Without question, the Chinese military has made substantial technological advances over the past 25 years as the country’s economy grew and as more resources were allocated to modernizing forces.
But translations of internal communications among Chinese civilian and military leaders reveal that there are doubts that the military is capable of meeting and defeating a modern enemy and that these doubts go back for years.
According to an analysis by War on the Rocks which was based on testimony presented to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on February 7, “A large body of evidence in China’s official military and party media indicates the nation’s senior civilian and uniformed leaders recognize significant shortcomings in the warfighting and command capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
“However, most of this evidence is not translated into English for public consumption and is not considered in much of the foreign analysis of China’s growing military capabilities. This situation is not new, but goes back for decades,” the analysis says.
Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, who is also the chairman of the Central Military Commission, the scope and frequency of the self-critiques have increased. The critiques indicate that senior Chinese military and Communist party leaders doubt the People’s Liberation Army’s ability to defeat a modern enemy in battle.
In addition, recognition of the PLA’s limitations and inexperience will very likely “moderate China’s near- and mid-term national security objectives” as well as “the manner in which they are pursued,” said the analysis.
The Chinese military’s shortcomings are the primary reason why Beijing seeks to achieve its foreign policy objectives via deterrence and “gray zone” actions that are short of war.
Identifying and overcoming Chinese military limitations began in earnest after the country’s short but bloody war with Vietnam in 1979. The Chinese launched the campaign as a means of “punishing” Hanoi for aligning more closely with Moscow than Beijing following the long war with the United States.
But China suffered 7,000 deaths and many more casualties, after invading Vietnam with about 300,000 troops. Though both sides claimed victory, historians generally note that China ‘lost’ in that Beijing failed to achieve stated geopolitical objectives.
Notes the analysis:
Following every major training event, units in all services of the PLA conduct after-action reviews to identify positive developments and detect specific shortcomings and weaknesses for correction. The results of these internal assessments are passed up the chain of command to the party and government’s highest military policy- and decision-making organization, the Central Military Commission. Some of this process is classified and not revealed to the public, but much of it is reported by the official media, mostly in the Chinese language, directed at an internal audience in China. It includes good, and often bad, news.
While translations differ regarding ‘abbreviations’ of internal critiques, the overall outcome of most assessments remains the same: “The PLA must overcome multiple shortcomings in its combat and leadership capabilities,” War on the Rocks noted.
Self-assessments of PLA capabilities appear to have increased under Xi versus his predecessor, Hu Jintao.
However, “these critiques continue to express skepticism about the PLA’s ability to win a local war and have been expanded to question the combat leadership ability of “some” leaders and the PLA’s loyalty to the party,” the analysis notes.
Xi has made modernizing the Chinese military a priority. Chinese state media has reported that Xi wants the PLA to become a world-class fighting force by 2050.
China Daily reported in October 2017:
Xi said as socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era, the building of the national defense and the military has also opened a new chapter. He said the military should make all-out efforts to become a world-class force by 2050 and to strive for the realization of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
While technology has improved among PLA ground, air, and naval units, the force overall lacks operational and combat experience. Current vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, General Zhang Youxia voiced his concerns about this weakness in 2009 when he was Shenyang Military Region commander:
Today, the PLA hasn’t been in actual combat for many years now, yet the fires of war are burning throughout the world. In this area, the gap between the PLA and foreign militaries is growing day by day. This is an actual problem.
The Chinese media calls the PLA’s lack of combat experience the “peace disease,” and frequently urges the armed forces to overcome it by maintaining a high state of readiness much like the U.S. military remains ready to “Fight Tonight.”
As Foreign Policy reported last fall, China’s military is “untested” and could either be a “force or a flop.” The report noted:
Today, China’s military has an increasingly impressive high-tech arsenal, but its ability to use these weapons and equipment remains unclear. There are reasons to be skeptical. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) struggles under the legacy of an obsolete command system, rampant corruption, and training of debatable realism, among other issues.