Why China Military Watchers Got It Wrong


‘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.

September 14, 2013 at 08:29

The Chinese mainland is never going to start a war over Taiwan. It succeeds as long as the world thinks it might.

There will be a few very effective ways to coerce Taiwan into a Hong Kong deal. The Chinese mainland will give Taiwan the token choice between STARTING a war and negotiation. There will be a few very effective  ways to put Taiwan into a bind and draw it out to negotiate, or suffer  destruction which taiwan starts or economic decline gradually, unless it accepts a Hong Kong-deal.

There will not be any luxury of  "self-determination" but coercive peace the world will accept.

September 14, 2013 at 08:19

I say China's continuing rise is nearly certain.  It already has a very mature manufactory logistical base that cannot be beat.

Grow rate might well slow to 5-6 % eventually, but such rate will eventually make China  a great economic powerhouse and military power.

Somehow the advantage of backwardness will prevail for much longer, until a per capita income of say 30-50% of  the USA's. Can one really think that one American will naturally outproduce 10 Chinese as a matter of fact, forever? No, I don't think so.



January 31, 2013 at 11:49

It is a well know fact that the Chinese annual military budget passed that of Japanonly  in recent years and that it is approximately one sixth that of the U.S. What is hardly ever mentioned in the media is that China's annual military expenditures started from a miniscule base, whereas both Japan and the U.S. have been spending at a steady high pace. As a consequence, the cumulative military expenditures of Japan and the U.S. are so much greater than that of China's that it will be many more years before China can match that of Japan's and probably another two decades or more before China can match that of the U.S. This fact shows more concretely the gaps in the military capability  of China vs. those of Japan and the U.S. Right now Japan has a much more capable navy than that of China for the reason given above.

August 25, 2012 at 04:09

Generalization and over-simplification characterize your post. It is possible, but by no means pre-ordained, that China will continue to develop at the same rate it is now. China is in a period of transition, which means that it will have certain vulnerabilities. The economy is inextricably tied to that of the US for example…totally dependent (as the US is on China). It cannot necessarily continue to thrive should the US economy really tank. The issues of energy, natural resources will be more of a strain as the Chinese economy grows. This is logical because like anyone else in the World, the Chinese people will want to enjoy an improving standard of living. 
Chinese growth in the future is not defined by the size of your landmass!
As a research biologist I certainly see that we have many Chinese and Indian scientists here in the US, and I greatly appreciate them as colleagues. However, these people are not going home any time soon and more and more come everyday. This is a strength of America. These people feel that the US is a more dynamic and supportive environment to be creative thinkers in. They feel stifled in their home countries. This points to a final stumbling block; there are issues of governance in China that are very uncertain.
All that being said, I don't disagree with your conclusions per se. I would only caution that much of this remains to be seen.

August 28, 2011 at 04:57

Your comments are the most rational I have read among all the rantings. Both the U.S. and China want to see a peaceful unification of China and Taiwan. All three will suffer tremendous economic losses with any armed conflict. Reunification has to come; the separation is a relic of the Cold war. Germany and Vietnam have reunited, there remains only the Koreas and China-Taiwan.

Leonard R.
April 5, 2011 at 19:30

I think that’s spot-on analysis Mandrewsf.

I would only add that any war with the US would be neither short, nor localized.
China is not Vietnam. it’s not Afghanistan.

Beijing hosted the Olympics. Maybe it will host the next world war as well.

April 5, 2011 at 03:04

Let’s remember this is not a sports event. China and the USA have similar interest on most issues: free access to the seas, free trade, economic stability, supressing muslim terrorism. Trying to gin up a conflict by either side is the pinnacle of foolishness, and would advace the interests of neither nation. The only problem that needs a solution is Taiwan, and further modernization on the mainland combined with miilitary preponderance would encourage Taiwan to consider an amiable resolution of the issue.

January 16, 2011 at 23:43

China is planning for six aircraft carriers and a host of 5th generation stealth fighters and bombers, so don’t underestimate its ambition. However, ambition to create a more level-playing field doesn’t mean it will threaten the others, just like Zhenghe didn’t establish a colony overseas, despite the fleet’s naval power while Columbus, with a much smaller fleet, can sacrifice more than 70% of the crew’s lives to ‘find’ America. That’s the prudence of China. So, even with 6 CVBGs, it won’t threaten the US shores.

The main advantage is long term development of China with respect to the US. China will be on par economically with the US in over a decades’ time and it will continue to grow even then because China will still be a developing country then. That’s the depth of the new Great Power in the future. Powers the size of the US would be just ‘above moderate’ powers then. The new world order would be dominated by China and India (if it doesn’t disintegrate). However, the time would be quite some decades from now as there are huge gaps between China and the West to close yet.

The US always feels threatened because its hat is too big for its head, seriously. What lies behind the reason of the collapse of your former formidable adversary, the USSR could well be coming back to haunt you and Democracy may not be your Jesus Christ. Face the fact, your economic strength would not back up your gigantic spending (especially in military). Your scientists base is over-relying on Chinese and Indian supplies. So, lots of problems long term. It’s not that China would have none. In fact, China faces more critical problems than you. Only that it’s on a growing trajectory that wouldn’t stop for possibly a century because of its huge size – too much room for growth. Imagine if China by 2030, overtakes as the biggest economy in the world, it has still less than 1/4 or 1/5 of the per capita income of the US. When it is becoming developed, it will create innovations that will revolutionise its economy and grow stronger again, because as the biggest economic power then, its freedom to creation through access to resources (both natural and man-made) would greatly expedite its development as opposed to the many current restrictions of hi-tech products and its weak geopolitical clout.

King Hall
December 30, 2010 at 11:12

Folks! If you plan to out think the Chinese now you are already far behind! Thirty years ago you gave away the farm when almost all of the world’s manufacturing was moved to China.

Matthew Perry
September 20, 2010 at 00:19

Gee – I guess since you have it all figured out – we should just let the Chinese do whatever they choose because, hey – there are more of them than us and, hey – that’s all that matters, right? NOT!

August 26, 2010 at 14:37

I am reminded of the Russo-Japanese War by this article: The Russian Baltic fleet, with its seemingly overwhelming firepower, was defeated in a day by a smaller but well-led, well organized and well-trained Japanese fleet–in the Strait of Tsushima.

Admittedly, the U.S. navy is a far cry from the nepotistic, corrupt and incompetent Tsarist Russian navy. And the PLAN is probably not currently as well-led as the Japanese fleet under Admiral Togo. But China would always enjoy a decisive advantage because the entirety of its fleet operates only a day’s sail away from its only theatre: its home front.

America is a global power, that is an undeniable fact. Its 12 carrier battle fleets virtually insures that it would never lose a war on the high-seas. It would all be but impossible for China to catch up to the U.S. on this front. But this presents a critical error in strategic perspective. The U.S. is a global power, and its navy is what enforces the American world order. China on the other hand, and despite all the pomp regarding its supposed rise to superpower status, has neither the desire nor the ability to compete with America on a global scale. The only theatre of war that interests China is its home front: its immediate vicinity.

During the Russo-Japanese war, the Russian fleet was divided into three components: the Baltic Fleet, the Black Sea Fleet, and the Far Eastern Fleet. Combined, the odds of the Japanese navy is virtually nil. However, Russia’s far-Eastern fleet, harbored in Port Arthur, is only a few day’s sail away from Nagasaki, while its other two fleets would have to take months to reach the war theatre. The Japanese fleet first lured the Russian Far East fleet out of its harbors and inflicted enough damage on its ships to keep it blockaded in its base for the rest of the war. Then the entire Japanese fleet overwhelmed the Russian Baltic fleet that came to the Far East fleet’s rescue, months later. Thus Japan inflicted a crushing defeat on a stronger opponent.

The basic strategy for China is similar to Japan’s plan in the Russo-Japanese war: win piecemeal local battles. A saturated barrage of anti-ship cruise missiles, or the threat of such a barrage, is enough to guarantee at least temporary American non-interference in the Taiwan Strait. Then China could use that time to overwhelm Taiwan’s defenses. Chinese anti-missile battery coverage extends over the entirety of the Taiwan Strait, so Taiwan will not be able to effectively interfere with the Chinese seaborne assault, even though the current Chinese fighter aircraft is technologically behind Taiwan’s American-produced planes. Once the PLA lands, Taiwan will naturally be unable to defeat China’s ground forces. By the time the global American fleet gathers near Chinese waters, most of the fighting would have been over. The PLA will have dug-in and America will be faced with a tactical barrier as formidable as Operation Olympic. Strategically America will be unwilling to sacrifice so much lives and treasure to defend a foreign piece of land that it has neither kinship nor blood ties. And even if Taiwan is compromised, its Second Island Chain (Japan-Guam-Australia, which China could not possibly challenge without several carrier battle groups) will still be intact, and American national security will remain uncompromisable. Thus China will win a de-facto victory, all without the need to build a blue-water fleet comparable to America’s.

Geography is China’s key advantage. Nearly all of China’s foreign interests are located within Asia, and as a result it is easily capable of concentrating its forces and punch where matters with full strength. All China needs to win are short, localized wars, and confrontations on the high seas are all but irrelevant to its strategic thinkers. Thus America’s cold-war strategic mentality will not aid its interests in the Pacific should a conflict break out in earnest.

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