Don’t assume the PLA land force is a paper tiger
13 Sep 2013|

Soldiers with the People's Liberation Army at Shenyang training base in China, March 24, 2007Concerns about China’s rising military capabilities usually focus on its naval, air and anti-access/area-denial forces, downplaying its ground forces.

Some American analysts have great confidence in the ability of the US and of its regional allies to take on the PLA’s ground element. For instance, Dartmouth’s Michael Beckley says we’ve no reason to think that the Chinese ground forces would fight much better than the Iraqi army thrashed by coalitions in 1990 and 2003, on a ‘pound for pound’ basis. Maybe Beckley and others just want to avoid repeating the mistakes of earlier analysts. After all, in 1990 there was a widespread opinion that Iraq was superb at defence and would inflict serious casualties on the invading forces.

But overestimating your clout compared to a potential opponent’s isn’t the only mistake you can make. When the British Governor of Singapore heard that the Japanese were on the way in 1942, he told an army commander, ‘Well, I suppose you’ll shove the little men off’.

So, which is it with the PLA? Paper tiger or fearsome man-eater? I’m not a China specialist, but my research on modern military effectiveness suggests that Beckley’s far too dismissive of Chinese combat power.

I found that a key determiner of military skill is the existence of a large cadre of literate junior leaders (especially NCOs) with enough military education to run a dispersed, decentralised system of fighting (what Stephen Biddle calls the ‘modern system’). China has a 100% literate army and an extensive NCO training and education system. In fact, RAND’s former PLA specialist Roger Cliff suggests that Chinese NCOs might be better educated than their American counterparts.

Further up the chain of command, the sheer size of the PLA and the absence of military takeovers in recent Chinese history insulate the party leadership from the dangers of a military coup, despite recent rumours. And the PLA’s complicated system of command and control is very cumbersome—no commander of any echelon has sole responsibility for decisions. There’s little need for China to do the kind of capability-damaging ‘coup proofing’ that Middle Eastern autocrats have so often done.

Of course, that constraint can be overstated. The Red Army in World War II and the Iraqis in the Iran–Iraq War initially suffered from similar problems, but they resolved it easily. When Stalin and Saddam saw the damage caused by having a system with multiple decision-makers, they simply instituted single commands instead.

As John Garnaut has noted, widespread corruption in the Chinese officer corps might be a bigger problem for China’s senior military leaders. Officers who buy their commissions and promotions damage capability in two ways: the wrong sort of people end up in command positions, and those with the right stuff are discouraged from pursuing military careers. Corruption’s the ‘dark matter’ of comparative politics because people have an incentive to conceal it. The absence of prosecutions for corruption could mean that there’s no corruption, or that everyone’s on the take and wants to keep it quiet. Even if there’s a spate of prosecutions, what might that mean? That the authorities have finally started to crack down on it, or that they’re using it as a pretext to attack political opponents? This is a serious problem for analysts. If we want to estimate how well Chinese ground forces will do under fire, we need a way to measure systemic corruption in the PLA.

In short, outside observers shouldn’t assume that the US and its allies could turn a stoush with China into a no-contest walkover. In its NCOs, the PLA has the backbone of an effective modern army. And its officer corps might be weakened by corruption, but it’s also less constrained by coup-proofing than, say, the Iraqi army of 2003.

As the old War on Terror slogan suggests, China’s neighbours should be alert, but not alarmed.

Charles Miller is a lecturer at ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. He was awarded a PhD from Duke University’s Political Science Department in May of this year. His thesis, ‘Destructivity: A Political Economy of Military Effectiveness in Conventional Combat’ is currently being turned into a book. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.