When Beijing on Monday announces its defence budget for 2019, the figures are expected to fuel western concerns over Beijing’s growing military strength by continuing a 25-year run of increases that has made China the world’s number two military spender. But from within the People’s Liberation Army, the picture looks rather different.
The PLA Daily, the force’s main newspaper, ran a report last week scrutinising the military’s weaknesses, noting how in a recent ground forces exercise, the reconnaissance network link within the attacking unit failed to function properly, which would have left advance attack troops exposed to enemy fire. The article criticised the “chaos in command” at one battalion and revealed how another unit had mishandled technology, which prevented the battlefield situation map being updated.
The picture of a force struggling to master basic command and control tasks contrasts sharply with a developing western narrative about an increasingly dangerous PLA itching to fight.
In January, a report from the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency warned that rapid modernisation may heighten the PLA confidence and make it more willing to risk war. “The biggest concern is that . . . they are getting to a point where the PLA leadership may actually tell [President] Xi Jinping that they are confident in their capabilities” for combat, an official said, adding that a potential future Chinese attack on Taiwan was the biggest concern.
But some western military analysts believe the Pentagon has it wrong. They insist the PLA continues to struggle with the same issues with human resources, organisation, corruption and IT that have bedevilled the force for decades.
“I do not see them confident to the point where they would feel ready to fight,” said Dennis Blasko, a former US army attaché in Beijing and one of the foremost western experts in Chinese military affairs.
“Scenarios I could think of which the PLA might be confident taking on today are in places the PLA can walk or drive to,” he continued. Those were “land force scenarios on the borders, maybe against small terrorist groups, where they do not have to integrate naval, air, and rocket force assets to the extent that would be required in a Taiwan scenario.”
In testimony to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission last month, Mr Blasko diagnosed a “persistent lack of confidence in PLA capabilities and a failure of the PLA’s educational and training systems to prepare commanders and staff officers for future war”. In a sharp rebuttal of the Pentagon assessment, he said the senior Chinese military leadership demonstrated “little or no appetite to immerse the PLA into the cauldron of actual combat”.
At the root of the disconnect is China’s own propaganda.
Sober reviews of the PLA’s challenges, such as the PLA Daily report, are common. According to statistics collected by Alastair Iain Johnston, a China expert at Harvard University, the military newspaper mentioned key phrases pinpointing the force’s weaknesses hundreds of times in 2018 alone. The “Five Incapables”, a term criticising commanders’ shortcomings, has appeared 557 times since Mr Xi coined it in 2015.
But those reports are rarely translated into English, and the message to the outside world is drastically different. Mr Xi himself discarded China’s foreign policy maxim that the country must “bide its time” and stated that the country was moving closer to the centre of the global stage.
The more assertive rhetoric has been matched with action as China built up artificial islands in the South China Sea, militarised them and has used this clout to block rival claimants out of disputed waters. It also started flying bomber aircraft around Taiwan, upping its military threat towards the island.
Meanwhile, a cast of retired PLA officers make hawkish and sometimes outright warmongering commentary on Chinese state media — to be picked up by foreign journalists with whom active PLA personnel are almost never allowed to speak.
In one recent example, Dai Xu, a retired PLA Air Force colonel, suggested in December that the PLA Navy should attack US naval vessels on operations in the South China Sea. “If the US warships break into Chinese waters again, I suggest that two warships should be sent: one to stop it, and another one to ram it,” he said.
Mr Blasko dismisses Mr Dai and similar ex-military talking heads. “They have not been in service for a long time, and they do not represent the force,” he said. “They may serve a deterrence purpose for the Chinese government and the [Communist] party.”
Another factor feeding western fears of the PLA is China’s massive military spending spree, which has allowed Beijing to build the world’s largest arsenal of intermediate-range missiles, one of the largest military surface fleets, and growing cyber capabilities.
But while defence experts agree that the PLA is becoming more professional and is expanding its reach, the push to modernise the force is creating more problems in the near term.
“There is going to be wrangling between the new theatre commands and the splintering units created in the latest restructuring,” said Alex Neill, an expert on Chinese military affairs at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “They are facing incredibly challenging times with regard to training and personnel management.”