China's Military: A Second Opinion

September 1, 1999 Topic: Security Regions: Asia Tags: BusinessSociology

China's Military: A Second Opinion

Mini Teaser: An article in the last issue claimed that China's military is a hollow force. The facts, two other China experts argue, are otherwise.

by Author(s): James LilleyCarl Ford

In their recent article in the pages of The National Interest ("China's Hollow Military", Summer 1999), Bates Gill and Michael O'Hanlon write that "China's military is simply not very good." We think they got that half right. China is no military superpower and will not acquire that status for some years to come. But measured in terms of its capacity to challenge key U.S. allies in East Asia, China's capabilities have grown exponentially. That is the point; the authors miss it.

Gill and O'Hanlon assert that because China presently has a limited capacity to attack, say, Manhattan, it is therefore "severely limited" in its ability to act upon its "concerns and intentions." But in setting up such a straw man, it is the authors' arguments, not the capabilities of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), that are severely limited. It is China's burgeoning ability to challenge U.S. interests in East Asia, not the danger it poses to the continental United States, that threatens to draw America into a military confrontation in the years ahead. Indeed, one need only look back three years to the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996--when thousands of U.S. military personnel stood minutes from military confrontation with communist Chinese naval forces--for a preview of what may lie in the future.

Recently, others have observed that, "Increasingly, political pressures are pushing the U.S. toward a self-fulfilling prophesy: Treat China as if it is inevitably hostile and dangerous, and it is more likely to become hostile and dangerous." Gill and O'Hanlon harbor a similar fear, and it is one that we share. But we believe that understating the potential threat China poses to American interests, as the authors have done, is just as wrong as exaggerating it. Sound policy formulation starts with solid assessments, not false assumptions.

By emphasizing direct comparisons between the defense capabilities of the United States and the PRC, the authors create an artificial and misleading construct. Such comparisons distort more than they enlighten. Few imagine that the People's Republic of China (PRC), either now or in the foreseeable future, could best the United States in an all-out war. Though comforting in the abstract, that reality is not terribly relevant to the challenges at hand. What the Jiang regime gives every indication of striving for is sufficient military clout to achieve its aims in Asia. In the short term, it wishes to intimidate Taiwan sufficiently to bring about unification on Beijing's terms. Accomplishing that entails limiting or closing off entirely Washington's ability to intervene early and with enough force to prevent Taiwan from being overwhelmed. Looking further ahead, the PRC seeks to cow its neighbors and diminish American influence in the region. For these purposes, the PLA is close to being good enough today--and even better tomorrow.

Trends Count

First, it makes a big difference where you fight a war. Beijing would be no match for the United States in the Persian Gulf or off the beaches of Waikiki, but a battle fought in Sichuan province would be a very different matter. The same applies to the Taiwan Strait. Anyone who believes that such a confrontation would be a walk-over for American forces misunderstands the challenges the PLA would pose to U.S. operations near China's shores, and how difficult it would be even for the United States to operate on a major scale so far from home. That Beijing does not presently seek to provoke a military confrontation with the United States, and is deterred for now from lesser military actions in the Taiwan Strait, should not delude anyone into believing that China would not be a formidable opponent on its own turf, or that the PLA is as "hollow" as the authors would have readers believe.

Further, any comparison that depends merely on counting up all our military assets or raw defense expenditures for its persuasive power is almost always wrong. Consider, to begin with, Beijing's defense budget. The government has agreed to increase military spending by almost 13 percent next year. Apologists both inside and outside China downplay that boost by claiming that it still leaves the PLA's level of expenditures far short of the Pentagon's. They also argue that most of the increase goes for improving "living standards" and is therefore not very important. Such statements make for good sound bites, but are seriously misleading. Even those who minimize China's military heft admit that defense spending overall "has grown by more than 50 percent in real terms over the course of the 1990s", as Gill and O'Hanlon state. The authors' protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, these trends are important.

Trends provide a good indication of intentions. Investments of the sort Beijing is making can mean only one thing: China is determined to improve the PLA's fighting capability. While most nations are reducing defense expenditures in the post-Cold War era, China is one of the few doing the opposite. We see the same trend in the PLA's training activities, the theoretical work being churned out by its think tanks and educational institutions, and, most important, in its build-up opposite Taiwan.

Analysts of the Gill-O'Hanlon school typically claim that these increases in military spending are largely benign, going mostly to meet personnel costs. They argue in this vein knowing full well that personnel and related costs take up the bulk of military budgets in any army. What they neglect to mention is that many of the uses for which these expenditures are intended--the PLA's modernization drive and its stepped-up training activities, for example--will have considerable impact on China's military capabilities. Across the board, the PLA is engaged in a major spending effort to upgrade weapons and equipment and improve its operational capabilities. According to the Pentagon, these efforts have already enhanced China's ability to project military power. One important example is China's growing stock of ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan. The quick-strike capability these missiles provide China will only increase between now and 2005.

It is also important to recognize that China never tells the truth about its defense spending. For years experts have considered the publicly released figures to be only the tip of the iceberg. While no one can be certain, since much of the funding is hidden, many estimate that the unclassified budget probably understates real spending by at least a third. In fact, most Western estimates put China's annual military expenditure between 28 and 50 billion U.S. dollars--that is, 4 to 7 times the official figure. Moreover, it is precisely in the areas of weapons acquisition and training--both of which the PLA finances with profits from its sale of missiles and other weapons to rogue nations such as Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria--that the Chinese are most secretive.

We can, however, observe in general terms China's broad interest in military research and acquisitions. The PLA's programs run the gamut of leading-edge military technology. From multiple missile warheads to stealth technology and the neutron bomb, the PLA is investing considerable amounts of time and money to improve its arsenal and its ability to project power. Obtaining air refueling platforms and airborne early warning aircraft remains high on the PLA's priority list, and it will likely acquire both in the near future. China has also shown considerable interest in improving its naval aviation assets and has discussed the need for aircraft carriers. And despite its strident protests over U.S. theater missile defense plans, China has long been working to improve its own missile defense capabilities. As Paul Bracken points out, "Ballistic missiles break down the entire strategy of forward engagement from fixed bases. They are directed at the key vulnerability that Western powers in Asia always faced but that until recently Asian nations could not exploit." Indeed, it is difficult to identify a weapons system or new technology that China's is not hoping to acquire.

Also absent from Gill and O'Hanlon's comparison of U.S. and PRC defense spending is any recognition of the costs and restraints associated with Washington's status as a super-power. Our global military responsibilities have always come at considerable cost. Much of our defense spending, dating back to the Cold War, goes toward maintaining nuclear deterrence for ourselves and our allies. While the end of the arms race brought reduced requirements, we still maintain a massive nuclear capability and the ability to retaliate anywhere in the world. China, by contrast, channels its defense expenditures to much narrower uses.

Apples and Oranges

Gill and O'Hanlon suggest that China's antiquated logistics system would severely limit the PLA's ability to fight a real war, especially one outside its borders. Again the naysayers have it half right. China's logistics system is not very modern, and it cannot supply large amounts of cargo by air or support troops fighting far from home. Then again, it was not designed with such purposes in mind. For that, China would need to add new capabilities on top of its existing system.

In China's far western areas, such as Xinjiang, that is, on a small scale, exactly what the PLA seems to be doing. Worried about the activities of Americans and others in the former Soviet states bordering China, and lacking an adequate road and rail network in the area, the PLA has begun improving its logistics system in the region. While these efforts are just beginning, they could serve as a model for similar operations elsewhere in China.

In any case, the appellation "old" does not always mean "bad", and for the PLA's logistics system "tried and true" offers a more apt description than "outmoded" or "ineffective." Chinese forces depend on an elaborate network of existing supply and support facilities all over China, connected primarily by road and rail. The network can sustain the PLA in combat for extended periods of time over vast geographic areas. While the PLA's logistics infrastructure is best suited for protracted defense of its homeland, it can be adapted to support modest forays outside China. For example, the well-timed 1974 seizure of the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam involved successful amphibious tactics against a weaker enemy, executed with dispatch and overwhelming force.

China's continental approach to logistics differs sharply from the American system of power projection. Comparing the two obscures more than it clarifies. For our system, as it developed during the Cold War, depends on creating sea and air links to anywhere in the world on short notice. While each new crisis poses different challenges for the United States, all, except for those of a minor nature, require forward bases to channel supplies into theaters of operation. Without forward bases, severe limits exist on the size of the force we can deploy and how long our naval air units can remain engaged. China, by contrast, is its own forward base.

Just as "old" is not always "bad", so the PLA's large size, which many point to as proof of its technological shortcomings, is not necessarily a drawback. There are times when bigger is better. For one thing, the PLA's size enables it to mount a defense in depth, a classical continental strategy, and the opposite of the essentially linear defense adopted by NATO during the Cold War. China's strategy substitutes successive lines of forces prepositioned in the most defensible terrain for the qualities of mobility and lethality favored by NATO. True, this puts a premium on maintaining large numbers of troops and requires a sizable land mass. But with each success, an invader--much as Napoleon or Hitler in Russia, or the Japanese in China--will find his logistics tail increasingly vulnerable. There is no reason why a continental defense strategy such as this would not prove effective for the Chinese under modern battlefield conditions. It would be at least good enough to deter the United States or some other would-be aggressor from waging a ground war on the Asian mainland. And in the absence of such a threat, it is hard to imagine subduing China with air power alone.

The Nuclear Dimension

We looked in vain for any treatment by the authors of the nuclear dimension in a confrontation with China. Yet any discussion of China's military capabilities is incomplete without it. Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis has the United States come up directly against another nuclear-armed power. Neither for that matter have any of our opponents been able to bring the fight to the U.S. mainland. While we have proved adept at bringing war to the other side almost without limit, our rear areas and support bases have gone untouched. Not so in the case of a confrontation with Beijing. Were one to commence, we would have to be mindful of the PLA's nuclear capability, regardless of how unlikely its use might be.

Small by U.S. and Russian standards, China's mostly land-based missile force can strike the continental United States from fixed silos in western China. Both the 2nd Artillery (China's Strategic Rocket Force) and the navy field less reliable systems--at least at present. But that is about to change. Two new missiles, the DF-31 and DF-41, are modern solid fuel missiles probably with multiple warheads, and are far more mobile than previous Chinese systems. Both can reach the United States. The DF-31 was successfully tested on August 2 of this year, a launch with a message for both Taiwan and the United States. The JL-II, another new missile under development, has submarine applications, and should be tested this year as well. China's submarine force is still mostly a threat in East Asia, but sudden submarine attacks on Taiwan's shipping could prove devastating, as Taiwanese forces lack a modern and effective anti-submarine warfare capability. Nevertheless, the mobility inherent in each of these new systems makes them highly survivable even against our latest and best high-tech surveillance systems.

China's Ability To Take Taiwan by Force

The authors are nowhere more off base than on their assessment of the military threat China poses to Taiwan. Since they wish to conclude that the PLA is a "hollow military" and that "an enormous gap separates China's military capabilities from its aspirations", they make two important assumptions: first, that the FY99 Department of Defense military balance report to Congress is seriously wrong; and second, that the United States would intervene to protect Taiwan.

Let us take a closer look at what the Department of Defense has to say in its report to Congress that Gill and O'Hanlon find so bizarre. They seem to have several passages in mind.

On China's defense strategy and force planning:

"In recent years, there has been growing evidence that China's force developments strategy is being influenced, in part, by its focus on preparing for military contingencies along its southeastern flank, especially in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea."

On a PRC blockade of Taiwan:

"Barring third party intervention, the plan's quantitative advantage over Taiwan's Navy in surface and sub-surface assets would probably prove overwhelming over time. Taiwan's military forces probably would not be able to keep the island's key ports and SLOCs open in the face of concerted Chinese military action. Taiwan's small surface fleet and four submarines are numerically insufficient to counter China's major surface combatant force and its ASW assets likely would have difficulty defeating a blockade supported by China's large submarine force."

On missile strikes:

"Within the next several years, the size of China's SRBM force is expected to grow substantially. An expanded arsenal of conventional SRBMs and LACMs targeted against critical facilities, such as key airfields and C4I nodes, will complicate Taiwan's ability to conduct military operations."

On PLA air superiority:

"while the majority of the mainland's air fleet will still be composed of second and third generation aircraft, the sheer numerical advantage of older platforms augmented by some fourth generation aircraft could attrit [sic] Taiwan's air defenses sufficiently over time to achieve air superiority."

On conducting an amphibious invasion:

"The PLA likely would encounter great difficulty conducting such a sophisticated campaign by 2005. Nevertheless, the campaign likely would succeed--barring third party intervention--if Beijing were willing to accept the almost certain political, economic, diplomatic, and military costs that such a course of action would produce."

None of the Pentagon's findings strike us as being out of line. All, except for the implications of the recent missile deployments near Taiwan, have been known and widely accepted by intelligence analysts for many years. Indeed, while Gill and O'Hanlon disagree with the Pentagon's most important conclusions, they cite approvingly those portions of the report that have negative things to say about the PLA.

As the report suggests, Taiwan would face an enormous challenge in defending itself against a determined PRC attack. The island is too close to the mainland and the mismatch in force levels too great for Taipei to hold out indefinitely. Although Taiwan's technological advantages, higher levels of training and adequate preparations would prolong the struggle, defeating China is simply too tall an order for Taipei so long as the mainland is prepared to suffer huge casualties and bear the condemnation of the international community. Obviously, costly mistakes by either side or just sheer luck could change the equation, but in terms of raw capability China emerges triumphant under nearly all plausible scenarios.

The name of the game for Taiwan, then, is deterrence. Taipei's best chance for survival lies in convincing Beijing that the costs of an invasion are prohibitive, and that the island can hold out long enough for the international community, and especially the United States, to come to its rescue. In the first instance, this means maintaining a qualitative edge over the PRC. Here perception is almost as important as reality. Without ready access to high-technology weapons systems, which come almost exclusively from the United States, Taiwan cannot sustain the confidence of its troops or its population. On the other hand, any slippage in quality might persuade Beijing that the military balance had shifted in its favor, or that international support for Taiwan is eroding. In either case, Beijing would be emboldened.

Unless Taipei can prolong the conflict beyond a few weeks, the likelihood that the United States, or anyone else, will intervene declines sharply. Give the United States enough time and it can go anywhere and fight anyone with a high probability of success. Rob us of that opportunity, however, and we will be put at a disadvantage, especially if the scene of the combat is far away and our access to bases is limited. Take the case of North Korea. By any measure that nation is no match for either the United States or South Korea. But U.S. and South Korean military officials alike worry mightily about what could happen between the Demilitarized Zone and Seoul during the first few days of any war, or the consequences such a conflict might have if it should commence when the United States is tied down somewhere else. Thus, the North Koreans, with possibly one or two nuclear weapons against America's estimated six thousand, have been able to blackmail the United States for billions of dollars of aid.

Taiwan, like South Korea, must maintain forces sufficient to convince planners in Beijing that they cannot achieve their military objectives quickly. The PRC's new missile deployments opposite Taiwan make this task increasingly difficult. China's General Staff seems to have recognized that its threats of a blockade, an air war or an amphibious assault have become less and less credible, because such time-consuming operations would provide outsiders an opportunity to weigh in on Taiwan's side. The missile threat bears directly on this question, as any rocket attack would come as a rapid blitzkrieg-like bombardment.

Which is exactly why missile defense figures so prominently in Taiwan's current thinking. Now that the PLA has placed a greater emphasis on conventional ballistic and cruise missiles in its deployments opposite Taiwan, Taipei is reconsidering its need for THAAD and aegis missile defense systems. Both will likely receive a higher priority in future arms sales discussions between Taiwan and the United States, and for good reason.

China, and those in the United States who take its side in its dispute with Taiwan, would argue, of course, that there is a much easier and safer alternative to Taiwan's growing insecurity--concede China's claim of sovereignty over the island. Since Taiwan is a democracy and an overwhelming number of its citizens reject that option, this would only happen if Taiwan's population is sufficiently intimidated or otherwise coerced into doing so. Obviously, the American response to China's strong-arm tactics is crucial. Any lack of resolve on our part sends dangerous signals to both Taiwan and the mainland. Fortunately, President Clinton's deployment of aircraft carriers in response to the 1996 missile firing incident does not appear to have been an aberration, but rather evidence of a new American consensus in support of Taiwan having a say in its future.

This does not mean that Americans want to go to war with China, and we think the authors too quickly count the United States into the military equation. Under any circumstances, becoming caught in a conflict with the PRC is the last thing we want to do. Granted, the introduction of U.S. forces changes the equation dramatically and would prove an almost insurmountable obstacle for the PLA. Much, however, depends on the amount of time it takes us to react and on what forces we commit to the conflict. Then, too, there is the nuclear dimension to think about. In fact, Taiwan depending on the United States so heavily for its defense seems to be the most risky option for everyone.

Better that the island, as envisaged in the Taiwan Relations Act, maintain "a sufficient self-defense capability", and reserve for the United States an important, but secondary, role in its defense. Such a course is the most stable and the least susceptible to miscalculation on Beijing's part. Let the PLA General Staff makes its calculations of peace or war based primarily on what it confronts immediately across the Taiwan Strait, rather than considerations of what might be available by way of the United States.

This approach has the virtue of putting the PRC at the center of decision-making concerning Taiwan's defense preparations, but in the right way. The consistent message America would be sending to China is: "It is up to you. Strong-arm tactics will not work. Military build-ups and other provocative actions, contrary to promoting your interests, will only accelerate and intensify Taiwan's defense effort, its arms purchases from the United States, and sympathy for its cause."

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