I keep hearing these days that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a "paper tiger."
The PLA’s problems? To name a few: no recent combat experience, corruption, too many "only children" in the ranks, and the Chinese navy's inability to conduct combat operations in distant seas and to master "amphibious operations"—supposedly the most complex and hardest of all military operations.
Even the regime’s leaders complain about "peace disease"—that the PLA hasn’t fought a war for decades and that too many senior officers can’t manage the demands of modern high-tech warfare.
Maybe so, but in the past 30 years, communist China has pulled off the biggest and fastest military buildup since World War II. China’s defense budgets are much bigger than the roughly $220 billion it claims, possibly exceeding U.S. defense spending.
China knows its problems but has clear objectives—defeating U.S. forces is objective No. 1—and it trains hard to achieve these. Its ships aren't rust buckets nor collide with other ships or burn up pier side every so often.
Yes, the PLA would have a harder time attacking Des Moines, Iowa, but that’s not the point.
It's true that Chinese conventional combat power—or "power projection"—drops off rapidly beyond, say, 1,000 miles from the Chinese border. But its land-based missiles easily range Guam and Hawaii, and it operates ships and aircraft more often and farther out into the Pacific and beyond.
China is setting up a network of ports and airfields to which it has access worldwide. And it's building more of the refueling ships, aircraft, and long-range transports needed for global power projection—akin to what the United States can do.
Play this out for five or 10 years, and it's hard to be sanguine.
And somehow, that "paper tiger" took de facto control of the South China Sea six or seven years ago.
The U.S. Navy can transit the area, as can the U.S. Air Force, and even conduct exercises. But it’s like the NYPD going through Times Square back in the bad old days before Mayor Rudy Giuliani cleaned things up. The cops controlled only the space they occupied; when they left, the "bad guys" filled in and took control.
Even now, the PLA is shadowing ("escorting") U.S. ships and aircraft through the South China Sea.
Nothing to worry about?
One of these days, a U.S. Navy destroyer skipper will have a dozen anti-ship missiles headed his way—at supersonic speed—and 12 seconds to respond.
Something to RememberBut here’s something to keep in mind when you consider the People’s Liberation Army: A military only has to be good enough to do a certain thing at a certain place at a certain time.
Recall the Falklands War in 1982. The British outclassed the Argentinians in nearly every respect. Argentine hardware was often obsolete, and many troops were "draftees."
Yet the Argentines almost won.
And they would have won if a few more 500-pound bombs and torpedoes detonated and sunk Royal Navy ships.
Britain also had the good fortune that Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.
The Falklands are about 200 miles from the Argentine coast at the closest point. Taiwan is only 90 miles from the Chinese mainland.
If it’s just Taiwan that the Chinese are after—as opposed to Des Moines—it looks possible.
And an attack on Taiwan won’t just be an amphibious assault. It will include massive and accurate missile barrages, total air and sea control, aggressive electronic warfare, and cyberwarfare—and internet and comms links will be cut. Fifth columnists will be causing chaos. And it will include threatening the United States with nuclear war.
China has practiced and prepared for all of this—and for years.
Sure, Xi Jinping would rather get Taiwan by not fighting, but force is on the menu, and Mr. Xi has said so.
It’s comforting—but dangerous—to assume that Mr. Xi and the Chinese just aren’t good enough, too frightened, or just bluffing, which is the most commonly held belief in Washington and even in Taipei.
One detects the same sort of condescension from 1950 when the experts—not least in Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters—insisted: “They [the PLA] will never come across the Yalu.”
But they did.
And nobody has ever heard a Korean War veteran say that he wanted to fight the Chinese again.
You’d think Marines, of all people, would know better.
This writer recalls them rolling their eyes circa 2016 at the idea that Chinese equivalents of U.S. Marine and U.S. Navy amphibious units would be making the rounds in the Indo-Pacific before too long. Just not our equals, you know.
As for the PLA’s Lack of Warfighting ExperienceProper training can make up for that.
And don’t forget that the U.S. military has fewer and fewer combat veterans—none of them have experience in high-end warfare against a high-end opponent in a largely maritime domain. Fighting Iraqis and the Taliban isn't the same thing as going against a modern opponent. Nor were these campaigns huge successes.
But the US Has Allies, Doesn’t It?It does, and the United States' allies are a huge benefit even if military capabilities are uneven and political interests aren't always aligned.
But China also has allies: North Korea, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. And much of the Global South is at least sympathetic to China.
These may not be the most loveable countries and not always the best of friends—but together, they can cause trouble for the United States and its partners.
And for now, their strategic interests align.
The Japanese, who are regularly harassed and circumnavigated by Russian and Chinese planes and aircraft, can tell you that.
And recently, China—via Iran and its Hamas and Hezbollah proxies—got the United States and the U.S. military wrapped around another Middle Eastern axle—at the expense of the Indo-Pacific.
The PLA has other things working in its favor.
The United States won’t cut economic dependencies on China, including many required for defense production. Wall Street and the U.S. business class continue to provide the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with a few hundred billion dollars of convertible currency a year, effectively funding the country (and the military) that's looking to drive it out of the Indo-Pacific, for starters.
But back to the main point: Don’t underestimate the CCP or the People’s Liberation Army.
It’s not the first time that Washington has underestimated an enemy:
“Saddam Hussein won’t attack Kuwait.”
“Once we take Baghdad, everything will be fine.”
“Would Vladimir Putin attack Ukraine? He won’t dare.”
“China doesn’t want a blue-water navy.”
Only Xi Knows for SureNo one except Mr. Xi knows what he will do.
But it’s best to prepare for the worst—and now.
And remember that a military just has to be good enough to do a certain thing at a certain time at a certain place.
And its leadership must be willing to absorb some economic punishment and political blowback.
If that’s the case, China only has to pick its spots and its timing.
And hope the United States keeps convincing itself that the Chinese regime wouldn’t dare attack.