November 13th, 2012
05:27 PM ET

Why the PLA would struggle to fight a war

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.

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soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. newimmi

    While I give the author the benefit of the doubt as to Stalin's betrayal of China as regards air cover, I would venture that the Soviet Union herself would not have wanted the USA overunning N. Korea and being stationed both at her's and China's borders. Stalin would have thought himself clever by having China and the USA fight each other on the ground. Also Kruschev's ordering in the 1960s of withdrawal of industrial/technical aid and help with China's atomic bomb program owing to ideological differences on Marxism and strategy matters. Years later, China paid the Soviet Union back with the start of her emergence on the world seem with the Nixon-Kissinger visits. Today the People's Republic of China is the world's second large economy by GDP and the Soviet Union has been reduced to Russia.

    November 13, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Reply
  2. thumbsihave2

    Rather curious as to why mentioning the Chinese-American fighting from over six decades is relevant to framing today's dynamics . That aside, there is no reason for China to build up a large surface fleet as doing so would be rightfullly be perceived by its immediate neighboring countries and the world as aggression and likely be wiped away by a larger surface fleet at this point. And the small vessels currently employed serve the purpose of harassing and antagonizing, without much actual financial or personnel investment. I wonder, however, why there is no mention of the growing submarine fleet of China, nor of the increasing number and technologically complex airplanes of the Chinese military. No mention of cyberwarfare versus foreign industry and governments. No mention of China's strengthening position in the global economy, which is the basis for any nation truly becoming and remaining a world power. Finally, China's greatest asset is its people and cannot be underestimated, whether it be in China's ability to wage war or to change and avert conflict, instead choosing for peaceful interactions with the rest of the world.

    November 14, 2012 at 6:50 am | Reply
    • ImperiumVita

      Thumbsihave2- "Finally, China's greatest asset is its people and cannot be underestimated, whether it be in China's ability to wage war or to change and avert conflict"

      Article- "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."

      What's that about the Chinese people again?

      November 15, 2012 at 8:32 am | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    The PLA started life as a ramshackle guerrilla troop 80 years ago. With over 2 million serving troops, it is now one of the world's advanced military forces, with nuclear weapons and a reach that even extends into space. To pay for new equipment and modernising the army, China has had a decade of double-digit growth in military spending. Foreign governments are not the only ones worrying about the PLA's strength. Chinese leaders are also concerned – but for different reasons. Some feared that the process could go too far. They preferred a lean, modern military, one that does not forget it was established to serve the party, not the country.

    November 14, 2012 at 8:49 am | Reply
  4. clueless

    Interesting the mighty US marine fail to win and a stalemate occur in the Korean war, and in reality it is an America victory? How about the Vietnam war the mighty US marine didn't win either?
    Before the South China Sea dispute how many Asian country have a mutual military defence pact with China?
    I believe China existing main defence in the South China Sea is its short and medium range missile, as China have limited ICBM. Smile.

    November 15, 2012 at 12:04 am | Reply
    • ImperiumVita

      In the Korean war, the USA's primary objective was preserving South Korea, The invasion of North Korea was part of Its secondary objectives. South Korea still exists, so the USA won. Looking at casualty numbers, USA won. Call it a stalemate is really an undeserved courtesy to the Chinese soldiers who died in human waves.

      Vietnam was obviously less of a success, the primary goal was not maintained in the long run; but nor was it lost while the USA was involved either. Again, casualty numbers tell the story of winners and losers.

      November 15, 2012 at 8:39 am | Reply
      • Maersk

        Dickk head, you forgot the Chinese were alone fighting the United Nations with lousy weapons and they were still able to drive the America losers away, by that alone, the Chinese won.

        November 15, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  5. rabbiVo

    No army in the world can defeat the US in a conventional war (or even a nuclear war). Case in point is when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, the US captured Bagdad in less than three months.

    chinese communists have no capability to achieve that.

    The war in Afghanistan is a counterinsurgency (guerrila) type of war where insurgents hide among the civilians and is therefore of a different type from conventional war.

    chinese communist have no capability of even getting to Afghanistan, much less winning against the afghan insurgents.

    As to the Korean War, if Truman did not prevent Gen. MacArthur from crossing the Yalu and destroying the chinese communists bases across the Yalu, and allowing Gen Chang Kai Shek's Nationalists forces from attacking from Taiwan, there would be no communist chinese scare crow today.

    chinese communists like to self glorify themselves as the best but in reality they are nothing nor even deserve to be respected despite their 5000 year old history.

    chinese communists are shamelessly dishonest and morally bankrupt. chinese communist will never succeed in their goal of global domination because their lies and falsehoods can easily be defeated by the Truth.

    November 16, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Reply
  6. rabbiVo

    The best and simplest strategy that the USA should employ today in South East Asia is this:

    The Filipinos are the most steadfast, loyal ally of the USA in Asia , from 1903(end of the Fil-Am war), through World War 1, World War 2, Korean War, Vietnam War, up to the present.

    Instead of pouring billions of dollars to Pakistan and Afghanistan (these have dubious loyalties to America), USA should pour those billions of dollars of military aid instead to the Philippines.

    The Filipinos are not afraid of the chinese communists.

    During the Korean War, a single battalion combat team of the Philippine Army decimated an entire chinese communist division in the battle of Yultong,

    Properly armed and expertly led, Filipinos are some of the best fighters in the world. Filipino warriors are never outfought. Even General Douglas MacArthur was impressed by their bravery.

    The chinese communists will never win a war against a fully- armed Filipino warrior force.

    The Philippines can defeat the chinese communists in the West Philippine Sea.

    To successfully defend the West Philippine Sea against chinese communist invaders, the Philippines can employ an Area-Denial, Anti- Access strategy.

    First, while letting the chinese communists think that it is defenceless, the Philippines quietly arms itself, making sure that all preparations are unknown and unseen by communist spies.

    Phase I.
    a) Convert all large islands of the Philippines into unsinkable aircraft and missile carriers.

    b) Cover the entire Philippine territorial air,land and sea with sufficient number of surface-to-air missile batteries and air-superiority fighter aircraft (at least 15 squadrons).

    Phase II
    a) Deploy mines on the approach routes of chinese communist ships.

    b) employ accurate,long range, surface-surface cruise missiles from secure batteries along the coasts of Palawan, Luzon and the nearby islands , to knock out the chinese communist ships.

    c) follow-up with drones to overwhelm and finish off any remaining chinese communist resistance.

    d) employ sufficient number of submarines (at least 9 squadrons) to interdict any naval reinforcements from communist china.

    Phase III.
    Unleash sufficient number of naval strike aircraft ( at least 9 squadrons) to destroy any remaining communist vessels and prevent their escape back to communist china.

    Phase IV
    Unleash the newly refurbished Philippine Navy surface fleet to clear and sweep the entire West Philippine Sea of any remaining chinese communist invaders.

    November 16, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Reply

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