Chinese army units move through a simulated battlefield during a recent live-fire exercise. Picture: ChinaMilitary
Chinese army units move through a simulated battlefield during a recent live-fire exercise. Picture: ChinaMilitary

The West has badly underestimated China

Did you know China already has the largest navy in the Pacific? The most active submarines? And that often published images of its old Cold War weaponry are way out of date?

Miscalculating China's capabilities may well be the West's greatest mistake.

And strategic analysts are beginning to warn that a whole raft of generally accepted 'truisms' are, in fact, dangerously wrong.

China's military has no experience. It's technologically inferior. Its troops are poorly trained. Its equipments and tactics are poor-quality 'knock-offs' of stolen Western technology.

These statements sound promising to a world increasingly concerned about Beijing's bellicose assertion of its new-found power.

But are they real?

History holds a warning.

Those exact-same catchcries were being bandied about with confidence in the 1930s and 40s about Japan.

It's famous 'Zero' fighter was just a cheap rip-off of Western designs, they said. Its impressive fleet was built on outmoded British technology. And their training and tactics were inferior. They had no new ideas.

December 7, 1941, brutally proved all of the above wrong.

Have we set ourselves up for such a surprise again?

Former US Air Force intelligence specialist Robert McCoy thinks so.

"Only now are American leaders publicly acknowledging what has probably been spoken about behind the scenes for some time in Washington's halls of power," he wrote.

 

Chinese troops and tanks engage in a recent large-scale combat exercise. Picture: ChinaMilitary
Chinese troops and tanks engage in a recent large-scale combat exercise. Picture: ChinaMilitary

 

COMBAT EXPERIENCE

It's a myth China's own military leaders are keen to perpetuate.nation had 'attacked nobody' since its formation in the 1940s.

Just tell that to Vietnam.

And South Korea.

And Tibet.

And while it's had no major near-peer combat since its failed attack on Vietnam in 1979, the West hasn't either.

Britain's clash with Argentina in the Falkland Islands in 1982 is the closest thing to a peer-on-peer war in recent decades.

Gulf Wars I & II saw overwhelming force, supported by immensely superior technology, crush the outmoded military of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. And the never-ending war in Afghanistan is an insurgency - not a toe-to-toe fight.

So the West itself can also be labelled as inexperienced, warns Senior Defence Researcher Timothy Heath of the RAND Corporation.

"How much experience matters remains far from clear. Even the idea of "combat inexperience" carries its own ambiguities. The US Army on the cusp of World War II had fallen into unreadiness after an extensive demobilisation."

The US and Western armed forces have undergone a similar 'demobilisation' since the end of the Cold War. Mr Heath says China's military now has an impressive arsenal, but its ability to use them well remains unclear.

"There are reasons to be sceptical," he writes. "The People's Liberation Army (PLA) struggles under the legacy of an obsolete command system, rampant corruption, and training of debatable realism, among other issues."

But Beijing is aware of this, he warns.

"President Xi Jinping, the chairman of the Central Military Commission, has directed major efforts to address each of these defects and improve the military's ability to fight and win wars."

 

NAVAL ASCENDANCY

"China has for decades been engaged in developing a modern navy with highly sophisticated weaponry," Mr McCoy writes. "Except for Japan, no country in the region can stand up to Beijing's maritime forces that - for now at least - are only middling. And China intends to challenge America's Western Pacific hegemony openly."

In less than a decade, China's navy has gone from a largely coastal and regional force to a fully-fledge bluewater presence.

Its ships are modern, large and very well equipped.

And this has defence analysts wondering about Beijing's ultimate ambitions.

"It is building surface vessels, from littoral ships to blue-water aircraft carriers and their related support craft," Mr McCoy writes. "Furthermore, it is enlisting coastal law-enforcement boats and the forces of its merchant fleet for both surveillance and intimidation."

That things have got to this point was the result of the "US intelligence community and academia miscalculation of the scope, scale and timing of the PLAN's modernisation and its impact on US national security," warns retired Navy Capt. James Fanell.

The US Naval War College met in May to discuss the directions the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy is expanding in.

It noted China has commissioned nearly four times more ships than the United States in the past decade. And this pace of expansion shows no sign of slowing.

It was also noted Beijing now operated 106 ships capable of fielding advanced missile systems in the Western Pacific, while the US navy only had 22.

And any lingering notions that China's technology was inferior were dispelled.

Its scientists have made significant advances in developing laser, hypersonic and electromagnetic pulse weapons as well as advanced unmanned AI systems.

Meanwhile, US programs - such as the $7 billion next-generation USS Ford aircraft carrier were wracked with troubles. This ship will deploy without being able to operate its primary aircraft - the F-35C stealth fighter - because its advanced electromagnetic catapult and weapons-lift platforms simply don't work.

All China's navy lacks to dominate the Indian and Pacific Oceans is an extensive network of supportive harbours. But it's Belt-and-Road international investment and diplomatic initiative is actively pursuing just such a goal.

The PLAN's stated goal is to become a "Far Seas" power by 2050.

 

GROWING CONFIDENCE

China is "on the verge of fielding some of the most modern weapon systems in the world," a recent US defence intelligence assessment warned.

But that's not what they're worried about.

US intelligence agencies believe China is getting more and more self-confident, and is rapidly reaching the point where it could be willing to use force to establish its claims over the South China Sea and Taiwan.

"The biggest concern is that they are going to get to a point where the (military) leadership may actually tell President Xi Jinping that they are confident in their capabilities," a senior defence intelligence official told media in January.

"As these technologies mature, as their reorganisation of their military comes into effect, as they become more proficient with these capabilities, our concern is we'll reach a point where internally, within their decision-making, they will decide that using military force for a regional conflict is something that is more imminent."'

Former intelligence analyst McCoy says China is becoming increasingly bold in its application of "incrementalism" - small but assertive steps on the international playing field.

"Incrementalism is a useful ploy for accomplishing in small steps what - were it to be attempted straightaway in one large operation - would likely generate some sort of significant response from the West," he says.

It has already made it fait accompli that it "owns" the South China Sea. Now its setting its sights on territories tied to to Taiwan and Japan.

"China has recently increased its forays into airspace previously not shown to be of interest," he writes. "This is an incremental step in which other nations in the region will become accustomed to Chinese military presence in international airspace or waters yet close enough to the territory of other nations that concerns are raised."

Claims of growing confidence appear borne-out by China's Defence Minister when he addressed an assembly of international foreign affairs and defence ministers in Shanghai earlier this week.

"As the general public of China says these days, 'A talk? Welcome. A fight? We're ready. Bully us? No way'," General Wei Fenghe declared.

"The PLA has no intention to cause anybody trouble but it is not afraid to face up to troubles. Should anybody risk crossing the bottom line, the PLA will resolutely take action and defeat all enemies.

"China must be and will be reunified. We find no excuse not to do so. If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese military has no choice but to fight at all costs, at all costs, for national unity. We will strive for the prospect of peaceful unification with utmost sincerity and greatest efforts, but we make no promise to renounce the use of force."

Mr McCoy is pessimistic in his outlook.

"Next will likely be small - perhaps even armed - clashes, but nothing big enough to elicit anything more than a protest from Washington. Eventually a real battle will come, and Beijing will likely strike first, with devastating results. The question is when."


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