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Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Risk of a Chinese Military Misstep

"Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall." Proverbs 16:18.

The Diplomat has been running a lot of articles recently on China and its use and projection of force. There are a few that are particularly worth mention because they deal with the issue of China starting a war by incorrectly gauging an opponents ability or resolution, or overestimating its own ability.

The first article of note is one taking the position that China's military is deceptively weak and, therefore, of extraordinary danger. The article begins by noting some of the physical shortcomings of China's military forces: in 2003, China put all of its best submariners on a single boat, which promptly sunk, destroying most of its expertise in handling submarines with one fell swoop. Notwithstanding its purchase and refurbishment of a Soviet-era aircraft carrier, it still does not have an operational aircraft carrier. In an era of rapid deployment of troops and equipment by air, China still relies on railroads. China's strategic rocket troops patrol on horseback because they don't have enough helicopters. The author notes that China's military shortcomings are even greater than a lack of equipment:
But if China’s lack of decent hardware is somewhat surprising given all the hype surrounding Beijing’s massive military modernization program, the state of “software” (military training and readiness) is truly astounding. At one military exercise in the summer of 2012, a strategic PLA unit, stressed out by the hard work of handling warheads in an underground bunker complex, actually had to take time out of a 15-day wartime simulation for movie nights and karaoke parties. In fact, by day nine of the exercise, a “cultural performance troupe” (common PLA euphemism for song-and-dance girls) had to be brought into the otherwise sealed facility to entertain the homesick soldiers. 
Apparently becoming suspicious that men might not have the emotional fortitude to hack it in high-pressure situations, an experimental all-female unit was then brought in for the 2013 iteration of the war games, held in May, for an abbreviated 72-hour trial run. Unfortunately for the PLA, the results were even worse. By the end of the second day of the exercise, the hardened tunnel facility’s psychological counseling office was overrun with patients, many reportedly too upset to eat and one even suffering with severe nausea because of the unpleasant conditions. 
While recent years have witnessed a tremendous Chinese propaganda effort aimed at convincing the world that the PRC is a serious military player that is owed respect, outsiders often forget that China does not even have a professional military. The PLA, unlike the armed forces of the United States, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and other regional heavyweights, is by definition not a professional fighting force. Rather, it is a “party army,” the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Indeed, all career officers in the PLA are members of the CCP and all units at the company level and above have political officers assigned to enforce party control. Likewise, all important decisions in the PLA are made by Communist Party committees that are dominated by political officers, not by operators. This system ensures that the interests of the party’s civilian and military leaders are merged, and for this reason new Chinese soldiers entering into the PLA swear their allegiance to the CCP, not to the PRC constitution or the people of China. 
This may be one reason why China’s marines (or “naval infantry” in PLA parlance) and other  amphibious warfare units train by landing on big white sandy beaches that look nothing like the west coast of Taiwan (or for that matter anyplace else they could conceivably be sent in the East China Sea or South China Sea). It could also be why PLA Air Force pilots still typically get less than ten hours of flight time a month (well below regional standards), and only in 2012 began to have the ability to submit their own flight plans (previously, overbearing staff officers assigned pilots their flight plans and would not even allow them to taxi and take-off on the runways by themselves). 
Intense and realistic training is dangerous business, and the American maxim that the more you bleed during training the less you bleed during combat doesn’t translate well in a Leninist military system. Just the opposite. China’s military is intentionally organized to bureaucratically enforce risk-averse behavior, because an army that spends too much time training is an army that is not engaging in enough political indoctrination. ...
For that reason, the PLA has to engage in constant “political work” at the expense of training for combat. This means that 30 to 40 percent of an officer’s career (or roughly 15 hours per 40-hour work week) is wasted studying CCP propaganda, singing patriotic songs, and conducting small group discussions on Marxist-Leninist theory. And when PLA officers do train, it is almost always a cautious affair that rarely involves risky (i.e., realistic) training scenarios. 
... Yet none of this should be comforting to China’s potential military adversaries. It is precisely China’s military weakness that makes it so dangerous. Take the PLA’s lack of combat experience, for example. A few minor border scraps aside, the PLA hasn’t seen real combat since the Korean War. This appears to be a major factor leading it to act so brazenly in the East and South China Seas. Indeed, China’s navy now appears to be itching for a fight anywhere it can find one. Experienced combat veterans almost never act this way. Indeed, history shows that military commanders that have gone to war are significantly less hawkish than their inexperienced counterparts. Lacking the somber wisdom that comes from combat experience, today’s PLA is all hawk and no dove. 
The Chinese military is dangerous in another way as well. Recognizing that it will never be able to compete with the U.S. and its allies using traditional methods of war fighting, the PLA has turned to unconventional “asymmetric” first-strike weapons and capabilities to make up for its lack of conventional firepower, professionalism and experience. These weapons include more than 1,600 offensive ballistic and cruise missiles, whose very nature is so strategically destabilizing that the U.S. and Russia decided to outlaw them with the INF Treaty some 25 years ago. 
In concert with its strategic missile forces, China has also developed a broad array of space weapons designed to destroy satellites used to verify arms control treaties, provide military communications, and warn of enemy attacks. China has also built the world’s largest army of cyber warriors, and the planet’s second largest fleet of drones, to exploit areas where the U.S. and its allies are under-defended. All of these capabilities make it more likely that China could one day be tempted to start a war, and none come with any built in escalation control. 
Yet while there is ample and growing evidence to suggest China could, through malice or mistake, start a devastating war in the Pacific, it is highly improbable that the PLA’s strategy could actually win a war. Take a Taiwan invasion scenario, which is the PLA’s top operational planning priority. While much hand-wringing has been done in recent years about the shifting military balance in the Taiwan Strait, so far no one has been able to explain how any invading PLA force would be able to cross over 100 nautical miles of exceedingly rough water and successfully land on the world’s most inhospitable beaches, let alone capture the capital and pacify the rest of the rugged island. 
The PLA simply does not have enough transport ships to make the crossing, and those it does have are remarkably vulnerable to Taiwanese anti-ship cruise missiles, guided rockets, smart cluster munitions, mobile artillery and advanced sea mines – not to mention its elite corps of American-trained fighter and helicopter pilots. Even if some lucky PLA units could survive the trip (not at all a safe assumption), they would be rapidly overwhelmed by a small but professional Taiwan military that has been thinking about and preparing for this fight for decades. 
Going forward it will be important for the U.S. and its allies to recognize that China’s military is in many ways much weaker than it looks. However, it is also growing more capable of inflicting destruction on its enemies through the use of first-strike weapons. ...
That article sets the stage for the other two. China has, perhaps, underestimated the resolve of their erstwhile opponents, as the United States makes an about-face on territorial claims in the South China Sea:
In recent weeks the Obama administration has done an about face on its position toward Asia’s sovereignty disputes, and is now actively challenging China on its nine-dash line claim to most of the South China Sea.

Until recently, the Obama administration had held steadfastly to the position that the U.S. does not take sides on any of the sovereignty disputes in Asia, but insists that parties to the dispute do not resort or threaten to resort to the use of force to settle them.

A series of comments by senior officials in the Obama administration in recent weeks mark a clear departure from that position. Instead of the previously neutral language the U.S. usually employs, Washington now is increasingly challenging the basis of China’s claims, particularly with regard to its nine-dashed line claim to nearly the entire South China Sea.
The other concerns overestimating its own ability to intimidate potential opponents. It relates a rather startling 2007 confrontation at sea between Chinese vessels and Vietnamese vessels.
The 2007 incident apparently resulted from an attempt by a China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) survey vessel to conduct what the documentary termed “normal operations” in the waters off the Western Paracel islands beginning on June 26 of that year. Such operations are seen as anything but normal by the Vietnamese, who continue to claim the islands despite China having forcefully occupied them since 1974. Hanoi dispatched a fleet consisting largely of naval auxiliary vessels to prevent the Chinese from surveying the waters. A tense standoff ensued, culminating in reckless maneuvers by Chinese CMS vessels that led to a number of serious collisions, threatening the safety of all crews. 
The Vietnamese vessels initially expelled the CNPC survey vessel from the area, and the China State Oceanic Administration (SOA) responded by promptly organizing a “rights safeguarding and law enforcement” campaign, dubbed Enforcement Action Code 626. According to the documentary, such operations exist outside the scope of regular enforcement patrols, and in addition to CMS ships already in the vicinity, SOA dispatched CMS vessels numbered 83 and 51 to the area as part of the campaign. They arrived on June 29 and formed up in “alert order,” with two ships both fore and aft on either side of the CNPC vessel, attempting to escort it back into the area for the second time. 
After failing to verbally persuade the Vietnamese vessels to leave the area and allow the survey to commence, the CMS vessels first initiated a protective cordon around the CNPC ship, then began to initiate a number of offensive naval maneuvers. These maneuvers began at the lower end of the spectrum with shouldering, but subsequently escalated to direct bow to bridge ramming after the Vietnamese naval auxiliary vessel DN 29 broke through the cordon. The offensive actions were undertaken on direct orders from the CMS higher command at SOA, who commanded the captains of the vessels to intentionally initiate collisions with the Vietnamese ships. According to the Deputy Director General of SOA’s South China Sea Bureau, he and other commanding officials were “stressed” over the risk to their own crews’ safety, but nevertheless “asked them to hit other vessels.” 
Such offensive maneuvers are considered by senior leadership at SOA to be more effective as they preempt possible aggressive maneuvers by the other side. The same SOA official is quoted in the video as stating that “based on our years long operational experience, it is much easier to attack than to defend.” These comments serve as a strong indication that at least some ranking SOA officials have a preference for preemptive action, and that the organization itself, now in charge of the restructured China Coast Guard, could be promoting an offensive operational doctrine. 
Rather than rogue or overzealous captains misinterpreting vague guidance, this incident provides conclusive evidence that the impetus for the collisions originated with very specific orders from the upper levels of the organization’s central leadership back on the Chinese mainland. The captains of the CMS vessels view such tactics as tools accessible to them, but only use them following orders from their higher command. As the captain of CMS vessel number 84 states in the video: “as long as the commander gives an order, be it hitting, ramming, or crashing, we will perform our duty resolutely.” 
.... Recent encounters between the American and Chinese navies elsewhere in the South China Sea, such as that involving the USS Cowpens in December, bring such parallels into stark contrast. While some commentators stressed the role of the activities undertaken by the Cowpens in causing the incident, the 2007 incident off the Paracels begs the question of whether or not the Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) shares the same operational doctrine as its ostensibly civilian counterpart. The Cowpens incident reportedly involved the use of similar tactics, with a Chinese amphibious ship shouldering the U.S. destroyer after it was asked but failed to leave the area, eventually leading to a near collision between the two vessels. That there would be doctrinal overlap between the PLAN and SOA is a distinct possibility, with the two organizations continuing to strengthen already close ties as part of plans outlined at a recent annual meeting held between their senior officials.
In other words, senior Chinese officials are exhibiting a dangerous level of bravado, that could lead to a miscalculation and war. And if China is not capable of winning with conventional forces, it would be tempted to resort to strategic weapons.

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