatic, and military equal of the world's leading powers, meaning the United States. Chinese leaders and analysts estimate that this will take 40 or 50 years. There is also general agreement that the key to achieving this goal is economic development, and that it is achievable on the desired time line only if China is permitted to continue placing highest priority on the economy rather than on accelerated military spending.

In the past year, the perception has also solidified among many Chinese leaders that the United States will try to obstruct China's rise to its rightful place in the world. The United States is the main beneficiary of the status quo, they argue, and China the main challenger to the status quo. In a rather zero-sum view of international relations, they conclude it is almost inevitable that the United States will seek to contain China, undermine its economic development, and prevent its becoming a threat to America's privileged position as the world's only superpower. Eventual conflict with the United States is therefore seen as possible, but not likely for at least 20 years, and ideally not until China has reached full superpower status in the middle of the 21st century. Whether there will be such a conflict is for another generation to determine; this generation's mission is to put China firmly on the road to recovering its rightful status among the world's leading powers.

Thus, as others will no doubt argue in more detail during this conference, China fully intends to build a military capability equal to that of the United States, but only after it has achieved a level of economic development sufficient to underpin its superpower ambitions. In the meanwhile, the military must improve its ability to defend China in the event of an unforeseen conflict, to enforce China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, and to carry out the forcible reunification of Taiwan with the mainland if called upon to do so. Although these are short-term goals in the grand scheme of Chinese strategic objectives, they will still require considerable improvement over a period of a decade or more. Once the People's Liberation Army (PLA) achieves these objectives, in the second or third decade of the next century, it will turn its attention tothe broadergoal of matchingthe fullrange of American military capabilities, particularly its advanced weaponry and long-range power projection capabilities.

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SOURCE: US Army Strategic Studies Institute