Oriana Skylar Mastro on The People’s Liberation Army’s Modernization & Capabilities

Oriana Skylar Mastro is a Center Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University where her research focuses on Chinese military and security policy, war termination, and coercive diplomacy. Mastro is also a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She continues to serve in the United States Air Force Reserve as a strategic planner at United States Indo-Pacific Command. Mastro holds a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Stanford University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Politics from Princeton University.
 
Pieter van Wingerden '24 interviewed Dr. Oriana Skylar Mastro on on August 12, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Oriana Skylar Mastro.

CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has stated his desires for the transformation of the PLA into a “world-class” military by 2050. What does that mean in terms of measurable criteria? 

There are several steps the Chinese military has been trying to take since the 1990s. The basic steps are in terms of personnel, equipment, and the interaction between the two. In order to be a world-class military, China needs modern equipment. In the 1990s, zero to four percent of their equipment was modern. Now, most of their equipment is modern — but still not enough to be a world-class military.

The next step is not the platforms themselves but the networks between the platforms to make its military powerful. Having an “informationalized” military is important. This includes things like building less-visible military aspects like cyber, space architecture, and electronic warfare capabilities. Xi Jinping’s military reforms set up the strategic support force with these three components. After that, China needs to recruit and train people to operate these types of systems in a very intricate and sophisticated organizational environment. Joint operations are a key component of a world-class military, and very few countries can conduct joint operations. This requires organizational reforms, which China has embarked on.

The next step is what some call “intelligentization.” Many of these translations are a bit messy from Chinese, but it’s the idea that all these things have to interact with one another. China needs more AI, big-data, and machine-learning capacity, and needs to be able to better fuse human and military aspects. What’s interesting here is that the US military feels more confident with a human in the loop making decisions, but the Chinese are more confident when machines are making decisions. The Chinese want to get to a stage of algorithmic warfare — which is how they’ve referred to it. They want to be much more advanced in how their autonomous AI-enabled systems are enhancing the lethality of platforms and engaging with the human element to conduct joint integrated operations. Once they achieve that and have all the structures in place, they will have a world-class military that can compete with the United States. The definition of world-class is relative and is defined by the country in front, and right now that is the United States.

How would you evaluate Xi’s reform of the PLA since he took office a decade ago?

Exceptional. From a comparative political perspective, some talk about Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power and how it’s been bad for the party. But I’m not 100% sure yet — the jury’s still out. We have to see if he can achieve his goals at an acceptable cost. Even as China gained advanced equipment, the military was a poorly performing force. Most pilots didn’t have many cockpit hours. They were poorly trained, their exercises weren’t realistic, and there was constant infighting. This was something previous leaders identified. Every previous leader wrote extensively about it — and that’s why there’s a lot to read about the importance of joint operations and how the Chinese can’t do them; no one could dislodge the army’s dominance.

Therefore, what Xi Jinping did was amazing: he got rid of the whole system, such as the four general departments, and reorganized all aspects of the military. It’s as if a US president got rid of combatant commands or the Pentagon. When I taught my course on the Chinese military, I had to completely redo everything. For example, what does it mean for the Central Military Commission to now be majority non-army? At this time, the assessment is that the military is more of a joint force that shares power more equally between the services, which can in turn facilitate China fighting and winning wars.

You’ve previously written about vulnerabilities in the Pacific Deterrence Initiative the PLA can exploit for asymmetric purposes, including procurement issues. How best should the US address those issues?

Maybe we should take a page out of Xi Jinping’s playbook. Gradual, incremental reforms won’t work. There have been many discussions on problems with the acquisitions process, but no suggestions to look at the problem differently. For example, Taiwan is one of the biggest issues right now. The United States hasn’t provided some of the systems that Taiwan purchased due to a lack of production capacity. Taiwan is also an example of how the United States lacks production capacity. The United States runs out of munitions relatively quickly in conflict and has no surge capacity. I’ve recently suggested in meetings at the Pentagon that the United States needs a reserve force with a production line that can surge if necessary. But the response is, “Oh — well, we don’t do that.” The United States doesn’t have state-owned enterprises like the Chinese, meaning the United States can’t have a state-led industrial policy. It’s a different kind of system. The only way to address some of these procurement acquisition issues is to approach them from a completely different perspective.

A potential military conflict across the Taiwan Strait has attracted a lot of attention. Based on your observation, what should people actually be talking about when it comes to Taiwan, and what they should they not obsess on?

People should talk about the benefits to China of having Taiwan. People are obsessed about the cost. Many viewpoints suggest that China doesn’t know what’s in its best interest. Yet the Chinese government since after the Cold War rarely pursues policies that are not in its interest. Maybe the United States has a different assessment of the costs and benefits of certain policies. People lack the understanding of the benefits that the CCP sees in reunifying Taiwan. People also don’t fully realize the limitations of the US military. It’s hard to assess how a war would go between the two sides because it is very specific and scenario-dependent. The US military is good in so many ways, and yet the United States could struggle in this contingency.

What are the current strengths and weaknesses of China’s defense industrial base, and how do they compare to the United States? What role does military-civil fusion play in helping China close the gap?

This is simplifying two aspects of the industrial base. One is the innovation advancement of specific systems, and the other is production capacity. When looking at warfighting capacity, China has significant production and manufacturing capacities. When China fights wars, the plan is for the entire industrial base will go into warfighting. Most Chinese strategists still think the United States has an advantage in a protracted conflict. China’s biggest chance of winning, then, is to do so before the US war machine gets started. Once the US war machine goes, it becomes much harder for China to achieve its goals. That’s largely because geography can work for or against China, because the war would happen around China. Even if a country is not a part of the war, trade will be severely disrupted in Asia — but not the United States.

On the defense industrial complex and civil-military fusion — China can get innovation from all aspects of the government and private sector by funneling it, by force if necessary, into their military. Even on commercial espionage, the United States doesn’t steal commercial secrets and give them to its companies; the United States doesn’t do this because it’s illegal. Is this a weakness of our system? It’s harder for the United States not to play by the rules than it is for China. For example, one strength is that civil-military fusion is a state-driven policy to compel the private sector to help the military and vice versa. In the space area, China has tried having a private industry supportive of their space objectives. But it’s also one of their weaknesses: they haven’t been able to get it off the ground. US private industry is much better and stronger than whatever pseudo private industry exists in China. China’s strength is the ability to marry those two things. Still, the United States has a better base and more advanced technology, which the Biden administration is trying to protect with export controls.

What is the role of the military in China’s national security policy-making process? How does the party ensure the loyalty of the PLA?

The uniformed military has very little influence in policymaking. People wrongly assume the military forced China to become more belligerent. But over time, the military’s official role in foreign policymaking decreased. It lacks representation at the highest levels of the Politburo Standing Committee to be able to shape policy and in many respects is at the whim of the party. The way the military can exert influence is through having a monopoly on certain types of information — it can inform in a way that can shape decisions. You also don’t have cults of personality around military leaders, which is somewhat by design.

The bottom line is, historically, protests have never brought a government down if the military did not side with the people. The military is the key factor in whether or not a government falls. The Chinese Communist Party has always been focused on the military’s loyalty — that is, the military is to be the armed wing of the Communist Party. The party does so through several mechanisms, including Xi Jinping’s speeches about the importance of loyalty and promotions based on ideological aptitude. Part of the military’s training is on Xi Jinping Thought and Marxism to indoctrinate the military and imbue them with an appreciation of the party. Those who are loyal get promoted, and those who are not don’t.

The CCP also has a parallel structure throughout the military similar to the Soviet Union: political commissars, who ensure the army is making decisions in line with the party. The military is constantly watched and controlled through less heavy-handed and more heavy-handed mechanisms. There’s also the largest anti-corruption campaign under Xi Jinping, where he threw many military people in jail. There’s always the constant threat: if you say or do something out of line with what the party wants, you find yourself in trouble.

Pieter van Wingerden CMC '24Student Journalist
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