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South China Sea and Taiwan Strait Remain China's Focus as PLA Begins 2024 Training

The Chinese army has begun its annual drills with an almost exclusive focus on boosting its presence and capabilities in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.



An air force surveillance photograph of a PLA Shaanxi Y-8 anti-submarine aircraft released by Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense on September 21, 2023. (Inside image ©Ministry of National Defense ROC)

Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) opened its annual training for 2024 in January, placing special emphasis and focus on improving combat capability. The PLA Army launched the mission at a training ground in Guangdong. The coastal province is located in South China on the north shore of the South China Sea

General Li Qiaoming, commander of PLA's Ground Force, and General Qin Shutong, the force's political commissar, took part in the ceremony. They addressed more than 3,000 troops from a combined brigade of the PLA Army.

Thereafter, combat ships, submarines, and aircraft from the PLA Navy were mobilized for live-fire exercises. Sailors and naval aviators honed their skills in gunfire, missile launching, electronic warfare operations, air defense, and anti-submarine tasks. 

To make it a tri-service initiative, the PLA Air Force's aviation and air-defense units have been undertaking intense drills since the beginning of 2024. Videos available in the public domain display aircraft, radars, and missile launchers in action.

A Tri-Service Initiative

Besides, the People's Armed Police Force is organizing mass gatherings at its unit training grounds across China. This includes one in Hezhou, in the Guangxi​ Zhuang autonomous region that borders Vietnam in southern China. 

It is well known that China has the third largest ground forces in the world, following India and North Korea, with approximately 970,000 personnel. Beijing has been seeking to improve the operational capabilities of the PLA's ground forces. It aims to achieve this by pursuing its downsizing, multifunctionality, and modularization of military units. 

Specifically, it is believed to be improving the PLA's trans-regional mobility using measures such as shifting from theater defense to trans-theater mobility and movement.


The regional theater commands of the PLA order forces under their direct command to carry out training to improve their joint operational capabilities. During training, the officers and soldiers are put in realistic battle/combat scenarios. 

More specifically, the PLA's Southern Theater Command has announced organizing intense naval and air force patrols in the South China Sea. This lucidly conveys China's geostrategic objectives in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

From the annual report "Defense of Japan 2023." (Published by the Japanese Ministry of Defense)

Creating a Fait Accompli

The PLA has not set out a clear and specific future vision of its military strengthening. Nor has it ensured adequate transparency of its decision-making process in relation to military and security affairs. However, the PLA has stated that "any military activities by foreign forces aiming to cause disturbances and tensions or sensationalize regional situations in the South China Sea are under close watch by the armed forces." 

In the South China Sea, China is moving forward with militarization. It is expanding and intensifying its activities in the air and sea space in the area. Beijing aims to create a fait accompli of unilateral changes to the status quo by force. In doing so, China is violating the very basis of international rules and essential principles of the rule of law established.

For more than 30 years, China has sustained high-level growth of its defense budget without transparency. It has engaged in broad, rapid improvement of its military power in qualitative and quantitative terms with a focus on nuclear, missile, and naval and air forces. 

In doing so, it has attached importance to strengthening its operational capabilities for steadily acquiring information superiority. The purpose of this is to enhance operational capabilities throughout the Chinese military. By gaining asymmetrical capabilities, Beijing aims to effectively impede its adversaries and challengers with overall military superiority from exerting strength. This has been duly verified by defense studies and analyses conducted by many nations including Japan as cited in its annual report titled "Defense of Japan."

Almost Exclusive Focus on the South China Sea

Alarmingly, China has been intensifying its activities in the South China Sea based on assertions that are in conflict with existing laws and orders of the seas. 

For example, China could start conducting land reclamations and installing radar facilities, runways, and other infrastructure on Scarborough Shoal. Doing so would increase its situational awareness and power projection capabilities in the surrounding sea areas. China would ultimately enhance its operational capabilities throughout the entire South China Sea. 

In this reference, the US Department of Defense in its annual report to Congress confirmed that the PLA has placed radars and air defense weapons on outposts in the South China Sea. This further extends the range of its integrated air defense system. Besides, it also employs point defenses. These are primarily for defending strategic targets against adversary long-range cruise missiles and airborne strike platforms.


The 2024 annual military training in all probability seems exclusively driven towards expanding the Chinese PLA's presence. This includes the enhancement of its war-sustaining and other joint operational capabilities in the South China Sea as well as the Taiwan Strait.


Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Learn more about Dr Chansoria and follow her column "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on X (formerly Twitter). The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which she is affiliated.

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