Recently, a Beijing-based defense attaché from a NATO country was reported saying, “Our assessment is they [the People’s Liberation Army] are nowhere near as effective as they think they are” (Foreign Policy, May/June 2013). Though the foreign officer did not provide further details, contrary to this attaché’s assertion, a large body of evidence in the official domestic Chinese military and Communist Party media suggests People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers—ranging from the senior leadership to operational and tactical commanders as well as staff officers—do not judge the Chinese military to be anywhere near as effective as many foreigners do.
When speaking to foreigners, senior PLA leaders often say something like what Minister of Defense Liang Guanglie told U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January 2011, “The gap between us and that of advanced countries is at least two to three decades” . The senior leadership understands the PLA has made progress in many areas over the last 15 years, especially in some important, well-publicized capabilities, but internally they emphasize the need to educate and train PLA personnel to execute a new doctrine that they have never tested in combat.
Acknowledging the force’s shortfalls and focusing how to overcome these deficiencies reflect a professional approach to the task of military modernization. It also is the basis for the multi-decade timeline extending out to 2049 that the PLA has set for itself to complete the modernization process. At its most basic level, the recognition of shortcomings is consistent with Sun Tzu’s guidance to “Know the enemy and know yourself.”
The PLA Constantly Evaluates Its Capabilities and Shortfalls
Critical analysis of problems in PLA personnel quality, organization, training and logistics can be found in the writings and quotes from operational commanders and staff officers responsible for unit readiness published in Chinese military newspapers and journals. They are almost always in Chinese, directed at the PLA itself or Communist Party members. These evaluations are often buried in longer articles and usually follow the pattern of recognizing improvements that have been made, identifying shortcomings and recommending actions to overcome these problems. Many articles contain descriptions of units learning basic lessons that all militaries confront in training. Many articles, however, describe systemic problems that apply to more than just the individual unit involved and are published as lessons for others in the PLA. This type of analysis is not a new practice and can be traced back through decades of military reporting.
Significant problem areas are identified for all the services. The following sections provide a few examples across three categories from Chinese reports published since 2010. Often reports are couched in terms of “some units,” so it is difficult to assess exactly how widespread the problems are. The difficulties, however, must be common enough throughout the force to merit such public attention.
The goal of improving the quality of officers, noncommissioned officers, and conscripts has been at the top of the PLA agenda for many years, going back to Jiang Zemin’s guidance in the 1990s: “Though we’re unable to develop all high-technology weapons and equipment within a short period of time, we must train qualified personnel first, for we would rather let our qualified personnel wait for equipment than the other way round” (“Chinese Military Logistics: The GAD System Part II,” China Brief, October 14, 2004). Despite this emphasis, the PLA leadership still sees major shortcomings in the performance of many commanders, staff officers and troops in all services. A few examples of this type of evaluation include the following:
- Then-President Hu Jintao said “The military is facing prominent difficulties in recruiting soldiers, retaining professionals…Therefore, we must find the solution to these problems by adjusting and reforming related policies and institutions” (Outlook, March 28, 2011);
- A PLA Daily staff commentator article stated “We must be aware that the overall level of talented personnel in our army is not compatible with the requirements of fulfilling the historic mission in the new century, and the quality of information technology personnel is not compatible with the requirements for the development of combat effectiveness” (China Military Online, April 19, 2011) ;
- Another PLA Daily article focused on the Navy noted “It must be understood that the incompatibility between the requirements to build naval personnel and to build an informatized navy and win informatized maritime wars remains a relatively obvious contradiction” (China Military Online, May 11, 2011);
- Writing about the state of the PLA’s joint operations capabilities, Major General Chen Pinghua, political commissar of the 14th Group Army, said, “currently there is still a gap between the Party committee’s [unit commander, political commissar, and their deputies] tactical command capability and the requirements to win an informatized warfare in some troop units” (China Military Online, December 22, 2011 in Chinese and December 23 in English).
Closely related to the quality of personnel is the need for more innovation in thought and action. Much of the problem traces back to a reluctance to change old practices. Some units must be encouraged to “change their thinking” to actually use the new weapons and equipment issued them. Even recently there have been reports of soldiers who are afraid of using new equipment for fear of breaking or losing it, or because they have not been properly trained in its operation and maintenance (this situation is often referred to as “Lord Ye’s love of dragons,” Yègōng hàolóng).
- A PLA Daily staff commentator article observed: “Some units have long been mired in the conventional mentality…These units handle issues arbitrarily and in accordance with their personal preferences, and they replace laws and regulations with governance, power, order and personal feelings…a small number of units still exhibit the phenomena of disobeying laws, orders and regulations” (China Military Online, June 7 and 8, 2010);
- A year later another staff commentator article repeated, “The problem at present is that the phenomenon of failing to obey regulations and/or failing to enforce laws or rules rigidly still exists in some units in one form or another. Some people pay more attention to the rules of men than to the rule of law” (China Military Online, March 21, 2011);
- Nanjing Military Region commander and political commissar Cai Yingting and Zheng Weiping told party leaders, “At present, due to the long peaceful environment, a small number of military personnel relax readiness in their thinking and mentality…Our forces are short of experience in fighting actual operations under informatized conditions, and there still exists a gap between their military capability and the requirement of winning in war” (Qiushi, March 1).
Currently, the PLA is experimenting with its training system to implement a new doctrine that incorporates the new and old equipment in the force. Commanders and staff officers recognize problems in both the content and form of training. They seek to conduct realistic training so that their units will “train as you fight and fight as you train” (China Military Online, May 4, 2012). Some personnel, however, take “shortcuts,” like using unauthorized civilian radios or cell phones, which undermine realism and could jeopardize actual operations. Units are trying to find the best way to standardize, monitor and evaluate training and eliminate the problem of “fakery” in order to get good results.
- Major General Xu Jingnian, commander of the 20th Group Army (a corps-level organization) said “The basic campaign corps face many problems carrying out joint training under current conditions” (China Military Online, January 21, 2010);
- Major General Chen Zhaohai, director of the General Staff Department Military Training and Arms Department (now the Military Training Department) assessed: “Currently, the PLA’s military training under informatized conditions is still at the initial phase” (Xinhua, January 29, 2010);
- A PLA Daily staff commentator summarized, “…military training in our army is still generally mechanized. Traditional ideas and habitual practices have not been drastically changed…The level of training support is not sufficient for training under informatized conditions” (China Military Online, March 31, 2011);
- Major General Zhou Xiaozhou, commander of the 14th Group Army, stated “Some units do not pay attention to training quality and efficiency, waste valuable resources, which affect the scientific upgrading of unit combat effectiveness” (China Military Online, July 24, 2011);
- After acknowledging progress in military modernization, Lieutenant General Li Shaojun, deputy commander of the Beijing Military Region, reported to the National People’s Congress, “there is a gap between the overall combat effectiveness of the PLA and the requirements of fulfilling new historical missions” (China Military Online, March 13, 2012);
- Rear Admiral Qiu Yanpeng, deputy commander of the East Sea Fleet, said, “No matter whether it is in comparison to the navies of other world powers or looking at the needs of the construction and development of the Chinese Navy, there is considerable room for improvement in terms of the strength and results of our distant sea training” (Xinhua, December 11, 2012).
The “Two Incompatibles”
Most of the examples above come from senior Army personnel in positions of operational authority and responsibility. Similar assessments are found in the Navy, Air Force, and Second Artillery newspapers. In addition to the areas mentioned above, organizational shortcomings have been a common theme over the past 15 years as the PLA has become smaller, but more technologically advanced. Operational and tactical headquarters have discovered they are not structured adequately to command and control joint and combined arms operations and have undergone significant structural and equipment changes. Likewise, the PLA leadership understands the requirement for its logistics system to keep pace with the changes in its combat systems. The problem of logistics support is complicated by the existence of multiple types of similar equipment in the force. For example, the Army has at least five types of main battle tanks (each with variants) and 12 types of helicopters in its inventory. Each different type of equipment brings with it different maintenance and supply requirements, increasing the complexity of the logistics effort.
The challenges the PLA faces in its modernization program have been clear to the senior leadership for many years. While they simplify their assessment for foreigners by speaking of a 20 to 30 year gap in capabilities, for their own internal consumption they speak of the “main contradiction” (zhuyao maodun) or the “two incompatibles” (liangge buxiang shiying). This evaluation of PLA (and People’s Armed Police) capabilities has been attributed to Hu Jintao and was first published on January 1, 2006 in a PLA Daily editorial. Though it has been translated in many ways, the statement usually follows these lines:
“The main contradiction in our army building is that the level of our modernization is incompatible with the demands of winning a local war under informatized conditions, and our military capabilities are incompatible with the demands of carrying out the army’s historic missions in the new century and new stage.”
Nearly all senior PLA leaders have repeated the “two incompatibles” assessment in speeches or writing. It continues into the Xi Jinping era, found as recently as April 4 and 16, 2013 in PLA Daily. Like other assessments, it is usually buried deep in a Chinese-language article after acknowledging progress in some area has been made. Its purpose is to motivate the troops to continue the difficult task of military modernization. It also may be used within the government bureaucracy to justify continued increases to the defense budget. An accompanying explanation often bears these points out:
“After the CCP’s 16th Party Congress, China’s defense power has been substantially increased. Military Transformation with Chinese Characteristics has attained significant achievement, with revolutions in military affairs, modernization and regularization all working together in concept to strengthen the military on all fronts. At the same time, preparations for military conflict continue apace, with clear advancements in the ability of our nation’s military to carry out the New Historical Missions. But we must see, although the ‘two incompatibles’ are an important contradiction affecting our military’s construction, there remains a major disparity between not only our military’s level of modernization and the needs of our national security, but with between ourselves and cutting edge military forces around the world. Speeding up the modernization of National Defense and the military and redoubling efforts to resolve the major contradiction while increasing our across-the-board ability to carry out missions and implementing the party’s directive to strengthen the military has decisive significance” (PLA Daily, April 16).
In short, for the senior Chinese leadership, the “Two Incompatibles” are the measure of PLA modernization and a framework for evaluating China’s military capabilities. They understand that although the PLA has made great progress and looks much different from 15 years ago, there remains much work to be done to achieve across-the-board advanced military status. This self-awareness on the part of the PLA leadership suggests that many senior military officials may not be as “hawkish” as they are frequently portrayed. It is possible that their understanding of the many shortcomings in the PLA may embolden them to urge caution in the use of force when advising the senior Communist Party leadership in private. When ordered by the party, however, they will seek to accomplish the missions using all the forces and capabilities at their disposal. Moreover, the professionalism signaled in these self-assessments suggests the PLA may employ these capabilities in ways we do not expect. Discipline and necessity can be the parents of invention.
Some readers may be skeptical and assume this evaluation is part of a grand strategic deception plan (Sun Tzu said, “All warfare is based on deception”), but nearly all instances of the “Two Incompatibles” and most functional assessments are found in newspapers and journals directed at a Chinese audience. They have not been included in any of the externally-oriented defense white papers. More importantly, such evaluations reveal the practical problems a military will encounter as it moves from the book-learning phase to live training in the field. It is more likely that the “two incompatibles” assessment is related to Sun Tzu’s instruction to “Know the enemy and know yourself.” Successful execution of a deception plan or operations order is unlikely without accurate knowledge of both the enemy and your own capabilities…and weaknesses.
Department of Defense, “Joint Press Conference with Secretary Gates and General Liang from Beijing, China,” Press Release, January 10, 2011, available online <https://www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4750>.
Staff commentator articles in the PLA Daily, published by the General Political Department, “speak for the paper as an institution.” See, Paul H.B. Godwin and Alice L. Miller, China’s Forbearance Has Limits: Chinese Threat and Retaliation Signaling and Its Implications for a Sino-American Military Confrontation, Institute for National Strategic Studies, Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, China Strategic Perspectives, No. 6, April 2013, p. 32.