An Unproven China

Streetwise Professor has put up a post regarding Donald Trump’s possible policy towards China, which includes a paragraph on the Chinese military capability:

Chinese military power is increasing dramatically. This is perhaps most evident at sea, where the Chinese navy has increased in size, sophistication, and operational expertise. Submarines are still a weak spot, but increasing numbers of more capable ships, combined with a strong geographic position (a long coastline with many good ports, now augmented by the man-made islands in the South China Sea) and dramatically improved air forces, long range surface-to-surface missiles, and an improving air defense system make the Chinese a formidable force in the Asian littoral. They certainly pose an anti-access/area denial threat that makes the US military deeply uneasy.

I’ll not argue with this, it is hard to imagine China’s military isn’t improving with all the money and technology being thrown at it.  What I don’t agree with is a comment by “FTR” underneath:

China will be the dominant power. There’s really no stopping it, try as the Communist Party might. Even if long-term per capita development remains below the west thanks to the inefficiency and corruption of the party, it will still be the world’s largest economy from sheer population alone. Correspondingly, the military will eventually match or exceed American capabilities. Just as the United Kingdom couldn’t block the rise of the more populous Germany or America, China will take the pole position.

People often talk about the future of China in terms of inevitability, as if their enormous population is the one factor that will propel them to the top of the pile.  Me, I’m not so sure.

I remember writing ages ago – I forget where – that quality is inherent in a culture and not every culture has it to the same degree.  The Chinese have grown their economy from a very low base by engaging in low-level manufacturing of things Westerners want to buy, and made technological progress by copying what the West has been doing for years.  This will be enough to bring improvements, but I don’t think one can draw a line through the progress, extrapolate it 20 years into the future, and conclude China will be top dog.  A lot of the stuff the Chinese produce is utter junk.  Most of their own designs – meaning, those they have not bought or stolen – are rubbish which nobody with money or standards wants.  People talk about the incredible learning rate of the Chinese, but I think most of this comes from having the bleedin’ obvious pointed out to them.  I don’t think it means they will necessarily be able to do what any economic superpower needs to do – innovate, and produce quality goods.

It is not just a matter of time.  The British have had plenty of time to learn how to build a decent house, but seemingly can’t.  For whatever reason, we put up with shit that some other nationalities don’t.  Our cars were also crap (I used to be an amateur Land Rover mechanic: I found some of the bolts/screws were metric, some imperial, and the remainder some obscure thread nobody had heard of in two generations), whereas the Germans and Japanese made them properly.  I will believe the Chinese have mastered technology not when they have built a high-speed rail to much government fanfare based on a design they copied from Siemens without permission, but when an international airline orders a batch of Chinese aircraft instead of Boeing or Airbus.  Until then, the jury is out on whether they can produce quality goods or differentiate themselves when it comes to innovation.  Perhaps they will manage it – I’m not saying they won’t – I’m just saying that thus far they haven’t proven much and fears of them taking over the world might be a little premature.

Which brings me onto the Chinese military.

When I was a student I came back from a night out and found my apartment had been burgled and all my stuff stolen.  This was rather unsurprising given I lived in Manchester, but nevertheless I had been rather stupid and not gotten insured.  Eager not to get burned again I replaced the goods out of my own pocket and got some insurance.  The company I dealt with were very reasonable and I got covered in short order, and so I happily told my eldest brother that I had found a good insurance company.  His reply was that you normally find out if an insurance company is any good when the times comes for them to pay out.  Wise words, indeed.

Similarly, a military normally finds out if they are any good or not when they have to actually fight.  Manpower numbers, training levels, budgets, equipment specs, number of ships/tanks/planes etc. are all good indicators as is historical performance and the culture from whence the personnel comes, but none of this really counts until they are involved in some serious action.  History is littered with examples of supposedly superior forces being proven to be useless (the Russian navies in the Russo-Japanese War, for example) and of theoretically weak armies being surprisingly hard nuts to crack (e.g. the Finns in the Winter War).  I wrote here that Turkey’s intervention into Syria might end up putting a dent in what I think is probably a rather outdated reputation of their army, as they haven’t done any proper fighting in generations.

Other than a few skirmishes, the Chinese have not had a proper fight since the Korean War.  By contrast, the Americans – perhaps for this very reason – seem keen on fighting in one way or another practically non-stop, as do the Brits.  The US Navy hasn’t been properly tested in a long time, and nor has its air force.  But American ground troops have, as have their logistics capabilities.  True, they’ve not fought an all-out large scale war but they have come far closer than anyone else with Afghanistan and the Iraq War.  Their weapons and personnel have been tested in the field and, although sometimes have come up wanting, it is at least known that they work.  The Chinese?  Well, it’s all theoretical, isn’t it?

I think what would hamper the Chinese military more than anything is the same thing that could bring China to its knees anyway: an unaccountable Communist Party facing off against an increasingly wealthy and well-informed middle class.  During the Korean War, Mao was able to send hundreds of thousands of Chinese to be slaughtered without any domestic backlash: being slaughtered seemed to be a pretty routine way of life in 1950s China, especially if you complained about it.  But China has changed.

Let’s supposing China does decide to flex its military muscles in the South China sea.  They could probably lose quite a few men and a lot of material before they’d hear any grumbling at home, and – like Putin over Crimea – they could dress up the capture of a few hundred square miles of land as a major strategic victory which has saved the face of the nation and proven that it’s rightful place is zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.  Sorry, I nodded off just thinking about such a speech.  But should they decide on a bolder adventure, such as a full-scale invasion of Taiwan, they will almost certainly incur enormous casualties – something everyone assumes they would just absorb.

But would they?  China’s one-child policy has left most households with a single son.  Could the mothers of the quarter-of-a-million soldiers who are going to die capturing Taiwan please step forward and tell me how robust is your national pride?  Are they really going to be motivated by the same ultra-nationalistic propaganda used in the Korean War when the body bags start coming home (or the bodies washing up on the beaches) in 2030?  If their military is found wanting and catastrophic flaws are found in their doctrine, equipment, leadership, and men it could easily lead to an internal revolution – either from the military themselves or a middle class who are fed up of a CP who have badly overestimated the popularity of their own geopolitical ambitions.  As with their economy, I don’t think it is a given that the Chinese military will be any good simply because it is big and they have spent a lot of money on it.  As yet, they are completely unproven.

I’m sure the Chinese leadership knows that any bold military adventure would need to succeed very quickly or they could find the domestic situation slipping out of their control., and that for all the hype their military has yet to be put to even a simple test.  By contrast, the Americans know they can fight deeply unpopular wars and life goes on much as before, and that their military is up to the task.  With General Mattis now on board hopefully preventing anything idiotic from happening, Trump probably doesn’t have too much to worry about from China.

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26 thoughts on “An Unproven China

  1. Very good piece Tim and I agree entirely. Intimidating unarmed civilians proves nothing, it’s when a determind opponent stats shooting back we find out if you’re any good.

    On the subject of Chinese innovation, my work as an English Teacher here in Thailand brings be into contact with student Chinese teachers teaching abroad as part of their training. I find them generally to be intellectually impresive. I suspect that any failures in manufacturing are more to do with the necessity for the boss to be someone’s nephew than any deficiency on the part of the engineers. I would be interested to hear your opinion on that.

  2. Maybe you shouldn’t do the analysis based only on current Western military strategies and recent track record. It was a Chinese person that wrote the Art of War and they have far higher IQ’s than Americans. Personally speaking I have found the Chinese to be very effective negotiators.

    The US Congress have already identified that the Chinese military advantage may not be in the traditional warfare areas. Separate to military capability, I have also been reading about how far the Chinese have succeeded in taking ownership of western media companies, sports brands, and of course Wall St. There was some big hoopla in the UK recently about Chinese influence in their news editorials. Propaganda supremacy is another angle that could be taken by the clever Chinese. I read an article in The Weekend Australian last weekend about how great the new Silk Road One Belt One Road project was, I also know that the papers owners recently signed a contract with the Chinese Propaganda Minister in Peking. That might explain the tone of the article.

    China is busy forging new international alliances the most recent being with the Philippines which has no doubt surprised and raised the ire of the US, this on top of their existing BRIC alliances and now stronger ties with Iran and Syria.

    There is the currency wars and the so called decline of the petrodollar this is another aspect of difference that could be used as a potential weapon.

    It never ceases to surprise me when visiting Africa or reviewing construction contracting there how huge the Chinese contractors are in terms of market share and visibility. They seem to be quietly building Africa, a short stay in an international airport arrivals will show how many Chinese folk are arriving. This must have some form of capability in the Art of War.

    I am not taking a side in this either way just saying that maybe the assessment needs to include other dynamics than the traditional or contemporary methods.

    I do firmly believe though that this is the Asian Century and I hope that it doesn’t include an east west military showdown.

    https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R44196.pdf

    page 45.

    “A Chinese Way of War?

    Chinese thinking about military strategy and operations has idiosyncratic aspects that are amplified by Chinese axioms such as, “You fight in your way and we fight in ours, and strive for full initiative.”

    Following the strategic concept of Active Defense, PLA strategists place a high priority on seizing the initiative in a conflict. Some observers believe that the PLA would pair this predilection with its assessment that the cyber and space domains are the “high ground” of contemporary warfare and thus choose to strike its adversary’s information networks.”

  3. Roué le Jour,

    Very good piece Tim and I agree entirely.

    Thanks!

    I find them generally to be intellectually impresive. I suspect that any failures in manufacturing are more to do with the necessity for the boss to be someone’s nephew than any deficiency on the part of the engineers. I would be interested to hear your opinion on that.

    I’ve not worked with many Chinese engineers, but I suspect they are no better or worse than any others as individuals. All things being equal, I am sure Chinese engineers will make welcome contributions to improving the world, but various things will probably hold them back – not least the nepotism that you mention. And being decent, intelligent engineers isn’t enough: look at Russia for proof of that. Having a team of super-smart engineers won’t get you very far if the owner of the business charged with delivering the project is a violent gangster prone to emptying the corporate bank account to buy a dacha.

  4. Bardon,

    Maybe you shouldn’t do the analysis based only on current Western military strategies and recent track record. It was a Chinese person that wrote the Art of War

    That was an awfully long time ago. We might as well point to Alexander the Great’s successes when evaluating the current Greek military if we’re going to do that.

    and they have far higher IQ’s than Americans.

    Possibly, but it’s how they go on to use it. PJ O’Rourke started his book “Eat the Rich” by pointing out intelligence isn’t what makes people wealthy.

    Personally speaking I have found the Chinese to be very effective negotiators.

    On an individual level, they might be. That doesn’t make them so collectively, on a national level. But we’ll see.

    Separate to military capability, I have also been reading about how far the Chinese have succeeded in taking ownership of western media companies, sports brands, and of course Wall St.

    Yeah, but we had all this scare with the Japanese in the 1980s. Right before their economy collapsed.

    Propaganda supremacy is another angle that could be taken by the clever Chinese.

    The Chinese are going to advance by spouting more bullshit than anyone else? Propaganda is useful in some ways, but a country being good at it doesn’t make them much more than an irritant unless they’ve mastered more important skills. Who is dumbass enough to fall for Chinese propaganda?

    I read an article in The Weekend Australian last weekend about how great the new Silk Road One Belt One Road project was,

    Ah, sorry. Previous question answered. 😉 🙂

    China is busy forging new international alliances the most recent being with the Philippines which has no doubt surprised and raised the ire of the US, this on top of their existing BRIC alliances and now stronger ties with Iran and Syria.

    Excellent! Let them have alliances with Syria, Russia, Iran, etc. Why should this bother us?

    There is the currency wars and the so called decline of the petrodollar this is another aspect of difference that could be used as a potential weapon.

    When drug dealers start insisting on being paid in Yuan…

    It never ceases to surprise me when visiting Africa or reviewing construction contracting there how huge the Chinese contractors are in terms of market share and visibility. They seem to be quietly building Africa, a short stay in an international airport arrivals will show how many Chinese folk are arriving.

    Yes, the Chinese are busy in Africa. Nigeria was full of Chinese. Good luck to them.

    I am not taking a side in this either way just saying that maybe the assessment needs to include other dynamics than the traditional or contemporary methods.

    Okay, but can you suggest some? Building crap in Africa, setting up a propaganda ministry, and forging alliances with failed kleptocracies are not new and nor do they have a history of success.

    A Chinese Way of War?

    Again, great. But in the last proper war they fought – Korea – they simply sent tens of thousands of men to be mowed down by machine guns until the barrels got too hot to be fired. Let the Chinese demonstrate some of the basics first, then we can worry about them taking over the world.

  5. The tough nuts to crack are highly motivated – to the point of desperation. You mentioned Finland. Same reason Israel has never lost a war – they know they can’t afford to. On top of being astonishingly militarised, and very well-equipped, it’s far easier to defend, logistically as well as morally, what you have than to try and take what you know you shouldn’t have. And they nurture initiative, almost the point of insubordination, which will not do in China.

    The Chinese forces are likely to be far more hierarchical, and less keen on having people die in a shooting match with a neighbour’s coastguards over some uninhabited rocks.

  6. “then we can worry about them taking over the world”

    Its not clear that their strategy is to take over the world, they are targeting “active defense” and have been against offshore military bases, although that may be changing with their plans to establish a military base in Djibouti.

    “Okay, but can you suggest some?”

    Like I said and and as per the analysts reports to US Congress you need to understand the Chinese culture and its philosophy on war to properly assess their threat. The main threats which are highlighted in the analysts report and are relatively new and rapidly advancing are its “cyber posture” and the “three warfares” being public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare.

    “In practice, this involves attempts to take advantage of prior peacetime preparation of this perceptual battlefield to establish favorable conditions for going on the offensive to seize the initiative. Since this is a dimension of strategic competition in which China has already demonstrated the efficacy of its efforts, understanding the three warfares will continue to have immediate, real-world relevance.

    – See more at: https://jamestown.org/program/the-plas-latest-strategic-thinking-on-the-three-warfares/#sthash.wnNVTWOR.dpuf

  7. BiG,

    Good points, especially regarding Israel.

    Bardon,

    I know what people are saying about China’s great strategies, especially the Chinese themselves. But it is far from certain their plans will survive the first shot: the Americans at least know theirs will. The danger is that China will start to believe its own bullshit the same as the Russians have.

  8. Like they say:

    “You fight in your way and we fight in ours, and strive for full initiative.”

    Maybe their defensive strategies will be that effectively implemented that it will result in victory without a shot being fired.

    “Rethinking policy

    Despite political concerns and issues surrounding intellectual theft, more successful Chinese investments into the U.S. tech sector will perhaps soften America’s approach to its pacific partners and a two-way investment flow will also be in China’s own interest. America’s high-tech sector is also an area of growing interest to Chinese investors because of its track record in innovation, free market spirit, proven success and sexy dynamism.

    China’s internet giant Tencent is the country’s most prolific player with investments into more than 40 U.S.-based tech companies since 2010. Shenzhen-based hardware accelerator HAX is in second with more than 30 U.S.-based companies. Alibaba is in fifth behind Cherubic Ventures and IDG Capital Partners.

    The Asia Society’s report urges U.S. policy makers to acknowledge China’s arrival as a high-tech investor: “Many policy makers and businesses are still new to the fact that China is now a major U.S. investor, and they struggle to imagine that Chinese firms could be major contributors to local innovation. As our data show, they already are. Many local economies now benefit from Chinese capital flows and related job creation,” it concludes.

    And the readiness of Chinese firms to invest in the U.S. should not be downplayed. Everything in the tech world is converging, fuelled by growth and demand, and a global market demands global thinking where previous impediments no longer exist.”

    https://thestack.com/world/2016/06/14/chinese-investors-look-to-u-s-tech-companies-after-economic-slowdown-at-home/

    Chinese Surge In U.S. Tech Investment; Supports 25,000 U.S. Jobs

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/williambrent/2014/04/01/chinese-surge-in-us-tech-investment-supports-25000-us-jobs/#342ae1fc164d

  9. It is hard to say how any army stands up to the rigours of warfare, so difficult to predict any outcome there. One thing that was noted sometime ago however is that the Chinese had started to look to their NCOs more, which in the west has often been the backbone of many an army. The officers may be important, etc, but is the sergeants and the like that kept the army going in war, and the ability to take command when the officers have gone is vital.

    As I say, we just don’t know when push comes to shove. One thing we may accept is that the Chinese are not stitched up as yet by political correctness as we in the west know it: their political system has a different correctness, and it may be less troublesome than ours. As I am fond of saying, we shall see (though perhaps none of us really want to see what the next war will be like)

  10. @Tim Newman
    “By contrast, the Americans seem keen on fighting in one way or another practically non-stop, as do the Brits”

    imho That is the key observation.

    USA, UK and as mentioned Israel plus maybe France are the only countries with long-term hand-on fighting experience. Training & experience are more important than numbers now just as they were at Rorke’s Drift.

  11. Pcar,

    USA, UK and as mentioned Israel plus maybe France are the only countries with long-term hand-on fighting experience.

    Indeed, I had a theory years ago that Britain gets into punch-ups every generation just to make sure there are always soldiers in the British Army who know what combat is like.

  12. Watcher,

    It is hard to say how any army stands up to the rigours of warfare, so difficult to predict any outcome there.

    Except the American and British armies, which have been field-tested. One of the constant refrains from my friends in the British military is how much they learned and how much they changed their protocols following experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Whereas the French threatened to withdraw their forces from Afghanistan if security didn’t improve.

  13. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi says at Beijing meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister that all nations that endorsed deal are responsible for ensuring it is fully implemented

    On what authority?

  14. Their legal strategy may be to challenge the legitimacy of the unilatertal US Sanction Act under the authority of the UN Resolution. The PLA may be taking offensive legal warfare action here, with a view to seizing the political initiative, strengthening its strategic partnership with Iran (US enemy) in an effort to hamstring or contsrain US political might by legal means.

    “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

    ― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

  15. Oops wrong quote it should have been.

    “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

    ― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

  16. “The British have had plenty of time to learn how to build a decent house, but seemingly can’t. For whatever reason, we put up with shit that some other nationalities don’t. ”

    Tangentially, we used to build decent houses. I happen to live in one. It was built by a speculative builder in around 1910. Muswell Hill is full of them: spacious (even the small ones), able to tolerate loads of “improvement”, wonderful for families and so on. Something happened during WW1 (the loss of 1 million young men had something to do with it) which created a tolerance for the the dross built in the 20s and 30s. Generally speaking, I’d agree with you that contemporary mass housing is overly expensive, badly constructed, badly designed shite.

    Mind you, the British are great hands-on constructors: the engineering of the up-market cars and steam locomotives of the inter-war period was superb – but, as an engineer, you’d know more about that than me. Also was not the grief with your Land Rover connected with a failure of British management rather than design or enginering. AFAIAA German and Japanese management of UK car plants results in excellently engineered product.

    Coming back (more or less) to the subject of this thread. We’ll see how China reacts to being told to f*** off by the president-elect when he becomes president. I guess they’ll swallow their arrogance because they have to deal him. Moreover, never forget when you owe the bank £10,000 you have problems: if you owe the bank £10 million, it has problems: and the US owes China trillions. The Chinese aren’t given to hissy-fits when reality intrudes.

  17. Umbongo,

    Good points, as always.

    Tangentially, we used to build decent houses.

    There are some, but even the famed Victorian ones were crap apparently.

    Something happened during WW1 (the loss of 1 million young men had something to do with it)

    Yet the Germans can still build…as can the French, actually.

  18. China has engaged in large scale warfare when it took on ‘little’ Vietnam and got roundly trounced by the battle hardened (and US equipment, left over from the Vietnam War) equipped Viets.
    Also, in spite of strong support from Russia in material, China was only able to achieve a stalemate in Korea after beating back the US from the Yalu River. it was the unwillingness to take the war over the river that allowed the situation to develop as it did. At huge cost of lost lives on the Chinese side.
    So past, recent, military endeavours would make the Chinese cautious about engaging in a head-to-head with even a smaller enemy.

  19. “So past, recent, military endeavours would make the Chinese cautious about engaging in a head-to-head with even a smaller enemy.”

    Yes quite right and accordingly they will do their utmost to avoid engaging in direct traditional military warfare waging methods. The other consideration when assessing both the SINO & US Military Balance Sheets is that US worldwide military supremacy requires that it has now and has to sustain many forward international command posts along with the huge regional military capability and budgets that come with this supremacy, spread out across all the worldwide potential theaters of war.

    Whereas China is only defending its own nation in a single and domestic theater of war and when compared with the US at a regional level, on a physical and human hardware area for area basis the Chinese clearly have the upper hand. This means that in the event of military action the US would have to weaken its deterrent threat and control capability in other theaters in order to redeploy, bolster up and focus on successfully engaging with a defensive PLA in their theater of war.

    You could argue that the US military worldwide dominance is actually a weakness in this scenario.

  20. Whereas China is only defending its own nation in a single and domestic theater of war…

    Which is fine, until they start laying claim to Taiwan and the entire South China Sea, in which case it might find projecting power a little more difficult than defending the homeland against invasion.

  21. China has a political imperative to reunite the Taiwanese province but their current policy is to prevent it from cessation only and for all the reasons previously mentioned they do not have any current plan to take Taiwan by military force and lack the amphibious equipment to do this. They are happy to work on their other methods of warfare with Taiwan and wait for the right time to effect the transition similar to say the handing back of Honk Kong.

    As for the military capability in the region the PLA is quickly making ground on USPACOM in the melitary cock measuring contest. They have stated their plan to be the main regional force in Asia and are well on track to do this. They don’t need to attack Taiwan to purse their active defensive policy.

    http://www.pacom.mil/About-USPACOM/

    Look closer at both the Chinese and US theaters of war and you may discern a weakness in the US case especially if the other commands were busy with increased threats in their specific areas. Eg what if the PLA’s special attaché to Djibouti was to surreptitiously assist in agitating the situation in the Gulf of Aden via their Iranian navy allies that would tie up three other USA Forward Command Posts.

    US Theatre of Wars

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/30/U.S._Unified_Command_Plan_Map_2011-04-06.png

    Chinese Theatre of Wars

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f3/Map_of_Theatres_of_PLA_en.svg/350px-Map_of_Theatres_of_PLA_en.svg.png

  22. They are happy to work on their other methods of warfare with Taiwan and wait for the right time to effect the transition similar to say the handing back of Honk Kong.

    They’re going to wait for the lease to expire?

    As for the military capability in the region the PLA is quickly making ground on USPACOM in the melitary cock measuring contest.

    Well, that’s kind of the point of my post: we don’t know they are making ground simply because they are buying lots of kit and making a lot of noise. The Chinese military is unproven, whereas the US one is not.

    Eg what if the PLA’s special attaché to Djibouti was to surreptitiously assist in agitating the situation in the Gulf of Aden via their Iranian navy allies that would tie up three other USA Forward Command Posts.

    The Chinese are going to coordinate with the Iranians in multi-theatre military actions against the US? Heh.

  23. They’re going to wait for the lease to expire?

    The PRC, the World, the US and the grateful residents of Taiwan will know when the time is right for the glorious reunification of our once again proud province.

    Well, that’s kind of the point of my post: we don’t know they are making ground simply because they are buying lots of kit and making a lot of noise. The Chinese military is unproven, whereas the US one is not.

    The point of mine is that the Chinese are merely indulging Western strategist on a kinetic arms build up, they see this as the Western way of war, a way that they have no intention of fighting for.

    Meanwhile the Chinese are continuing to wage their active defense warfare, and make huge progress as outlined in their Three Wars strategy.

    The Chinese are going to coordinate with the Iranians in multi-theatre military actions against the US? Heh.

    We are patiently watching things unfold and we will win our war in our way when the time is right and when we are ready.

    http://www.thewrap.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/imax-china.jpg

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