Marching On?

NATHAN WILLIAMS discusses China’s 2015 Military Day Parade and evaluates the strength of the People’s Liberation Army.

 

On September 3, 2015, tanks from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) rolled across Chang’an Avenue in the Forbidden City. Their purpose was to commemorate China’s victory over Japan during the Second World War. However, unlike the tanks used by China during its war against Japan, these new tanks were no Soviet hand-me-downs or cheap European tanks in disrepair. Instead, the PLA showcased its latest military hardware, much of which China now produces domestically. From modern fighter jets to well-disciplined infantrymen, the PLA today bears more resemblance to its Western military counterparts than to the ragtag mass of untrained peasants that comprised China’s Communist forces throughout the 1940s.

Nevertheless, the parade was far more than a simple commemoration. Despite the parade’s peaceful nature, it is no secret that China used the occasion to display its newfound military might. Unsurprisingly, many American military leaders find China’s growing military strength threatening. According to US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift, China continues to “claim territorial water rights that are inconsistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,” thereby jeopardizing peace in the Pacific. However, in order to properly assess whether the PLA could one day threaten US military supremacy, one must analyze the PLA itself.

Although September’s parade was aimed at presenting China’s increased conventional military capabilities, it left China’s most formidable weapon—cyber warfare—out of the picture. The US military draws most of its strength from its technological superiority, enabling US commanders to shape the battlefield as they see fit. However, cyber warfare enables China to potentially eliminate American technological superiority through targeting US military hardware that, for the most part, remains vulnerable to cyber attacks. Already PLA colonels have concluded that a cyber attack against a US carrier strike group could cripple “command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data links to the degree that the vessels would be rendered highly vulnerable to conventional attacks by PLA forces.” Thus, cyber warfare may provide the PLA with the perfect tool to level the playing field in the Pacific.

As a result, the PLA does not need to match the US in its spending on conventional naval capabilities to present a significant threat to US naval power. US war planners already know how to deal with conventional naval warfare. However, cyber warfare presents a completely new strategy, meaning US military leaders have had little time to develop any sort of comprehensive plan to address the new threat. China, on the other hand, has ample experience dealing with cyber threats. China’s extensive censorship network, as well as independent internet servers, provide China with a sophisticated defense from cyber attacks.

However, technological prowess is only one characteristic of a capable military. From France’s infamous defeat in Algeria to the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, history is full of modern armies defeated by technologically inferior foes. Only when coupled with experienced troops and a disciplined chain of command does advanced weaponry create an unstoppable military force.

As of now, the PLA has limited, if any, combat experience. The last war fought by the PLA was the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, during which 80,000 PLA troops were pushed back by a smaller, yet battle-hardened, Vietnamese army. Chinese leaders severely overestimated the ability of PLA forces, resulting in tens of thousands of unnecessary PLA casualties. Unless PLA leadership has changed dramatically since the Sino-Vietnamese War, the PLA will continue to remain in the shadow of modern Western militaries.

Unfortunately for China, even if the PLA worked harder to gain combat experience, its leadership remains plagued by incompetence. Communist Party officials often promote officers based on their own political agendas. As a result, excellence is the exception, not the standard, amongst the PLA’s most high-ranking officers. In July 2014, Gu Junshan, Deputy Head of the PLA General Logistics Department and Xu Caihou, the former Vice-Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, were both implicated in one of China’s largest corruption scandals. The two had promoted hundreds of officers based on bribes, thereby undermining the PLA’s already inexperienced chain of command. China’s lack of competent military leaders, paired with the absence of PLA combat experience since the Sino-Vietnamese War, prevents the PLA from matching the professionalism and expertise of most Western militaries.

Due to the development of China’s conventional as well as cyber warfare capabilities, the PLA may hope to one day match US military strength on a technological level. However, despite technological progress, the PLA lacks combat experience and leadership necessary to fully overcome US military superiority. In the end, the question of whether the PLA will present a significant threat to United States comes down to the choices PLA leaders make. Should China crack down on corruption within its military’s ranks and continue to invest in the development of unorthodox military technology, the PLA may stand one day to match Western military power. Nevertheless, until these changes are implemented, the PLA will remain confined to doing what it’s best at: parading up and down Chang’an Avenue.

NATHAN WILLIAMS is a sophomore at Harvard University. Contact him at nathanlukewilliams@college.harvard.edu.

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