Why China Military Watchers Got It Wrong

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Why China Military Watchers Got It Wrong

The publication last month of a monograph which dramatically overturns longstanding assumptions about the defense of Taiwan should make sobering reading for US policymakers.

‘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.

Yet for many observers, modern Chinese history has cast doubt on Beijing’s prospects at sea. The Qing Dynasty’s abortive naval modernization during the nineteenth century and the naval defeats China suffered at the nadir of Qing dynastic rule are seen as portents for Beijing’s current maritime enterprise. Typifying this view, Cole notes that Beijing’s current efforts to build on its own, purchase from abroad, and reverse engineer a navy bear a striking resemblance to the Qing attempts at sea power.  Cole argues the Qing Empire’s failure in this nautical enterprise suggests the current naval buildup will likely meet a similar fate.

However, the Qing Navy still used these three approaches to good effect. Indeed, prior to the Sino-Japanese War that ended in defeat for the Qing in 1895, China boasted the largest and among the most modern naval fleets in Asia.  Its failings had less to do with materiel than with seamanship, timidity in the officer corps, and the superior élan and skill of its Japanese opponents. Strikingly, Chinese analysts today look to the Imperial Japanese Navy, not the Qing Navy, as a paradigm for command of the sea.

Other observers cite the chaos of the Maoist period, suggesting traumas like the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution have posed a nearly insurmountable barrier to Chinese industrial capacity and scientific and engineering ingenuity. A Center for Naval Analysis study found that between the 1950s and the 1980s China spent an average of 15 years reverse-engineering each foreign technology for serial production. This desultory performance, concluded the report, will endure well into the twenty-first century.
But today’s China is neither a dynasty decaying from within nor a revolutionary state wracked by radical ideological movements. While the lingering influence of China’s Maoist and imperial past should not be discounted, other national experiences in Asia have given rise to sudden technological advances and these experiences must be part of any assessment of historical precedent. Sloppy historical parallels can give rise to false confidence about the future.

Meanwhile, some of the arguments denigrating Chinese sea power have a straw-man feel to them, contending that since a global, blue-water navy remains a remote prospect for Beijing, the Chinese threat to US naval supremacy will thus remain minimal. This view might be summarized as: no PLAN aircraft carriers, no threat.
But this again is misguided. China does not need to compete symmetrically or across the globe to challenge US staying power in Asia, which Washington considers the main theater. That Beijing cannot fight the United States in a one-on-one contest in the Pacific says little about the strains the PLAN can impose on US naval forces short of an all-out sea battle.

As argued previously, Beijing has devised sophisticated missile tactics that could be as deadly to US naval forces as a fleet-on-fleet engagement, despite the PLAN’s utter lack of carriers and comparable weaponry. Carrier development is an unreasonably demanding standard for Chinese maritime prowess.

The same deficiency afflicts debates about the scope of future Chinese power projection. Some observers argue that Beijing’s inability to control all waters out to the second island chain, which runs south from the Aleutians through the Marianas to Papua New Guinea, calls China’s naval aptitude into question. But this is another straw man. Compelling, permanent Chinese economic and security interests vector Beijing’s attention to the south and southwest-toward the Indian Ocean, that is, rather than the middle of the empty Pacific. There is little reason to expect China to forego pressing geopolitical interests in South Asia in a whimsical quest to control distant waters to its east. Prudence dictates expending finite naval resources on matters of vital importance.

Such misreading is compounded by flimsy assumptions. For instance, the belief that the PLAN would need to more or less replicate a US nuclear-powered carrier (CVN) to fulfill its aims have led some to conclude-prematurely-that the enterprise is prohibitively costly and far too complex for China. But if it perfects the anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), the PLA can hope to strike at US high-value units as far as 2500 kilometers offshore. If so, Beijing will have erected a defensive shield beneath which even smaller, less capable Chinese flattops can do their work around the Asian periphery. The PLAN would not need to risk a lopsided engagement with 100,000-ton American behemoths, but instead could support coercive diplomacy, show the flag, uphold Chinese territorial claims, and the like.

And even if it did opt for big-deck CVNs, Beijing could make do with fewer carrier strike groups than the US Navy deploys, unless and until it opts for a global maritime strategy comparable to that of the United States. With fewer and smaller sea areas to roam, PLAN warships can spend more time in port.  Chinese vessels simply would not incur the same wear-and-tear as US Navy men-of-war or the same need for periodic overhaul. The Chinese fleet could probably make do with a two-to-one ratio between combat-ready vessels and those in workups, whereas the United States needs three ships to keep one ready for immediate deployment. By confining PLAN operations to Asia, in short, Beijing has eased the operational demands on its navy.

US analysts have also casually superimposed the behavior and capabilities of past American foes on the Chinese. Observers disparage China’s prospects for deploying ASBMs, for instance, primarily because the Soviet Union failed to develop similar weaponry during the Cold War. A former director of US naval intelligence argued that the Soviets abandoned the ASBM out of technical difficulties, fears of nuclear escalation, and the availability of alternative platforms for launching anti-ship missiles.  By implication, China will run into similar roadblocks and opportunity costs that will frustrate its bid for a working ASBM.

But almost four decades have passed since Moscow gave up on its ASBM program, and technology has progressed at blinding speed since. And in any case, technical barriers to entry can’t account for all strategic choices. The Soviets may have opted out of the ASBM even had the technological problem proved soluble. Nonmaterial factors like operational and strategic preferences may have prompted them to do so. Different values and proclivities, conversely, may impel the Chinese to pursue the ASBM doggedly. For example, the ASBM’s potential reach, striking power, and low political profile have beguiled imaginations in Beijing.  What may not have made sense to the Russians about the ASBM may be simply irrelevant to the Chinese.
But the deficiency in analysis has resulted not only from underestimating China’s maritime prowess, but also inflation of US combat capacity in Asia.

Boston College’s Robert Ross, for example, predicts  the US Navy will stay well ahead of any challenge China can mount, even though it ‘can no longer guarantee the security of a carrier,’ the core of its fleet. According to Ross, the navy’s capacity to project power into Asian waters will remain unrivaled, and he exudes great confidence that American technological prowess and hard-earned operational experience would outmatch any Chinese naval threat.  While he admits that US naval forces must now ‘maintain a greater distance from China’s coast,’ Professor Ross reassures readers that such ‘complications to US operations do not significantly degrade Washington’s ability to project superior power into maritime theaters.

Yet there are several problems with this rosy analysis, not least of which is the fact that if the United States can’t operate near Chinese shores at will, then China’s effort to put in place a strategy and forces able to deny US forces access to regional seas have already achieved considerable success vis-à-vis a supposedly overwhelming foe. And if ‘a greater distance’ from China’s shores is taken to mean remaining clear of sea areas along the Chinese mainland-essentially, all of the bodies of water that constitute the East Asian littoral-then it’s simply unclear what maritime theater is left for the US Navy to project power into.

Moreover, the navy has not deployed carrier attack aircraft or other weaponry with enough reach to let carrier strike groups place the same ordnance on target, at the same rate, from greater standoff distances.
In fact, quite the opposite. US Navy and Marine F/A-18 E/F Hornet warplanes, the core of any carrier air wing, represent a step back from previous generations of attack aircraft in terms of combat radius. The carrier has seen its striking range foreshortened, meaning that it must venture closer to shore to fulfill the same missions. Its combat punch has diminished accordingly, while its vulnerability is more acute than ever.  Bemoaning this alarming state of affairs, Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments provocatively describes carrier-based airpower as a ‘wasting asset.’

If the US Navy can no longer provide for its flattops’ defense, the PLA Navy is already on the brink of sea denial in nearby waters, while local sea control is coming into sight for Beijing. Nor does the wider naval community share Ross’s confidence in the US Navy’s capacity to enforce sea control in Asia. His admission that the United States can’t ensure the survivability of its carriers, a mission verging on sacrosanct, is cold water in the faces of theater and fleet commanders entrusted with managing events in the western Pacific.

And timing is everything. Naval and military modernization programs are extraordinarily capital-intensive. The lifecycles of big-ticket defense items like warships-from research and development to serial production to regular service life to the scrap heap-are measured in decades. As such, Chinese assets that joined the PLA operating forces after the turn of the century underwent development during the 1990s, when Western observers were forced to depend on spotty open sources. In effect, these programmes were invisible to outsiders. The rapid clip at which the PLA introduced major weapons systems over the past decade confirms that they were developed in parallel. The impression is therefore that the Chinese military has leapfrogged ahead in weapons technology.

As a result of all this, analysts writing a decade ago were unwittingly forming their opinions of the PLAN when Chinese military modernization was at an inflection point, poised for a swift ascent. It was easy to remain complacent about Chinese military might before the PLA’s investments and labors started bearing fruit. Indeed, institutions like RAND started revising their estimates only around 2005, when the bow wave of Chinese naval modernization started to crash.

China’s maritime rise underscores the wisdom of former US baseball star Yogi Berra’s advice that prediction is a hazardous business-especially when it involves the future. Of course no one-including these writers-is immune to these analytical traps and failures. But it is clear nonetheless that vital lessons can and should be learned from this past misreading of Chinese sea power.

War-and indeed all competitive enterprises-are a continual interaction between belligerents jockeying for comparative advantage. It’s a dynamic process shot through with uncertainty, sudden change, and chance, and what seems axiomatic about sea power to Western capitals may not be for Beijing. It thus behooves Western strategists and policymakers to question deeply held assumptions about the seas as they may not be shared in China.

More important than anything, however, observers and policymakers must be aware of the limits to their analyses of international relations in Asia-arguably the most dynamic region of all. Doing so will help reduce the chances for another strategic surprise like the one sprung on the West by the PLAN at the turn of this century. And Americans and Asians taking to sea will be better off for it too.

Co-written by James R. Holmes.