China ‘not ready to win wars’ despite PLA modernisation, says US report

Report by Rand Corporation for Congress finds graft, poor staffing and lack of training hinders the military - and some retired generals agree

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 February, 2015, 12:39pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 February, 2015, 9:20am

The People's Liberation Army is incapable of winning wars even though it has spent heavily on modernisation over the past two decades, according to a report commissioned by a US congressional committee.

Chinese military experts said the shortcomings identified were valid, and the report could be a "good reference" to the PLA leadership as it showed a thorough understanding of the army's latest developments.

The report by Santa Monica-based research group Rand Corporation, which was released yesterday, said the PLA faced continuing vulnerability because of widespread corruption, lack of qualified personnel and insufficient training.

"Although the PLA's capabilities have improved dramatically [amid its military modernisation], its remaining weaknesses increase the risk of failure to successfully perform some of the missions Chinese Communist Party leaders may task it to execute," said the report, sponsored by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

Beijing-based retired Major General Xu Guangyu said that as a veteran, he would like to thank the Rand Corporation for its efforts to help the Chinese military to understand its shortcomings.

"I agree that corruption is one of the key problems that should be tackled. That's why President Xi Jinping has urged the anti-graft watchdog to weed out corruption in the army by all means," he said.

The report points to critical weaknesses in the PLA in two categories: organisational and combat capabilities. It said a party-ruled army could be contributing to potential risk, citing the rift between then premier Wen Jiabao and Guo Boxiong, who was vice-chairman of the PLA's supreme Central Military Commission (CMC) during the 2008's earthquake in Sichuan province.

Wen, who had no military rank, made a tearful call for the air force to send helicopters to aid the rescue, but there was no response from the military because the army takes its orders only from the CMC.

The report said the PLA enjoyed an almost absolute immunity from external oversight, budgetary transparency, and accountability to the legislature for how it spent its funds and operates. It cited the recent arrests of two prominent military figures, Gu Junshan , former deputy head of the army's logistic department, and former CMC vice-chairman Xu Caihou , on suspicion of graft.

Li Jie, a retired senior colonel with the navy, said it was a fact that "there is a certain gap" between the US and Chinese militaries even though the PLA had been trying to narrow the distance.

"But I have to say that under the existing political situation in China, it's impractical and impossible to turn the PLA into a national army because [the principle the] 'party commands the gun' had been a rule and core value of the army," he said.

"The report indicates the US army has tried all efforts to understand the PLA and done the work quite well. We have to recognise that many of the shortcomings mentioned by the report are all facts and could be a good reference to Beijing, too."

The report said the PLA navy and air force faced challenges when integrating complex modern weapons and multiple generations of aircraft, while the development of defence industry suffered from problems such as entrenched monopolies and cost overruns.

Xu, the retired officer in Beijing, said the leadership was trying to address threats posed by graft. "The PLA was saddled with rampant corruption because of the failure to set up an efficient check-and-police system in the army as Beijing just focused on economic development for the past three decades," Xu said. "And now China is stepping up its efforts to plug the loopholes to set up such a comprehensive system amid the ongoing anti-graft campaign."

The defence ministry did not comment on the report.