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China's Military Is Not So Intimidating

A silent observer looking around. At times he must protect his identity with avatars and weird sounding names.


I don’t wish to be racist as we have Chinese people in several parts of Asia, from Taiwan to Singapore. This article will focus on a country that flexed its muscles in recent years. An Asian country that considered other nation’s backyards as part of its territory (we will get to that below); a country with a penchant for chasing away fishermen in an open sea, and branding them as stray overs. And this nation even reclaimed man-made islands right in the heart of someone else’s economic zone. You’re right. The People’s Republic of China is bent on showing everyone who is the new superpower. But somehow I felt that bullying smaller nations is the only thing it is good at. Yes, they have the biggest army and an inventory of advanced hardware. But are those enough to show that China can bite?

Again I’m not too fond of politics, but I’m making an exemption in this case. I live in a country bullied by China in recent years. Just miles from the Philippine’s shoreline, China is running a small man-made island protected by patrolling warships and planes. And for me it’s not a pretty sight to behold. It’s like having an unstable neighbour throwing a loud party in my lawn while brandishing knives. Nevertheless as a consolation, it is nice to know that China is yet to become the superpower it aspires. It will take decades until this dragon fully develops its fangs and claim the crown as Asia’s heavyweight. If you want to know more, just read below.

China Could Be a Paper Dragon

Chinese troops in a PLA parade.

Chinese troops in a PLA parade.

China’s armed force, known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a frightening sight to behold. Its army boasts strength of 1.6 million personnel (as of 2016), making it the largest in the world. And each branch, from ground to air sports dazzling array of hardware. There are even reports that the PLA is doing cyberwarfares, and the locally made stealth fighter jet (Chengdu J-20) worries a lot of military analysts.

It sounds like China is now on par with the West in terms of military might, but everything is not what it seems.

Yes the PLA is getting stronger, but not strong enough to truly match the West. It is still 20 years behind some Western power, and its armed force could exhibit brittleness when faced with real life conflict.

The PLA is Inexperienced

Chinese female soldiers

Chinese female soldiers

Perhaps the greatest deficiency of PLA is the fact that it rarely fights. Its last modern engagement is during the Korean War, where it contributed to the loss of North Korea. Most Western (and Eastern) nations have vast experience with wars, from conventional to asymmetric. And just recently the War on Terror had mobilized these nations to combat the growing threat of radicalized groups.

Even the smaller nations that China bullied is long prepared for the horrors of war.

A good example is Philippines. Years of fighting Maoists rebels in the jungle basically hardened its troops. And now the relatively small armed force just made a telling blow to the Islamic State. By defeating one of its affiliated group (the Maute group), it halted the growth of radicalized terror network in South East Asia.

And China was missing in these recent conflicts.

This lack of actions is taking its toll in PLA. Years of doing nothing, but facing border scraps made the nation act brazenly. China is so hot for action that it aggressively occupied the East and South China Sea, even if it infringes some smaller nation’s territories. And as what other sees it, being overly hawkish all comes down to lack of experience.

And how about the PLA battle plan…

The military doctrine implemented in 1999 emphasized flexibility, without directly engaging the enemy head on and attacking the weak points. It sounds good in papers, but with a highly centralized armed forces like in the PLA, let’s just say that it is not flexible enough to adopt such flexible approach.

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Chinese soldiers doing lectures.

Chinese soldiers doing lectures.

We are presented with an image of PLA as an innumerable fighting force. A massive army ready to take on any threats---given that the soldiers are properly trained which in reality is not. Firstly they have low recruiting standards. Armies elsewhere must undergo rigorous physical and medical examinations to determine if they are even fit to fight. In 2008 and 2011, the Chines e government lowered the standards for recruitment probably to increase the number of applicants. They ended up with underweight, overweight and unhealthy recruits which could not even stand a chance in a fist fight.

Sure, proper training should correct this.

But then since mostly are college freshmen, their so called trainings are classroom lectures of government indoctrination. Party ideologies ate 40 % of the training time, unlike many soldiers who bleed and got beaten with brutal training regimes of bootcamps.

To top it all, corruptions among party officials is not helping either.

Weapons and Hardware

Chengdu J-20. The Chinese stealth jet.

Chengdu J-20. The Chinese stealth jet.

I’m not undermining China’s technology. China after all produces many of the world’s modern industrial technology these days. I just want to stress out that the PLA’s so called locally made hardware are yet to be on par with the West. To be honest, unlike what China’s propaganda’s machine is claiming, their military assets are overrated.

For one thing their inventories of arsenals are filed with museum pieces. Outdated weapons outnumbered that of modern one. Yes they have 7580 battle tanks, more than that of the US (5000 M-1). But only 450 are modern. And it terms of technology they are nowhere near the M-1s fielded in the Iraq Wars. Most of the PLA tanks are 1980s Soviet types.

The J-15 (left) and the Sukhoi 27 "Flanker".

The J-15 (left) and the Sukhoi 27 "Flanker".

As for their jets, theirs’ are obvious knockoffs. They have the Shenyang J-15, the reason why Russia stopped the sale of Sukhoi SU-27 to China. It was born after China acquired and studied a prototype from Ukraine before releasing their modified version. Unfortunately despite having the same air-frame, it failed to outperform the original Sukhoi. It was mocked as the Flopping Fish due to its inability to carry heavy weapons from an aircraft carrier. There are even reports that this thing is accident prone.

Wreckage of the "Flopping Fish" after it crashed.

Wreckage of the "Flopping Fish" after it crashed.

In the sea, China did procure some frightening fleet of warships and submarines. But when it comes to naval superiority in Asia-Pacific, the crown goes to Japan instead. The PLA Navy did boasted 700 vessels, but only 220 are combat ships. The rest are patrol, supports or out-dated boats. And as for its aircraft carrier Liaoning, it is just a retrofitted Soviet carrier Riga with some engine problems. It is half the size of the US super-carriers and carries less aircrafts and uses ski jumps instead of catapults.

To sum it up, the PLA is still struggling to catch up with other established military powers.


Shannon.tassone on September 15, 2018:

When you are weak appear to be strong.

When you are strong appear to be weak. The question that one needs to ask: weak or strong?

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