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If Things Go Crazy in the South China Sea, Should We Be Worried About the PLA?

Soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army on parade.  (Screenshot/YouTube)
Soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army on parade. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell told CNN this week that the situation in the South China Sea could “absolutely” present a risk of the U.S. and China going to war sometime in the future.

Hopefully, it won’t get to such a point, but as Morell said in the interview, the threat is real so it prompts us to ask:

How strong is the Chinese military, anyway?

Collectively known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China’s military (army, navy, and air force) has 2.3 million personnel in its ranks, which makes it the world’s largest, according to the Lowy Institute.

 A PLA Navy vessel. (Screenshot/YouTube)

A PLA Navy vessel. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Thanks to increasing budgets over the past several decades, the PLA has built up their capabilities.

“The military of the People’s Republic of China has undergone significant investment and modernization over the last two decades, resulting in an increasingly sophisticated and technologically advanced military force,” says the Lowy Institute.

Helicopters of the PLA. (Screenshot/Youtube)

Helicopters of the PLA. (Screenshot/YouTube)

But…

While this slicker, more modern PLA might be able to overshadow the militaries of their neighboring nations in the South China Seas region, it does not come close to equaling the might the U.S. has in most areas of military hardware.

While I’m not going to get into comparisons, I’ll just point out that the PLA has some serious weaknesses, as covered in a U.S. congressional study published by the Rand Corporation in February this year.

“These shortcomings could limit its ability to successfully conduct the information-centric, integrated joint operations Chinese military strategists see as required to fight and win future wars,” says part of the 201-page report.

The weaknesses in the PLA fall into two broad categories, says the report, with the first being institutional. “The PLA faces shortcomings stemming from outdated command structures, quality of personnel, professionalism, and corruption,” says the report.

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Xu Caihou, retired Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, had so much illegal cash in his basement that it took 15 trucks
to take it all away, along with piles of jade, emeralds, and ancient paintings. (Image: US Department of Defense)

 

“The second set of weaknesses centers on combat capabilities. These shortcomings include logistical weaknesses, insufficient strategic airlift capabilities, limited numbers of special-mission aircraft, and deficiencies in fleet air defense and antisubmarine warfare,” it says.

The report went onto say that the PLA’s flaws increase “the risk of failure to successfully perform some of the missions Chinese Communist Party leaders may task it to execute, such as in various Taiwan contingencies, maritime claim missions, sea line of communication protection, and some military operations other than war scenarios.”

Experience?

The PLA is also hampered by its lack of real operational experience. The last time the PLA fought a foreign force was in 1979 against the Vietnamese in what was a short-lived campaign.

And the last time the PLA fired in anger was when they mowed down unarmed democracy activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989. “[An act that] significantly harmed its reputation and confirmed the political control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over China’s armed forces,” says the Lowry Institute.

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A Beijing scene around the time of the Tienanmen Square massacre in 1989. (Image: YouTube)

It’s also worthwhile to highlight, as noted by the Congressional Research Service Center in 2013, the PLA “is not a national army, but rather an armed wing of the Communist Party.”

Going nuclear

But if CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell’s fears are real, then we have to take into account Beijing’s nuclear capabilities, as awful as that thought is.

According, The National Interest, China has a modest nuclear weapon arsenal when compared to America’s 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

The U.S. Department of Defense estimated in 2012 that Beijing’s land-based nuclear arsenal consisted of 50-75 ICBMs. It also has 75-100 medium range ballistic missiles that are not able to reach the U.S.

Further reasons…

For more on why the PLA might be weaker than you think, see this episode of China Uncensored below:

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