Is China’s military just like a ‘paper dragon?’

Amid the hype surrounding the People’s Liberation Army, not one soldier, sailor or airmen has been battle-tested

We’re practically immune to the daily military briefing from the front lines of what many experts believe is the new Cold War.

Another day, another Chinese buzzing of Taiwan, forcing them to scramble their aging F-16s to chase them away.

The latest barrage at the weekend involved as many as 27 invasive Chinese aircraft that entered the island’s defense zone. It was yet another high-profile incident as tension continues to increase across the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing views the democratic island as a renegade province and has vowed to “unify” Taiwan with the motherland by force if necessary. Taipei has called China’s repeated nearby military activities “gray zone” warfare, designed to wear down its forces.

On the face of it, it appears that China is flexing its military muscles, which happens to be growing by leaps and bounds in all sectors.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is now larger than the US fleet. Its Air Force (PLAAF) is equipped with the latest jet fighters and China also holds a distinctive advantage in hypersonic weapons.

In fact, the latest test of a hypersonic missile caused consternation at the Pentagon after it circled the earth and actually dropped another weapon on its way, sparking fears that it could launch multiple warheads.

World’s largest military

China wields by far the world’s largest military with 2.8 million soldiers, sailors and airmen or twice the United States’ numbers, the Brookings Institute, a US-based think tank, said.

The latest Chinese mission included 18 fighter jets plus five nuclear-capable H-6 bombers, as well as, unusually, a Y-20 aerial refueling aircraft, Reuters reported.

But there is one small, but important issue, in all of this that has been ignored and lost amongst the hype, which China itself appears to believe. None of these forces, not a single one, has actually been battle-tested.

Let’s face it, it doesn’t take that much skill, or heroics, to fly into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, knowing full well, you will return unscathed, to have dinner with your family. That is not, a true military operation. Nor is it a dangerous mission. I would say it’s no more dangerous than flying from Los Angeles to New York.

Nothing is going to happen.

Taiwan scrambles an F-16 fighter jet in a drill. Photo: Unknown

In the old days, when American fighters buzzed Russian bombers, they would often open up a Playboy magazine, to their opposite numbers – sometimes getting a thumbs up in reply! I don’t think this is happening along the Taiwan Strait.

But then nothing else is happening there, either.

The only test was the debacle that occurred along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the Chinese-Indian border in the Karakoram. At least 20 Indian troops were killed, and while China did not reveal their casualties, it’s believed just as many may have died.

Again, this was more an aberration than a military encounter. So, the big question that must be asked is can China’s armed forces fight? And will they fight?

Chinese state media reported that President Xi Jinping held a three-day meeting last week with the country’s top officers to discuss how further to strengthen the armed forces through “talent cultivation.” While Xi made no direct mention of Taiwan, he did stress the need to modernize the military in order to be able to win wars.

“It is necessary to make great efforts to strengthen scientific and technological literacy and improve the actual ability to win modern wars,” Xinhua, the official government news agency and voice of the ruling Communist Party, reported.

“It is necessary to strengthen practical experience and encourage and guide officers and soldiers to experience the wind and rain, see the world, strengthen their muscles and bones, and develop their talents in fiery military practice,” Xinhua added.

Attack missions

Nothing like a pep talk to fire up the troops before battle! Alas, this was not exactly Henry V’s Saint Crispin’s Day speech, “For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother …”

Again, we must ask the question. Are they battle-ready?

During the Vietnam war, US Navy pilots flying off aircraft carriers and heading out for bombing or attack missions admitted they were less fearful of being shot down, as opposed to knowing they would have to land back on a carrier, in day or night, and in any kind of weather.

They didn’t know if they would be coming back to a safe bunk and a hot meal – they could end up in the Hanoi Hilton, or worse.

Chinese fighter planes barging into Taiwan’s ADIZ don’t have those fears. They’ve never had to land a fighter that has been shot up, or leaking fuel, or suffered any damage in battle.

US forces, meanwhile, have seen action in two Gulf wars, in Afghanistan, Syria, and many other flashpoints. And while practice does make perfect, there’s no better experience than the real thing – just ask the Israelis, who are on a constant war footing.

China’s PLA Navy in the South China Sea. Photo: Courtesy of PLA Navy

The last few years have seen major advancements in the Chinese military, along with plenty of boasting – raising fears, that perhaps China’s over-confidence, could get it into trouble.

According to a Rand Corporation report, while China’s military has an increasingly impressive high-tech arsenal, its ability to use these weapons and equipment remains unclear.

There are reasons to be skeptical. The PLA struggles under the legacy of an obsolete command system, rampant corruption, and training of debatable realism, among other issues. 

Although it engaged in a minor naval skirmish with Vietnam over the Johnson South Reef in 1988, the PLA last fought a major conflict nearly 40 years ago, when a seasoned Vietnamese military demolished a bungled Chinese invasion in 1979, the Rand report said. 

Worse, the ghost of that disaster still stalks the PLA. Some have even suggested that inexperience and other ills render the PLA a “paper dragon.”

Evidence shows that better-educated soldiers are easier to train, more adept at operating sophisticated weapons and platforms, and more capable of executing complex tasks.

Humanitarian assistance

Scholars and historians have noted that a major source of the German military’s adaptability in World War II owed in part to its deliberate, thorough analysis of its after-action reviews and willingness to implement changes accordingly.

It should be noted, that the PLA has also stepped up its involvement in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. In 2011, the Chinese Navy competently carried out a major noncombatant evacuation operation in Libya.

It has also expanded its participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations around the world and deployed its first full infantry battalion in 2015 to South Sudan. 

Reports confirmed that Xi purged the old officer corps of its kleptocratic grandees, initiated large-scale military exercises, and invested in the technology and defense industrial base necessary to construct a modern power-projection force.

The PLA has likely improved its combat readiness from a low level, but how much remains unclear, the Rand report said. The persistence of corruption, concerns about the rigor of its training, challenges in integration, and mismanagement provide grounds for skepticism.

But if history has taught us anything, it is that military superiority rarely determines a war’s outcome – Vietnam and Afghanistan are prime examples.

The ultimate outcome of a long war between the two global powers will likely be decided by factors beyond the control of generals and admirals, such as economic strength, political cohesion, and national resolve, the Rand report concluded.

Sources: Reuters, Xinhua, Rand Corporation, Brookings Institute, The Hill