Xi Jinping’s Worst Nightmare: A Potemkin People’s Liberation Army
A worst-case Taiwan scenario for Chinese leader Xi Jinping would be a major military operation in which the People’s Liberation Army fails spectacularly or displays shocking incompetence akin to Russia’s in Ukraine. Could this happen?
The good news is that while China’s military has undergone major upgrades and has long been preparing for a Taiwan scenario, there are three significant reasons to doubt its prowess. First is the dysfunctionality of civil-military relations in a dictatorship. Second is the plausibility of existing insider critics. And third is the unreliable alchemy inherent in assessing combat effectiveness.
The bad news is that even if China’s armed forces fail spectacularly, this does not necessarily mean a shorter, less bloody, or less costly conflict. If the People’s Liberation Army stumbles badly, Xi is unlikely to call off his military. Where Taiwan is concerned Xi can be expected to press his armed forces to persist in the fight, producing a protracted conflict in the center of the Indo-Pacific and profoundly disrupting commerce and stability across the region.
Military Modernization: Targeting Taiwan
Even before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, senior U.S. officials and analysts were warning that Xi had accelerated his timeline for unification with Taiwan and prioritized the military means to attain it. The year 2027 is widely referenced and one prominent expert has dubbed the 2020s “the decade of living dangerously.” Of course, Xi, like his purported pal Putin, could decide to order his armed forces to launch a major military operation any time he chooses, and his generals would almost certainly obey. But most experts on China’s military consider a decision by commander-in-chief Xi to invade Taiwan unlikely in the near term, at least barring some dramatic change in the Chinese Communist Party’s calculus of regime security. Indeed, the 2027 date mentioned in Chinese documents appears to be a milestone to attain benchmarks in the military’s ongoing multi-decade modernization drive rather than a deadline for an attack on Taiwan.
Most knowledgeable analysts and outside observers are impressed by the major strides that the People’s Liberation Army has made in recent decades: significantly upgrading its platforms and weapon systems and substantially expanding power projection capabilities. While the roles and missions for China’s armed forces have expanded to encompass multiple contingencies, including out-of-area operations, their primary operational focus remains Taiwan. An important insight from the scholarship on complex bureaucracies is that when a system is laser-focused on one task, it can get remarkably good at this task relatively quickly. If the Chinese military’s consuming focus for decades has been realizing unification with Taiwan, then it has had a lot of time to devote toward planning, preparing, and practicing for this scenario.
But what if conventional wisdom regarding the People’s Liberation Army and its prowess is misplaced? A few years ago, asking this question would have seemed preposterous. But then, until recently, the consensus among experts was that the Russian military had been transformed over the past decade or so into a crack fighting force with a new doctrine and shiny new weapon systems. So where could things go wrong for Xi?
Civil-Military Disfunction in Dictatorships
Dictators face notable obstacles when it comes to ensuring the combat effectiveness of their armed forces. These generally manifest themselves in two problems: anxieties over allegiances and the dearth of reliable information. Because they are prone to paranoia, dictators tend to select and promote officers on the basis of their perceived personal allegiance rather than their records or qualities as commanders. It was this instinct that drove Xi to launch a major anti-corruption campaign in the earliest years of his tenure that resulted in hundreds of generals being ousted. While bribery and fraud undoubtedly constituted serious problems within the Chinese military, Xi’s campaign had all the hallmarks of a purge, allowing the commander-in-chief to sweep aside perceived opponents throughout the officer corps.
Prioritizing coup-proofing at the expense of readiness creates other problems too. Dictators prefer centralizing decisions on postings and promotions as well as troop movements in their own hands. They often establish multiple centers of military and/or paramilitary power to prevent any one military leader or bureaucratic entity from accumulating too much power and to encourage competition over cooperation among subordinates. This is one reason why Putin permitted the emergence of the Wagner Group. While not embracing private security companies to the same degree as Putin’s Russia, Chinese Communist Party leaders have long maintained a set of muscular internal-security apparatuses funded in recent years at a level exceeding China’s official national defense budget.
In China’s Leninist system, coup-proofing measures have been institutionalized across more than nine decades to maintain multiple mechanisms for ensuring party control of the People’s Liberation Army. These include an extensive network of political commissars and party committees that penetrate all levels of the military. Furthermore, all officers and most enlisted personnel are party members, reinforcing the political allegiance of men and women in uniform. Every member of the military has a political dossier that includes assessments of their reliability and attitude.
One of the most critical relationships for warfighting effectiveness in the Chinese system is that between political commissars and military commanders. While the commissar-commander link seems to function reasonably well in peacetime, the real stress test would be in time of war. The political commissar system performed well under wartime conditions many decades ago during the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and the Korean War of the early 1950s. But each of these long-ago conflicts was protracted and the commissar-commander partnership had time to evolve and adapt. In a Taiwan contingency, commissars and commanders would suddenly switch from familiar peacetime dynamics to the compressed urgency of unfamiliar wartime conditions. The battle rhythm of 21st-century informatized war is even more accelerated than 20th-century industrial-age combat.
A second problem for dictatorships is that reliable information is notoriously hard to come by. This is especially so for the dictator himself. Advisors and subordinates — whether civilian or military — tend to tell a dictator mostly what they think he wants to hear. Dispensing bad news to one’s superior is not deemed career-enhancing or life-prolonging. Indeed, speaking truth to power can be difficult even in the best of circumstances in any political system, but when the “power” is a ruthless dictator who wields absolute authority, the disincentives for a subordinate to be brutally honest are far greater.
In January 2022, for example, Putin seemed completely convinced that his armed forces were well-trained, well-equipped, well-led, and would acquit themselves well in a military operation against Ukraine. Why? Because no-one had led him to believe otherwise. Indeed, the Russian dictator had been beguiled by multiple subordinates employing elaborate ruses and charades. His generals had constructed a Potemkin military. Some 350 years earlier, Grigory Potemkin reportedly conjured up impressive facades in Crimea to hide the rural reality of dire poverty and dilapidated conditions from his sovereign, Catherine the Great. Putin, too, had visited showcase barracks and mess halls, witnessed precisely orchestrated field exercises, and watched impressively choreographed parades — all intended to hide the corrosive effects of corruption, fraud, and incompetence on a monumental scale.
Taking China’s Internal Critics at Their Word
Surprisingly, China’s military leaders have spoken frankly and openly about the deficiencies they discern within their own armed forces. At least until recently. As Xi has tightened his iron grip over the armed forces, his handpicked generals are far more reticent than their predecessors to be naysayers or the bearers of bad news — consistent with the civil-military dysfunctionality diagnosed above. Moreover, Xi’s commander-in-chief hubris seems to have heightened as the military transformation he believes he has wrought continues apace. For a decade, Xi has directed and sustained sizeable defense investment along with an unprecedented and thoroughgoing organizational overhaul. Now, few if any generals are brave enough to tell China’s dictator that his sweeping military reforms are not as transformative as he hopes.
Previously, though, Chinese officers and analysts have been quite blunt about the flaws and weaknesses they see in their own military. Of course, at least some of this discourse could be deception or disinformation. But the best evidence of sincerity is that these criticisms have inspired real reform efforts. Xi himself identified severe problems in the military — in addition to the rampant corruption targeted at the outset of his tenure as commander-in-chief — and determined that a thoroughgoing response was urgently needed. As a result, within a few years of taking office, Xi had initiated the most comprehensive organizational reforms of China’s national defense establishment in three decades. What Xi appeared to take to heart was what generals had dubbed the “two incompatibles.” This refers to the assessment that China’s military had yet to reach the level of modernization necessary to be victorious in information-age war and had yet to acquire the capabilities to undertake operations to successfully prosecute a 21st-century conflict.
Military modernization is often understood with reference to acquiring and mastering high-technology weapon systems. But this is only one piece in a complex puzzle. What Xi and forward-looking Chinese generals understood was that if China wants to become a “world-class military,” high-tech weaponry is not sufficient. The military would need to fundamentally restructure itself to streamline chains of command and enable different services to operate together seamlessly. Indeed, this collective concern about the condition of China’s armed forces did trigger a monumental effort to trim bureaucracies, shrink staffs, and push the People’s Liberation Army to operate more as a single joint force and less as separate services.
These reforms, launched in 2016, abolished four massive general departments and two overstaffed military regions to centralize authority in the Central Military Commission. General departments became offices and bureaus directly subordinate to the commission, while seven military regions were consolidated into five theater commands, with four of them reconfigured, with the goal of making each better able to execute joint warfighting in a specific geographic theater.
Yet, in the aftermath of these thoroughgoing reforms and the billions spent on new weaponry, naysayers are finding it harder to be heard and easier to be ignored. In the current stultifying atmosphere of the “chairman responsibility system,” China’s military will find it much more difficult to learn and adapt because those naysayers have now been silenced.
The Alchemy of Combat Effectiveness
Dysfunction and doubts aside, what is the secret for success in war? The specific recipe for combat-effective armed forces is rather mysterious, and you can’t simply bet on the side with the most fancy weapons. The commissioning of vast quantities of new aircraft and seacraft in China’s armed forces in recent years is certainly impressive. It commands the greatest attention at home and abroad and is straightforward to identify and quantify. But system specifications and inventories do not by themselves ensure success in battle. Other “soft” factors, such as quality of personnel, effectiveness of training, morale, and command-and-control culture are also extremely important, yet difficult to measure. Moreover, meaningful combat effectiveness is the result of multiple elements all combining as a whole. To be effective, a military not only needs sound doctrine, organization, weaponry, personnel training, logistics and culture, but also needs each of these components to blend together.
Veteran Chinese military expert Roger Cliff identifies “a fundamental mismatch between the [People’s Liberation Army’s] doctrine and organizational culture.” Central to this mismatch is a rigid command culture of tight control. Typically, the term “command and control” refers to a key facet of any military organization. In the case of the People’s Liberation Army, however, it is more accurate to reverse the word order to highlight the emphasis placed upon “control” over “command.”
China’s military command culture is highly centralized and top down — a subordinate is expected to follow the orders of a superior to the letter. By contrast, the culture in the U.S. armed forces is quite different, with superiors who expect subordinates to exercise professional judgement on how best to implement the “commander’s intent.” A prerequisite for the more flexible culture is a high level of trust and confidence in the abilities and judgment of junior officers. Effectiveness in 21st-century warfare tends to favor a military culture that encourages flexibility, adaptability, individual initiative, and decentralized decision-making at lower levels. The comments of Chinese officers suggest that this is recognized and efforts are being made to change the culture. As a staff officer at the headquarters of the East Sea Fleet commented in 2017: “The lower the level of command, the stronger our commanding ability is, and the more we can adapt to the needs of operations.” Two years earlier, a navy commander lamented the “complex command hierarchies and long preparation times” bedeviling Gulf of Aden counter-piracy operations, but then noted approvingly a culture shift underway from “commanded from above” to “independent command.”
The best way to gauge combat effectiveness is to see how a military performs in actual combat. Yet, the People’s Liberation Army has not conducted a major combat operation since 1979 and has not executed large-scale amphibious landings since 1950. The former, a limited but high-intensity ground campaign against Vietnam, was not a resounding success; the latter, an invasion of Hainan to capture the island from Kuomintang forces, was successful but executed against disorganized resistance. Both experiences were many decades ago. While the Chinese military has a range of more contemporary operational experiences — not including short but sharp skirmishes in the South China Sea and in the high Himalayas — these have all been non-combat and mostly small scale. These include multiple U.N. peacekeeping missions, ongoing counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, disaster relief operations, and the evacuation of Chinese citizens from locations such as Yemen in 2015 and Sudan in April 2023. China’s most significant evacuation operation was in 2011 from Libya, but the military only played a peripheral role: Of the total of 35,860 Chinese nationals evacuated, less than 5 percent — 1,700 people — were transported on military aircraft. The vast majority came out of Libya via commercial ships and aircraft.
Of course, the U.S. military has not conducted major combat operations since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Yet all services have engaged in multiple high-intensity smaller-scale operations in the intervening years, so we have a better sense of how America’s armed forces might perform.
The specter of a Potemkin military being exposed during a military attack on Taiwan is neither a safe assumption nor a reason for reassurance. No one — including Xi — knows for sure how China’s military will perform in a Taiwan contingency. It is only prudent to assume the People’s Liberation Army will execute such an operation credibly, although probably not flawlessly. Yet, spectacular failure — or a Ukraine-sized snafu — is no longer inconceivable. Such an outcome would cause China’s commander-in-chief personal humiliation, and could provoke a domestic political-military crisis and/or propel Beijing to escalate. As the world has witnessed in Ukraine, a dictator shocked by a very public display of gross incompetence by his military may react in a range of worrisome ways. This includes — but is not limited to — threatening the use of nuclear weapons.
In the final analysis, even an unsuccessful Chinese military operation against Taiwan would send seismic geostrategic shockwaves across the Indo-Pacific region and around the world. A botched Chinese attack would bring small consolation to the island itself and likely elevate cross-strait tensions for decades to come. Moreover, China’s relations with great powers and small powers alike, notably the United States, would be irreparably damaged. As I have argued elsewhere, a failed invasion would still trigger a new Cold War.
While revealing a Potemkin People’s Liberation Army would obviously be an operational catastrophe for China, it would also generate strategic-level blowback and severe second-order effects that could adversely impact not just China but also Taiwan, the United States, and other Indo-Pacific states. Of course, it is possible that Taiwan’s military — despite concerted defense reforms — could also underperform. We have no real basis to assess its combat effectiveness, because Taiwanese forces have not seen actual combat in many, many decades. Yet, in the final analysis, this possibility will factor far less into Xi’s war-making calculus than his assessment of the capabilities and reaction times of the U.S. armed forces. And China’s commander-in-chief harbors no illusions that America’s is a Potemkin military.
However well or poorly China’s military might perform, the geostrategic implications would not constitute a big win for anyone. In the unlikely event that China’s military performs spectacularly well and swiftly achieves operational success, this victory would stun the region and prompt a major geopolitical realignment, but not necessarily in ways that would all favor Beijing. If the People’s Liberation Army were to stumble seriously or fail spectacularly in a military operation against Taiwan, Xi would be unlikely to throw in the towel. A major setback would almost certainly generate a protracted war in the center of the Indo-Pacific that would seriously disrupt regional shipping lanes, commercial air travel, and supply chains. As a result, prolonged conflict over Taiwan would be far more disruptive than the ongoing war in Ukraine, both regionally and globally.
Andrew Scobell is a distinguished fellow in the China program at the U.S. Institute of Peace and an adjunct professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His recent publications include Crossing the Strait: China Prepares for War with Taiwan (National Defense University Press, 2022) and U.S.-China Signaling, Action-Reaction Dynamics, and Taiwan: A Preliminary Analysis (U.S. Institute of Peace, 2022).