China’s Hollow Military

Bates Gill and Michael E. O’Hanlon

How good is China’s military, and how much should the United States care? There are ample grounds for addressing these questions. In 1995, and then again in 1996, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) splashed missiles off the Taiwanese coast. It also reinforced military facilities on the Spratly Islands, which China claims although they are hundreds of miles from its shores. More recently, the PRC has undertaken a steady build-up of short-range missiles opposite Taiwan—hardly, it seems, a benign development, particularly when considered alongside President Jiang Zemin’s presumed goal of reuniting Taiwan with the Chinese mainland during his tenure in office. And now these questions have been given a new urgency by the espionage allegations contained in the Cox report.

The PRC, then, has demonstrated a number of intentions and aims that warrant close American attention. The ongoing dispute over Taiwan, for example, is ripe for troublesome misperception. Chinese ambitions toward the Spratly Islands do not converge with U.S. interests or, for that matter, with those of nearby countries. The PRC continues to criticize harshly America’s global alliance system and its assertive foreign policy. More generally, Beijing appears poised to translate its growing economic power into greater military strength and geopolitical weight, as indeed a Chinese defense white paper acknowledged last year.

Despite all of the above, we believe that the recent clamor over China’s strategic ambitions is greatly overblown. Most of the Chinese aims that run counter to U.S. interests are in fact not global or ideological but territorial in nature, and confined primarily to the islands and waterways to China’s south and southeast. In addition, Beijing has recently taken a number of steps to cooperate with the United States on security matters: signing the Chemical Weapons Convention and nuclear test ban treaty, terminating its assistance to nuclear facilities in Pakistan, pledging to cut off ballistic missile transfers to Pakistan as well as nuclear and anti-ship cruise missile trade with Iran, and quietly restraining the North Koreans. Moreover, China is plagued by enormous socioeconomic problems, whose solution requires maintaining good relations with the world’s major economic powers—and with the United States in particular.

That said, our main focus in this article is less on the PRC’s intentions, always subject to change in any event, than on its military capabilities. An enormous gap separates China’s military capabilities from its aspirations. The PRC’s armed forces are not very good, and not getting better very fast. Whatever China’s concerns and intentions, its capacity to act upon them in ways inimical to U.S. interests is severely limited, and will remain so for many years.

To begin with, consider some basic facts: China remains a developing country, with per capita income levels—even after twenty years’ growth of historic proportions—only about one-tenth those of the West. China’s living standards trail even those of American adversaries such as Iran, Yugoslavia and pre-Desert Storm Iraq. It faces enormous challenges in its agricultural, environmental and banking sectors, which its arteriosclerotic central government is ill-equipped to address.

Looking at these facts, the new commander-in-chief of U.S. Pacific forces, Admiral Dennis Blair, has declared that China will not represent a serious strategic threat to the United States for at least twenty years.1 In almost every respect, China’s armed forces lag behind the U.S. military by at least a couple of decades; in many areas they even compare poorly with the “hollow force” that the United States fielded in the immediate wake of the war in Vietnam.2 And on matters ranging from the professionalism of its officer corps and troop morale to training and logistics, China’s military is in even worse shape than that.

An Empty Threat

China wields by far the world’s largest military, with 2.8 million soldiers, sailors and airmen—twice the American number. (The United States is number two; the only other countries with more than a million active duty troops are China’s neighbors—Russia, India and North Korea.) Yet China’s military was a full million people stronger in the 1980s—before PRC leaders recognized that its size actually worked against their aim of developing a modern force. Raw size is deceptive. Two million of China’s soldiers serve in the ground forces, where their primary responsibilities are to ensure domestic order and protect borders—not to project power. Then, too, the Pentagon estimates that only about 20 percent of those ground forces are even equipped to move about within China. A still smaller number possess the trucks, repair facilities, construction and engineering units, and other mobile assets needed to project power abroad.3

In China’s ever expanding defense budget, which has grown by more than 50 percent in real terms over the course of the 1990s and is to increase 15 percent this year, there is also less than meets the eye. Much of this year’s increase represents compensation to the Chinese armed forces for divesting themselves of their many business operations, which sapped China’s military readiness. Even with these increases, China’s announced defense budget will still only total about $12 billion, less than 5 percent of the U.S. figure.

Of course, that $12 billion figure does not capture all Chinese military spending. It does not include spending on foreign arms purchases, nuclear weapons development, most of China’s military research and local militias. Nor does it account for subsidies to China’s ailing defense industries, or administrative costs such as demobilization and pensions. Taking these additions into account, and adjusting for purchasing-power parity effects—admittedly a difficult and imprecise business—China’s actual defense expenditures are generally estimated at somewhere between $35 billion and $65 billion a year.4 But these are still modest numbers—especially for such a huge military. Even at the higher estimates, China spends less than 25 percent of what the United States spends on defense, while supporting a force twice as large.

This basic disparity will not change anytime soon. First, as noted, China faces enormous economic challenges that limit its ability to fund a military expansion. Second, even if China begins to close the gap with the United States, it starts from a position of marked inferiority. The United States owns a “capital stock” of modern military equipment valued at close to $1 trillion; China’s corresponding figure is well under $100 billion. As such, one can see why a recent study concluded that the Chinese military would have to increase spending on hardware by $22-39 billion annually for ten years to wield a force capable of significant power projection.5 Further, this estimate does not take into account the additional investments that would be required to man, train, deploy and sustain such a modern force. China is in no position even to attempt this scale of effort.

Weapons and Training

As Congressman Barney Frank has sardonically observed, China did recently acquire its first aircraft carrier. But it then immediately anchored it in Macao and transformed it into a recreation center. So much for the next great hegemon’s efforts to launch a blue-water fleet by the turn of the century.

More detailed assessments of Chinese military capability and readiness tell a similar story. Consider China’s combat air force. Though roughly equaling the aggregate air power numbers of the United States, China’s air forces include only a few dozen so-called “fourth generation” combat aircraft and only a couple hundred “third generation” aircraft. The rest rely on 1960s or even older technology. By contrast, all of the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines’ 3,000-plus fighters are fourth generation models. China’s projected fourth generation arsenal in the year 2005 is expected to include perhaps 150 fighters—by which point the United States will have purchased 300 “fifth generation” aircraft.6

Two additional factors render an even bleaker assessment: supporting equipment and overall military readiness. First, as a recent Pentagon report observed, the PRC’s air forces possess minimal aerial refueling capabilities, poor surveillance aircraft and a behind-schedule program to acquire airborne warning and control planes.7 Second, and as another Pentagon report describes, the electronic warfare capabilities of the PRC air force are “extremely limited by western standards.”8 Programs are underway in China to improve certain specialized capabilities, such as the use of space, long-range precision strike, and other “strategic dimensions of warfare.”9 But the PRC continues to have trouble modernizing its forces. What passes in the literature as “capabilities” are often better understood as long-term aspirations.

As for the caliber of China’s military manpower, it is hard to be more damning than the Pentagon’s most recent report on PRC military capabilities. It acknowledges that Chinese troops are generally patriotic, fit and good at basic infantry fighting skills, but then goes on to say:

Ground force leadership, training in combined operations, and morale are poor. The PLA is still a party army with nepotism and political/family connections continuing to predominate in officer appointment and advancement. The soldiers, for the most part, are semi-literate rural peasants; there is no professional NCO [non-commissioned officer] corps, per se. Military service, with its low remuneration and family disruption, is increasingly seen as a poor alternative to work in the private sector.10

China’s military training is elsewhere assessed as getting better, though still weak, particularly as concerns joint service operations.

With respect to the hardware on which those troops rely, the Defense Intelligence Agency expects that, by 2010 or so, perhaps 10 percent of China’s overall military will have acquired “late Cold War equivalent” heavy equipment and become reasonably proficient in employing it. Even that will leave them twenty years behind the American curve—and the remaining 90 percent of the force more obsolescent yet.

Projecting Power

So much for an assessment of China’s overall military readiness. Some would argue that this type of analysis misses the point in any case. Many American analysts contend that while the United States should not fret too much about China’s traditional military power, it should recognize that Beijing, having watched the Gulf War on CNN, might utilize “asymmetric warfare” to threaten American interests in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea. By employing advanced cruise missiles, sea mines, submarines, imaging satellites, anti-satellite weapons, computer viruses and other specialized weaponry, China would wage “local war under high-tech conditions” in a manner that exploits American vulnerabilities.

There is a kernel of truth in this concern—militaries, after all, routinely seek to exploit the weaknesses of their adversaries. But it is only a kernel. To defeat Taiwan, for instance, China would need to land enough troops on the island to overcome Taiwan’s quarter million-strong ground forces (plus some fraction of its 1.5 million man reserve force). But currently China cannot even move a quarter million soldiers overland into Mongolia or Vietnam. What is more, this type of power projection is precisely the type of operation that future military technology may render even more difficult.

The sum total of China’s amphibious transport capacity (about 70 ships) can move 10,000 to 15,000 troops. Its airborne transport may carry 6000 more.11 True, China could utilize fishing vessels and cargo ships, and tap its civilian air fleet, for an operation against Taiwan. But all of these vessels, military and civilian, would be fiercely attacked before they reached the island. Making matters worse for China is the fact that there are only a few suitable beachheads on Taiwan where PRC forces could land.

Even if only half of Taiwan’s fleet of nearly 500 combat aircraft survived an initial Chinese assault with missiles and fighters, the remaining aircraft could wreak enormous damage on an amphibious armada. The surviving planes would carry enough weapons that in theory they could sink almost the entire amphibious armada in a single sortie. Although Taiwan’s air force may not yet have large numbers of anti-ship missiles like the U.S. Harpoon in its arsenal, it could inflict a fair amount of damage with its own Hsiung Feng 2 anti-ship weapons12—and would probably be provided with weapons like the Harpoon fairly quickly. Taiwan also possesses highly effective air-to-air missiles, which would pose a serious threat to Chinese troop transport aircraft.

Things get even worse from the Chinese standpoint. To quote the Pentagon again, “China’s C4I [command, control, communications, computers and intelligence] infrastructure cannot support large scale, joint force projection operations at any significant distance from the country’s borders.” Granted, Taiwan is only about one hundred kilometers from the mainland (though many PRC aircraft would have to operate from several hundred kilometers’ distance, given constraints on the capacity of individual airfields). But even if the distances involved are not great, the operation would be enormously complex, as China would need to destroy Taiwan’s air force, sink its fleet, deceive its ground forces about the armada’s primary objective—and do all of these things after Taiwan was fully aware that hostilities were imminent, since a major and largely visible build-up of Chinese forces would already have taken place. Nor could China rule out the participation of American forces. Even if the United States did not put its combat assets in harm’s way, it could provide Taiwan all-weather day-night reconnaissance and targeting data from spy satellites and aircraft.

Bizarrely, after making many of these arguments in its own report, and further concluding that Beijing is making few efforts to improve its lift capacity, the Pentagon’s 1999 report on the PRC-Taiwan military balance concludes that, absent third-party intervention, China could probably carry out a successful amphibious assault by 2005. The basis for reaching this conclusion, however, is either unstated or unpersuasive.

China could plausibly blockade Taiwan—at least well enough to cut commerce severely and extract a steep economic price from Taipei. Here, the same technical realities and trends working against a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan might actually work in the PRC’s favor. Surface vessels in confined waters are already quite vulnerable. If anything, they are becoming more so—and China has in recent years vastly improved the quality of its anti-ship cruise missiles.13

China has a large navy, too, one that boasts some 60 submarines, 50 large surface combatants and hundreds of smaller ships. Of the submarines, three are high-quality Kilo-class vessels purchased from Russia; another five are indigenously produced Han nuclear-powered attack submarines. They do not carry anti-ship missiles at present, but may soon. China’s stock of torpedoes and mines, too, is well suited for blockade-style operations. But recall, this is a navy for which a three-ship crossing of the Pacific for its first ever visit to a mainland U.S. port—San Diego in March 1997—proved a huge undertaking. Even so, as Taiwan’s navy has only 4 submarines, 36 major surface combatants and about 100 smaller surface combat ships, it might well find itself outmatched by the PRC navy. Or at least that is the conclusion of the Pentagon.

In any cross-strait blockade or naval conflict, Taiwan’s main advantage would be air cover, especially if it reacted to a PRC blockade by shutting down its ports that face China and routing ships to its less vulnerable eastern harbors. China, however, could pursue Taiwanese-flagged vessels beyond the range of Taiwan’s aircover. Even if the PRC navy suffered huge losses, it could effectively discourage merchant shipping and shut down much of Taiwan’s export economy.

These options would not be available to China if the United States intervened. Deploying two carriers several hundred miles east of Taiwan, the United States could, with the assistance of the Taiwanese air force, clear the seas of Chinese warships. U.S. airpower, to use a well-coined phrase, can “do” open water much better than it can ferret Serbian tanks and troops out of Kosovo’s woods. American anti-submarine warfare capabilities would be challenged only against China’s best submarines, of which the PRC only has a handful. At most a few merchant or naval vessels would be lost on the U.S./Taiwan side before the Chinese threat was eliminated.14

On the matter of asymmetric Chinese approaches to defeating the U.S. military during a conflict over Taiwan, it is especially important to distinguish China’s aspirations from its capabilities. It is true that Chinese writers intend to utilize information warfare and other concepts derived from what American analysts often term the revolution in military affairs (RMA). This approach to countering America’s edge in traditional military capabilities undoubtedly has particular allure in a nation that gave the world Sun Tzu. But the fact that Chinese military writers can blend ancient maxims with concepts borrowed from the U.S. RMA debate does not mean they will be able to exploit its principles and technology during a conflict in the Straits. And even if China succeeds in developing one type of asymmetric weapon (e.g., a laser anti-satellite weapon), we will retain other systems that will not be threatened (e.g., radar satellites and surveillance aircraft).

What, finally, are we to make of China’s recent missile build-up along the Taiwan Straits? Reportedly, the PRC had deployed 30 to 50 short-range missiles on the Straits by 1996, has about 200 deployed there today, and may triple this package within five years. From their current positions, the M-9 and M-11 missiles, both of which are nuclear-capable, can reach Taiwan.15 But neither possesses sufficient accuracy to strike ports, airfields or ships to great effect. Indeed, they would generally miss their targets by several football fields and almost always by the length of at least a single field.16 Granted, if Beijing unleashed a salvo of hundreds of missiles, it might register a few hits. But with the development of more effective passive defenses in Taiwan, most airfields and ports could absorb a few explosions and either continue functioning or be quickly repaired. Commercial sea traffic might disappear for a while, to be sure—but if China exhausted the bulk of its missile inventory to sink a grand total of two or three cargo vessels, would that really be such an intimidating use of force? It would say more about Chinese weakness than anything else.

Today, both China and Taiwan are modernizing their forces. But Taiwan will surely do so much faster, especially given its high-tech economy, its willingness to purchase weapons abroad, and a modernization agenda that emphasizes capabilities such as precision strike, maritime reconnaissance and integrated air defense. China’s armed forces talk a good high-tech game, but possess few of the requisite assets and are redressing their weaknesses at a very slow pace.

As for the Spratly Islands, where China has been constructing facilities of late, Beijing seems mostly interested in the economic potential of the surrounding waters and seabeds. Fortunately for it, the countries nearest to the Spratlys—the Philippines and Vietnam—possess little military wherewithal to challenge its claim to the islands. Hence, China’s decision to claim sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, while hardly justifiable in law, is not entirely surprising.

Still, given China’s inability to project substantial power very far beyond its borders, the PRC will be able to assert and maintain control over the Spratlys now and in the foreseeable future only if the United States allows it to do so. Washington may in fact decide on such a course, even if diplomatic skirmishes over the islands continue to pit China against formal U.S. allies like the Philippines—provided, that is, that China does not attempt to control the adjacent sea lanes. But the Spratlys could prove a costly prize for Beijing. The modest economic benefits accruing would probably be more than balanced by strong political resentment from neighboring states. In that event, the United States might be granted land bases in countries like the Philippines, from which it could patrol and expand its own influence in the region.

The Scandals

For all of the fear and suspicion aroused by illicit transfers of U.S. military technology, they have not fundamentally shifted the strategic balance between China, Taiwan and the United States. While their impact will not be trivial, neither will it be catastrophic.

Consider first the question of nuclear espionage. A native Taiwanese scientist, Wen Ho Lee, allegedly provided China with information on the Trident II missile warhead, known as the W-88; he may have also leaked computer codes mimicking the behavior of that and other warheads. The United States developed this warhead in the 1980s at Los Alamos, where Lee worked until he was fired earlier this year. The warhead has a yield of roughly 350 kilotons, or about 20 times that of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs—not unusually large for U.S. thermonuclear warheads, but still one of the country’s most efficient nuclear devices. Warheads of that power formerly weighed well over 1,000 pounds; the W-88 warhead reportedly weighs hundreds.17 With this powerful lightweight warhead, China could place several warheads on missiles that currently carry only one.

That would not change China’s ability to threaten the continental United States, which it has been able to do for almost two decades. Beijing at present has about 20 ICBMs that can reach the U.S. mainland. In addition, it has a nuclear-armed submarine, though the vessel is barely seaworthy and would need to approach within about 1,000 miles of the U.S. coast to launch its weapons successfully. China also possesses some 300 nuclear warheads it could use against U.S. or allied forces in Asia.

While the W-88 transfer will not alter the basic facts of the U.S.-China nuclear balance, it would aid any Chinese effort to counter an American ballistic missile defense system, and could provide the PRC with greater targeting options in the event of a nuclear war. That fact might in turn make Beijing believe it had greater leverage in a major crisis with the United States (though if China really thought in these terms, it probably would have already expanded its ICBM force). Moreover, China, which joined the global test ban in 1996, might never have been able to develop its own lightweight warhead without the W-88 technology.

Still, we cannot be sure of the impact. China appears to have tested a warhead similar to the W-88 design only once.18 The United States typically required at least six to ten tests to obtain confidence in a nuclear warhead.19 True, if China obtained an already proven design it might require less. But nuclear warheads are highly complex devices. For example, the manner in which a warhead ages can affect its performance. Also, warheads that have been chilled or heated or violently jolted during trajectory may not detonate.20 All the weapons blueprints and computer codes in the world cannot substitute for a properly tested and robustly built warhead. China might not wish to devote large amounts of resources to the construction of a warhead that it may not fully understand.

The Hughes/Loral scandal may be the most significant of the recent cases. As part of their work in launching satellites on Chinese carrier vehicles, these companies may have helped China correct a problem in its guidance systems for their strategic rockets. Any technology transfer that increases the accuracy and reliability of China’s rockets and missiles will surely aid its ICBM force and its efforts to place military satellites in space. Here too, though, we must be cautious in our conclusions. After all, we still do not know exactly what information was transferred; the former U.S. commander of Pacific forces, Admiral Joseph Prueher, for one, appears not to believe the data was of great import. Even if China’s launch capabilities do improve slightly as a result of the transfer, its fledgling satellite program is rudimentary and will likely remain so for years to come.

The Cox Committee has raised serious concerns about improvements in Chinese military capability. Still, enormous uncertainties persist, for acquisitions do not translate automatically into new capabilities. That at least was the conclusion of the CIA’s damage assessment, which determined that “the aggressive Chinese collection effort” has not yet resulted in the modernization of its deployed strategic forces. The reality of America’s enormous strategic nuclear advantage—U.S. nuclear warheads outnumber China’s by a ratio of about 15 to 1—will remain a powerful deterrent in the face of any foreseeable Chinese strategic rocket modernization.

China’s military is simply not very good. The majority of its members serve in the ground forces, but so lack in transport and mobile logistics assets that they are more aptly described as internal security personnel. Their training ranges from spotty to poor. Moreover, the armed forces remain plagued by poor pay, nepotism and party favoritism, and attract few of China’s brightest citizens.

The PRC’s power projection capabilities, too, are constrained by huge weaknesses—especially in areas such as aerial refueling, electronic warfare, command and control, and amphibious and air assault assets. China owns considerably less top-level military equipment than medium military powers like Japan and Britain; it owns even less than smaller powers such as Italy, South Korea or the Netherlands. Nor has it embarked on a concerted effort to purchase sophisticated new weapons. Though some analysts estimate China’s military budget to be as high as $65 billion a year in purchasing power terms, the resources it devotes to acquiring modern weaponry are akin to those of countries spending $10-20 billion a year on defense.

The numerous defects of its military establishment notwithstanding, China is a rising power that could one day significantly challenge the United States and its allies in East Asia. But that day will not come anytime soon; it will be at least twenty years before China can pose such a threat. Why it would wish to do so, even with a strong military, remains an open question.

1 Paul Mann, “Spy Charges Jeopardize China’s Trade Status”, Aviation Week and Space Technology, March 15, 1999, p. 26. [Back]

2 Ronald N. Montaperto, “Reality Check: Assessing the Chinese Military Threat”, Defense Working Paper No. 4 (Washington, DC: Progressive Policy Institute, April 1998), p. 10. [Back]

3 William S. Cohen, “The Security Situation in the Taiwan Strait”, Report to Congress pursuant to the FY99 Appropriations Bill (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 1999), p. 11. [Back]

4 The higher number is the latest U.S. government estimate. The U.S. estimate is similar to the World Bank’s, whereas the IMF and the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London come in at the lower end of the range. [Back]

5 Bates Gill, “Chinese Defense Procurement Spending: Determining Chinese Military Intentions and Capabilities”, in China’s Military Faces the Future, ed. James Lilley and David Shambaugh, (M.E. Sharpe, forthcoming). [Back]

6 Lane Pierrot, A Look at Tomorrow’s Tactical Air Forces (Washington, DC: Congressional Budget Office, 1997), p. xiv; Office of Naval Intelligence, Worldwide Challenges to Naval Strike Warfare (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 1996); and Lane Pierrot et al., Planning for Defense: Affordability and Capability of the Administration’s Program (Washington, DC: Congressional Budget Office, 1994), p. 22. [Back]

7 Cohen, op. cit., pp. 6, 13. [Back]

8 William S. Cohen, “Future Military Capabilities and Strategy of the People’s Republic of China”, Report to Congress pursuant to the FY98 National Defense Authorization Act (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 1998), p. 8. [Back]

9 See Mark Stokes, China’s Strategic Modernization: Implications for U.S. National Security (Colorado Springs, CO: Institute for National Security Studies, October 1997). [Back]

10 Cohen, “The Security Situation in the Taiwan Strait”, p. 11. [Back]

11 Cohen, “The Security Situation in the Taiwan Strait”, p. 9; and “Future Military Capabilities and Strategy “, pp. 15-16. [Back]

12 Duncan Lennox, Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons (Couldson, UK: Jane’s Information Group, 1998), analysis tables. [Back]

13 Bates Gill, “Chinese Military Hardware and Technology Acquisitions of Concern to Taiwan”, in Crisis in the Taiwan Strait, ed. James Lilley and Chuck Downs (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 1997), pp. 117-20. [Back]

14 See Tom Stefanick, Strategic Antisubmarine Warfare and Naval Strategy (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1987), pp. 33-70, 155-80. [Back]

15 Bruce Dorminey, “Chinese Missiles Basic to New Strategy”, Aviation Week and Space Technology, March 8, 1999, p. 59. [Back]

16 Robert G. Nadler, Ballistic Missile Proliferation: An Emerging Threat (Arlington, VA: System Planning Corporation, 1992), p. 15. [Back]