Is the PLA up for a War?

Posted: September 27, 2012 in military
Tags: , , ,

Every few months China has some kind of territorial spat with one of its neighbors – be it Japan, the Philippines or Vietnam – that gets everybody worried about war. As I was standing amidst the unusually vitriolic  anti-Japanese demonstrations recently, it felt like those worries had reached a fever pitch and that the government might actually cave to public calls for military action. Sometimes it feels like a miracle that it hasn’t already happened.

There are plenty of good reasons why China hasn’t invoked its military: The economic implications, the possibility of US military involvement, being perceived internationally as a belligerent bully. But there may be an even more compelling reason than any of these: The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) might not be up to the task.

There seems to be a widespread assumption that without US-backing, militaries from Japan, Vietnam or Taiwan would fall swiftly to the overwhelming might of the world’s largest army. China’s military spending routinely increases by the double-digits, far outpacing its GDP growth. Last year that spending amounted to $91 billion – a 12.7% increase over the previous year. It’s expected to be $106 billion this year.

Now I’m not a military expert by any means, but I have seen how major government monopolies tend to function in China. This might give us a better idea of the PLA’s capabilities than the raw numbers do. So let’s look at another major state monopoly: The Ministry of Railways.

This is a fiefdom if there ever was one. The opaque ministry has its hand in everything vaguely related to or surrounding railways, from construction and manufacturing to hospitals and schools. Corruption and nepotism thrive. There was the $2.9 million promotional film where funds were funneled away, the SINGLE official who was able to embezzle $121 million, and the series of photos showing absurdly marked up bullet train items that resulted from government procurement.

This week the ministry is back in the news as its $52 million online ticketing system continues to be worthless on the eve of another busy holiday. Netizens have demanded to know why the system cost so much, yet is worse than actually standing in line at the train station.

If I may throw out some wild speculation (based on overwhelming precedent): Perhaps a chain of railway officials outsourced the site design to increasingly cheaper (AKA – decreasingly qualified) designers while pocketing the difference and/or gave contracts to personal connections for wildly inflated prices.

Now shift back to the PLA, which is larger, more powerful and more secretive than the Ministry of Railways. So powerful and secret in fact that it operates as an entirely separate entity from civilian government and laws.

People tend to see the huge annual PLA budget increases as a threat to China’s neighbors, but to a large extent it’s a way to quell the PLA’s danger to the Communist Party.  Fear of a military coup has always weighed heavy on the party leadership and big budgets are one way of buying the military’s continued loyalty. It doesn’t take a big leap of faith to guess that a lot of that money is lost to corruption.

In spite of its many scandals, the Ministry of Railways gets its job done for the most part…horrible inefficiency and occasional disasters aside. The public can see many of its failings, which keeps it a bit more honest and efficient than it otherwise might be. And if Hu Jintao decides to seriously clean house of corrupt railways officials, he doesn’t need to worry about tanks rolling up to his office the next day.

With the PLA though, these things are all question marks.

John Garnaut did a great article earlier this year based on inside sources trying to explain how pervasive and destructive corruption is in the PLA. The problem is that because of its enormous power and complete secrecy, it’s impossible for outsiders (and insiders for that matter) to appreciate the true scale and what it means for battle capability.

With a naval/aerial engagement – which is what most potential conflicts would entail – victory would be decided more by hardware than troop numbers. It’s possible that even in the absence of US involvement, China’s military apparatus could falter when facing a presumably weaker opponent like Japan, or even Taiwan (See this in-depth analysis of a possible Sino-Japanese naval war).

If that were to happen, the Chinese government would have a tough choice. It could try to convince people that the US military was actually secretly involved and mitigate its failing, or it could try to answer directly as to why, in spite of a much better funded and staffed military, China got beaten by “little Japan.”

Neither option is very palatable, and the mere possibility of having to make that choice might be a major hedge against an all-out war.

  1. “People tend to see the huge annual PLA budget increases as a threat to China’s neighbors, but to a large extent it’s a way to quell the PLA’s danger to the Communist Party.” This is true. But what worries me is an army wanting to test new toys and a bellicose public pushing for action. Japan is obviously far too important a trading partner to take on, but others in the S China Sea might find pointed aggression coming their way.

  2. kingtubby1 says:

    Tremendous Garnaut article. Modern warfare is as much effective logistical support as advanced military hardware. Bring it on. Even the Phillipines will come out the other end looking good.

    (The biggest and most expensive entertainment complex in Fuzhou was a few hundred metres up the road from the local army base. Owned by the military and well attended every night.)

  3. FOARP says:

    Like KT, I am also a Garnaut fanboi – a real observer of Chinese affairs unlike the “China experts” who so regularly pop-up to offer sound bites.

    Of course, all military-industrial complexes (if one may use this term in the original sense that Eisenhower did, rather than as a catch-all left-wing sense of ‘big government that I dislike’) are subject to an element corruption because of the relative lack of accountability (without actually having to use the weapons in a war, it is often difficult to know whether they are good or not) and because of the necessity that people should move from the military to industry serving the military. Check out the history of weapon systems like the Brimstone anti-tank missile, the Bowman radio, and the Bradley AFV for examples of weapons systems that suffered from massive cost over-runs and delays inherent in the wasteful way that weapons are developed and manufacured in Britain and the US.

    This said, it is hard to believe that the PLA is any less corrupt than the rest of China’s state apparatus. What is unknown is the degree to which the PLA is more/less ready for war than her adversaries because of this.

    In the specific instance of a Japan-PRC war (which I believe to be very, very unlikely) though, I think the nearest parallel would be the Russo-Japanese war. Russia as a military power was actually much more powerful overall than Japan. Japan, however had the specific advantages that:

    1) Its relations with the UK were close enough that it was able to gain from the sharing of military technology and training. This bore fruit at battles like Tsushima where the gunnery of the Japanese outmatched that of the Russians even though the numbers were essentially the same. The Japanese fleet was mostly either built in British shipyards or in Japanese shipyards on licence, whereas the Russians had to develop and construct their entire fleet.

    2) Russia at all times also had to be mindful of its other potential enemies – the Ottomans, the Austro-Hungarians, the Germans, the Franco-British – but Japan needed only to worry about one potential adversary.

    3) Russia was necessarily a land power, Japan a naval one.

    4) Russia was fighting in an area essentially of Japan’s choosing.

    From this we can see that actually, even if the PLA is no more corrupt than the Japanese armed forces, it would take a disparity in spending much greater than that currently seen for Japan to be at a disadvantage in a naval clash. The PRC will always be distracted by problems on its borders with Vietnam, India, and Russia, keep forces sufficient to threaten Taiwan and hold down Tibet/Xinjiang. By contrast, Japan need only worry about the PRC. Japan can free-ride on R&D in advanced weaponary performed by allied states, but no major state with access to advanced weaponary will willingly share technology with the PRC. Japan need only be strong at sea and in the air to win a naval war with the PRC, but the PRC must always put its main focus on land power.

  4. foarp says:

    PS – As an illustration of the difference between an “China expert” and an observer of Chinese affairs like Garnaut, I was recently contacted by an investor friend of mind who wanted advice on who they should look at for information on Chinese markets. I pointed him to a few people and he came back saying that they gave out too much ‘information’ and he was looking for something just to tell him where to put his money. I then asked him if he would trust a single-source ‘expert’ on the European or American markets to tell him where to put his money or would see someone handing out that kind of advice as a bit of a charlatan. In reality, the best sources give you inside information and leave the editorialising to the reader.

  5. Matt Sheehan says:

    “If I may throw out some wild speculation (based on overwhelming precedent): Perhaps a chain of railway officials outsourced the site design to increasingly cheaper (AKA – decreasingly qualified) designers while pocketing the difference and/or gave contracts to personal connections for wildly inflated prices.”

    They seem to be keeping it all in house, and going back to the same (apparently incompetent and certainly well-connected) firm for a website update. I wrote about this for a show on the train ticket system recently:
    “Amidst the outpouring of anger over the ministry’s crippled system, the China Business News reported that the Ministry had awarded a new 30 million dollar contract to upgrade the system. Who was the recipient of the contract? Taiji Computer Corporation, the company that built the first failed site. Taiji is controlled by the country’s powerful State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, which sits beside the Ministry of Railways on the State Council.”

    Full show here:
    Matt Sheehan

    • beaker2 says:

      Wonder if anyone else caught this little bit of a wink. Taiji is phonetically “Prince” in Chinese. Pinyin would likely have used Tai zhi for the ‘j’ sound. Prince, as in princeling.

  6. kingtubby1 says:

    That was a thanks for the Garnaut link.
    Need to improve my tech skills.

  7. Another View says:

    On the topic of railways, wasn’t there also an official who embezzled 2.8 BILLION dollars?:

  8. […] • 翻墙必读• 科学上网• 防火长城• 墙外导航(整理中)• 禁书禁片• 禁片目录• 禁书列表• 有关部门• 中宣部• 国新办• 网络监控• 国保警察• 真理部• 真理部指令• 敏感词库• 河蟹档案• 五毛大观• 网络审查• 布鸣真象• 马勒戈壁• 网络民议• 时政漫画• 网络段子• 热传视频• 歌曲精选• 草泥马语• 民主宪政• 人权记录• 天安门母亲• 良心犯• 异议人士• 国家安全罪• 强制堕胎• 结石宝宝• 黑监狱• 维权律师• 政治改革• 新闻自由• 司法独立• 宗教自由• 更多专题• 食品安全• 强制拆迁• 新疆• 西藏• 南海• 香港• 台湾• 朝鲜• 中美关系• 中俄关系• 中日关系• 中印关系 译者 | 中國書架博客:解放軍準備好開戰了嗎? 原文核心提示:中國為什麼沒有和日本或者南海國家開戰?有很多很好的理由:比如對經濟的影響、美國軍事介入的可能性、被國際社會視為作為好戰的惡霸等。但也有可能是一個比這些更令人信服的理由:人民解放軍(PLA)可能無法勝任這項任務。 原文:Is the PLA up for a War?日期:2012/09/27由“譯者”志願者翻譯並校對每隔幾個月,中國便會和鄰國之一(日本,菲律賓或越南)就領土問題弄出點摩擦,使得大家擔心戰爭會爆發。最近,當我站在異常激烈的反日示威的人群中,我感覺這些擔憂就像已經達到了狂熱的程度,中國政府可能真的會聽從民間的公開呼籲,採取軍事行動。有時候,戰爭竟然還沒有發生,感覺上似乎有點不可思議。中國之所以沒有動員軍隊,有很多很好的理由:比如對經濟的影響、美國軍事介入的可能性、被國際社會視為作為好戰的惡霸等。但也有可能是一個比這些更令人信服的理由:人民解放軍(PLA)可能無法勝任這項任務。人們似乎普遍以為,沒有美國支持的話,日本、越南、台灣軍隊將迅速的被世上規模最大的軍隊的壓倒性實力擊倒。中國軍費的常規雙位數增幅,遠遠超過其國內生產總值的增長。去年的開支總額為910億美元 – 比上年增長12.7%。這項開支預計今年將達到1060億美元。我並不是什麼軍事專家,但我已經看到了中國主要的官方壟斷慣常的運作方式。這些也許比原始數據更能讓我們了解解放軍的能力。因此,我們先來看看在另一個主要的國家壟斷部門:鐵道部。如果曾經有國中國的話,鐵道部就是了。那個不透明的部門染指了關聯或圍繞鐵路的一切,從建築業、製造業、以致醫院和學校。腐敗和裙帶關係在該部門茁壯成長:例如,開價290萬美元的宣傳片成了資金外移的途徑;單是一個官員便可以挪用1.21億美元;還有一系列照片顯示了子彈頭列車上那些由政府採購、售價離譜的物品。這星期,鐵道部又重新成了新聞焦點,它那要價五千二百萬美元的在線售票系統在另一個繁忙的假日前夕,仍然毫無用處。網友紛紛要求知道為什麼那系統的開發成本這樣高,表現卻比人們在火車站排隊買票還糟糕。如果我可以拋出一些猜測的話:也許一系列鐵路官員把網站設計外包給索價越低——也就是更不夠格——的設計師,然後從中賺取差價;他們也許還同時把合約交給自己人,並極大的誇大做價。現在說回解放軍。這是比鐵道部更大、更強有力和更隱秘的部門。這個部門之大之強之神秘,使得它事實上成為一個完全獨立於文職政府和法律之外的實體。人們往往把解放軍巨大的年度預算增幅視為中國對鄰國的威脅,但在很大程度上,這是一個平息解放軍對共產黨的可能威脅的方式。對軍事政變的恐懼一直重重的壓著黨領導層,而大手筆的預算是購買軍隊持續忠誠的一種方式。要猜測這預算中有很多錢因腐敗而失去了,並不需要什麼信念的飛躍。儘管醜聞很多,鐵道部大體上是有完成工作的……儘管效率低下的可怕,而且還有偶發災害。這部門的許多失敗之處,市民是可以看到的。這一點使鐵道部多少比更壞的情況要廉潔高效一點點。如果胡錦濤決定進行認真清理鐵路腐敗官員的房子,他並不用擔心第二天會有坦克在他的辦公室外出現。可是,說到解放軍,這些東西都是問號。在今年早些時候,John Garnaut 根據內部人士消息寫了一篇很棒的文章。那文章試圖解釋解放軍中的腐敗有多普遍,又具有多大破壞力。問題在於,由於解放軍巨大的力量和完全的保密,外人(就這一問題而言,內部人士也一樣)不可能理解解放軍腐敗的真實規模,以及它對軍隊戰鬥能力的影響。說到海空作戰——這是最有可能出現的衝突——裝備比部隊人數對勝敗有更大的決定性影響。即使沒有美國參與,中國的軍事設備也可能在面對較弱的對手如日本以至台灣時失效(參見這篇對可能發生的中日海戰的深入分析)。如果發生這種情況,中國政府將面臨艱難的抉擇。它可以嘗試以美國軍方實際上秘密參與了戰事來說服民眾,並減輕失敗的打擊;或者,它也可以嘗試據實回答,為什麼儘管有著更充裕資金和人力的中國軍隊,卻會被”小日本”打敗。這兩個選項都說不上理想。而中國政府要做這種抉擇的可能性本身就可能足以打消發動全面戰爭的念頭。相關閱讀:點擊閱讀有關”釣魚島“的時事專題譯文本文版權屬於原出版公司及作者所有。©譯者遵守知識共享署名-非商業性使用-相同方式共享3.0許可協議。译文遵循CC3.0版权标准。转载务必标明链接和“转自译者”。不得用于商业目的。点击这里查看和订阅《每日译者》手机报。穿墙查看译者博客、书刊、音频和视频本文由自动聚合程序取自网络,内容和观点不代表数字时代立场 墙外新闻实时更新 欢迎订阅数字时代 […]

  9. […] 原文:Is the PLA up for a War?日期:2012/09/27由“譯者”志願者翻譯並校對 […]

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