A new assessment of the Chinese military by a reputable U.S. think tank concludes, in effect, that “the emperor has no clothes.” The authors of this report seem to be wary lest “… the US might be inclined to assume China has more sway in international affairs than its actual combat power merits.” This analysis claims to be more authoritative, based in part on an examination of “human capital” intangibles, which goes well beyond the rote “bean-counting” of simple force-structure analysis to look at command structures, health and recruiting, education, training, as well as corruption and civil-military relations.
A thorough evaluation of that report is well beyond the scope of this brief commentary. The research seems, by and large, to have been carefully done and to be supported by evidence from Chinese sources. This edition of Dragon Eye will focus solely on a point made repeatedly in this report and some of the related commentary: that “… the PLA has not, by and large, experienced modern warfare and may therefore be more cavalier about the prospects for achieving political goals through military means…” Put more simply, the PLA’s paucity of military experience would appear to be a gaping hole in China’s rapid military modernization, and one that simply cannot be remedied by shiny new weapons kitted out for glittering parades or even by elaborate computer simulations. This alleged major weakness in China’s military brings to mind a recent article from the official Chinese Navy newspaper, 人民海军, [People’s Navy], which ran under the headline: “Do Not Consider the ‘Lack of Real Combat Experience’ As a Major Issue.”
Admitting that many in Chinese military circles are concerned by the PLA’s lack of actual combat experience, the author 赵辉 [Zhao Hui] opens the essay, writing: “In the process of rapid military transformation, there are always people who say that a lack of combat experience is an important limitation on combat power…” Baldly stating his thesis, Zhao then asserts that such perspectives are “untenable, unscientific, rustic, inhibit self-confidence, and may lead to misguided policy …” While he concedes that this lack of fighting experience is the “objective reality confronting … [the Chinese] armed forces,” the author maintains that combat experience does not always signify a military advantage.
Zhao offers up a couple of historical examples to illustrate his rather novel thesis. He observes that prior to the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, Iraqi forces had been in combat for eight years against Iran. The combat experience from the Iran-Iraq War could only have been “丰富[rich].” By contrast, the U.S. armed forces in 1990, reports Zhao, had not seen combat for sixteeen years at that point, with only a few minor exceptions. Plainly, combat experience was not decisive in Desert Storm, he suggests.
A perhaps more interesting example is offered by the Chinese author from the context of the First World War. Zhao suggests that the British Army was continuously engaged in colonial wars in the decades prior to the Great War. But when confronting the German Army in the initial and almost decisive phase of the war, British forces were “节节败退 [continuously retreating in defeat].” Making a somewhat cryptic reference most likely to Japan, Zhao observes that certain of China’s neighbors having not been engaged in combat since World War II, yet few question the fighting potential of “these countries.”
At this point, Zhao engages with the issue of U.S. military prowess directly. He asserts: “The US has more or less fought about 10 wars over the last 20 years and each victory has caused people around the world to adopt a view that it is the ‘leading military power,’ its military power increased with each victory, so that it has even reached “神化 [god-like status].” He continues, “But one must see that all these wars were asymmetric wars, the two sides’ capabilities 不可同日而语 [could not be mentioned in the same breadth]. They were weak, small countries …” Zhao is not altogether dismissive of U.S. fighting capabilities, but he insists that this aptitude is not the result of combat experience, but rather came from “superb theoretical research, relatively rapid innovation, modern weaponry and equipment, efficient command structures and a sense of urgency—these are the fundamental reasons for American victories. … [We must] have a sober recognition of this.”
Zhao does admit that China’s lack of actual combat experience does present a certain “危害” [danger]. To his estimate, this is mainly the sense that “战争远了… 和平久了” [war is distant … the peace will last a long while]. A self-satisfied or relaxed disposition may prevent the force from adopting the necessary determination to transform and resolve contradictions. He contends that there are ways in peacetime to help correct this malady, whether with ever more realistic exercises or with real-world operations, such as counterterrorism or disaster relief. Taking a parting shot at U.S. defense policy, Zhao writes, “Our country cannot, like some hegemonic countries, 无事生非 [make trouble out of nothing] resorting to actual combat to test [military concepts] one after another. That would not be appropriate to our country’s active defense strategy.”
This interesting Chinese military article is part of a discourse within the PLA that was recently described by American PLA expert Dennis Blasko as a discussion about the “peace disease.” To some extent, this discourse may be encouraging insofar as Beijing perceives that the PLA is weaker and even that its performance in any future conflict is far from assured by any recent pattern of combat victories. On the other hand, there is a disquieting sense from this literature that there exists a certain yearning for a test of the PLA’s new capabilities, so that Chinese diplomacy can act with increased confidence. That is troubling, to be sure.
And yet it behooves American strategists to grapple seriously with Zhao’s main thesis and its implications for U.S. military power. In particular, his comparison to the British armed forces before the First World War could unfortunately be all too accurate. Can a force that has focused on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, operating in strategic environments where air control and sea control could be taken completely for granted, truly be prepared for an all-out conflict with a near peer competitor?
The report referenced at the beginning of this essay makes a contribution, to be sure, but it also may come precariously close to underestimating a potential opponent—reflecting perhaps the fatal flaw of hubris that has afflicted all too many successful military establishments. It must be kept in mind by all serious military observers of the evolving military situation in the Asia-Pacific that the last major air-sea engagement fought by the United States against a robust opponent took place in 1944.
Lyle J. Goldstein is Associate Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. The opinions expressed in this analysis are his own and do not represent the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.
Editor’s Note: This is part eleven of a new occasional series called Dragon Eye, which seeks insight and analysis from Chinese writings on world affairs. You can find all back articles in the series here.