Why China Military Watchers Got It Wrong

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‘The United States can no longer be confident of winning the battle for the air in the air,’ said the study by the RAND Corporation, profiling the military situation in the Taiwan Strait. ‘This represents a dramatic change from the first five-plus decades of the China-Taiwan confrontation.’

The piece, based on simulations of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, assesses the relative balance of forces in the cross-strait standoff.  And in a stark warning, the authors present a convincing argument that China’s large, modern missile and air forces are likely to pose a virtually insurmountable challenge to Taiwanese and American efforts to command the air over the Strait and the island.
The findings represent a sharp break with past wisdom, to which RAND analysts had also hewed closely. For years, US strategists have insisted that Taiwanese air superiority was the ultimate trump card against Chinese invasion and coercion. Without air cover, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) surface fleet and amphibious assault forces would be completely vulnerable to attack from above, making any cross-strait invasion a risky if not suicidal endeavor.

Yet this new Chinese air dominance, while by no means guaranteeing military success against the island, shifts the odds dramatically in Beijing’s direction. Such an analytical about face by a respected US think tank is further testimony to the blind spots already identified in The Diplomat on Western appraisals of Chinese maritime power, with RAND’s reversal over Chinese air and missile power paralleling the major revisions to the disparaging views of China’s navy that prevailed in past decades.  And, even more worrisome for US policymakers, is that the gap is widening between the more recent reevaluation of China’s military prowess and what were once considered ‘mainstream’ views of the PLA.

If Washington and its Asian allies want to avoid repeating such analytical failures, it is imperative that they understand how such a misdiagnosis of China’s military progress occurred in the first place, an endeavor best started by looking at the debate over China’s maritime rise.

Analysts have been too cavalier about using events from China’s maritime past – remote and more recent – to project its future. Bernard Cole, who wrote arguably the definitive book on the PLA Navy (PLAN), says China’s lack of a seafaring past deprives it of a foundation for sea power.
‘Naval planners face China’s lack of maritime tradition,’ writes Cole, maintaining that ‘voyages half a millennium ago do not constitute a useful heritage when the intervening centuries have been devoted to introspective nationalism.’ He’s referring to the expeditions of Zheng He, the Ming Dynasty mariner who plied South and Southeast Asian waters six centuries ago.

But this is a narrow reading of history. Contemporary studies suggest Chinese dynasties’ encounters with the sea were far richer and more intimate than once thought – Chinese maritime history is about more than Zheng He.
And in any event, history is not fate. If a seagoing past is essential to the maritime future, can the rise of Japanese sea power in the Meiji period be explained? After all, the archipelago’s military rulers barred access to the sea for centuries, creating an inward-looking populace with little propensity to venture away from shore. Yet the Meiji regime made it work, bolting together a navy that vanquished the Chinese Navy and annihilated two Imperial Russian fleets. A maritime past may be helpful, but it is by no means essential.

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