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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

China's army still getting to know itself

July 13, 2008

By Dennis J Blasko
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
July 12, 2008

Ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu's admonition "Know the enemy and
know yourself" is a fundamental tenet of Chinese military strategy
[1]. The books On Military Campaigns and The Science of Military
Strategy include it as the first of 10 principles of war [2].
Moreover, Military Strategy reverses the sequence and puts "knowing
ourselves" first [3]. Many articles from the official Chinese press
illustrate the fact that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has an
active program of self-evaluation and is well aware of its strengths
and weaknesses, especially in relation to the armed forces of the
United States.

Despite 2,500 years of tradition in "knowing yourself", every year
since 2005 the US Defense Department has warned, "China's leaders may
overestimate the proficiency of their forces by assuming that new
systems are fully operational, adeptly operated, adequately supplied
and maintained, and well integrated with existing or other new
capabilities" [4]. This assertion is listed among "misperceptions
[that] could lead to miscalculation or crisis".

While acknowledging today's PLA is vastly improved over its larger,
less-technologically-advanced self of a decade ago, some PLA officers
have expressed frustration over this conclusion (as well as others)
in the Pentagon reports [5]. Many foreign perceptions of the PLA do
not comport with officers' personal experience, what is written in
official Chinese sources, and what is taught in professional military
schools. Since 2006, the official Chinese media has published
repeatedly a general assessment of Chinese military capabilities -
sometimes called the "two incompatibles" or "two cannot suits" - that
identifies surprising limitations for the force.

Smaller and better, but still strapped for cash

Since 1997 the active-duty PLA has been reduced by 700,000 personnel
to about 2.3 million [6]. Unlike other militaries, PLA active-duty
rosters include an unknown number of uniformed civilians [7].
Comparable American civilians working for the Pentagon would add over
650,000 personnel to the 1.36 million active US military personnel,
making it nearly the same size as the active PLA force [8]. But, as
the PLA has become smaller, it has developed greater capabilities
which cost more to sustain.

The announced Chinese defense budget has more than quadrupled since
1998 [9]. These increases have resulted in large pay and benefit
increases; new uniforms, better food and living quarters; an array of
new, mostly Chinese-made equipment, especially computers and
communications gear; and increased tempo and realism of training
exercises. Nonetheless, attracting and retaining qualified personnel
is a problem, new equipment expensive to purchase, operate, and
maintain, and China, too, faces increased prices for oil and other
commodities. As a result, the PLA sees itself with minimal financial
resources and consistently urges efficiency and thrift.

In 2006, the Army paper stated, "China is a large developing country.
Money is needed in many aspects. The contradiction between the needs
of military modernization construction and the short supply of funds
will exist for the long run." A year later, the director of the PLA's
Finance Department emphasized the requirement to use "limited
financial resources to ensure military modernization ... the armed
forces must find ways to improve their financial and economic management".

Missions and general assessment

The PLA has set the goal of "winning informationized wars by the
mid-21st century" with milestones at 2010 and 2020 [10]. The military
and security intelligentsia is now debating future requirements under
the rubric of the "historic missions for the new stage in the new
century". New missions will "gradually" extend the reach of the PLA
and emphasize "non-traditional security" operations such as
anti-terrorism, disaster relief, economic security, public health and
information security.

The PLA also has a multi-layered deterrence mission, which includes
China's nuclear posture as well as deterring attacks on the mainland
and preventing Taiwan from further movement toward independence. The
Chinese armed forces are obsessed with defending China from
long-range precision air strikes and repairing civilian
infrastructure damaged during such attacks. Concurrently, security
forces are preparing for a range of potential terrorist actions,
including nuclear, chemical, and biological attacks.

PLA doctrine shares the concept of "peace through strength" prevalent
in America during the Cold War. It understands that credible
deterrence requires a capable military and the willingness to use it.
But, according to The Science of Military Strategy, "Warfighting is
generally used only when deterrence fails and there is no
alternative," and preferably, "strategic deterrence is also a means
for attaining the political objective" [11].

Since 2006 official Chinese publications have stated on more than 20
occasions, "The level of our modernization is incompatible with the
demands of winning a local war under informatization conditions and
our military capability is incompatible with the demands of carrying
out the army's historic missions" [12]. This general assessment has
been applied specifically to personnel development, training,
logistics, and technology levels. For example, the director of the
General Logistics Department wrote the PLA must address the issue of
"an insufficient logistics modernization level [to win] informatized
local wars and insufficient support capability for the requirement of
fulfilling the historical missions".

On June 19, 2008, the Liberation Army Daily reported: All
participants [at a Symposium on Military Management Innovation] held
the view that the combat effectiveness of the troops today is nagged
by "two cannot suits", ie, its modernization level cannot suit the
demand of winning the IT-based local wars, and its military
capability cannot suit the requirements for fulfilling its historical
mission in the new century and the new period.

The general assessment and PLA doctrine

These judgments, often called "contradictions", are attributed to Hu
Jintao and are clearly at odds with the Pentagon's warning. They are,
however, consistent with the long-term goal "winning informationized
wars by the mid-21st century". While most foreigners focus on new
equipment, PLA officers understand their doctrine requires the
integration of all forces, old and new, military and civilian, into
joint operations that incorporate firepower, mobility, information
operations, and special operations. In recent years, training for
"integrated joint operations" has increased, but this year PLA
headquarters placed primary emphasis on basic training, small unit
training, and command and staff training.

"Trump Card" weapons are one of many elements that must be integrated
into complex campaigns. PLA war planners operate under the assumption
that the PLA will be the weaker side in most scenarios so it will
"use inferior weapons to defeat a superior enemy". People's War, with
its emphasis on deception, use of stratagem, fighting the enemy close
in, political mobilization, and civilian support, is still "a
fundamental strategy" [13].

Sun Tzu also taught, "All warfare is based on deception" [14]. Could
these assessments be a strategic deception campaign? With the
exception of the English-language "two cannot suits" example, nearly
all of the roughly 20 references to this formula have appeared in
Chinese [15]. Most are buried within longer articles that first
praise the PLA for progress made, but then follow with the bad news.
The intent of the message is to encourage the troops to greater
action, "If we are complacent with the status quo and ignore reform,
the only consequence that can come about as a result is that we will
be left even further behind with respect to the great worldwide trend
of new military changes by the strong militaries of the world."

Thus, while the use of this term is part of an internal propaganda
campaign, the vast majority of instances are not intended for foreign
consumption - though the Chinese could correctly assume that
foreigners do read their newspapers (many of which are available on
the Internet). If the Chinese intend to deceive the Pentagon with
these words, the Pentagon has not been swayed.

Specific evaluations

After all routine major training exercises, unit leaders assess
achievements and identify shortfalls. For example, commanders and
staff officers were recently described as falling "far short in
meeting the demands of joint operations", and a group army commander
called for steps "to resolve the problem of training lagging behind
operational requirements in practice ...".

The Sichuan earthquake relief operations have revealed much about PLA
joint operational capabilities. Though no weapons are involved, this
deployment is being conducted according to PLA joint operations
doctrine, providing a real-world test bed for the PLA. Within two
weeks of the disaster, some 133,000 active-duty PLA and People's
Armed Police personnel and 45,000 reservists and militia were deployed.

Most traveled by road or rail, but in the first days of the operation
the air force conducted what Xinhua called "its largest airlift yet"
of some 11,420 troops. About 100 military helicopters (nearly one
quarter of the Army Aviation inventory) were dispatched from all over
the country. Civilian assets augmented these fleets.

While a "heroic" effort, the Liberation Army Daily noted "the PLA's
long-distance rapid insertion capability [is] in a state of relative
weakness". People's Daily commented, "With this earthquake, we
mustered as many helicopters as possible, but overall they were still
too few, and their capabilities not yet improved". The PLA will gain
important experience from these efforts, but, just as important, the
deployment offers an opportunity to evaluate its performance.

The view of the PLA as stated publicly by the Pentagon is quite
different than the PLA's internal evaluations published in multiple
open sources. While the assessments described above should not result
in complacency by the United States and China's neighbors, the
professional PLA leadership probably knows itself much better than
some Americans think - just as Sun Tzu urged.

1. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, London: Oxford University Press, 1963, p
84. Translated by Samuel B Griffith.
2. Wang Houqing and Zhang Xingye (eds), On Military Campaigns,
Beijing: National Defense University Press, May 2000, p 86.
Translated by Language Doctors.
3. Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi (eds), The Science of Military
Strategy, Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2005, p 230.
This text actually lists this statement among the 10 "strategic
principles for people's war".
4. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, The
Military Power of the People's Republic of China 2005, p 26; Military
Power of the People's Republic of China 2006, p 25; Military Power of
the People's Republic of China 2007, p 15; Military Power of the
People's Republic of China 2008, p. 22
5. Based on author's conversations with PLA officers in June 2006,
November 2006, and April 2008.
6. Chapter IV, The People's Liberation Army, China's National Defense
in 2006. Every other year since 1998, China has issued a White Paper
on National Defense.
7. Chapter III, National Defense Construction, China's National
Defense, July 1998.
8. US personnel figures are available here. These numbers do not
include contractors.
9. The growth of China's announced defense budget can be traced in
the series of its White Papers. See also Table 4, in Dennis J Blasko,
Chas W Freeman, Jr, Stanley A Horowitz, Evan S Medeiros and James C
Mulvenon, "Defense-Related Spending in China: A Preliminary Analysis
and Comparison with American Equivalents", United States-China Policy
Foundation, May 2007, p 19. A key conclusion of that study is there
is not "enough information to make a reasonable estimate of the total
amount of Chinese "defense-related spending".
10. Chapter II, National Defense Policy, China's National Defense in
2006. Emphasis added by author.
11. The Science of Military Strategy, p 224. Achieving "the political
objective" through deterrence is consistent with Sun Tzu's teaching,
"To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill." The Art
of War, p 77.
12. For a few examples, see Qiushi Article by General Political
Department on Scientific Development Concept CPP20060802710009
Beijing Qiushi (Internet Version-WWW) in Chinese, August 1, 2006, No
15; JFJB Commentator on Training National Defense Students
CPP20071214710011 Beijing Jiefangjun Bao (Internet Version-WWW) in
Chinese, December 14, 2007, p 1; and PRC Army Paper Calls for New
Situation in National Defense, Army Building CPP20080101701001
Beijing Jiefangjun Bao (Internet Version-WWW) in Chinese January 1,
2008. All translated by OSC. Emphasis added by author.
13. The Science of Military Strategy, p 117.
14. The Art of War, p 66.
15. The Chinese term, liangge buxiang shiying, has been translated in
many ways. In addition to the renderings stated above, the term has
also been translated as "two non-adaptations" or "two unsuitable
points". These variations in translations could cause confusion among
those who only read the English.

Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Blasko is a former US defense attache to Beijing.
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