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. Beijing’s worst nightmare is that the PLA could one day forget that its number one mission is protecting the Communist Party’s civilian leaders against all its enemies – especially when the CCP’s “enemies” are domestic student or religious groups campaigning for democratic rights, as happened in 1989 and 1999, respectively.
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.
Abraham Lincoln once observed that if he had six hours to chop down a tree he would spend the first four hours sharpening his axe. Clearly the PLA is not sharpening its proverbial axe. Nor can it. Rather, it has opted to invest in a bigger axe, albeit one that is still dull. Ironically, this undermines Beijing’s own aspirations for building a truly powerful 21st century military.
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.