Since the days of Sun-Tzu, China’s military leadership have always been aware that to defeat an enemy at the nation’s gates, you have to maintain a communal armed force: that is, a military force that is an integral part of ordinary peoples’ lives. However, since the time of the Han dynasty, the military power of the Chinese people has always been intimately associated with the idea of living harmoniously within the realm of Heaven (t’iem). The people have also needed to be willing to accept the authority of the “Son of Heaven” (t’iem-tzu), which means ultimately a supreme personality that will guide the Chinese masses in times of peace and war. In the early twenty-first century, the concept of “Heaven” in the People’s Republic of China is the embodied in the Communist Party of China (CPC) and its current economic power and military influence is well beyond the shores of mainland China and even of east Asia; it can be felt, for example, in South America and in Africa.
Its polar star, Xi Jinping, has emerged as an undisputed, authoritative leader, just as Mao Zedong was – who pioneered China’s modern military theory. What Xi has done is to take Mao’s theory of warfare and transformed it into a modern conception of a military machine that is both Chinese in concept and Westernized in its pragmatism, its military readiness and its deployment.
From my perspective as a military historian, I would state that the Communist Party of China with its Central Military Commission is a sophisticated parallel to the command and control of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which is under the operational control of the Central Military Commission of the CCP Central Committee—the Party’s CMC. The overall Chinese leadership have been aware since the Persian Gulf War of the prowess of the American armed forces against the Iraqi army. It understood then, during that momentous time in history, the urgent need to modernize the Chinese armed forces – much as the Stalin-era Soviet military and political leadership were both impressed with and fearful of the modernization of the emergent Nazi armed forces, which included army, air force and navy echelons. It can be said unequivocally that Stalin saw the need to prepare for a major regional war with fascist Germany, just as the Chinese leadership is aware that eventually it will have to wage war against the United States. Unless their American adversary implodes from within, leaving disparate fiefdoms across its landscape, or a new military leadership develops within the United States due to a sophisticated insurrection or military coup and a Second American Civil War ensues, there remains a danger of war between the two nation-states. An America with a fascist government and military hierarchy whose ultimate political desire is to destroy socialist China, despite the possibility of thermo-nuclear war, is still a possibility.
The Chinese leadership were undoubtedly grim in their early analysis of what awaited them: if they were not prepared to solidify their armed forces with the capability to withstand violent dissent within their borders as well as to fight a war beyond the Great Wall of China, then their demise or ruin was inevitable. The Chinese leadership, I am sure, has looked closely at the decisions made prior to World War II by Stalin and the Soviet political leadership. Although eager to strike first against the armies of Hitler, Stalin found himself unable to undertake a “first strike” as Lenin had advocated, and tragedy ensued with the loss of 29 to 30 million Soviet military and civilian lives during the Great Patriotic War. The Chinese leadership is more than aware of what almost mortally wounded the USSR: namely the failure of the Soviet military leadership to prepare quickly enough by modernizing the armed forces in time and by creating a defensive border force that could have blunted more quickly the Nazi tanks and the thousands of German fascist troops that crossed the Minsk or Pripet Marshes through Poland and which tore through the heart of Soviet Russia. The Communist leadership of China know that if it is not ready to confront the United States, let alone its secondary adversary, India, then it is gambling with its very existence. Xi and his military council members are not gamblers when it comes to war; they are strategists who know that to keep Heaven you have to fight for it.
In my analysis of the contemporary military prowess of the People’s Republic of China, I will address the issues not through a dogmatic application of military theory but instead by looking at recent essays or articles that have arrived at certain conclusions or made particular observations regarding the Chinese military infrastructure, while nevertheless understanding that even the observations in these journals or periodicals that I cite are not facts set in stone. I remember in my youth that Mao Zedong would quote authors, philosophers and poets in his military theory and allude to them in his poetry when writing about military periods in his own life, without losing the inner core of his final analysis of the art of war as it he perceived it during and after the Chinese Revolution.
In terms of the substance of the Chinese army, it is undergoing a creative build-up, meaning that its military commanders are more focused on quality troops than on simple numbers of servicemen and servicewomen on the battlefield. An essay written for the Council on Foreign Relations, titled “China’s Modernizing Military”, states:
“The army is the largest service and was long considered the most important, but its prominence has waned as Beijing seeks to develop an integrated fighting force with first-rate naval and air capabilities. As the other services expanded, the army shrunk to around 975,000 troops, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Reforms have focused on streamlining its top-heavy command structure; creating smaller, more agile units; and empowering lower-level commanders. The army is also upgrading its weapons. Its lightweight Type 15 tank, for example, came into service in 2018 and allows for engagement in high-altitude areas, such as Tibet.”
The author of the essay implies that the Chinese military command is more concerned with smaller infantry units and creating lighter tanks (bringing to mind the light French tanks that could outrun the heavier German tanks during the invasion of 1940, but which lacked their firepower). But such light tanks will not necessarily be a powerful weapon against the more powerful American, technologically advanced tanks. These light tanks are not on par with the modern Russian T-14 Armata, which is “based on a modular combat platform, which can also serve as a basis for other armored variants such as heavy infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) and armoured personnel carrier (APC)”. However, the PLA has a powerful heavy tank that is equal in fighting power to the T-72 or the American M1A2 SEP Abrams tank, in that “In comparison to older Chinese-made tanks, the MBT has improved capabilities in terms of protection, power and mobility. It has a crew of three. ZTZ 99 was made to compete with western tanks, while its technology is used to improvise the more economical ZTZ 96. Regiments in China’s Shenyang and Beijing military areas currently deploy the MBT Z”. What is factual in terms of actual combat experience is that the T-72 has seen major combat just as the American Abrams tank has, while the Russian T-14 Armata and the Chinese ZTZ 96 have not been properly put to the test yet on the world’s battlefields. I therefore observe that the decisive factor will be the readiness of the PLA, with its modernized air force and navy giving support both in retreat and offensive attacks, depending on what the context requires at a given moment.
Just over a year ago, the American Department of Defense was quoted by the Brookings Institute recalling its report of twenty years earlier:
“DoD’s 2000 report assessed that the PLA was slowly and unevenly adapting to the trends in modern warfare. The PLA’s force structure and capabilities focused largely on waging large-scale land warfare along China’s borders. The PLA’s ground, air, and naval forces were sizable but mostly obsolete. Its conventional missiles were generally of short range and modest accuracy. The PLA’s emergent cyber capabilities were rudimentary; its use of information technology was well behind the curve; and its nominal space capabilities were based on outdated technologies for the day.”
In this description of the capabilities of the PLA, there was almost a complete dismissal of the fighting ability of the Chinese infantrymen, which should have included an evaluation of its Marine Special Forces. The report had implied that the PLA was basically a mainland Chinese army whose mission was to defend or wage war along its borders, and went on to belittle the PLA further by stating with a certain arrogance that:
“Even if the PRC could produce or acquire modern weapons, the PLA lacked the joint organizations and training needed to field them effectively. The report assessed that the PLA’s organizational obstacles were severe enough that if left unaddressed they would “inhibit the PLA’s maturation into a world-class military force.”
However, Brookings notes, the latest DoD report acknowledges that:
“The PRC has marshaled the resources, technology, and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernize the PLA in nearly every respect.”
Benjamin Brimelow likewise acknowledges the reforms and writes, with less bellicose language and more precision:
“China's 11 military regions were restructured into five, the ballistic-missile force became its own branch of the armed forces, and the PLA marine corps, which had been disbanded in 1957, was reestablished.
“Xi also created the PLA's Strategic Support Force to support the PLA's cyber warfare, space warfare, and electronic warfare operations, and the Joint Staff Department, which acts as a command organ between all branches of the PLA and the Central Military Commission.
“Xi has increased the PLA's budget in an effort to create a world-class military by the year 2050. China is now the second biggest spender on defense in the world, behind the US, and the largest in Asia.”
What the author implies in the above quote is that China’s Communist Party leadership and its military leadership is not standing by idly waiting to be destroyed by outside or indeed enemies from within. It is instead advancing – slowly but steadily – in creating an army, air force and navy that will equal and eventually exceed the present United States armed forces in their sophistication and in their deadliness. While the American army, air force and navy comprise volunteers, the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China are conscripted and are doctrinally trained so that they have a serious commitment to the heath and sovereignty of Chinese motherland. The history of the Chinese Armed Forces is still imbued with the aspirations of the military virtues of the era of Mao although the principles have been changed in accordance with the context of the present period of world history. It would be naïve to think that Chinese troops have the same divisions, disunity and deep racism that exist in the modern United States Army, even though there are thousands of American military servicemen men and women who are sincerely dedicated to the preservation of the United States, despite dissent within the ranks as revealed by the attempted insurrection on January 6th. There were active and former military men and women involved in the violent acts at the Capitol, a clear signal of disunity within the American army as well, although the National Guard seemed committed to preventing the Trump regime from gaining the initiative in creating a populist fascist government.
It is with caution that I make an observation about China’s navy, which although it has now assumed ascendancy as the world’s largest navy is not necessarily totally capable of defending mainland China or defeating its adversaries on the high seas. However, the American newspaper, The New York Times, has been calm in its assessment of Chinese naval power, explaining it in a balanced way:
“A modernization program focused on naval and missile forces has shifted the balance of power in the Pacific in ways the United States and its allies are only beginning to digest. While China lags in projecting firepower on a global scale, it can now challenge American military supremacy in the places that matter most to it: the waters around Taiwan and in the disputed South China Sea. That means a growing section of the Pacific Ocean — where the United States has operated unchallenged since the naval battles of World War II — is once again contested territory, with Chinese warships and aircraft regularly bumping up against those of the United States and its allies.”
I would say that although the Chinese navy has carried out great improvements in its bolstering of its anti-missile ships and nuclear submarines, it still lags seriously behind the United States Navy in terms of quality naval ships, partly because it has yet to achieve strike capabilities comparable to the Seawolf and Virginia class submarines that the United States has not only in the Pacific region, but in other far-off oceans and seas as well. I would suggest that perhaps the strategic goal of the Chinese navy high command is to create large quantities of submarines so as to defeat a potential adversary with more advanced submarine technology. I am reminded in this instance of how Soviet tank designers were able to create and mass-produce T-34 tanks which moved faster on the battlefield and were able to withstand enemy shell hits because of their unique cup-turret design. Although the T-34 was not as sophisticated as the Panzerkampfwagen V or Panther and Tiger tanks created by the German military engineers during World War II, Soviet engineers – like modern China’s military engineers – were pragmatic in their weapon designs. In any case the two nations, the United States and the People’s Republic of China, may engage as naval powers in a battle of wills over the disputed islands in the Paracels, and a major naval battle there in the future will decide who not only controls the South China Sea but all the Pacific Ocean territories as well.
I have attempted in this essay to cover the probabilities or capabilities of the People’s Republic of China’s emerging military strength, which I would more modestly call military maturity rather than “world class”. It is her modern missile capabilities which I think will be the major deciding factor should a Third World War break out. The American journalist that I mention earlier in this essay, Brimelow, said this about Chinese missile capabilities:
“The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) has become one of the most intimidating missile forces in the world. China never signed the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and was never subject to its limits, so it has been free to invest heavily in ballistic missiles.”
It is the powerful and continual growth of high-velocity and long-range ballistic missiles within the Chinese arsenal, including the in-depth deployment of intercontinental missiles across mainland China, that the United States, as well as her allies, should actually fear, because it is missile firepower with nuclear warheads that will be the deciding factor should a Third World War emerge on the world’s stage.
The contest for military ascendancy or military parity is not simply a competition between the United States and China, as there are multiple other rivalries across the world’s continents. As China, Russia and other nation-states in the Middle East and South America continue to resist the United States’ hegemonic project for economic and military superiority, political and military tensions will increase between these two multi-polar major competing forces. Also, because of various other international social factors, including the breakdown of cultural and economic structures that the pandemic in 2020 destroyed on a worldwide basis, there will be a desire to assert the hitherto hidden agenda for emerging nation-states’ independence rather than submitting to the status quo of the self-destructive imperialist powers. A boldness will emerge in which these nation-states will no longer want to be second-best to Western Europe or to North America.
Since the Long March, in which the nucleus of the People’s Liberation Army emerged under the guidance of Chairman, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, there have been at times both steps forward and reversals in terms of the qualitative and quantitative achievements that China’s military strength represents. China showed its resilience and determination in fighting American military forces during the Korean War, revealing that its troops were not intimidated by American troops; during the Vietnam War, Chinese military advisers played a major role in strategy and tactics in helping General Giap and his field commanders to fight a sophisticated war of independence against United States military armies, particularly at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
In 2014, a retired Vietnamese professor, Dao Nguyen Cat, was interviewed by the Xinhua news agency, and “on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Vietnam's victory in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, Cat said that with the rare support of Chinese forces, the Vietnamese troops were able to successfully drive away the French colonial forces from the province of Dien Bien Phu, 300 km northwest of the capital Hanoi”. Professor Cat, who served as an official of Vietnam’s Central Propaganda Committee at Dien Bien Phu Campaign, Cat was quoted as saying: “Definitely without China's support, we would have failed to defeat the French colonial masters… They not only gave training courses from the command posts but also went directly to the battlefield to talk with our soldiers. They supplied Vietnam not only weapons but also with food…" The military advisers and military supplies given by the leadership of the PLA at that time in history, regarding the Vietnam War, known by the Vietnamese people as The American War, reveal that Chinese leadership were moving forward in honing their military skills beyond their borders.
The reversal of military progress came during the nineteen sixties and late seventies in the form of territorial disputes. First, in March 1969, there was a military clash between the Soviet Union and China: a seven-month undeclared military conflict that occurred near Zhenbao (Damansky) Island on the Ussuri (Wusuli) River, near Manchuria. The conflict between the two Communist nation-states would eventually result in a ceasefire, which led to a return to the status quo; however, a balanced history is yet to be written on how the two parties viewed each other as ideological threats, all this taking place during the period of the Culture Revolution. Secondly, the Sino-Vietnamese War was a border war fought between China and Vietnam in early 1979. Rightly or wrongly, China created an offensive attack in response to Vietnam's actions against the Khmer Rouge in 1978, ending the dominance of the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge. What is regrettable but not surprising is that two socialist nation-states were unable through diplomacy to decide how to end their dispute regarding the Khmer Rouge’s various mistakes in its destruction of thousands of lives that could have contributed to the Communist cause in Southeast Asia. However, China then began to gain influence, sending economic aid and military advisors to Africa, including Cuba and Venezuela – which reveals the wise and ancient observation by Sun Tzu who said “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” The Chinese Communist Party know how to achieve a military strategy without going to war.
In May 2020 there was an actual hand-to-hand struggle between Chinese and Indian troops at locations along the Sino-Indian border, including near the disputed Pangong Lake in Ladakh and the Tibet Autonomous Region, and near the border between Sikkim and the Tibet Autonomous Region. During the last days of May 2020, Chinese forces objected to Indian road construction in the Galwan river valley, and there then ensued violent verbal exchanges between the two military camps, resulting in deaths and taking of prisoners on both sides. Although I will not attempt to describe in any detail how each side viewed the territorial dispute, I will say that the complexities between China and India, only reinforce why China is so protective of its borders and why India has chosen the United States as its major ally. We have read similar accounts in ancient historical texts: Thucydides wrote about it in The War of The Peloponnesians And The Athenians, therefore we should not be surprised that in our own day, these small conflicts can lead to greater military build-up and to territorial jealousies which ensnare two parties or various parties into an eventual war that cannot be quelled, but which rather leads to disaster.
In closing, I would like to quote the eminent Marxist historian, Domenico Losurdo, who wrote about the People’s Republic of China that “The foundations of the People’s Republic of China, following an epic national liberation struggle, certainly did not result in an immediate end to the situation of danger. To the end… the Korean War… challenged US hegemony in Asia, a memorable lesson…”. This makes clear to me that the epic struggle of the modern Chinese people and the People’s Liberation Army has not yet reached its zenith in world history.