By Jiang Xueqin, Special to CNN
Jiang Xueqin is a China-born writer and educator. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chronicle of Higher Education and The Diplomat among other publications. The views expressed are his own.
Never has there been so much fear and anxiety over China’s naval intentions in the South China Sea. Each People’s Liberation Army action, whether it be an aggressive patrol into disputed territory or a deployment of a new aircraft carrier, only feeds into this fear and anxiety. But neither big fast ships nor arrogant swagger will win a naval war, and China’s PLA suffers from three institutional weaknesses that will ultimately sink its naval ambitions in the South China Sea.
The first and most important weakness is the Communist Party’s institutional control over the PLA, which Richard MacGregor discusses in his book The Party. In China’s Leninist military structure, the political power of commissars, whose only virtue is their blind loyalty to Party, trumps the tactical expertise of officers. Ultimately, whatever military ambitions the PLA has to be a modern professional fighting force capable of exerting its influence in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans must be subordinate to the political exigencies of a ruling party fast losing its authority and legitimacy.
Second, because of the military’s top-down hierarchical structure enforced by commissars to ensure Party control, the PLA has never really developed the non-commissioned officer system, which as Robert Kaplan explains in his book Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts has made the American military the finest fighting machine the world has ever known.
In The Party, MacGregor suggests both Chinese and American officers understand how severe this limitation is to the PLA’s fighting potential:
“‘What kills the military is the political system,’ a [Chinese] retired officer told me. ‘We don’t have a sergeant system, and the sergeants and the likes are the ones who do most of the real military work.’ What the Chinese officer called the sergeant system is the tradition in western militaries of vesting substantial authority in non-commissioned officers…to make many-on-the-ground decisions. ‘In our culture, delegating actually enhances authority. It shows that a commander listens,’ said a senior US military officer who has studied the PLA. ‘It is difficult to have an NCO system in a culture which does not like to delegate authority. In China, where so much is vested in face, you maintain your authority not just by being in charge but by appearing to be in charge.’’’
To visualize what this difference represents, think of the PLA’s top-down hierarchy as concrete and the American military’s more flexible command structure as play-doh. While the PLA seems tough and hard, a precise strike would break the concrete into permanent pieces. But not even concerted strikes could break the play-doh; the sergeant system means the American military has achieved the engineering ideal of being “ductile.”
In his book War, meanwhile, Sebastian Junger vividly recounts how an American platoon patrolling in the mountains of Afghanistan got snared in a Taliban pincer attack, but by working together and by trusting the experience and expertise of their sergeants they fought their way out of the deadly trap with minimal casualties. On-the-spot judgment and decision-making would matter a great deal in the wind-swept waters and on the fragile islands of the South China Sea, and that’s one reason why China’s large top-down navy could be more of a liability than an asset in any engagement.
Third, the South China Sea is politically chaotic and complex, a situation that because of its first two weaknesses, the PLA finds difficult to fathom institutionally. Any naval action has political ripple effects, and the PLA’s aggressiveness and swagger is only driving all of China’s neighbors into America’s open arms. Because of America’s counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the inextricability of military maneuvers from political consequences is now part of the American military’s DNA.
Because the People’s Liberation Army has engaged in very few conflicts, institutionally it has not changed much since it “liberated” the Chinese people in 1949. Indeed, in the Korean War, the first and last time the PLA engaged the American military, we can see how fatal the PLA’s weaknesses were.
First, the PLA’s entry into the Korean War was ultimately a political decision that Mao Zedong made against the violent protestations of his military advisors; General Peng Dehuai presciently argued that the PLA did not possess the logistical and organizational capacity to fight on the Korean peninsula. And, as the war dragged on, Chinese casualties skyrocketed, as PLA commanders just threw their troops into American heavily-fortified positions; in the rare instances when sheer numbers and blind courage over-ran machine gun nests, Chinese soldiers were at a loss as to what to do next, and reportedly listlessly waited for orders from the top that never came, allowing the Americans to quickly re-take hills and choke-points.
Third and most important is how Mao Zedong badly misjudged the political situation. He allegedly trusted Stalin to provide air support, which Stalin did not do because he coldly and correctly calculated Russia had more to benefit from a chastened PLA than a victorious one. And because China interceded on behalf of belligerent North Korea, it inadvertently helped to justify a permanent American military presence in the region – something that China had aimed to prevent with its entry into the Korean War, ironically enough.
While the Korean War went down in history as a stalemate, in reality it was an overwhelming American victory. If China were to provoke a conflict in the South China Sea, history would very likely repeat itself.
Chinese pride themselves as diligent and dedicated students of history. The question now is how true that is.