For that reason, the PLA has to engage in constant “political work” at the expense of training for combat. This means that 30 to 40 percent of an officer’s career (or roughly 15 hours per 40-hour work week) is wasted studying CCP propaganda, singing patriotic songs, and conducting small group discussions on Marxist-Leninist theory. And when PLA officers do train, it is almost always a cautious affair that rarely involves risky (i.e., realistic) training scenarios.
Abraham Lincoln once observed that if he had six hours to chop down a tree he would spend the first four hours sharpening his axe. Clearly the PLA is not sharpening its proverbial axe. Nor can it. Rather, it has opted to invest in a bigger axe, albeit one that is still dull. Ironically, this undermines Beijing’s own aspirations for building a truly powerful 21st century military.
Yet none of this should be comforting to China’s potential military adversaries. It is precisely China’s military weakness that makes it so dangerous. Take the PLA’s lack of combat experience, for example. A few minor border scraps aside, the PLA hasn’t seen real combat since the Korean War. This appears to be a major factor leading it to act so brazenly in the East and South China Seas. Indeed, China’s navy now appears to be itching for a fight anywhere it can find one. Experienced combat veterans almost never act this way. Indeed, history shows that military commanders that have gone to war are significantly less hawkish than their inexperienced counterparts. Lacking the somber wisdom that comes from combat experience, today’s PLA is all hawk and no dove.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The Chinese military is dangerous in another way as well. Recognizing that it will never be able to compete with the U.S. and its allies using traditional methods of war fighting, the PLA has turned to unconventional “asymmetric” first-strike weapons and capabilities to make up for its lack of conventional firepower, professionalism and experience. These weapons include more than 1,600 offensive ballistic and cruise missiles, whose very nature is so strategically destabilizing that the U.S. and Russia decided to outlaw them with the INF Treaty some 25 years ago.
In concert with its strategic missile forces, China has also developed a broad array of space weapons designed to destroy satellites used to verify arms control treaties, provide military communications, and warn of enemy attacks. China has also built the world’s largest army of cyber warriors, and the planet’s second largest fleet of drones, to exploit areas where the U.S. and its allies are under-defended. All of these capabilities make it more likely that China could one day be tempted to start a war, and none come with any built in escalation control.
Yet while there is ample and growing evidence to suggest China could, through malice or mistake, start a devastating war in the Pacific, it is highly improbable that the PLA’s strategy could actually win a war. Take a Taiwan invasion scenario, which is the PLA’s top operational planning priority. While much hand-wringing has been done in recent years about the shifting military balance in the Taiwan Strait, so far no one has been able to explain how any invading PLA force would be able to cross over 100 nautical miles of exceedingly rough water and successfully land on the world’s most inhospitable beaches, let alone capture the capital and pacify the rest of the rugged island.
The PLA simply does not have enough transport ships to make the crossing, and those it does have are remarkably vulnerable to Taiwanese anti-ship cruise missiles, guided rockets, smart cluster munitions, mobile artillery and advanced sea mines – not to mention its elite corps of American-trained fighter and helicopter pilots. Even if some lucky PLA units could survive the trip (not at all a safe assumption), they would be rapidly overwhelmed by a small but professional Taiwan military that has been thinking about and preparing for this fight for decades.
Going forward it will be important for the U.S. and its allies to recognize that China’s military is in many ways much weaker than it looks. However, it is also growing more capable of inflicting destruction on its enemies through the use of first-strike weapons. To mitigate the destabilizing effects of the PLA’s strategy, the U.S. and its allies should try harder to maintain their current (if eroding) leads in military hardware. But more importantly, they must continue investing in the training that makes them true professionals. While manpower numbers are likely to come down in the years ahead due to defense budget cuts, regional democracies will have less to fear from China’s weak but dangerous military if their axes stay sharp.
Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute in Arlington, VA. He was also a recent visiting fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo. Previously, he was a China analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses.