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China's Military Capabilities

China's Military Capabilities

Frank W Moore, IDDS Research Analyst
June 2000

This article and associated graphs may be freely quoted and reproduced with proper attribution to the author, Frank Moore, and the publishing organizations, Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, Cambridge MA 02139.


In the past decade China's growing military capability has attracted a great deal of attention, but details about the current and likely near-future state of China's military power have been in short supply. While it is true that China is modernizing its forces and increasing defense spending, the prospective improvements in overall military capability need to be set against the very low-technology starting point of China's armed forces.

The article begins by looking at recent trends and likely future developments in China's nuclear and conventional forces. It then discusses potential military courses of action by China towards Taiwan, now and in the future.


According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the SIPRI Yearbook 1999, the size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal is about 400 warheads. The Bulletin estimates that 20 nuclear-armed missiles are deployed in the intercontinental role, and another 230 nuclear weapons on deployed (or can be deployed) on aircraft, missiles, and submarines with regional capabilities. The 150 remaining nuclear warheads are believed to be reserved for "tactical" uses (short-range missiles, low yield aircraft-dropped bombs, and possibly artillery shells or demolition munitions).1

Nuclear weapons in China are under the control of the Central Military Commission, which is headed by the President. Other members of the commission are generals from the People's Liberation Army (PLA), who may also serve on the Politburo of the Communist Party.

Intercontinental Nuclear Forces

China currently maintains a minimal intercontinental nuclear deterrent using land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The Dong Feng-5 (DF-5) liquid-fueled missile, first deployed in 1981, has a range of 13,000 km and carries a single multi-megaton warhead. Twenty are believed to be deployed in central China, southwest of Beijing. Unlike China's earlier ballistic missiles, which were stored in caves and moved out for launch, the DF-5 can be launched directly from vertical silos—but only after a two-hour fueling process. In order to increase the survivability of the DF-5s, dummy silos are placed near the real silos. The DF-5's range gives it coverage of all of Asia and Europe, and most of the United States. The south-eastern US states are at the edge of the missile's range.

Two additional long-range ballistic missiles are in the development stage, the 8,000 km DF-31 and the 12,000 km DF-41. Both missiles are expected to be solid-fueled and based on mobile launchers. It is not known how many missiles China plans to deploy nor how many warheads the missiles may carry, but it is believed that China is hoping to deploy multiple nuclear warheads and penetration aids. These may be either multiple re-entry vehicles (MRVs) or the more capable, but technically difficult multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). First deployment for the DF-31 could occur before 2005; the DF-41 is likely to follow, possibly around 2010.2

China's nuclear-armed naval forces are currently limited to one Xia Type 092 nuclear-powered and nuclear ballistic missile-equipped submarine (SSBN), which has a history of reactor and acoustic problems. The Xia can carry 12 Ju Lang-1 (JL-1) SLBMs with a single 200-300 kt warhead and a range of 1,700 km. Due to its technical limits, the Type 092 is never deployed outside regional waters.

China is reported to be planning to build four-to-six new Type 094 SSBNs. The Type 094 will introduce a safer, quieter reactor and better overall performance. It is expected to have 16 JL-2 missiles, capable of carrying up to six warheads per missile (probably MRVs that are not independently targetable). The initial launch date is supposed to be scheduled for 2002; but development of the JL-2 missile may take considerably longer because to date the land-based missile on which it based, the DF-31, has been test launched only once. If China were to employ a deployment rotation similar to that for US Navy SSBNs (three submarines for each one in target range, with one on station, one in transit, and one in refit), then six SSBNs would give China the ability to keep two submarines on station in the Pacific at all times, able to strike all of Asia, Europe, and North America.3 If the planned 6 submarines are built with the maximum number of warheads per missile, the number of total deployable submarine-based nuclear warheads will rise to 576. Even if the warheads were not independently targetable, the minimum number likely to be on station and capable of striking the United States would be 192—that is, enough to saturate the proposed light US national missile defense, which is now driving the Chinese strategic nuclear modernization and expansion program.

Regional Nuclear Forces

China also deploys three weapons in the intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) and medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) categories. These missiles are capable of posing strategic threats to countries in Asia, such as India or Japan, but represent a lesser threat to Russia, and are only a threat to the United States through the vulnerability of US military bases in Japan and South Korea.

The oldest nuclear missile deployed by China is the semi-mobile 2,800 km-range DF-3A. The estimated 40 liquid-fueled DF-3s still in service today are being phased out in favor of the DF-15 (see below) and DF-21. They were followed by the liquid-fueled DF-4, which has a maximum range of 4,750 km. About 20 DF-4s remain in service in fixed launch sights. Chinese regional ballistic missile capabilities advanced greatly with the introduction of the DF-21, the first solid-fueled medium-range missile. The solid-fuel design provides China with a faster launch time, because the lengthy and potentially dangerous fueling procedure of the earlier Dong Feng models has been eliminated. First deployed in 1986, the 48 operational DF-21s have a range of 1,800 km and are carried on mobile launchers. The DF-21 is the basis for the JL-1 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

The older liquid-fuel missiles carry single warheads with yields estimated at 3.3 MT. The newer solid-fuel missiles have single warheads with maximum yields of a few hundred kilotons each.

The Chinese bomber force is based on locally produced versions of Soviet aircraft first deployed in the 1950s. With the retirement of the H-5/Il-28 from the nuclear role, the H-6/Tu-16 remains the only nuclear-capable bomber in the Chinese inventory. First entering service with the Soviet Air Force in 1955, the Tu-16 was produced in China in the 1960s. The H-6/Tu-16 is capable of carrying one-to-three nuclear bombs over a combat radius of 1,800 km to 3,100 km. About 120 People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) H-6/Tu-16s are believed to be capable of nuclear missions. Another 20 H-6/Tu-16s are under the control of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and do not perform nuclear missions. There is no indication of a replacement for the H-6/Tu-16 in the near future. The J-7/MiG-21 and the newer Chinese-designed JH-7s and Russian-exported Su-27s are capable of performing nuclear missions, but they are not believed to be deployed in that role.

Short-Range, Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons

The PLAAF has 20-40 Q-5 Fantan attack aircraft that it uses in the nuclear role. Initially deployed in China in 1970, the Q-5 is a substantially upgraded version of the MiG-19, which was initially deployed in the Soviet Union in 1954 and later produced by China under the designation J-6. The Q-5 can carry a single free-fall nuclear bomb over a combat radius of 400 km. The very short range of the Q-5 limits its battlefield effectiveness, even with conventional armament.

Two types of short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) entered service with China’s Second Artillery forces around 1995: the DF-11/M-11, with a range of 300 km, and the DF-15/M-9, with a range of 600 km. (The ‘DF’ designation is used by missiles in service with China, while the ‘M’ designation is used for export versions.). In theory both missiles but could be fitted with small nuclear devices. As of 2000, a few hundred DF-15s and DF-11s may be deployed; but most if not all are believe to be equipped with conventional warheads.


China maintains one of the largest militaries in the world, based on its inventory of major weapon systems. 4 However, the bulk of China's holdings are old in both physical age and technology. Many weapon systems which came into service in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s remain in the inventory today; and all of those systems use 1950s-era technology originally imported from the Soviet Union. While China is modernizing its conventional forces, the new systems are entering are a low rate compared with the overall size of the older forces. As a result over the next decade, as the oldest weapon systems are fully retired, the size of China's conventional forces will shrink dramatically.

Ground Forces and Tanks

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) is moving toward an overall reduction and reorganization of personnel and equipment with the goal of creating a more modern and mobile army. In 2000, the total estimated personnel strength of the Chinese military is 2.5 million, of which 1.8 million are in service with the PLA (ground forces). The ground forces are divided into 7 military regions with 27 military districts. Within the 7 military regions lie 21 Group Armies, each containing about 60,000 personnel. The Group Armies contain among them 44 infantry divisions, 13 infantry brigades, 10 armored divisions, 12 armored brigades, 5 artillery divisions, 20 artillery brigades, and 7 helicopter regiments. In addition, 5 infantry divisions, 2 infantry brigades, 1 armored brigade, 1 artillery division, 3 artillery brigades, and 3 anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) brigades are independent elements of the PLA not assigned to any specific Group Army. There are also three airborne divisions, which are manned by the PLAAF. 5

There are also numerous reserve and paramilitary units, some of which do not fall under the direct control of the PLA. The PLA reserve component has about 1.2 million personnel divided into 50 infantry, artillery, and air-defense divisions. In addition, approximately 1.1 million personnel serve in the People's Armed Police, which includes internal security and border defense forces under the control of the Ministry of Defense. The People's Armed Police is organized into 45 divisions. The reserve forces and the People's Armed Police are expected to increase in size in the near future as active units are shifted to reserve status under China's modernization and restructuring plan. 6

China's tank inventory has numbered around 10,000 for three decades. IDDS estimates the size of China's tank force as of 1 January 2000 at 10,100. Over the past 30 years, most Soviet World War II-vintage tanks (the T-34/85 and the IS-2) have been retired. Initially, these were replaced with large numbers of Soviet T-54/-55s and Chinese-produced versions of the T-54/-55 (Types 59/69/79). Of these, the Type 59 was the most common, with over 8,000 built for the PLA. Production of the Type 59 began in the late 1950s and probably continued into the early 1980s. The subsequent models, Type 69 and Type 79, made their first public appearances in 1982 and 1984, respectively; but despite being produced nearly 30 years after the original Type 59, they were not much more capable than their predecessor.

In 1988, the Type 80 was ready for production. The Type 80 represented China’s first major break from the original T-54/-55 design. It features a computerized fire-control system, a laser range-finder, a gun stabilizer, better suspension and power plant, and night-fighting equipment. The tank currently in production is the Type 85-II/III, which was introduced in the early 1990s as a further development of the Type 80. In addition to the Type 80’s electronic and power plant improvements, the Type 85 has an automatic loading system, which reduces the crew to from 4 to 3. The most recent design to come out of China is the Type 90-II, first revealed in late 1991, which resembles the Russian T-72 and is believed to be similar in performance. The Type 90-II has yet to enter full production, and it is not expected to do so in the near future for PLA service. 7

China also has a nearly 2,000 light tanks. Again, these tanks are copies of old Soviet models: the Type 62 is a scaled down version of the Type 59, while the Type 63 is based on the Soviet amphibious PT-76. Both entered production in China in the early 1960s.

The active Chinese tank inventory may be smaller than the 10,100 holdings estimated by IDDS. With production having started before 1960, many of the 6,000 Type 59s still in service could be over 40 years old. Many are probably not operational due to poor construction and maintenance. In fact, China's history of poor maintenance may also put into question the operational status of some of its newer equipment as well. In any event, as a product of the new Chinese military strategy and the higher tank cost per unit, China seems to be replacing older systems on a less than one-for-one basis, moving slowly towards a much smaller, and somewhat more modern force. China may eventually mass produce the Type 90-II, instead of the Type 85-II/-III, for replacing the bulk of its older tanks. Alternatively, China may be working on an even more advanced tank model, which would further reduce the gap in technical capabilities compared with Western tank designs.

Air Forces and Combat Aircraft

The People's Liberation Army Air Force, PLAAF, currently possesses about 4,350 aircraft, of which the majority are combat aircraft. IDDS estimates that the inventory of Chinese combat aircraft on 1 January 2000 includes the following: 1900 J-6/MiG-19 (all roles and models: fighter, reconnaissance, trainer); 720 J-7/MiG-21 (all roles and models: fighter, reconnaissance, trainer); 222 J-8I/II/III; 55 J-11/Su-27SK; 440 Q-5 (modified MiG-19); 307 H-5/Il-28; and 142 H-6/Tu-16. 8 Small numbers of JH-7s (fewer than 12) and K-8s (10-15) may also be in service. Of these aircraft, the great majority (J-6 and J-7) are of types which began to be deployed before 1972 (See Chart 2.) With the exception of 10 Il-76s, the airlift capabilities of the Chinese Airforce are limited to old Soviet tactical airlift planes built under license or reversed-engineered in China, such as the Y-5/An-2, Y-7/An-24, and Y-8/An-12.

Much confusion exists as to the direction China will take in the future regarding combat aircraft acquisition. The Chinese government has made a priority of the development of a local aerospace industry capable of producing technologically advanced aircraft. However, the results produced by the Chinese aircraft industry to date have not been promising. Despite decades of work, the only original combat aircraft to be designed and produced in China are the J-8 and JH-7, both of which took so long to develop that by the time they entered service, they were already obsolete by Western standards. The newer J-10, which has been in development for twenty years, probably won't enter service for another five years.

China is by no means unique in this respect. Except for the five largest industrial arms producers (the USA, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany), other countries that have attempted to produce indigenously designed combat aircraft, such as Israel, South Africa, India, Taiwan, and South Korea, have abandoned these efforts and returned to importing systems from one of the five main producers. The basic reason is that the economies of scale required to finance research, development, and production of all the systems and sub-systems that make up today’s frontline combat aircraft are not available to smaller industrial countries nor to large developing countries with smaller GNPs and smaller industrial bases. (In fact, for this reason, Russia is lagging increasingly behind the West in most areas of military technology.) 9

As a result of the inability of the Chinese aircraft industry to produce indigenously designed, technologically advanced combat aircraft, the Chinese government has partially reversed its policy of relying on domestic arms production and has renewed imports of combat aircraft from Russia—specifically, Su-27s and Su-30s—in small numbers. Over the next decade, China will produce Su-27s, with the Chinese designation J-11, under license from Russia. Up to 200 Su-27s may be built, but the total may be curtailed if China obtains licensing rights to the Su-30, which offers several technological advances over the Su-27. China currently plans to buy 30–60 Su-30MKs. 10 In addition, China will continue to pursue its own aviation projects. Production of the latest model of the J-8 will continue in small batches. The JH-7 may also be produced in greater numbers, if PLAAF or PLAN can find a role for the aircraft in their inventories. The J-10 is scheduled to enter service around 2005 with initial reports of expected production up to 300 aircraft (depending in part on the progress of the Su-27 program). In any case, the J-10 and the J-11/Su-27 are expected to form the mainstay of the Chinese Air Force in the early 21st century.

Of great significance is China's plan to buy one-to-four AWAC aircraft from Israel. 11 If China purchases just one copy of the aircraft, which is an insufficient number for operational use, it will still provide an opportunity for the PLAAF to experience the use of airborne command and control. China is also making progress in in-flight refueling, and several H-6/Tu-16 bombers and Y-8/An-12 transports have been converted to tankers. As is the case for AWAC aircraft, more acquisitions of tankers will be needed if China seeks to obtain the capability to conduct combat aircraft operations at any distance from its own territory.

Naval Vessels

Submarines: China embarked on a large submarine building program in the 1960s, which tapered-off in the late 1980s, which included many diesel-electric patrol submarines and some nuclear powered submarines. Many of the diesel-electric submarines from that construction period are now in reserve. Recently, construction and acquisition of new submarines has begun to intensify. In the near future, China’s submarine fleet is expected to be smaller, but more modern. (See Chart 3.)

For most of its history, the People’s Army Liberation Navy (PLAN) submarine fleet has consisted of small coastal patrol submarines and domestically produced versions of the Soviet 'Romeo' class sub. Initially lacking any real ASW capability, the Chinese 'Romeo' class (Type 033) is now outclassed by nearly every ASW system deployed by China's neighbors. In all, 73 Romeos were built for use by China between 1962 and 1987. 12 Of these about 38 remain in active duty, although they may only go out to sea a few days per year. Another 30 are in varying conditions of reserve status. One Romeo was modified to carry six YJ-1 (C-801) anti-ship missiles, but it must surface to fire them.

In the 1970s, China embarked on a program to domestically produce submarines of its own design. The first of these was the 'Ming' class (Type 035), produced from 1971 to 1979, with production resuming again in 1987. The Mings are not much better in capability than their Romeo predecessors, although they are of newer construction. Submarines of the Song (Type 039) follow-on class are slighter larger than the Ming and incorporate streamlined hull for better submerged performance. The first Song was commissioned in 1999, and two more are now under construction. Later models may incorporate design features from the Kilos. The Song class may be fitted with a version of the C-801 or C-802 anti-ship missile that is capable of submerged launch. In addition, China has purchased 4 Kilo class submarines from Russia. Additional purchases of Kilos or the newer 'Amur' class from Russia may depend on the progress of the Song class.

Like China’s effort with the Xia SSBN, China's first attempt to domestically produce a nuclear-powered attack submarine produced disappointing results. The 'Han' class (Type 091) first entered service in 1974. Again, power plant problems plagued the class, and the next ship in the class was not commissioned until 1980. The fifth and final ship did not enter service until 1990. Despite their problems, which may have been fixed, and the long delays in construction, China seems committed to deploying the five subs built. The follow-on Type 093 class is expected to build on the experience from the Han class and on assistance from Russian submarine builders. The class will be similar in capability to the Russian Victor III, first deployed in 1978. The first Type 093 is scheduled to enter service in 2004.

Surface Warships: Since the 1972, the number of ships and overall tonnage of China’s surface combatants has increased at a steady rate. The increase is expected to continue for the next five years, but may decline after that if no new construction or acquisition programs are undertaken. (See Chart 4.)The most recent additions to the Chinese Navy are two Russian-built 'Sovremenny' class destroyers. These ships, the first of which was delivered in February 2000, are the largest and most powerful surface warships ever operated by the Chinese Navy. Their most formidable weapon is the SS-N-22 Sunburn supersonic sea-skimming ASM, of which eight are carried. The Sovremenny is also armed with the SA-N-7 'Gadfly', which will give China a limited naval air-defense capability. Up to now, China has possessed only short-ranged SAMs of French or domestic design.

The newest Chinese-built destroyers are two 6,000 ton 'Luhai' class. The first ship of the class entered service in late 1999, and the second is expected to enter service in 2000. Two more are planned with commissioning dates in 2002 and 2003. 13

China operates 18 other destroyers of two principle classes. The 4,200 ton 'Luhu' class was the basis for the 'Luhai' class. Two ships were built, with commissioning dates in 1994 and 1996, respectively, although they were originally ordered in 1985. (Construction was delayed to allow for completion of a frigate order from the Thai Navy.) The Luhus are armed with 8 C-802 ASMs, a domestically built Crotale SAM launcher, which France provided copies of in the 1980s, ASW torpedoes and mortars, and many guns. They are also capable of carrying 2 Harbin Zhi-9A helicopters, which are used for ASW and anti-ship missions.

The largest class of destroyers is the 16 'Luda' I/II/III class (3,670-3,730 tons). These ships are armed with 6 C-201 ASMs, ASW torpedoes and mortars, and a heavy gun armament. The Luda II replaces the aft-most 130 mm and 37 mm gun turrets with a helicopter pad and hangar. The sole Luda III carries the C-801 instead of the less capable C-201. Two of the class have been fitted with a Crotale launcher. Others may be fitted in due course, but priority is being given to the construction of additional ships.

The remaining major surface combatants comprise 37 frigates. As is the case for the destroyers, the frigates are designed mainly for anti-surface warfare and lack any significant self-defense (AAW or ASW) capabilities. The newest and most capable frigates are the 6 'Jiangwei' class ships (2,250 tons). Their armament is similar to the 'Luhu' class, but with fewer guns and missiles. They are capable of carrying a single Dauphin helicopter. The first of these ships was laid down in 1990. Three more are now under construction, with 2 more planned.

There are 31 units of the one other type of frigate in service, the 1,702 ton 'Jianghu' class. The class has four sub-groups: the Jianghu I (27 in service) carry 4 C-201 ASMs, 2-4 100 mm guns, plus varying numbers of lighter caliber guns; the sole Jianghu II replaces aft armament with a helicopter hanger; and the 3 Jianghu III/IVs replace the C-201 with 8 C-801 or C-802 ASMs.

Amphibious Assault Ships: China's amphibious assault capabilities are very limited. As of 1 January 2000, China has only 49 amphibious assault ships with full displacements of 1,000 tons or more (with three more ships under construction). (See Chart 5.) Of these, 42 are under 2,000 tons, and none is larger than 4,800 tons. Many are quite old, including 3 ex-US Navy LSTs built between 1942 and 1945.

This small fleet size excludes any possibility of China attempting to seize control of Taiwan by means of an amphibious assault. Moreover, there is no sign that China is building or planning to build the larger troop and cargo ships which would be necessary for a large-scale attack. Similarly, China's small force of marines (about 5,000) indicates that an expansion of amphibious assault capabilities is not expected.

Overall, the Navy is gaining the most from recent increases in Chinese military spending. Potentially the most ambitious naval program is the possible purchase or construction of aircraft carriers. If and when China acquires an aircraft carrier for active deployment, it will probably be a conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) type, since China does not have access to vertical and short take-off and landing (V/STOL) aircraft, such as the British Sea Harrier. The smallest CTOL carrier currently in service is the Brazilian Minas Gerais, at 20,000 tons. However, China would probably want to use its new Su-27/J-11 and possibly J-10 fighters on any carrier, which would require a flight-deck longer than that on the Brazilian ships. Current estimates place the size of the needed ship at 45,000 to 50,000 tons, which would put it in the same category as the Russian Kuznetsov or the French Charles de Gaulle. 14 Russian design assistance has been sought for the Chinese carrier program and China has studied the ex-Australian carrier Melbourne, which it was towed to China for scrap. 15 China also purchased the ex-Soviet carrier Kiev in May 2000. China is expected to deploy a carrier capable of carrying 24 fighter planes plus helicopters in the support role. The ship is likely to be conventionally powered, since China has limited experience with nuclear power in submarines only. According to press reports, the first Chinese carrier could be in service by 2005, with a second in service by 2009. Additional carriers could follow every three years. 16

China also plans to strengthen its surface fleet through the purchase of additional destroyer from Russia: In addition to the two "off the shelf" Sovremennys already bought, China plans to acquire two more Sovremenny DDGs with modifications. The delivery dates are unknown. 17


The West’s concern about China's military capability is focused mainly on potential military action against Taiwan. China has threatened to take military action if Taiwan declares independence from the mainland or indefinitely prolongs the unification process. While the modernization of China’s military forces currently under way may facilitate a potential attack on Taiwan, it does not make success a forgone conclusion for the foreseeable future. Reviewing potential uses of armed force by China, this section concludes not only that Chinese capabilities are limited now, but also that given the slow pace of modernization, China's capabilities for attack on Taiwan are likely to remain limited for the next 10-15 years.

Combined Arms Attack and Invasion

In theory, China could launch a combined arms amphibious and airborne assault on Taiwan. China’s current forces do not include enough transport assets to accomplish such a task, however; and there is no evidence that China is building up larger numbers of amphibious assault ships or large cargo aircraft. Current military doctrine calls for a 5-to-1 attacker to defender ratio for amphibious assaults. Today China can only transport 1 armored or 3 infantry brigades with its amphibious ships, which would be completely inadequate for an attack on Taiwan. The use of commercial and fishing vessels (for example, splitting a company of troops among 4 fishing trawlers) could not substitute effectively due to communication problems and the resulting inability to coordinate units. An amphibious assault would only be conducted with control the skies over the Strait, which the Chinese Air Force probably cannot accomplish. The weather and terrain of Taiwan favors the defender, with high waves and wind in the Taiwan Strait, combined with cliffs on the eastern part of Taiwan and expansive mudflats on the western coast. Finally, Taiwan and the United States could see an invasion coming many months before the event, because it would take that long to prepare if China did have the forces to attempt the effort.

Missile Attack

China could attack Taiwan with a few hundred DF-15 and DF-11 conventionally armed missiles; but history suggests that such an attack would probably not force Taipei to capitulate (compare, for example, Britain in 1944-45, or Serbia in 1999). These missiles are not accurate enough to be precision weapons against airfields, radar, transport nodes, etc. They would have to be used more as a terror weapon, against cities and town. if only conventional warheads were used, damage would not be any more significant than that from a large natural disaster, such as the one Taiwan survived in 1999 (a major earthquake near Taipei). Since China only has a limited number of DF-15 and DF-11 missiles, a long-lasting missile siege would be difficult.


China's navy could attempt to blockade Taiwan, forcing ships to dock at Chinese ports before proceeding on to the island. If the number of China’s large surface ships (frigates and destroyers) continues to increase, such a blockade would be easier. China currently has more ships than Taiwan, and could attempt to enforce a blockade with a combination of naval vessels and mines. And despite the lack of sophistication of China's submarines, Taiwan has limited ASW assets to counter China's large submarine fleet. As with a missile attack, a blockade would bring international condemnation and, as a result, hurt China's economy, even if it were technically legal under international law (with Taiwan recognized as part of China).


China's military is modernizing, but there are distinct limits to the modernization program. First, the current force structure is so old that the rate of retirement will exceed the rate of acquisition in all major weapons categories, with the possible exception of major surface combatants. This means that the size of China’s armed forces will continue a recent pattern of decline, and to drop quite steeply in some cases, such as combat aircraft. The only exception may be China's surface combat ships. (See China versus Region charts.)

Second, the modernization is proceeding slowly and in a piecemeal manner. All military forces take a significant amount of time to integrate new weapon systems into its forces; for China the process seems to take longer than most.

Third, China is adding only a handful of modern systems to its inventory. New systems are purchased in small batches or singly, which is cannot dramatically change the balance of power. Moreover, while "modern" relative to existing Chinese systems, current acquisitions from Russia are not as capable as the comparable systems fielded by the United States or even Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan (in some areas).

Finally, China's military modernization plan has highlighted the inability of the indigenous arms industry in China to produce the advanced technology weapon systems that the military wants. The recent return to dependence on foreign assistance (specifically, aircraft and naval vessels from Russia, and technical assistance from Israel) runs contrary to the Chinese government’s desire to fully control its own military destiny.

China may eventually change its policies and invest more financial resources in military modernization; but for the foreseeable future, China's potential for military action in Taiwan and other areas will remain limited. China may take a more active military role in its region, but the overall balance of power in East Asia will remain unchanged.

China versus Region




1. William Arkin, "Nuclear Notebook: Chinese nuclear forces, 1999," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Vol. 55, No. 4 (May/June 1999).

2. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, ibid, and Federation of American Scientists website: http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/china/icbm/index.html.

3. Doug Thacher, "IDDS Web Report: Chinese Naval Forces 2000," referencing news report FBIS-CHI-1999-1207, Institute for Defense & Disarmament Studies website: http://www.idds.org/idds-mainpages/database/samples-database/china/chinesenavalforces2000.html (May 2000).

4. IDDS estimates a continued high level of holdings for China's tanks and combat aircraft due to the continued presence of those systems in China's inventory. IDDS holdings estimates do not reflect the readiness status or maintenance of the weapon systems; they indicate the total number of systems at military bases around the country. Some Chinese weapon systems may not have been used in years, having been placed in storage areas. For example some J-6s (MiG-19) sit on airfield tarmacs for months at a time; many of these aircraft may not be in flying condition.

5. International Institute for Strategic Studies, Military Balance 1999-2000, p. 186.

6. Ibid.

7. Jane's Armour and Artillery 1999-2000, p. 4.

8. IDDS shows a high level of retention for older Chinese aircraft, especially the J-6, because the rate of retirement is not known. The numbers of active units for these aircraft may be much lower.

9. Randall Forsberg, ed. The Arms Production Dilemma: Contraction and Restraint in the World Combat Aircraft Industry (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994), p. 243.

10. Washington Post, "Russians help China modernize its arsenal", p. A17, 2/10/2000.

11. While the Israeli AWAC aircraft is based on the Il-76, the United States is trying to block the sale of the plane to China on the grounds that the radar contains restricted U. S. components. (Jane's All The World's Aircraft 1999-2000, p. 354).

12. Jane's Fighting Ships 1999-2000, p. 118.

13.IDDS Database of World Arms Holdings, Production, and Trade 1972-2000, with Projections to 2010, April 2000.

14. Agence France Presse (AFP), "China's first aircraft carrier", 1/12/00.

15. Jane's Fighting Ships 1999-2000, p. 119.

16. AFP, "China's first aircraft carrier", 1/12/00.

17. BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 'Ta Kung Pao' web site, Hong Kong, 2/15/00, 2/17/00.

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