Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 21 March 2024


Can China Fight?

The Russia-Ukraine War Offers Warnings.

People's Liberation Army soldiers assembling during military training in Kashgar, in northwestern China's Xinjiang region.
People's Liberation Army soldiers assembling during military training in Kashgar, in northwestern China's Xinjiang region. With more than 2.1 million active-duty troops, China has the world’s largest military, as well as the largest rocket force. Photographer: AFP/Getty Images

Peter Martin

It’s 2027. A Chinese naval blockade is forming off the coast of Taiwan, cyber attacks are hobbling the island’s financial system, paratroopers are massing at coastal airfields and the US aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy is pulling out of port in Japan with a fleet of F-35 jets, heading south at full power.

The battle for Taiwan is about to begin.

This is just a scenario for now, one of many that leaders in Beijing, Washington and Taipei are bracing for — and which their militaries train for every day, as tensions rise over the island’s future. But for all the billions of dollars spent building advanced weaponry and modernizing its forces, at the most senior levels of China’s military and government right up to President Xi Jinping there are doubts that the People’s Liberation Army is ready for battle — or will be for years to come. 

Beijing’s worries about its own capabilities have only grown as Russia remains mired in a war in Ukraine that President Vladimir Putin and his military — and many Western analysts and governments — assumed would be a quick and easy invasion.

Under Xi, China has worked hard to make victory in any conflict inevitable. With more than 2.1 million active-duty troops, it has the world’s largest military, as well as the largest rocket force. It has more than 400 ships and 3,100 aircraft, according to Pentagon assessments, giving it the world’s biggest navy and the third-largest aviation force. Its nuclear stockpile surpassed 400 warheads in 2021 and is on track to reach 1,500 by 2035 — around what the US and Russia have deployed at any given time. Taiwan’s unification with China is “unstoppable,” Xi’s government said after the Chinese leader met President Joe Biden in California Nov. 15.

Pedestrians and cyclists on the street of Chaoyang district in Beijing, China, on Friday, Dec. 30, 2022.
Xi has pledged to build a “world-class” military by 2049. Source: Bloomberg

But interviews with dozens of current and former US and Chinese officials, as well as publications by the People’s Liberation Army and criticisms leveled by Xi, paint a common picture: While China has made extraordinarily rapid progress in military hardware, building everything from aircraft carriers to hypersonic missiles, its ability to translate that into effective combat operations remains a major weakness — especially if any warfighting has to be sustained.

“They have a lot of inherent lethality that's hard to negate,” said John Culver, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who spent 35 years as a CIA analyst specializing in China’s military. Yet “judging by China’s own assessments, they believe they’ve made progress, but they’re not where they want to be.”

Although a US-China war over Taiwan is unlikely soon, the possibility of a conflict that devastates the global economy is already shaping everything from military procurement to investment decisions. Billionaire Warren Buffett this year slashed his holdings of chip giant Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. over geopolitical risks, Japan is ramping up defense spending and the US is accelerating weapons deliveries to the island — with Biden saying repeatedly that America would intervene if China invades.

The Battle for Naval Supremacy

China has a bigger fleet, but the US has more larger vessels, including carriers

Note: Graphic does not include China's coastal patrol ships. Original data has been aggregated for comparative purposes.Sources: Congressional Research Service, US Department of Defense

The Israel-Hamas conflict has raised concerns that Washington is getting overstretched in its military commitments, but Biden and his aides have raced to reassure allies and rivals alike that the US can confront all its threats at once. And while many Republicans increasingly question US support for Ukraine, backing for Israel and Taiwan is strong in both parties.

China’s immense firepower ensures that any war would be extremely costly — in lives and dollars. Referring to a pivotal World War II battle between the US and Japan over another Pacific island, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Nov. 8 that “attacking Taiwan is not like doing Iwo Jima, and Iwo Jima was bloody enough.”

Xi talks with soldiers in southwest China's Yunnan Province, in 2020.
Xi talks with soldiers in southwest China's Yunnan Province, in 2020. Photographer: Li Gang/Xinhua/Eyevine/Redux

A PLA victory ultimately could hinge on its ability to operate effectively on the battlefield over time. And a number of factors are working against China: It hasn’t fought a major conflict in decades, the military has a history of corruption and different branches of the armed forces have struggled to coordinate. 

Xi’s Critiques

China’s worries about the military begin at the top. Xi — the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong — has been the PLA’s fiercest critic.

Pledging to build a “world-class” military by 2049, he has purged top officers, ordered the military to exit for-profit businesses, reduced the number of PLA ground forces while building new missile, cyberwarfare and outer-space capabilities and created a new joint command structure. Yet his repeated instructions to the Chinese military that it should prepare “to fight and win” are in part a tacit admission that he fears it’s incapable of doing so. On this issue, Xi’s arcane, theory-laden language seems to betray his deepest concerns.

In 2013, the Chinese leader invoked the “two inabilities” to suggest that the PLA couldn’t fight a modern war and that its commanders weren’t ready to lead one. Other choice phrases have included the “two big gaps,” the “five excesses” and the “four bad styles” – all detailing a range of shortcomings that could hamper the PLA in a conflict.

Perhaps the most damning of these slogans is the “five cannots.” That 2015 phrase asserts that some PLA officers are unable to effectively judge situations, are incapable of understanding higher authorities’ intentions, struggle to make operational decisions, have difficulty deploying troops and experience problems when dealing with unexpected situations — everything they’d need to manage in a conflict.

China's Minister of National Defence Li Shangfu during the 20th Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on June 4.
Li Shangfu was China’s shortest-serving defense minister — handpicked by Xi early this year, and dismissed by late October. Photographer: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

The critiques continue to this day: In the span of two weeks in July, Xi made three separate and public calls to strengthen military management. That coincided with turmoil in China’s rocket forces — the division that oversees the country’s ballistic missile stockpiles and which would be responsible for targeting US surface vessels in a conflict over Taiwan.

Weeks later came the mysterious disappearance of Defense Minister Li Shangfu, who Xi handpicked for the role early this year, following the sidelining of then-Foreign Minister Qin Gang. Li’s dismissal was finally announced in late October, making him China’s shortest-serving defense minister. While Beijing has said little about the turnover, China analysts agree the moves suggest that even after a decade of anti-graft and modernization initiatives, the PLA still struggles to meet Xi’s expectations.

Ukraine Lessons

Russia’s war in Ukraine has provided fresh warning signs for China. Official People’s Liberation Army publications analyzing the battlefield shed light on Beijing’s concerns about how a potential conflict over Taiwan might unfold. 

“Russia’s military has been incapable of effectively executing combined warfare,” where multiple ground units work together, the official PLA Daily said in an editorial this year. It added that Moscow has also struggled with “integrated air-ground operations” because the Russian air force’s “coordination with the army is limited.”

Getting the PLA to be more effective at combined warfare and improving the ability of different branches of the military to coordinate their efforts have been among Xi’s biggest priorities for his forces. And it would be a critical feature of any successful attack on Taiwan. 

A destroyed Russian T-72 tank near Pokrovy Presvyatoyi Bohorodytsi Church, in the city of Svyatohirs'k, Donetsk region on March 1.
Russia remains mired in a war in Ukraine that President Vladimir Putin and his military — and many Western analysts and governments — assumed would be a quick and easy invasion. Photographer: Ihor Tkachov/AFP/Getty Images

“President Xi is probably looking at what’s happening in Ukraine and saying to himself: ‘Complicated military operations are harder than they look,’” US Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said in an interview. “You’ve got to do all of the logistic stuff that can be, you know, pretty unsexy, but I think we’ve seen in Ukraine how very, very important that is.”

During a visit to the PLA’s National Defense University in 2016, Xi demanded extra efforts to cultivate commanders capable of fostering joint operations. He instructed the military to “take extraordinary measures” to “achieve a major breakthrough as soon as possible.” 

In the years since, the PLA Army has increasingly conducted joint training with PLA Navy ships and civilian vessels in a bid to develop amphibious landing capabilities. Yet PLA publications continue to underscore the difficulties China faces, with a 2020 essay warning of a “mountain stronghold mentality” that prevents integration.

“Joint operations are currently a serious difficulty we face in our military struggle,” according to the analysis. 

Xi’s decision earlier this year to install fresh leadership from the navy and air force atop the nation’s nuclear arsenal could bolster efforts to better integrate the PLA. The surprise appointments marked the first time in 40 years that the rocket force’s top jobs went to outsiders of the secretive unit — but that move could also be a sign that the problems Xi identified within the force are ingrained.

The 2023 freshman military training parade held at Three Gorges University in Yichang, Hubei Province, China, in September.
The 2023 freshman military training parade held at Three Gorges University in Yichang, Hubei Province, China, in September. Photographer: Costfoto/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Another challenge Russia has faced in Ukraine has been its reliance on reservists it drafted into service, many of whom were untrained and poorly armed when they were thrown into combat. 

Roughly one-third of China’s two million-person military is composed of two-year conscripts, according to a study in War on the Rocks co-authored by former US military intelligence officer Dennis Blasko. That means much of the PLA’s forces, including the rocket force and the Army’s amphibious troops, are constantly introducing and training new recruits. By the time a unit gets up to full strength, it’s time for a large portion of its more experienced personnel to leave. 

Russia’s war has also been stymied by corruption, an issue that has historically plagued the PLA. In July, China announced a graft probe into the PLA’s equipment procurement department going back to 2017, showing the difficulty in uprooting malfeasance from the armed forces.

‘Peace Disease’

The PLA hasn’t seen major combat operations since Beijing’s brief and painful war against Vietnam in 1979. As a result, virtually none of China’s generals have combat experience, with rare exceptions such as 73-year-old Zhang Youxia, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, who was sent to the front lines more than four decades ago.

Xi and his generals dub this lack of experience China’s “peace disease.” The official PLA Daily warned of the affliction as recently as last year, citing Xi’s repeated pronouncements: “In a long-term peaceful environment, officers and soldiers are prone to ‘peace disease,’” it wrote. 

China’s Missile Reach

Has the capabilities to bring Europe and the Atlantic into range

Note: Representations of locations, point of origin, and ranges are approximate. Map uses an azimuthal equidistant projection, which best preserves distances from the centre and is not restricted to a hemisphere.Sources: US Department of Defence, CSIS, Congressional Research Service, Chinese Aerospace Studies Institute and Bloomberg reporting

“China has not had war experience — they need to be tested” before undertaking anything like a full-scale invasion of Taiwan, said Li Xiaobing, director of the Western Pacific Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma, who previously served in the PLA. “They believe war-fighting experience is necessary not just to prove their capacity, but also to prove their loyalty, professionalism and to build a modern army.”

To be sure, China’s military has come a long way since the turn of the century, when the then-chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hugh Shelton, visited a Chinese military facility and told an aide that he’d seen 1970s-era equipment and 1950s-era tactics.

China’s navy has built up a body of non-combat experience through anti-piracy operations near the Horn of Africa. Since 2008, China has launched more than 40 naval escort task forces to the Middle East, even deploying attack submarines and landing ships not usually designated for such missions.  

China has also used recent tensions with Taiwan to undertake some of the largest maritime and air drills in its recent history. And it has stepped up participation in United Nations peacekeeping missions, deploying a full infantry battalion to South Sudan that helps it strengthen its command-and-control and practice the logistics of supporting an overseas presence. In South Sudan, however, there have been reports suggesting Chinese troops have abandoned their posts at key moments, accusations Beijing rejects. 

A Chinese peacekeeping to be stationed in Juba, South Sudan, part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission, pass the border inspection at an airport in Zhengzhou in central China's Henan province Tuesday, Dec. 06, 2022.
Chinese forces, deploying to Juba, South Sudan in a United Nations peacekeeping mission, pass the border inspection at an airport in Zhengzhou, in central China's Henan province, in 2022. Photographer: Feature China/Future Publishing/Getty Images

Yet a handful of lower-risk UN and anti-piracy operations will provide little guidance in a real war. 

In a naval conflict, for instance, “You’ve got the ships, but are you good at complex battle management?” said Lonnie Henley, who spent four decades as a US intelligence analyst focused on China and Asia. “You don’t want everyone shooting at the same missile or another missile will take out your carrier.” The air force, which seldom trains its pilots to prepare for the real-world conditions of war, faces similar challenges, he added. 


Unlike in most countries, the PLA isn’t technically China’s military: it’s the armed wing of the Communist Party. That means that, even for a military, the PLA is highly top-down, a problem that risks the ability of its commanders to make quick decisions on the ground as battlefield conditions change. 

The PLA has adjusted its doctrine to let the military take more initiative during operations, but the process remains slow and imperfect. Ironically, recent technologies such as video conferencing, secure computer networks and satellite communications have enabled high-tech forms of micromanagement.

Andrew Scobell, a PLA expert at the US Institute of Peace and co-author of China’s Search for Security, said China remains more focused on the “control” rather than the “command” part of “command and control,” adding that the consequences could prove debilitating. 

“This obsession with control means they’re not agile and flexible,” Scobell said. “If things change on the battlefield, the order you were given days ago may be disastrous to execute.”

In a structure reminiscent of the Soviet Union, PLA troops and officers also have a political dossier that assesses their reliability and attitude, while military commanders share authority with “political commissars” through a dual command system that stretches from service headquarters down to individual submarines and destroyers. Political commissars are supposed to take a lower priority in a conflict, but that system is largely untested.  

A brigade of the PLA army under the Eastern Theater Command, together with a department of the navy, air force and army aviation, during a combat drill in Zhangzhou, Fujian Province, China, on Sept 2, 2022.
A brigade of the PLA army under the Eastern Theater Command, together with a department of the navy, air force and army aviation, during a combat drill in Zhangzhou, Fujian Province, China, in Sept. 2022. Photographer: CFOTO/Future Publishing/Getty Images

Quick Victory

Many of these shortcomings won’t matter if China manages to overwhelm Taiwan’s forces quickly and the US and its allies are slow to act. That’s the message from numerous war games run by think tanks seeking to understand how a battle over Taiwan could evolve. 

Those scenarios show that the self-governed island would be outnumbered on almost every front. Even if the US intervenes, its formidable forces would be captive to supply lines potentially stretching thousands of miles and, as the US move to bolster operations in the Mideast shows, possibly hamstrung by conflicts in other parts of the world. 

Anti-landing barriers on a beach in Kinmen, Taiwan, in August.
Anti-landing barriers on a beach in Kinmen, Taiwan, in August. Photographer: An Rong Xu/Bloomberg

“Unless we scale back commitments elsewhere in the world and mass most of our forces in the Western Pacific, the contest will be a fraction of the US joint force going up against virtually the entirety of the PLA joint force,” said James R. Holmes, a professor at the US Naval War College and former Navy surface-warfare officer.

But many of the war games also show that if the US and its allies are quickly engaged, Taiwan could withstand the initial onslaught, though at a horrific cost on all sides. To that end, the US has tightened defense ties with allies including the Philippines, Japan and Australia, generating repeated protests from Beijing.

For its part, Russia’s military also banked on a quick win in Ukraine. But its internal weaknesses and missteps, compounded by Western intelligence-sharing, coordinated sanctions and NATO efforts to bolster Ukraine’s military, undermined that plan, as did the tenacity of Ukrainian soldiers on the battlefield.  

The joint US-European response to the invasion was surely noted in Beijing, but more than other nations, China should have been aware of Russia’s deficiencies: The two countries’ forces have trained together with increasing regularity, practicing everything from land-based peacekeeping missions to antisubmarine warfare. Yet Xi and his aides seemed as surprised by Russia’s shortcomings in Ukraine as anyone. 

A military personal guides the Taiwan's AAV7 amphibious assault vehicle on a beach during drill to simulate the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) landing on three beaches in Yilan, Taiwan on May 24, 2023
A Taiwanese training drill simulating an amphibious landing by the Chinese People's Liberation Army on three beaches in Yilan, Taiwan, in May 2023 Photographer: Walid Berrazeg/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Officials at China’s defense ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment on the PLA’s readiness and capabilities. While China has repeatedly said it isn’t planning to invade Taiwan, Xi’s government doesn’t rule it out.

“The Chinese are putting massive investments into their military and they're undertaking a whole range of actions that demonstrate a willingness to use military force to achieve what it is they think they want,” US Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks told Bloomberg.

US spy chiefs and the Pentagon assess that Xi wants his military capable of overwhelming the island by 2027, cautioning that they don’t have evidence he currently plans to do so. China’s own doubts may make such a conflict less likely, if only because a failure to capture Taiwan, or winning at too high a cost, could mean the Communist Party’s downfall. If China does directly invade Taiwan, avoiding the Ukraine scenario will be a priority. The PLA would come to that fight with a lot of advantages, but not all the ones that matter. 

“The truth is, no one knows how ready they are,” Culver, the former CIA analyst, said. “Any war would be a long war, probably the most costly since World War II, even if we win.”

— With assistance from Kari Soo LindbergEmily Cadman, and Adrian Leung

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