China's Military, Take 3

December 1, 1999 Topic: Security Regions: Asia Tags: Baltic SeaBusinessSociology

China's Military, Take 3

Mini Teaser: A reply to their critics, claiming that James Lilley and Carl Ford miss the forest for the trees.

by Author(s): Bates GillMichael O'Hanlon

Let us begin by thanking Ambassador James Lilley and Carl Ford for driving home an important point in their article, "China's Military: A Second Opinion" (Fall 1999): any conflict over Taiwan would be of the utmost seriousness regardless of what one thinks of the conventional military balance in the region. No one who read our article ("China's Hollow Military", Summer 1999) should be led to believe otherwise. The potential for enormous losses in Taiwan and southeastern coastal China; the lasting geopolitical harm resulting from the embitterment and ostracization of the world's most populous state after such a war; and the slight but real risk of nuclear escalation are all extremely worrisome, even if the People's Republic of China (PRC) were to prove unsuccessful in invading or blockading Taiwan.

Lilley and Ford are also right to emphasize that China has been trying to improve its problem-plagued military. And they are surely correct that PRC forces need not equal the capabilities of the U.S. military to pose a significant risk to American interests in East Asia. We made these points too, but it is worthwhile to have them reinforced. On a number of other points, however, Lilley and Ford plainly misrepresent our argument. On others, they overstate China's military prowess, or commit precisely the error we warned against: equating Beijing's aspirations with its actual capabilities.

Beginning with budgetary matters, Lilley and Ford imply that we understate China's true level of defense spending. But, while they note that most Western estimates put the PRC's annual expenditures between $28 billion and $50 billion, we had put the range between $35 billion and $65 billion. The authors make a great deal of China's revenues from arms sales and the possibility that these could help the PRC modernize its military capability "off-budget." But recent analysis by the Congressional Research Service puts the gross revenues of such sales at no more than a few hundred million dollars per year. Moreover, independent research in books edited by Ambassador Lilley himself shows that little, if any, of the net profit from these sales is reinvested in PLA modernization.

Our essay went on to note that China's defense expenditures, while fairly impressive in aggregate, translate into a low level of spending per troop. China has provided particularly few resources in areas that soldiers know to be critical in warfighting--such as logistics, maintenance and training. Hence the title of our article, "China's Hollow Military"--with its implication that while the PRC's armed forces may be impressive on paper, their quality is mediocre and their fighting abilities limited.

Employing quantitative measures, we point out just how badly China's military equipment lags behind that of the United States. As Lilley and Ford rightly emphasize, China need not approach parity with American armed forces to cause serious trouble in a crisis or war. However, China trails the United States by a factor of well over 10 in its inventory of modern defense equipment, by that same 10:1 ratio in defense research and engineering, and by as much as 50:1 in areas like modern fighter aircraft. In addition, major U.S. friends and allies in East Asia--Japan, South Korea and Taiwan--all possess much more modern militaries than does the PRC. Notably, from 1991 to 1998 alone, Taiwan outspent China in foreign weapons purchases by a factor of nearly 4:1; if we factor in foreign weapons currently in the pipeline, the ratio increases to about 7:1. Unfortunately, Lilley and Ford's essay did not get into such levels of detail.

Lilley and Ford did spend a fair amount of time discussing how well China's military could defend its own territory. We agree, and fail to see the danger in that. In fact, we were trying to highlight the difference between the total of China's armed forces--2.8 million strong, roughly twice as large as those of the United States--and the number that could operate abroad in places such as Taiwan. The latter number is, and will remain, far lower.

In that regard, Lilley and Ford demonstrate a surprising reluctance to engage in analytical exchange. We stated that China would have great difficulty transporting more than 20,000 troops at a time across the Taiwan Strait--many of whom would probably be sunk or shot down en route--and that they would face an active duty Taiwanese force of 250,000, backed by 1.5 million reservists, once they arrived. Which, if any, of these numbers do Lilley and Ford contest? Which do they consider irrelevant? And what historical analogies, or analytical arguments, can they invoke to assert that a force lacking air superiority can assault a small beachfront when its well-armed opponent knows it is coming? To claim that because China is a bigger country it must ultimately prevail seems at best simplistic.

Then, too, while China's old but large air force, and growing missile force, might hit some key fixed targets in Taiwan and intimidate civilian populations, they cannot alter the basic nature of these troop-strength comparisons. As was demonstrated by the Iran-Iraq War of the Cities, Iraqi missile strikes during Desert Storm, and the Battle of Britain, ballistic missile attacks may terrorize but they generally cannot subjugate. (That is not to say that we necessarily oppose Taiwanese acquisition of U.S. missile defense systems, should China continue its destabilizing missile build-up on its southeastern coast.)

It is worth recalling that in the great amphibious assaults of World War II--such as Normandy, Iwo Jima and Okinawa--invading allied forces typically possessed local advantages of at least 2:1 in troop strength. They also had sufficient control of the skies to prevent the enemy from reinforcing and to batter the enemy's beached forces with preparatory gunfire. But in any attempted PRC crossing of the Taiwan Strait, it is Taiwan that would enjoy the manpower advantage. While it might not enjoy air dominance, it would probably not cede it to China either--and it would know a great deal about when and where Chinese forces intended to come ashore.

Lilley and Ford ask why we accept a good deal of the evidence presented in two Pentagon reports, yet challenge those same reports on the question of Taiwan's defensibility. We believe the Pentagon did a good job in acquiring data and reaching narrow military judgments, but erred in its overall assessment. Put simply, it got the trees right, but missed the forest. The Defense Department often relies on opaque models to assess military engagements, models that are typically far less reliable than the data entered into them. We were all reminded of this in Desert Storm, a case in which the Pentagon's models proved to be further off the mark in predicting casualties than most independent estimates performed by scholars armed only with hand calculators.

Lilley and Ford are on firmer ground in their discussion of the blockade scenario. In this case, as we noted, Taiwan might well require U.S. help. We think they are wrong to assume that the United States would simply stand by and watch Taiwan be blockaded, but one can still ask if the United States should adopt such an arms-length policy. What, for instance, are the pros and cons of current policy versus that of selling Taiwan all the arms it seeks--and possibly acquiescing in Taiwan's acquisition of at least a latent nuclear weapons capability--while declaring that the United States would never fight on Taiwan's behalf? In short, what is the case for allowing Taiwan to become, in effect, an Asian Israel? We think that this policy option, however attractive on the surface, would increase rather than decrease the risk of war between China and Taiwan.

So let us close where we began--by acknowledging the danger of a war between the PRC and Taiwan. We doubt seriously that China would use nuclear weapons against the United States should it participate in such a war, given the logic of deterrence and the overwhelming power of the American nuclear arsenal, but acknowledge that this would be the most serious standoff between nuclear powers since the Cuban Missile Crisis. However much we might fear such a scenario, China would have at least as much to dread. And the United States does not have a history of backing down, or of deserting friends and allies, in the face of possible nuclear threats.

Lilley and Ford are correct that conflict between nuclear powers is a dangerous prospect. But they are wrong to suggest that the nuclear danger trumps China's overwhelming conventional disadvantages. If and when the PRC considers its options for taking Taiwan, those conventional military disadvantages will weigh heavily in its thinking, and that, in the end, is a very comforting thought.

Essay Types: Essay