November 06, 2012

China’s Air Force: Ready For Take Off?

As China’s power and influence continues to grow, the question of how it will behave in the international system looms over the heads of decision makers in almost every capital in the world. Though Chinese intentions are unknown, and likely not yet determined even by the top leadership, China’s global interests are growing and Beijing’s need to protect them is undoubtedly increasing.  This has clearly put a premium on developing the air and naval capabilities needed to project power beyond China’s borders into the Asia-Pacific as well as space and cyberspace.

As China’s leadership grapples with these broader questions, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been making some significant leadership choices that provide insight into how the CCP will handle these challenges. On Sunday the Party leadership promoted army general Fan Changlong and former commander of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) General Xu Qiliang to serve as vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the powerful Party body that controls China’s rapidly modernizing armed forces.

Fan’s promotion was a surprise to many observers, but Xu’s appointment, although widely expected, is more significant for two reasons. First, Xu is widely known for his strong advocacy of air and space power, and some have suggested the promotion could enable Xu to realize his vision of a more modern and capable PLAAF. Second, Xu is the first Air Force general to be appointed a vice-chairman of the CMC, a body traditionally dominant by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ground force officers. Xu’s promotion could thus reflect a growing desire in the military to pursue western-style joint operations and perhaps greater strategic relevance and influence for the PLAAF, PLA Navy (PLAN), and Second Artillery (China’s strategic missile force).

Xu could use his new position of power to secure more resources and influence for his mother service, suggesting that his past record may be a good indicator of the PLAAF’s future. As PLAAF Commander from 2007 to 2012, Xu presided over the transition from a traditional focus on air defense to a broader outlook encompassing more integrated offensive and defensive operations and emphasizing the increasing role of space power. Xu has stated that the PLAAF must forge “a sharp sword and shield capable of winning peace” to help protect China’s interests. This includes not only more modern combat aircraft like the J-20 stealth fighter China unveiled in January 2011 and a second, lighter stealth fighter that is now undergoing flight testing, but also advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, early warning, air defense, and strategic airlift capabilities.

If Xu’s controversial comments about the inevitability of greater military competition in space are any indication, China’s sword and shield also encompasses anti-satellite and other space control capabilities as well that aim to ensure China’s own ability to use space and limit or deny an adversary’s ability to do likewise. Moreover, Xu’s advocacy for the PLAAF’s role in space operations probably reflects internal competition over which part of the PLA will have primary responsibility for an increasingly critical mission, one that Chinese strategists see as potentially decisive in future wars.

Xu’s promotion will mean that PLAAF interests will be much better represented than in the past, especially because Xu is not the only air force officer on the CMC. As the new PLAAF commander, Ma Xiaotian will also be on the Commission to promote the vision and interests of the PLAAF. Given that two air force officers have secured a place on China’s highest military body for the first time in the history of the People’s Republic, combined with the rising fortunes of the PLAN and Second Artillery, many China watchers believe this foreshadows the loosening of the ground force’s sixty-year long stranglehold on the levers of military power. 

But such changes in power and influence may be slower than outside analysts or even Chinese declared strategy suggest.  While Xu’s appointment reflects the PLAAF’s growing role in military affairs, it does not necessarily foreshadow the kind of equality among the services that is necessary for true jointness. China’s military is and will continue to be dominated by ground force officers.  Only ground force officers have commanded the powerful, geographically based military regions (MRs), and they still dominate powerful organizations like the General Logistics Department, which controls military finances.

Given this, even with Xu’s backing, PLAAF funding is unlikely to reach stratospheric levels. The PLAAF’s influence and capabilities will likely continue to increase, but it will fail to close the gap with the most advanced air forces, like that of the United States, in the foreseeable future.  In sum, Xu’s promotion is probably more a reflection of changes in the internal balance of power that have already occurred than a precursor to a revolution in PLA joint warfare. Nonetheless, the promotion underscores an important aspect of the PRC’s rapid military modernization: China is becoming an increasingly capable air and space power, with far-reaching implications for regional security, U.S.-China relations, and Beijing’s ability to protect its emerging global interests.