Questions linger about China’s military might despite major expansion

Questions linger about China’s military might despite major expansion

Tom Abke

Evidence of China’s military expansion has mounted in recent years. A fleet of submarines, a new aircraft carrier, an air force equipped with 600 recently built warplanes and ground forces re-equipped with current technology have all made headlines. Assessing the effectiveness of China’s military, however, is a more difficult task.

Exaggerated claims, the enormous task of modernizing China’s vast People’s Liberation Army (PLA) hampered by lingering arms embargoes, a sprawling internal security apparatus and a gnawing lack of battlefield experience are all potential drags on Beijing’s military might, wrote Dhruva Jaishankar, defense analyst with the Brookings Institution’s India office.

Brookings published Jaishankar’s remarks in a March 2018 opinion piece.

Rand Corp.’s Timothy Heath, senior international defense research analyst, agreed with some of Jaishankar’s skepticism. “I agree that the lack of combat experience remains a major vulnerability for the PLA,” Heath said, “especially for conflicts that might involve powerful adversaries like Japan or the U.S. The main reason is that the form of warfare that the PLA aspires to conduct — integrated joint warfare — is incredibly complex and difficult to execute. Even among U.S. Western allies, very few countries can execute such operations.” (Pictured: China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, arrives in Hong Kong waters. The aircraft carrier was named after a northeastern Chinese province.)

A legacy of centralized command and control, deference to authority and suspicion of individual initiative might not hamper the PLA against weaker opponents, Heath added, but could pose a serious constraint against highly capable ones. “China’s military remains weak in its ability to project power beyond the first island chain,” he said. “Moreover, the PLA’s ability to use its hi-tech weaponry remains in doubt, given its lack of combat experience.”

As for strain placed on the military by the demands of internal security, Heath said Chinese President Xi Jinping has sufficiently consolidated and compartmentalized his authority to reduce this problem.

Restrictions on imports are also becoming less of a drain.

“In the 1990s, due to the effects of the international arms embargo imposed following the Tiananmen massacre, China’s military curbed its use of U.S. military equipment and instead began to step up its acquisitions of Russian equipment and weapons systems. The embargo remains in place, and so China has continued to draw from Russian, rather than U.S. or European technology, for most of its technology import needs.”

To this point, Jaishankar acknowledged that China has been relying less on arms imports as its own defense industry has taken off, thanks in part to “reverse engineering and technological theft.”

When it comes to ground forces, the PLA has been scaling back, Heath said. Naval, air and missile forces have instead been prioritized because they would more likely factor into the most probable contingencies.

“The large ground force reflected an outdated force structure left over from the Cold War,” he concluded, “when China feared invasion from the Soviet Union. The downsizing of the ground forces is thus a reasonable and long-overdue reform. I do not think this will negatively affect the PLA’s capabilities.”