Perhaps the biggest question about China’s rise is whether it will inevitably lead to a military conflict with other powers, particularly the existing superpower, the United States. It is undoubtedly true that no one wants to see a general war between China and the U.S., though in reality both countries might be dragged into a war that they do not want to fight in areas like the East China Sea. If that happens, many analysts believe that the PLA does not stand a chance against the mighty U.S. military for a series of reasons, ranging from poor training to lack of war experience. Such an estimate might be true, but it might also truly underestimate the fighting power of the PLA, thus contributing to misjudgment and poor policy-making overall. Thus, accurately assessing the power of the PLA is a critical part of any serious military planning by the U.S. and other countries.
As a general rule, the outcome of a possible war involving the PLA and another military depends on many factors such as comprehensive capabilities, strategies, and fighting resolve. Recent analyses (here, here, and here) that are skeptical about the PLA’s probability of winning tend to focus on its command structure, training, corruption, inexperience, and inadequate equipment as key factors. But, there are four reasons that the PLA can fight a modern war and even win one under certain conditions.
First, equipment is essential. As has been pointed out, the PLA has transformed itself into a powerful military after more than 20 years of continuous investment. Although in terms of hardware, the PLA still cannot compete with the U.S., the mightiest fighting machine in the world, the PLA nonetheless stands a good chance against its main potential rival in Asia, Japan. Although some might claim that Japan now has an edge over China, very soon China’s PLA will surpass Japan’s SDF in terms of hardware given China’s economic size and greater military spending. The PLA’s spending is already at least twice as large as Japan’s and this trend will continue in coming years, thus giving the PLA a big advantage down the road. So, in ten years’ time, the PLA will have superb military hardware that is only second to the United States. This is one necessary condition for the PLA to fight a modern war.
Second, training is also important. Needless to say, hardware alone cannot guarantee that the PLA could fight a modern war as the PLA’s software is just as important. The PLA itself has pointed out various problems of its training in terms of style and standards. Here, corruption is the number one problem. There are 30 senior military officers who are now under official investigation for various corruption charges and there will be more soon. The good news, however, is that President Xi Jinping is determined to eliminate corruption within the PLA. When he is finished, there is good reason to believe that the PLA’s fighting ability will increase significantly. It will take some years though, but at least the PLA is heading in the right direction now.
Third, military experience is overvalued. Many question the PLA’s ability to fight because it has not fought a real war for about 30 years. The U.S. military, in the meantime, has fought at least three major wars since the end of the Cold War. The PLA, thus, has a “peace disease.” But people have overestimated the value of experience. Yes, it is true that the U.S. military has ample experience, but many other militaries do not, including Japan’s. So China’s lack of war experience might hurt its chances of winning against the U.S., but not necessarily against other rivals. Modern militaries can learn and adapt quickly too. The PLA might suffer early setbacks once a war starts, but the final outcome will more likely depend on comprehensive capabilities and strategy.
Fourth, resolve is absolutely critical. This factor has not been given adequate attention by military analysts when estimating the PLA’s ability to fight a war. If the PLA does enter a war, then it most likely will be a defensive war for China in areas near its borders. This is about defending China’s sovereignty and territories and this is fundamentally different from conquering others’ territories. Thus morale will be high. If history is any indication, the Korean War tells us that the weaker Chinese army could repel and defeat a stronger U.S. army. The fact that China then was fighting for its sovereign integrity is a key factor in explaining the defeat of the United States.
In sum, the Chinese PLA can indeed fight a modern war regardless of its potential opponent. Whether the PLA can win a war is a different story as it depends on many different factors. The key point is not to only focus on the PLA’s material capabilities; instead we should examine the PLA’s morale and resolve, two factors that have so far not been seriously studied.