China’s military made substantial strides in building modern armed forces but remains fundamentally weak due to problems with combat capabilities, Party controls, and corruption, according to a congressional study made public Wednesday.
Chinese military gains over the past several decades are “impressive overall, and the [People’s Liberation Army] is clearly becoming an increasingly professional and capable fighting force,” states the report done for Congress’ bipartisan U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
However, the report concludes, “we have found that the PLA suffers from potentially serious weaknesses. These shortcomings could limit its ability to successfully conduct the information-centric, integrated joint operations Chinese military strategists see as required to fight and win future wars.”
The 201-page report, written for the commission by seven China experts at the Rand Corporation, stated that knowing Chinese military weaknesses will be valuable for deterring conflict or defeating China in a future war.
Commission Vice Chairman Dennis Shea said the study is important because of its focus on PLA deficiencies and vulnerabilities.
“The report’s coverage of the PLA’s organizational, combat, and industrial weaknesses is an excellent tool for our defense planners on Capitol Hill, in the administration, and within the wider defense community, as they seek to anticipate the future direction of China’s military modernization, tailor future U.S.-China military-to-military cooperation, and protect U.S. national interests at home and abroad,” Shea said.
Major institutional weaknesses include poor command structures, low quality personnel, and corruption in the ranks.
The central problem for PLA combat capability is an inability to conduct joint ground, air, and sea military operations, a key to conducting operations outside China’s land mass, the report said.
The Chinese military also currently has problems integrating advanced weapons, and military personnel lack proper training for using and maintaining the arms, the report said.
The weaknesses mean that despite new weapons systems, such as missiles, submarines, cyber warfare capabilities, and space weapons, “the PLA’s weaknesses increase the risk of failure to successfully perform some of the missions Chinese Communist Party leaders may task it to execute, such as in various Taiwan contingencies, maritime claim missions, sea line of communication protection, and some military operations other than war scenarios,” the report said.
The report reveals that the Chinese military is vulnerable to cyber attacks that could disrupt its “informationized”—high-technology—weapons, including missiles, submarines, aircraft, and space systems that could be crippled by electronic or cyber strikes.
Chinese stealth aircraft are being developed, including the J-20 and J-31, but are less capable than U.S. F-22s and F-35s. A new Chinese stealth bomber is also being developed.
China’s advanced space, cyber, and electronic warfare efforts were described in the study as vital for Chinese plans for its enforcing territorial and maritime claims over Taiwan, Japan’s Senkakus or in the South China Sea, the report said, adding that building up those capabilities remains a high priority for the PLA.
China is using military exchanges with the Pentagon to improve its ability to fight a conflict against the United States and find weaknesses in U.S. forces, the study said.
The study also raised the possibility that Chinese military writing on the weaknesses could be used for deception but said it is unlikely because producing so much false information would confuse and mislead PLA officers.
On corruption, the report said the PLA has “almost absolute immunity” from external oversight, and as a result is “riddled with corruption” involving pay for promotions and other illicit practices, the report says.
The study warned that problems in assessing the impact of corruption on PLA war fighting capabilities could cause the U.S. military to underestimate or overestimate China’s military readiness.
To counteract for ground forces weaknesses, the PLA has sharply increased its missile forces, deploying more than 1,000 missiles of various ranges.
The PLA currently is a major target of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign that has ensnared some of the highest-ranking military officers, creating uncertainty within the entire military. One U.S. official said the crackdown, which appears related to power consolidation by Xi rather than efforts to end corruption, has produced “chaos” in the PLA. At least three of the most senior generals are under investigation and more arrests and sackings are expected.
Analysts said the report highlights the danger that China’s Communist rulers and PLA leaders will stumble into a major conflict by miscalculating the strength of its untested forces of missiles, warships, aircraft, cyber warfare, and space weapons.
China’s military is quietly seeking to build military capabilities that match those of the United States and in some cases have exceeded U.S. capabilities, such as Beijing’s cyber warfare and anti-satellite arms, said a U.S. government official who specializes in China. “But that has given them a false sense of confidence that they can surprise us, and that’s very dangerous,” the official said.
Michael Pillsbury, a Pentagon consultant and author of a new book on Chinese strategy, The Hundred-Year Marathon, said the report reflects comments he has heard in China.
“Beijing's military has been complaining that this mission to protect China's interests around the world is too heavy to bear without a large budget increase and additional technology,” Pillsbury said.
China lacks strategic air transports, aircraft carriers, a global military base structure, and a communication system for these missions, he added.
“China will have more than $1 trillion dollars to spend on a new weapons acquisitions over the next 10 years,” Pillsbury said.
The biggest handicap for the PLA is the current arms embargo on weapons and military technology sales from the European Union, the United States, and Japan.
“Unfortunately for China, the only way to get those embargoes lifted is by initiating major democratic and human rights reforms that the Chinese military is completely opposed to,” he said. “They are caught in a dilemma: Democratic political reform and better weapons, or trying to go it alone.”
Rick Fisher, a specialist on the Chinese military, said the report is based on open Chinese military writings and that raises the question of whether Beijing is seeking to deceive U.S. military planners and intelligence analysts that its capabilities are weaker than they are.
“Chinese military literature has evolved to include deeper and wider discussion of ‘weaknesses,’” Fisher said. “To be sure, there is always a danger of deception in this literature, but it is also featured heavily in ‘teaching’ literature and often appears to reflect lobbying for funding.”
Fisher urge caution in accepting the report’s potential for overstating Chinese weaknesses, noting “China's historic preference for using surprise and mass force to overcome weaknesses.”