Sun Tzu’s admonition “Know the enemy and know yourself” is a fundamental tenet of Chinese military strategy . The books On Military Campaigns and The Science of Military Strategy include it as the first of 10 principles of war . Moreover, Military Strategy reverses the sequence and puts “knowing ourselves” first . Many articles from the official Chinese press illustrate the fact that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has an active program of self-evaluation and is well aware of its strengths and weaknesses, especially in relation to the United States’ armed forces.
Despite 2,500 years of tradition in “knowing yourself,” every year since 2005 the U.S. Defense Department has warned, “China’s leaders may overestimate the proficiency of their forces by assuming that new systems are fully operational, adeptly operated, adequately supplied and maintained, and well integrated with existing or other new capabilities” . This assertion is listed among “misperceptions [that] could lead to miscalculation or crisis.”
While acknowledging today’s PLA is vastly improved over its larger, less-technologically-advanced self of a decade ago, some PLA officers have expressed frustration over this conclusion (as well as others) in the Pentagon reports . Many foreign perceptions of the PLA do not comport with officers’ personal experience, what is written in official Chinese sources, and what is taught in professional military schools. Since 2006, the official Chinese media has published repeatedly a general assessment of Chinese military capabilities—sometimes called the “two incompatibles” or “two cannot suits”—that identifies surprising limitations for the force.
Smaller and Better, but Still Strapped for Cash
Since 1997 the active-duty PLA has been reduced by 700,000 personnel to about 2.3 million . Unlike other militaries, PLA active-duty rosters include an unknown number of uniformed civilians . Comparable American civilians working for the Pentagon would add over 650,000 personnel to the 1.36 million active U.S. military personnel, making it nearly the same size as the active PLA force . But, as the PLA has become smaller, it has developed greater capabilities which cost more to sustain.
The announced Chinese defense budget has more than quadrupled since 1998 . These increases have resulted in large pay and benefit increases; new uniforms, better food and living quarters; an array of new, mostly Chinese-made equipment, especially computers and communications gear; and increased tempo and realism of training exercises. Nonetheless, attracting and retaining qualified personnel is a problem, new equipment expensive to purchase, operate, and maintain, and China, too, faces increased prices for oil and other commodities. As a result, the PLA sees itself with minimal financial resources and consistently urges efficiency and thrift.
In 2006, the Army paper stated, “China is a large developing country. Money is needed in many aspects. The contradiction between the needs of military modernization construction and the short supply of funds will exist for the long run” (Jiefangjun Bao, August 8, 2006). A year later, the director of the PLA’s Finance Department emphasized the requirement to use “limited financial resources to ensure military modernization … the armed forces must find ways to improve their financial and economic management … ” (Jiefangjun Bao, February 2, 2006).
Missions and General Assessment
The PLA has set the goal of “winning informationized wars by the mid-21st century” with milestones at 2010 and 2020 . The military and security intelligentsia is now debating future requirements under the rubric of the “historic missions for the new stage in the new century.” New missions will “gradually” extend the reach of the PLA and emphasize “non-traditional security” operations such as antiterrorism, disaster relief, economic security, public health and information security, etc.
The PLA also has a multilayered deterrence mission, which includes China’s nuclear posture as well as deterring attacks on the mainland and preventing Taiwan from further movement toward independence. The Chinese armed forces are obsessed with defending China from long-range precision air strikes and repairing civilian infrastructure damaged during such attacks. Concurrently, security forces are preparing for a range of potential terrorist actions, including nuclear, chemical, and biological attacks.
PLA doctrine shares the concept of “peace through strength” prevalent in America during the Cold War. It understands that credible deterrence requires a capable military and the willingness to use it. But, according to The Science of Military Strategy, “Warfighting is generally used only when deterrence fails and there is no alternative,” and preferably, “strategic deterrence is also a means for attaining the political objective” .
Since 2006 official Chinese publications have stated on more than 20 occasions, “The level of our modernization is incompatible with the demands of winning a local war under informatization conditions and our military capability is incompatible with the demands of carrying out the army’s historic missions” . This general assessment has been applied specifically to personnel development, training, logistics, and technology levels. For example, the director of the General Logistics Department wrote the PLA must address the issue of “an insufficient logistics modernization level [to win] informatized local wars and insufficient support capability for the requirement of fulfilling the historical missions” (Jiefangjun Bao, January 12, 2006). On June 19, 2008, PLA Daily reported:
All participants [at a Symposium on Military Management Innovation] held the view that the combat effectiveness of the troops today is nagged by “two cannot suits,” i.e., its modernization level cannot suit the demand of winning the IT-based local wars, and its military capability cannot suit the requirements for fulfilling its historical mission in the new century and the new period (PLA Daily, June 19).
The General Assessment and PLA Doctrine
These judgments, often called “contradictions,” are attributed to Hu Jintao and are clearly at odds with the Pentagon’s warning. They are, however, consistent with the long-term goal “winning informationized wars by the mid-21st century.” While most foreigners focus on new equipment, PLA officers understand their doctrine requires the integration of all forces, old and new, military and civilian, into joint operations that incorporate firepower, mobility, information operations, and special operations. In recent years, training for “integrated joint operations” has increased, but this year PLA headquarters placed primary emphasis on basic training, small unit training, and command and staff training (Jiefangjun Bao, January 21).
“Trump Card” weapons are one of many elements that must be integrated into complex campaigns. PLA war planners operate under the assumption that the PLA will be the weaker side in most scenarios so it will “use inferior weapons to defeat a superior enemy” (Jiefangjun Bao, April 3, 2006). People’s War, with its emphasis on deception, use of stratagem, fighting the enemy close in, political mobilization, and civilian support, is still “a fundamental strategy” .
Sun Tzu also taught, “All warfare is based on deception” . Could these assessments be a strategic deception campaign? With the exception of the English-language “two cannot suits” example, nearly all of the roughly 20 references to this formula have appeared in Chinese . Most are buried within longer articles that first praise the PLA for progress made, but then follow with the bad news. The intent of the message is to encourage the troops to greater action, “If we are complacent with the status quo and ignore reform, the only consequence that can come about as a result is that we will be left even further behind with respect to the great worldwide trend of new military changes by the strong militaries of the world” (Jiefangjun Bao, January 1).
Thus, while the use of this term is part of an internal propaganda campaign, the vast majority of instances are not intended for foreign consumption—though the Chinese could correctly assume that foreigners do read their newspapers (many of which are available on the internet). If the Chinese intend to deceive the Pentagon with these words, the Pentagon has not been swayed.
After all routine major training exercises, unit leaders assess achievements and identify shortfalls. For example, commanders and staff officers were recently described as falling “far short in meeting the demands of joint operations” (PLA Daily, June 27), and a group army commander called for steps “to resolve the problem of training lagging behind operational requirements in practice … ” (Jiefangjun Bao, May 27).
The Sichuan earthquake relief operations have revealed much about PLA joint operational capabilities. Though no weapons are involved, this deployment is being conducted according to PLA joint operations doctrine, providing a real-world test bed for the PLA. Within two weeks of the disaster, some 133,000 active-duty PLA and People’s Armed Police personnel and 45,000 reservists and militia were deployed (PLA Daily, May 30). Most traveled by road or rail, but in the first days of the operation the Air Force conducted what Xinhua called “its largest airlift yet” of some 11,420 troops (Xinhua News Agency, May 14). About 100 military helicopters (nearly one quarter of the Army Aviation inventory) were dispatched from all over the country. Civilian assets augmented these fleets.
While a “heroic” effort, the PLA Daily noted “the PLA’s long-distance rapid insertion capability [is] in a state of relative weakness” (Jiefangjun Bao, May 20). People’s Daily commented, “With this earthquake, we mustered as many helicopters as possible, but overall they were still too few, and their capabilities not yet improved” (Renmin Wang, May 22, 2006). The PLA will gain important experience from these efforts, but, just as important, the deployment offers an opportunity to evaluate its performance.
The view of the PLA as stated publicly by the Pentagon is quite different than the PLA’s internal evaluations published in multiple open sources. While the assessments described above should not result in complacency by the United States and China’s neighbors, the professional PLA leadership probably knows itself much better than some Americans think—just as Sun Tzu urged.
1. Sun Tzu., The Art of War, London: Oxford University Press, 1963, p. 84. Translated by Samuel B. Griffith. Emphasis added by author.
2. Wang Houqing and Zhang Xingye (eds), On Military Campaigns, Beijing: National Defense University Press, May 2000, p.86. Translated by Language Doctors.
3. Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi (eds), The Science of Military Strategy, Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2005, p. 230. This text actually lists this statement among the 10 “strategic principles for people’s war.”
4. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2005, p. 26; Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2006, p. 25; Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2007, p. 15; Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2008, p. 22. Emphasis added by author.
5. Based on author’s conversations with PLA officers in June 2006, November 2006, and April 2008.
6. Chapter IV, The People’s Liberation Army, China’s National Defense in 2006. Every other year since 1998, China has issued a White Paper on National Defense. All White Papers can be found at https://english.gov.cn/official/2005-08/17/content_24165.htm.
7. Chapter III, National Defense Construction, China’s National Defense, July 1998.
8. U.S. personnel figures are available at https://siadapp.dmdc.osd.mil/personnel/MMIDHOME.HTM. These numbers do not include contractors.
9. The growth of China’s announced defense budget can be traced in the series of its White Papers. See also Table 4, in Dennis J. Blasko, Chas W. Freeman, Jr., Stanley A. Horowitz, Evan S. Medeiros, and James C. Mulvenon, “Defense-Related Spending in China: A Preliminary Analysis and Comparison with American Equivalents,” United States – China Policy Foundation, May 2007, p. 19, found at https://www.uscpf.org/v2/pdf/defensereport.pdf. A key conclusion of that study is there is not “enough information to make a reasonable estimate of the total amount of Chinese ‘defense-related spending.’”
10. Chapter II, National Defense Policy, China’s National Defense in 2006. Emphasis added by author.
11. The Science of Military Strategy, p. 224. Achieving “the political objective” through deterrence is consistent with Sun Tzu’s teaching, “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” The Art of War, p. 77.
12. For a few examples, see Qiushi Article by General Political Department on Scientific Development Concept CPP20060802710009 Beijing Qiushi (Internet Version-WWW) in Chinese, August 1, 2006, No 15; JFJB Commentator on Training National Defense Students CPP20071214710011 Beijing Jiefangjun Bao (Internet Version-WWW) in Chinese, December 14, 2007, p 1; and PRC Army Paper Calls for New Situation in National Defense, Army Building CPP20080101701001 Beijing Jiefangjun Bao (Internet Version-WWW) in Chinese January 1, 2008. All translated by OSC. Emphasis added by author.
13. The Science of Military Strategy, p. 117.
14. The Art of War, p. 66.
15. The Chinese term, liangge buxiang shiying, has been translated in many ways. In addition to the renderings stated above, the term has also been translated as “two non-adaptations” or “two unsuitable points.” These variations in translations could cause confusion among those who only read the English.