Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Title: Chinese People's Liberation Army poster
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During the Cold War, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in China was the largest standing army in the world. It took on both external and internal roles. In 1929, the Chinese Workers' and Peasants' Red Army, the predecessor of the PLA, numbered 300,000. It was reduced to a mere 25,000 by the mid-1930s following its defeat in the last of five encirclement campaigns by Goumindang (GMD, Nationalist) forces. After growing to more than 1.2 million by 1945 and 5.2 million at the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the PLA's active troop strength stood at 4.2 million in 1982 and 3 million in 1992.

In the external sphere, Chinese forces fought in the Korean War (1950–1953), skirmished over offshore islands with the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) during the 1950s, waged the 1962 Sino-Indian War, clashed with Russia in the 1969 Sino-Soviet border dispute, and saw battle in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. In addition, the PRC threatened to employ the PLA on several occasions against India during the India-Pakistan Wars of 1965 and 1971.

Internally, the PLA helped consolidate the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) hold over the country during the Chinese Civil War (1945–1949) and the 1951 Tibet occupation. It also oversaw infrastructure development in far-flung areas of China and restored order during the chaotic periods of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) and the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident.

During the Cold War, the PLA's defense strategy had two main aspects: "People's War" and "People's War under Modern Conditions." While the former was employed extensively during the period prior to 1949, PLA forces found recourse in the latter in certain wars after 1949. The "early war, major war and all-out nuclear war" slogan of the 1960s gave way to "peace and development" by the end of the Cold War, when the Soviets withdrew nearly fifty divisions from China's northeastern border with the Soviet Union as a part of the thaw in Sino-Soviet relations.

Soon after civil war ended in 1949, the PLA was engulfed in the Korean War under the guise of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army (CPVA). The CPVA was in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) from October 1950 until October 1958. At the time of the intervention, CPVA forces were primarily infantry units drawn from the Fourth Field Army of the PLA. Peng Dehuai commanded the CPVA. In the fighting in Korea, the PLA encountered the most powerful and technologically advanced military in the world. While it sustained casualties estimated at more than 1 million, with half of these killed, the PLA achieved its objective of preserving the North Korean government. Other wars were less successful, although the PLA achieved certain limited military objectives such as driving back Indian forces from its borders in 1962 and punishing Vietnam in 1979. In the latter conflict, the PLA learned the need for modernization.

Organizationally, the PLA generally followed Soviet practices. Three large general departments oversaw staffing, logistics, and political duties. The PLA controlled a vast military-industrial complex of machine-building industries, ordnance and aircraft factories, and shipyards. Ranks mirrored those of the Soviet Union, as did training manuals.

The Central Military Commission of the CCP is at the top of the PLA's organization, although a similar and parallel nonparty structure was established at the state level in the 1980s. China was divided into military regions (which were reduced from thirteen to eleven to the current seven beginning in 1985), twenty-nine provincial military districts (one for each of China's twenty-nine provinces), one independent military district, and three garrisons. During the modernization drive that began in the mid-1980s, field armies were transformed into twenty-one army groups on the Western concept of military organization. To enhance professionalism, the PLA established a number of military academies, colleges, and schools, with the highest military educational institution being the National Defense University, established in 1985. As the PLA modernized and professionalized, it also downsized. Eight demobilization campaigns of soldiers and officers in the Cold War period brought down the PLA's troop numbers significantly.

During the Cold War, China amassed formidable military capabilities in ground, naval, air, and strategic weapons, although by the end of the Cold War most of the military assets lagged behind newer Western technologies. Initially, many PLA weapons were captured from Nationalist forces, who had been supplied by the United States and other Western nations. The February 1950 Treaty of Friendship and Alliance with the Soviet Union ensured a constant flow of military equipment, which was considered to be advanced given the low technology levels of PLA forces at the time. This ended, as did military technology transfers, with the Sino-Soviet split of 1959–1960.

Of the 156 state-run industries created with the cooperation of the Soviet Union, nearly 40 were devoted to military needs. The PRC thus produced an array of military equipment, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, aircraft, engines, submarines, destroyers, frigates, and fast-attack craft. Much of the Chinese Army's equipment was supplied by the Soviets up to 1960. This included JS-2, T-34, and T-54 tanks and 152mm and 203mm artillery. The Chinese also manufactured the T-59 (their version of the Soviet T-54) and the T-60 (PT-76) amphibious tank.

Numbers of army personnel continued to increase for much of the Cold War. In 1965 army strength was estimated at 2.25 million men in 115 divisions (including 4 armored and 1–2 airborne divisions). By 1974 army strength had grown to 2.5 million men in 120 infantry divisions, 5 armored divisions, 3 cavalry divisions, and 2 airborne divisions. In 1991 at the end of the Cold War, the Chinese Army had been slightly reduced in size, with perhaps 2.3 million men in 84 infantry divisions and 10 armored divisions. In 1991 the Chinese operated some 7,500–8,000 main battle tanks (the bulk of them T-54/T-59s, along with several hundred T-69, T-79, and T-80s reported), some 2,000 light tanks, 2,800 armored personnel carriers, and 14,500 towed artillery pieces.

In addition to conventional deterrence, the PLA pursued nuclear deterrence. In 1964 China exploded its first nuclear weapon, and by the early 1960s the PRC was one of five countries with long-range missile capabilities. In general, these various weapons served the country well. But the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which Chinese-supplied Iraqi military equipment was easily destroyed by coalition forces, showed the glaring technological deficiencies of many PLA weapons systems. Troop enhancements, modernization drives, and equipment acquisitions meant increasing budgetary outlays, which stood at an estimated 2.8 billion yuan (US$340 million) in 1950 and had increased to about 39.5 billion yuan (US$7.56 billion) by 1991.

The first three decades of the Cold War were turbulent ones for the PRC defense forces. The PLA saw the construction of a U.S.-led military alliance system in East Asia—including U.S. troops in Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea)—and the 1954 mutual defense pact with the ROC as distinct threats. This eased after 1971 with the normalization of Sino-American relations, although Chinese window-shopping in Western arms markets largely came to naught. Institutional linkages and mutual visits among Chinese and Western militaries increased in the 1980s, with enhanced prospects for arms sales under several programs. However, the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident brought to an end any significant flow of military technology or hardware from Western nations.

China sent arms abroad both to assist in wars of national liberation, often in opposition to one of the two superpowers, or as straight commercial/political transactions. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) was a major recipient of Chinese weaponry during both the Indochina and Vietnam Wars. Other groups receiving Chinese arms included the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Pathet Lao in Laos, and the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia procured Chinese intermediate-range Dong Feng-3 missiles (NATO-designation CSS-3). Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, and Burma (Myanmar) also purchased Chinese arms, sometimes in defiance of international nonproliferation controls.

Srikanth Kondapalli


Further Reading
The Chinese Armed Forces Today: The United States Defense Intelligence Agency Handbook of China’s Army, Navy and Air Force. London: Arms and Armour, 1979.; Gittings, John. The Role of the Chinese Red Army. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.; Han Huaizhi, ed. Dangdai Zhongguo jundui de junshi gongzuo [China Today: The Military Affairs of Chinese Army]. Beijing: Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 1989.; Kondapalli, Srikanth. China's Military: The PLA in Transition. New Delhi: Knowledge World, 1999.; Mulvenon, James C., and Andrew Yang, eds. The PLA As Organization. Reference vol. 1. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2002.; Nelsen, Harvey W. The Chinese Military System: An Organizational Study of the Chinese People's Liberation Army. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1977.
 

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