It’s becoming commonplace to drum up the military threat from China and belittle America’s military capabilities. Much of this commentary reminds me of statements in the mid-1980s that the former Soviet Union was poised to outstrip the US in military power. This isn’t to argue that China is in the final stages of disintegration like the USSR, but it is to assert that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) demonstrates all the brittleness and paper-thin professionalism of a military that has never fought a modern war and whose much-vaunted military equipment has never been tested in combat.
With a slowing economy, and with structural economic and social tensions becoming worse rather than better, China is a large but fragile power ruled by a vulnerable party that can’t afford any economic or foreign policy disasters, let alone war with the US. Its economy is fundamentally interdependent with that of free international trade and global supply chains. War for China would be an economic and social disaster.
Moreover, Beijing has very few powerful or influential friends in the region and suffers from strategic isolation, which is growing worse the more it throws its weight around.
Beijing has no experience whatsoever of modern war. Its last experience of armed conflict was in 1979 when it abysmally failed to teach Vietnam a so-called ‘lesson’. Border scuffles with India and the USSR in the 1960s and sending peasant armies into the Korean War in the 1950s scarcely rate as modern combat.
The PLA’s power depends crucially on keeping the Communist Party in power, which is what its oath of allegiance declares, and not the defence of China as a country. PLA officers still waste inordinate amounts of time learning irrelevant communist dogma, rather than giving priority to military training. Then there’s the issue of corruption at the highest levels of the PLA and the buying of favours and promotions.
It’s true that in the last couple of decades the PLA has made some impressive strides technologically. But despite President Xi Jinping proclaiming that China must become a powerful maritime power, geography is against it. When was the last time a large land power really made it as a naval power? Certainly not the USSR, France or Germany.
Commentators in Australia repeat a lot of breathless assertions about China’s anti-access and area denial capabilities. And there can be no doubt that operating in the approaches to China is becoming more dangerous, particularly given the sort of military mass that China can accumulate close to home. But do we actually think that the Americans are sitting on their hands doing nothing technologically in areas such as hypersonic vehicles, railguns, stealth, drones and cyber-attack?
In key areas of military technology China is still a good 20 years behind the US. Its antisubmarine warfare capability is marginal and many of its submarines are noisy. China lacks the necessary quieting and propulsion technologies to build anything remotely comparable to an US or Russian nuclear submarine. Even the newest Chinese Jin-class ballistic missile nuclear submarines are louder than the 1970s era Soviet Delta III SSBN. And the forthcoming type 95 nuclear submarine will be louder than the late-1980s Soviet titanium-hulled Akula, according to US sources.
China’s air defence capabilities have gaping deficiencies against any technologically advanced enemy. Moreover, China still relies heavily on Russia for military reverse engineering and supply of high-performance military jet engines, which it has failed to master for 30 years.
Beijing has made important strides with ballistic missile technologies, but the DF-21 has never destroyed a naval target moving at battle speed. Moreover, it relies crucially on intelligence satellites and long-range over-the-horizon radar for target acquisition. Those are soft targets and vulnerable to pre-emptive US military strikes.
It isn’t clear in any case, according to the Pentagon, whether China has the capability to collect accurate targeting information and pass it to launch platforms in time for successful strikes against distant targets at sea.
As for China’s ICBM capabilities, such as the DF-5B with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), this is hardly a breakthrough nuclear technology. In 1974, as Head of the National Assessments Staff, I was briefed by the CIA about MIRVs on the Soviet Union’s SS-18 ICBM. That was remarkable technological advance 40 years ago.
There are some Chinese military officers and academics who are starting to brag about China’s nuclear war-fighting capabilities. While China has a reasonably secure second-strike capability, it’s one of the most vulnerable large powers to all-out nuclear war because of its population density and its distribution along the eastern seaboard. Just because China has a population 1.4 billion people doesn’t mean that it would survive a massive nuclear attack.
That’s a strong argument, in my view, for the US to keep a large nuclear attack force, both operational and in active reserve, of several thousand strategic warheads.
All this is to argue that we need to put China’s emerging military capabilities into some sensible comparative analysis with those of the US and in historical context. We need to remember that the US is the most innovative country in the world and isn’t standing still in the face of Chinese military advancements, many of which are seriously deficient.