The Xinhua headline said it clearly: “PLA Kicks Off Largest Long-range Tactical Military Exercise.”
Given the QDR’s work on High End Asymmetric Threats (known to some as the Big Threat panel), I thought it prudent to speak with some China experts and find out why the Chinese were executing such a complex exercise and what its significance might be.
During the exercise, Stride 2009, the Chinese plan to deploy 50,000 “heavily-armored troops over thousands of miles to test the PLA’s long-distance mobility,” according to Xinhua. “Unlike previous annual tactical exercises, the army divisions and their air units will be deployed in unfamiliar areas far from their garrison training bases by civilian rail and air transport.” The troops will practice live-fire drills for two months.
The essential point of the exercise is to demonstrate to the Chinese leadership that the PLA can ensure stability in regions such as the restive Xinjiang, recently beset by riots by unhappy Muslims, says Larry Wortzel, vice chairman of the congressionally-mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
“It is important. It relates to stability in Xinjiang and to the capability to ensure that the PL:A can act to secure strategic interests in Central Asia if necessary,” Wortzel writes in an email. In addition to demonstrating the PLA’s internal reach, Wortzel says the exercise also very clearly shows how quickly Chinese forces can deploy to reach a neighboring country without scaring any of its neighbors.
Another China expert disagreed with Wortzel’s take. “It appears to me that someone conjured up an exercise for forces that have been neglected over recent years–neglected because they are largely irrelevant to anything but a North Korean crisis. Yes, conceivably something could happen with Russia or India or others, but the significant exercises involve something like coordinated 2nd Artillery and PLAN actions that threaten carrier strike groups or 2nd Artillery and PLAAF sequential attack operations that could pummel Taiwan into submission,” said Eric McVadon, director of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis.
However, the Chinese are taking action on an additional front. They allowed diplomats from about two dozen countries — including Australia and the US — to go to Xinjiang this week for a five-day visit. Xinhua said they were invited “to gain a better understanding of the event which left 197 people dead and more than 1,600 others injured.” Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the diplomats are also likely to see some of those 50,000 heavily-armored troops who’ve been deployed throughout the region.