China’s military development continued apace in 2015, with a defence budget of approximately US$215 billion, a 10.1 percent increase from 2014. This was the second largest after the US, at US$596 billion, and way ahead of Saudi Arabia, at US$87.2 billion. The expansion is intended to advance the modernisation of China’s military, especially the navy and air force, which have traditionally lagged way behind land forces, as well as to fund the development of new weapons systems. China’s new Dong-feng 26 (DF-26, 东风-26) anti-ship ballistic missiles were among new hardware revealed at the military parade on 3 September.
China released a military strategy paper in 2015, providing some broad insights into its strategic goals, including ‘… making the military strong as part of the Chinese Dream’. Key tasks were to safeguard territorial interests and the unity of the motherland; protect against separatism; safeguard China’s overseas interests; maintain strategic deterrence; and provide overall support to the Chinese Communist Party.
China’s military parade on 3 September showcased the new DF-26, or ‘Guam Killer’ missile. At the end of December, the Ministry of Defence confirmed that China had constructed its first domestic-built aircraft carrier. Other modernisation efforts have focused on cyber and counter-space capabilities (the latter focuses on the use of satellites in warfare and includes the development of ‘directed-energy weaponry’ and satellite jamming technology).
The biggest story in the Chinese military in 2014 and 2015 was the unprecedented crackdown on corruption at senior levels. The campaign has felled two of the most powerful officers of recent times, Xu Caihou 徐才厚 and Guo Boxiong 郭伯雄, both former vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission (CMC) 中央军事委员会. Xu died in 2015. His case had been dropped in 2014 when it was clear that his failing health was already a death sentence. Guo, who was the more senior and who may have accumulated even more dirty money than Xu, was accused of bribery in July. On 6 July, the People’s Daily reported that more than 200 officers of lieutenant-colonel rank and above had been punished in 2013 and 2014 for corruption.
China’s armed forces serve the Communist Party. Under the previous president Hu Jintao, the control of the civilian leadership over the army was seen as weak. The world got a glimpse of this weakness when the PLA tested its first stealth fighter on the day of a visit by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2011 apparently without Hu’s knowledge. This stunning display of the military taking the initiative on foreign policy came just one week before Hu’s State visit to the United States.
In December, Xi completely overhauled the command structure, asserting and consolidating control by downgrading the previously powerful four PLA functional headquarters to departments of the Central Military Commission (CMC). The navy and air force got their own commands, no longer subordinate to the vastly more numerous land forces. There were new commands for space and cyber-warfare, as well as ballistic and cruise missiles. A new joint command, meanwhile, followed the US model. The number of regional commands was reduced from seven to five to increase central control. Xi repeated his commitment to reduce military personnel by 300,000, to two million. In what appeared to be a final confirmation that he had secured total control over the armed forces, in 2016, Xi emerged as Commander-in-Chief 总指挥, a title never before used in the PRC.