The Chinese Military Speaks to Itself, Revealing Doubts
Editor’s Note: This article is based on longer testimony presented to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on February 7, 2019.
A large body of evidence in China’s official military and party media indicates the nation’s senior civilian and uniformed leaders recognize significant shortcomings in the warfighting and command capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). However, most of this evidence is not translated into English for public consumption and is not considered in much of the foreign analysis of China’s growing military capabilities. This situation is not new, but goes back for decades.
Yet, the increasing scope and frequency of these self-critiques during the tenure of Xi Jinping as chairman of the Central Military Commission casts doubt over the senior party and military leadership’s confidence in the PLA’s ability to prevail in battle against a modern enemy. Furthermore, the limitations illustrated by these internal assessments will likely moderate China’s near- and mid-term national security objectives and the manner in which they are pursued. This lack of confidence in PLA capabilities contributes to Beijing’s preference to achieve China’s national objectives through deterrence and actions short of war.
Specific and General Assessments
Identifying and overcoming specific operational problems has been an essential element of China’s deliberate, long-term military modernization program that began after its brief war with Vietnam in 1979. Following every major training event, units in all services of the PLA conduct after-action reviews to identify positive developments and detect specific shortcomings and weaknesses for correction. The results of these internal assessments are passed up the chain of command to the party and government’s highest military policy- and decision-making organization, the Central Military Commission. Some of this process is classified and not revealed to the public, but much of it is reported by the official media, mostly in the Chinese language, directed at an internal audience in China. It includes good, and often bad, news.
Myriad specific critiques of discrete functions in individual units form the basis for larger, generalized assessments of overall military capabilities. Going back to Deng Xiaoping, general self-assessments have been attributed to and referred to by Central Military Commission chairmen. In their first few appearances they are spelled out in full sentences, but later are abbreviated in short slogans or formulas, such as the “Two Incompatibles” or “Five Incapables.” The Chinese have not translated the short-form abbreviations for these slogans into English, and different interpreters may arrive at different translations of the terms, but the message is the same: The PLA must overcome multiple shortcomings in its combat and leadership capabilities. None of these general assessments have been included in any of the official white papers on national defense, which target audiences external to China.
PLA units study leadership speeches and Chinese-language articles describing operational shortcomings during mandatory political training sessions. The custom of discussing both the good and bad is the PLA’s way of talking to itself, aimed at praising units for advances they have achieved and encouraging personnel to work harder to raise China’s military capabilities over the long-term. It is a method the PLA uses to “know itself,” not a deception operation to hide growing capabilities from outsiders.
During Xi’s tenure as chairman of the Central Military Commission, the number of general self-assessments has increased in number over those observed during Hu Jintao’s term. These critiques continue to express skepticism about the PLA’s ability to win a local war and have been expanded to question the combat leadership ability of “some” leaders and the PLA’s loyalty to the party.
Hu Jintao’s “Two Incompatibles”
In early 2006, Central Military Commission chairman Hu Jintao was credited with formulating the “Two Incompatibles” (liǎnggè bùxiāng shìyìng, 两个不相适应) assessment. It states that the PLA’s level of modernization does not meet the requirements for winning local wars under informatized conditions and its military capability does not meet the requirements of carrying out its historic missions. This evaluation questions the PLA’s capabilities to fight and win wars and perform the many other missions it may be assigned, such as disaster relief and anti-terrorist operations. This assessment continues to be seen after Hu left office, though less frequently. The formula has also been modified to describe specific problems. For example, in July 2018, a member of the Army Staff wrote that the size of the Army Aviation air assault force was incompatible with its missions and tasks and that its overall operational capabilities were incompatible with the requirements for victory.
Though the term “gap” (chājù, 差距) also was used multiple times regarding the distance between certain PLA capabilities and foreign capabilities, no other general assessment formulas were associated with Hu. The “Two Incompatibles,” in various forms, has appeared hundreds of times in many different publications over the last 13 years.
After becoming Central Military Commission chairman in 2012, Xi has sought to raise the overall level of the PLA’s combat readiness, embodied in the slogan “be able to fight and win” (néng dǎzhàng, dǎ shèngzhàng, 能打仗、打胜仗). By raising its warfighting capabilities and demonstrating them to the world, the PLA seeks to enhance its deterrence posture directed at a variety of threats to China’s national interests and to achieve China’s political objectives without fighting.
In 2013, Xi revived the Deng-era slogan the “Two Inabilities” (liǎnggè nénglì bùgòu, 两个能力不够), which says the PLA’s ability to fight a modern war and the ability of its cadres (officers) at all levels to command modern war are not sufficient. The first half of this formula is similar to the first part of the “Two Incompatibles,” but the second portion is a general criticism of PLA combat leadership capabilities. That same year, the “Two Big Gaps” (liǎnggè chājù hěn dà, 两个差距很大) often began to accompany the “Two Inabilities” in usage. The “Two Big Gaps” speaks of “big gaps” between the PLA’s military modernization level and the requirements for national security compared to the level of the world’s advanced militaries. It reiterates leadership concern over PLA fighting abilities in general, but compares them to other advanced militaries, highlighting the relative gap between Chinese and advanced military capabilities. One of the few instances of a Chinese-origin, English-language reference to the “Two Big Gaps” and “Two Inabilities” was published in 2016. However, it does not include the two slogans themselves and casual readers could miss the larger context and history behind this passage:
Improving the army’s combat strength has become a major focus. But the modernization level of the Chinese army is inadequate to safeguard national security, and it lags far behind advanced global peers. The Chinese army is not capable enough of waging modern warfare, and officers lack command skills for modern warfare.
The following year, the “Three Whethers” (sāngè néngbùnéng, 三个能不能) asked (a) whether the PLA can maintain the party’s absolute leadership, (b) whether it can fight victoriously when needed, and (c) whether commanders at all levels are competent to lead troops and command in war. This slogan adds a political dimension to concerns about the military’s operational and leadership abilities. (Other slogans, such as the “Five Excesses” (五多) and “Four Winds [or Four Bad Styles]” (四风), that focus on political and ideological issues, are not be addressed here.)
However, the “Five Incapables [Cannots]” (wǔgè bùhuì, 五个不会) from 2015 is probably the most important criticism of all. It emphasizes that “some” officers cannot judge situations, understand higher authorities’ intentions, make operational decisions, deploy troops, nor deal with unexpected situations. These are the basics of combat leadership, applicable at all levels of war, for all militaries. This appraisal and the “Two Inabilities,” which also mentions leadership problems, are now the most frequently repeated slogans in the Chinese military media.
Since 2006 when the “Two Incompatibles” was first promulgated, these five assessments have appeared in over 500 articles in the PLA Daily alone. Harvard Professor Alastair Iain Johnston has graphed the number of articles in which one or more of these terms each has been observed annually through 2018 in the PLA Daily:
The total number of PLA Daily articles in which the following assessments have appeared is:
- “Two Incompatibles”: 120 articles
- “Two Inabilities”: 169
- “Two Big Gaps”: 78
- “Three Whethers”: 27
- “Five Incapables”: 163
- Total: 557
These self-criticisms are used specifically to justify many training events and leadership activities. For example, the 17 Stride and Firepower-series trans-regional exercises in 2016 were expressly designed to resolve commanders’ “Five Incapables” problem; during the summer of 2018, all four services held senior leadership training focused on the same set of leadership issues. The “Two Inabilities” was cited specifically as a reason to improve realistic training when the updated Military Training Outline was disseminated in 2018.
The “Peace Disease”
In addition to the general assessments identified above, the PLA leadership acknowledges that the force has developed lax attitudes and practices resulting from four decades without fighting a major campaign against a foreign enemy. Current vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, General Zhang Youxia identified this weakness in 2009 when he was Shenyang Military Region commander:
Today, the PLA hasn’t been in actual combat for many years now, yet the fires of war are burning throughout the world. In this area, the gap between the PLA and foreign militaries is growing day by day. This is an actual problem.
The Chinese media frequently urges the troops to overcome the “peace disease” (hépíng bìng, 和平病), “peacetime habits” (hépíng jīxí, 和平积习), and “peacetime practices [or problems]” (hépíng jībì, 和平积弊). In an exchange email, Johnston indicated the term “peace disease” was first observed in the late 1980s and that these three terms have appeared roughly 565 times in the PLA Daily from 2012 to mid-2018. They continue to be used regularly in 2019 as shorthand for challenges to be overcome. The recently announced regulation to improve centralized training inspections specifically cited the need to eliminate “peacetime practices.”
If soldiers have a peacetime attitude and do not expect to go to war during their period of service, they may take shortcuts, develop bad habits, or just “go through the motions” during training, compromising unit readiness. Rectifying this problem is an important motive behind Xi’s current emphasis on raising combat readiness. Xi’s call to be able to “fight and win” and “cure the peace disease,” however, does not imply that the PLA should undertake a military campaign to test its warfighting capabilities. Rather it is the equivalent of the U.S. military’s priority to be ready to “Fight Tonight.”
The body of Chinese-language evidence enumerating the various specific problems in all services that support the general assessments above is huge, dating back decades. Examples in the Chinese-origin, English-language media occur much less frequently, but one observation by an unidentified researcher in the Human Resources Department at the then-Xi’an Political Academy addresses multiple systemic problems:
[The PLA] must address the shortage of officers who have a deep knowledge of joint combat operations and advanced equipment. We have developed and deployed many cutting-edge weapons, including some that are the best in the world, but there are not enough soldiers to use many of those advanced weapons. In some cases, soldiers lack knowledge and expertise to make the best use of their equipment.
Another English-language example from 2016 is attributed to the deputy political commissar of the South Sea Fleet:
Despite the fact that the Navy’s strength, weapons and equipment continue to improve, we have weaknesses at the technological level. Our researchers have made breakthroughs in many fields, and what we need now is the government’s determination and investment, otherwise the Navy will lag behind others.
More recently, the commander of an artillery brigade observed (in Chinese at about five minutes into the video), “We commanders still work with traditional methods and we have not changed training methods and concepts for informatized and digitized equipment.” Similarly, a battalion commander, whose unit is equipped with the newest Type 99A tanks, but was defeated in a 2018 training exercise, explained “We only studied the capabilities of older tanks, but have not completely understood new ones.” The latter two examples are just a small sample of innumerable criticisms operational unit leaders frequently make about their unit’s and the PLA’s overall capabilities.
Despite the new weapons, equipment, and technologies entering the PLA, and the most massive structural reforms since the 1950s, the PLA’s general assessments of its own capabilities have become, if anything, more acute during Xi’s tenure as Central Military Commission chairman, especially concerning the state of leadership at the operational unit level. The totality of these criticisms implies a lack of confidence in PLA capabilities and a failure of the PLA’s educational and training systems to prepare commanders and staff officers for future war. Therefore, the senior Chinese military leadership demonstrates little or no enthusiasm to commit the PLA to actual combat against a modern foe, preferring to achieve China’s national objectives through deterrence and actions short of war conducted by a combination of civilian, government, paramilitary, and military forces.
Based on its own timeline, the PLA leadership would prefer to continue doctrinal and training experimentation and structural adjustments until 2035 when Xi has ordered military modernization to be completed. However, in the coming decade, should deterrence fail and the PLA is compelled to fight, its leadership will respond with the capabilities at hand, combining old weapons with new ones, high-technology systems with low-technology ones, and integrating military and civilian assets to defend China’s sovereignty, territorial claims, and national interests. Whether the PLA is successful in future combat, however, depends on several factors that may be beyond its control, such as when and where the fight takes place, who the enemy is, and the circumstances that caused the conflict.
Though the PLA’s self-assessments of its own shortcomings are subjective in nature, they should be incorporated into foreign analyses of China’s military capabilities and intentions. For example, both Roger Cliff’s China’s Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities and RAND’s China’s Incomplete Military Transformation from 2015 include considerations of the subjective elements of doctrine, organization, personnel, and training in their analysis. The 2018 U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress on the Chinese military and the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report on Chinese military reorganization and modernization both mention briefly the “Five Incapables” (the Defense Department calls it the “so-called the ‘five unable’ problem”) and other challenges the PLA faces. More in-depth analysis regarding weaknesses in individual services or specific combat functions could be illuminating for a number of reasons.
If the entire range of shortcomings in existing PLA capabilities identified by the Chinese media is incorporated into analysis of Chinese intentions, it is extremely difficult to support the U.S. National Defense Strategy’s assertion that China is conducting a “a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term” [emphasis added]. The scope and timeframe of that purported objective suggest a level of confidence not revealed by the Chinese leadership’s own public assessments of PLA capabilities.
Dennis J. Blasko is a retired lieutenant colonel, U.S. Army with 23 years of service as a military intelligence officer and foreign area officer specializing in China. From 1992 to 1996 he was an Army attaché in Beijing and Hong Kong. He has written numerous articles and chapters on the Chinese military, along with the book The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, second edition (Routledge, 2012).
Image: People’s Republic of China, Ministry of Defense