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Fear A Militarily Weak China

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Fear A Militarily Weak China

Is China’s military the juggernaut some imagine, or a paper tiger like Russia’s degraded armed forces? Either way, getting a definitive answer would be terrible for almost everyone.

Fear A Militarily Weak China

Military vehicles carrying DF-5B liquid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) march past the Tiananmen Rostrum during the military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the victory in the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression in Beijing, China, September 3, 2015.

Credit: Depositphotos

Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 showed just how weak the Russian military is. This wasn’t a surprise to some historians; the first year or two of any Russian war, going back centuries, is marked by unparalleled losses before the sheer size of Russia’s population and manufacturing capacity comes into play (which may be happening now). But the present-day weakness also shows what happens when you let one person, Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defense minister sacked last month, steal most of the defense budget.

Over in the Middle East, the October 7 pogrom was obviously a result of Israeli intelligence and political failures. There’s reason to believe that there had been warnings of such an attack for a year prior, but a cohort of ultranationalists who now occupy several ministries and claim to be security hawks are among the least competent officials, having effectively been raised in state-subsidized environments where they have gained no real-world experience before taking over government departments. The latest assault on Rafah is necessitated because Israeli intelligence has underestimated the percentage of Hamas soldiers it thought had been killed elsewhere.

Which brings us to China. There is no way of knowing whether the Chinese military is the juggernaut some imagine or is the paper tiger akin to Moscow’s degraded armed forces. Either way, the revelation would be terrible for almost everyone.

China hasn’t fought a war since 1979, when it was beaten by the battle-hardened but drained Vietnamese. Maybe you have seen the videos of its missiles filled with water. Xi Jinping, the supreme leader, has already purged the military ranks probably because of corruption – yet many of his communist ancestors found out what happens when you cut off the venal but experienced head of the armed forces. Who knows how much defense spending has already been stolen? Who knows if the purges will work?

If one could trust that Beijing is thinking rationally, war in Taiwan or the South China Sea is unlikely. Even if Chinese troops were to invade and occupy Taiwan in less than a week, what then? The West would impose such sweeping sanctions that it would cripple China, the world’s largest importer of energy, food, and the inputs for producing food. Maybe China could take Taiwan’s semiconductor-production capacity, but there are hundreds if not thousands of steps along the semiconductor supply chain before Foxconn gets involved, so taking Taiwan’s factories would be pointless if sanctions on those supply chains were imposed. Moreover, China lacks the skilled workforce to actually manufacture the higher-end chips, so it would need to convince the Taiwanese workers to stay at their workstations, which is a difficult feat when you’re considered a colonial oppressor.

A military venture in the South China Sea would be more foolhardy and unlikely to succeed. The Malacca Strait is among the busiest shipping lanes in the world. China, as stated, is the largest importer of almost all the goods that keep its people alive while its economy depends on exports, so securing access to these shipping lanes is a matter of life or death. Call it prudent paranoia, but Beijing fears that any country in the first island chain (Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia) or even the second chain could effectively blockade all shipping to China. Theoretically, the Taiwanese military could take to the beaches and fire off mortars toward Chinese shipping vessels. Conversely, every other country that depends on the Malacca Strait, which includes every country in East and Southeast Asia, frets that China wants to militarize the maritime area, which would allow Beijing to blockade shipping – and thus blockade their trade, putting all commerce in Indo-Pacific at Beijing’s whim.

However, a reason to be (relatively) unconcerned about a South China Sea conflict, if Beijing is thinking rationally, is that China would have to accomplish the near impossible in a very short space of time. Harassing a few shoals is simple. Attacking one nation (say, the Philippines) but not others (say, Japan) would make things easier but it would still most probably elicit a collective response. Attacking multiple countries (Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam) would push China’s navy to the breaking point. So, to occupy the entire South China Sea and effectively prevent any one country from disturbing Chinese shipping through the Malacca Strait, Beijing would need to knock out the militaries of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and potentially Vietnam at the same time, all the while holding off a likely American assault.

I prefaced all this with a note on whether Beijing is thinking rationally. But Xi has so gutted the bureaucracy and military of anyone competent or anyone who might bring him unwelcome news that a China war basically hangs on the whims of one man increasingly isolated from reality. Plus, even if accurate information isn’t getting to Xi, he most likely understands that China’s demographics and economy are in such a perilous state that China as we know it probably has a decade or two left before the country really fractures and the Communist Party faces rebellions from the historically-secessionist southern cities and the food insecurity in the impoverished north. Does China export its domestic problems?

Of the West’s many concerns about the Russia-Ukraine War, two are existential – and both hinge on Russia’s weaknesses, not strengths. First, what if Russia wins in Ukraine and its troops arrive on the border of NATO countries? Moscow has no interest in staying in Ukraine. Putin would probably first threaten Berlin, London, and Paris with a nuclear attack unless they abandoned their Article 5 security guarantee to their Eastern European NATO partners.

If that didn’t work, on the battlefield, NATO forces would obliterate what was left of the Russian army in short order, which would leave Putin with few other options than a general nuclear attack. If Russia’s nukes actually work – after decades of decay, corruption in the military, and poor maintenance – the consequence is obvious.

But what if Putin pushes the button and nothing happens? How do Washington, London, or Paris react when they know that Moscow has tried to nuke them but it didn’t work? Such scenarios, the bleakest imaginable, stem from the fact that Russia’s weakness actually makes it the most threatening globally. Indeed, the Cold War taught us that there is some benefit to military parity between two adversaries. Sometimes you don’t want your enemy to be so obviously weaker than you.

It’s easier to predict the aftermath of a Chinese victory in Taiwan or the South China Sea, which would still be dismally Pyrrhic. Unless victory is total and fast, which is improbable, it’s years of grueling sanctions that will erode the Chinese economy and the ability of the Chinese to feed themselves. This would cripple several Southeast Asian economies, too. And it would be the end of safe, free trade in the Indo-Pacific.

But what happens if Xi gets China into a war in which it is easily defeated? What happens if an attack on Taiwan or the Philippines is met by a robust, coordinated response from Japan, the U.S., Australia, and the U.K. (plus others) that wipes out the Chinese navy and the economy falters because of the international sanctions? Han nationalism is so rampant and combustible that there would seemingly be no way for Beijing to accept a defeat or the terms of defeat.

In one scenario, the Chinese Communist Party quickly crumbles and much of the country breaks towards warlordism or separatism, but a successor government is able to go begging to Washington. Such a government wouldn’t survive domestically for long, though. In a more unlikely scenario, the Communist Party manages to stay in power and insulate itself from the implications of defeat, although the punitive sanctions erode the economy slowly over years, not months. The far more worrying scenario is Xi finds his country defeated in battle and reaches for the nuclear button. Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t.

It’s not in anyone’s interest to find out whether the Chinese military is strong or weak. And for all the hand-wringing after war-gaming of a Taiwan invasion suggests grim outcomes, one should be equally concerned if all of those simulations concluded every time with a Western victory.