Why China is far from ready to meet the U.S. on a global battlefront

June 22, 2015
Two J-10 fighter jets fly past each other at China International Aviation & Aeropsace Exhibition in China's Zhuhai

Two J-10 fighter jets from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force August 1st AerobaticsTeam during a demonstration at the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, November 13, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Both of these statements are true:

1)     China possesses a rapidly improving military that, in certain local or regional engagements, could match — and even defeat — U.S. forces in battle.

2)    In military terms, China is a paper dragon that, despite its apparent strength, is powerless to intervene in world events far from its shores.

Seeing the distinction between these two ideas is the key to understanding China’s strategic aims, its military means and the threat, if any, that the country poses to its neighbors, the United States and the existing world order.

A J-31 stealth fighter of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force lands on a runway after a flying performance at the 10th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai

A J-31 stealth fighter of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force lands on a runway at the 10th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, November 11, 2014.REUTERS/Alex Lee

Beijing’s goals include “securing China’s status as a great power and, ultimately, reacquiring regional preeminence,” according to the 2015 edition of the U.S. Defense Department’s annual report on Chinese military power.

China is not a global military power. In fact, right now it doesn’t even want to be one.

But that doesn’t mean the world’s most populous country doesn’t pose a threat to the planet’s wealthiest and most powerful one. Yes, the United States and China are at odds, mostly as a result of China’s expanding definition of what comprises its territory in the western Pacific, and how that expansion threatens U.S. allies and the postwar economic order Washington was instrumental in creating.

China, however, still could not meet and match the U.S. military on a global battlefront. Beijing lacks the expertise, military doctrine and equipment to do so. The Chinese military has no recent combat experience and, as a consequence, its training regimens are unrealistic.

Pilots climb out of J-10 fighter jets from August 1st Aerobatics Team of the People's Liberation Army Air Force after their arrivals for the upcoming China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition, in Zhuhai

Pilots climb out of J-10 fighter jets from the August 1st Aerobatics Team of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force before the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition, in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, November 5, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

Beijing’s army, navy and air force may be flush with new equipment, but much of it is based on designs that Chinese government hackers and agents stole from the United States and other countries. Most of it has never been exposed to the rigors of actual combat, so it’s unclear how well it would actually work.

But that might not matter. China has no interest in deploying and fighting across the globe, as the United States does. Beijing is preparing to fight along its own borders and especially in the China seas, a far easier task for its inexperienced troops.

Because, with all its military handicaps, in its own region China could be capable of beating U.S. forces in battle.

The critical question is just how much the Pentagon should care.

Active defense

The brutal Japanese invasion and occupation of China during the 1930s and 1940s had a profound effect on modern China’s development. Prior to the mid-1980s, China’s military strategy was focused on one great fear — another invasion, in this case an overland attack by the Soviet Union.

Commensurate with the threat, Beijing’s military organization emphasized short-range, defensive ground forces. In essence, a Great Wall of men and metal.

The danger from the Soviet Union ebbed and, in 1985, the Chinese Communist Party revised its war strategy. The “active defense” doctrine sought to move the fighting away from the Chinese heartland. It shifted attention from China’s western land border to its eastern sea frontier — including Taiwan, which in the eyes of Beijing’s ruling Communist Party is a breakaway province.

A Chinese Ilyushin IL-76 aircraft lands at Perth International Airport April after participating in the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370

A Chinese Ilyushin IL-76 aircraft lands at Perth International Airport, April 16, 2014. REUTERS/Greg Wood/Pool

But the new strategy was still largely defensive. “We attack only after being attacked,” the Chinese navy asserted in its contribution to the official active-defense doctrine. It’s worth noting that, in the party’s view, a formal announcement of full independence by Taiwan would be an “attack” on China’s integrity, justifying a retaliatory attack on the island nation.

Thirty years later, Beijing is still pursuing its offshore defense, if at a greater distance. It now encompasses island territory that China dared not actively claim until recently. Still, the strategy remains the same.

Which is why, for all the hundreds of billions of dollars Beijing has spent on its armed forces since the Chinese economy really took off in the late 1990s and 2000s — and even taking into account equipment optimized for an amphibious assault on Taiwan — Beijing still acquires mostly short-range, defensive weaponry.

Chinese Navy replenishment ship Qinghaihu is seen in front of frigates Hengshan and Huangshan in Valletta's Grand Harbour

The Chinese Navy replenishment ship Qinghaihu in front of the frigates Hengshan (rear L) and Huangshan (rear R) in Valletta’s Grand Harbor, March 26, 2013. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

Which is how China can possess the world’s second-biggest fleet of jet fighters after the United States — 1,500 jets versus Washington’s 2,800 — but only a mere handful of the aerial tankers that refuel fighters in mid-air, allowing them to fight battles far from their bases.

The U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps together operate more than 500 tankers. Because America fights all over the world.

Similarly, China’s navy is huge. With some 300 warships, it is second in strength only to the 500 vessels in service with the U.S. Navy and Military Sealift Command, which operates America’s transport and spy ships. But the Chinese navy, like its air force, is a short-range force. Beijing’s fleet includes just six logistics ships capable of refueling and resupplying other ships at sea, extending their sailing range.

America’s fleet includes more than 30 such vessels.

The upshot of Beijing’s emphasis on short-range forces is that the farther its troops fight from the Chinese mainland, the less effective they will be. It doesn’t help that Beijing has few close allies, which means virtually no overseas bases it can count on during conflicts. The Pentagon, by contrast, maintains many hundreds of overseas facilities.

Chinese forces simply cannot cross the ocean to confront the U.S. military in America’s own backyard. Nor does Beijing even want to do so. Meanwhile, U.S. forces routinely patrol within miles of China’s airspace and national waters, and Washington has taken it on itself to be the decisive if not dominant military power on every continent.

A Chinese military plane Y-8 airborne early warning plane flies through airspace between Okinawa prefecture's main island and the smaller Miyako island in southern Japan

A Chinese military plane Y-8 airborne early warning plane flies through airspace between Okinawa prefecture’s main island and the smaller Miyako island in southern Japan, out over the Pacific, October 27, 2013, REUTERS/Joint Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan/Handout

In the western Pacific, however, China does threaten U.S. military standing. The flipside of possessing a defensive, short-range navy and air force is that Beijing can quickly concentrate numerous forces across a relatively small geographic area. The large numbers help China compensate for the overall poor quality of its forces.

By contrast, the United States — because it must project forces over great distances and usually is in the process of doing so all around the world — can usually deploy only a small number of ships and planes to any particular place at any given time. Because they would be badly outnumbered, it might not matter that U.S. ships and planes are generally superior to their Chinese counterparts in a one-on-one fight.

In a landmark analysis in 2008, the RAND Corporation, a California think tank, concluded that China would have a huge numerical advantage over the United States in any aerial battle near Taiwan. The size of the advantage would depend on whether U.S. forces staged from Kadena Air Base in Japan or Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. “China could enjoy a 3:1 edge in fighters if we can fly from Kadena,” the analysis warned, “about 10:1 if forced to operate from Andersen.” The report goes on to note that while American warplanes are generally technologically superior to their Chinese counterparts, they’re not 10 times superior.

Second island chain

But if China’s strategy is defensive, this argument goes, then the United States would only risk defeat in battle with the Chinese if Washington attacked first. And America wouldn’t ever attack China, right?

The depends on the definition of “attack.” Assault the Chinese mainland? Most certainly not. But the United States and most other countries equate an attack on their interests with an attack on their soil. And increasingly, China is expanding the definition of its interests and the extent of its soil.

Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) navy frigate Weifang sets sail in the Bosphorus, on its way to the Mediterranean Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey

Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) navy frigate Linyi in the Bosphorus, on its way to the Mediterranean Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey, May 14, 2015. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

For one, if Taiwan ever formally announced its independence — and make no mistake, Taiwan is already fully independent — China vows it would invade. Because the integrity of historical China, including the island of Formosa that became Taiwan in 1949, is firmly within China’s current definition of its core interests.

China also claims islands in the East and South China seas that Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei are claiming. The islands themselves are essentially beside the point; it’s the waters around them, and the oil and natural gas below that the countries are so eager to secure for themselves.

Though those disputes are not new, as China’s economy and military have developed, its claims have grown more assertive. In late 2014, China greatly escalated these territorial disputes when it began dredging isolated reefs in contested waters, piling sand into artificial islands, atop which it built piers, airstrips and other military facilities, transforming the islands into outposts.

The outposts make it increasingly unlikely the claimant countries will find easy, peaceful solutions to their conflicts.

The United States maintains military alliances with Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and, to a lesser extent, Vietnam. Washington is also committed to maintaining freedom of navigation for commercial ships in international waters — a key factor of global free trade. If any of the above countries goes to war with China, the United States could get drawn in, too. And on China’s turf, where Beijing’s short-range forces are most useful.

U.S. Air Force 510th Fighter Squadron F-16 fighters are seen parked on tarmac in Amari air base

U.S. Air Force 510th Fighter Squadron F-16 fighters parked on tarmac in Amari air base, March 26, 2015. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

Fighting in its own region, China is a military power to be reckoned with. Fighting far from home against U.S. troops, the Chinese would be hopelessly outmatched, assuming they could even reach the battlefield.

The trick for the United States is to avoid going to war with China on China’s terms without also surrendering the western Pacific to Chinese control. That means talk — backed up by the threat of force. “The United States seeks to develop a constructive relationship with China,” the Pentagon states in its China report, “that promotes security and prosperity in Asia and around the world.”

The report continues: “At the same time, the strategy acknowledges there will be areas of competition, and underscores that the United States will manage this competition with China from a position of strength.”

But there’s a bluff in this approach. In the only region where China’s actions pose a serious threat to U.S. interests, Washington struggles to maintain a position of strength. Beijing has carefully matched clear and restrained strategic goals with more than adequate military means.

That’s a powerful combination.

25 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

In the 1940s and 1950s there was a completely different posture towards communist China. The communist government was seen as illegitimate. With their imprisoning hundreds of thousands of forced laborers in their prisons and treating the rest of the populace as their slaves, this was the correct posture. Why wouldn’t the United States want to formally recognize a free country like Taiwan? If we can’t adequately defeat communist China in areas that Japan, Philipinnes, Taiwan and South Korea see as vital to their interests, then there is a problem, and steps should be taken to correct the problem. But none of us should hold our breath waiting for Obama to do so.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

I’m sure Obama will be grabbing his ankles for China soon.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

As the fighting in Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq (2003-forever), and Afghanistan shows, all China has to do in ANY theater of operation is let the American people see their soldiers dead bodies in the streets of some city in a country they can barely pronounce, let alone find on a map. When confronted with the images of pools of American blood in stunning High Definition, the American public loses its will to fight very rapidly.

For that reason, if the Chinese met the U.S. military in any fight anywhere on the planet, I wouldn’t count the Chinese out. While you claim that China has few steadfast allies, you completely overlook the obvious. RUSSIA!!! Russia and China march in political lockstep at the U.N., and Russian money finances a lot of Chinese military research and development. A fight with either one of these countries could quickly involve the other. And what the Chinese lack in long range aerial tankers and other equipment.

Posted by Ibbyz1200 | Report as abusive

First and foremost, one has to be careful about envisioning an enemy. The “mind’s eye” is a powerful thing, and spending one’s time constructing a detailed vision of what a battle between U.S. forces and Chinese forces would look like carries its own dangers. Said differently, be careful what you wish for. We share many common interests with the Chinese beyond our economic co-dependency as conjoined twins.

Second, most dealings between world leaders take place behind closed doors, and many things that appear in the press as bad luck or failure for one leader or the other are just everyday deal-making, nothing more than agreed upon poses and posturing. For those who are quick to criticize a lack of action, or a particular stance as being too soft, perhaps you are not privy to information sufficient to accurately interpret that which transpires before your eyes. Not everything is as simple as a Hollywood movie plot.

Posted by CanyonLiveOak | Report as abusive

@CanyonLiveOak wrote:

“Not everything is as simple as a Hollywood movie plot.”

Thank you, and one of the reasons sequels are generally a bust.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Cash is and always will be king. Chinese commies don’t need to fight with us – they’re simply buying the West one by one, with Europe lining up already… So, Marx’s and Lenin’s dreams come true – welcome to your wonderful communist future, folks!

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Beware those who fear-monger. They are usually out to profit on the anxieties they try to instill in others.

Posted by Calvin2k | Report as abusive

“With their imprisoning hundreds of thousands of forced laborers in their prisons and treating the rest of the populace as their slaves, this was the correct posture.” We are the prison nation and our government is owned by large businesses. Our moral high ground relative to this old policy interpretation regarding China is somewhat spent. We do the most imprisoning and we do the most spying and we do the most killing. I know, we must do this to maintain freedom and liberty right?

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Both statements are true.
The Chinese military is almost totally focused on defending China from invaders, and they have the ability to prevent a US invasion of China.

The US military is almost totally focused on invading other countries, and so the US can invade virtually every nation on earth, with the exceptions of Russia and China.

Posted by Sinbad1 | Report as abusive

I’m sorry, but I’m more than a little skeptical of the author’s assumption that China would enjoy a prohibitive advantage in a regional conflict. Certainly, in terms of raw numbers the Chinese in such a conflict could bring to bear much more than the United States could. But recent history has proven that skill, training, technical superiority and individual initiative are far more important than numbers.

Posted by nickdaname | Report as abusive

To paraphrase the article, what would Beijing CARE that they can’t project power to Europe, or the South Atlantic, or the Indian Ocean? They can obviously blow the heck out of anything in their own neighborhood, and that’s where CHINA’s interests lay.

Posted by Ravenswing | Report as abusive

The Chinese don’t need to fight the US. Why should they? Look at all the US debt the Chinese hold. Why conquer a country that is sitting in your pocket.

Posted by ybfishel | Report as abusive

There are some points that I would like to address in the comments in general.
1. China although still viewed as a Communist state is in fact not truly Communist. China is just as capitalistic as Europe and the USA.
2. Why do the masses of the US population see China as a threat? it might not be the masses but the popular news channels such as CNN or any other American news agency like to put China in a evil light sort of way. Almost like the article above. IMO, articles such as the one above is one of those “see who’s bigger and better” kind of articles. (my opinion and it’s not something that I have researched).
3 @brotherkenny4: help me to understand correctly about what you said. Are you saying that although China’s history is that of great violation of human rights but the US is just as guilty of it?

Posted by Irrelevant_noob | Report as abusive

This long term move to improve relations with communist China was based on the theory that an improved economy would lead to more freedoms for the Chinese people. Although that has probably happened in a very limited way, most experts today seem to accept that this approach hasn’t worked. Instead of real democratization, greater economic growth has empowered the police state. Besides this long term trend, their new dictator Xi probably took the measure of Obama and, like Putin, decided now was the time to take advantage.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

I’m afraid the pivot to China had more to do with countering Japan’s growing economic power throughout the seventies and eighties than any actual “Freedom”. Words like freedom, liberty, and democracy mean one thing to us all individually, yet have a different connotation when used in diplo-speak.
China offered an enormous source of cheap labor and a market for U.S. treasuries.
What we are currently doing is securing market share for our goods and services, limiting the rise of our global competitors, and maintaining our regional access to cheap labor.

Today is the Senate vote on TPA. Watch what they do to maintain coprporate dominance.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

I am forever amazed at the amount of tinfoil conspiracy people that haunt the web and the “Death to America” types that are convinced that the United States is out to oppress the world. Ever is the need to blame someone instead of some self introspection.

Some of the United States’ actions are good intentions and not well thought out at times. Someone of this is spurred by some world empowered civic need to help others. Usually buried by the aftermath of conflict was someone asking “We need to help them” or “Can you help us?”
Yes, some of that is also resource related but you’ll note the United States is getting tired of the middle east headache and attempting to switch to internal oil resources. The Saudis saw that and dropped the oil prices; it’s a gamble they will win on the short term and will loose in the long run–I’m sure they know it too.
The United States has no interest in invading Russia but you can’t convince a Russia public that and the Russia leadership likes their positions of power. So we are stuck and they know it. We can’t just leave the Ukraine to Russia because it isn’t right. Sounds like a double standard because we have influence on our neighbors (all countries have the same effects on weaker neighbors in one way or the other) and yes we have imposed our will on others like Russia is doing in the Ukraine. “Well they did it too” is an excuse. Just like saying “Well they robbed a bank before so why can’t we?” Try using that in a court of law.

As for China? I’ve read California and US history. “Wow, we were total jerks” is what comes to mind in the 19th century and around the turn of the century. We were less so in years leading up to world war 2. A public outcry of empathy towards the Chinese really rose up during that time and we helped; there was even an attempt work with the communist Chinese but we didn’t and I’m glad; The communist Chinese weren’t exactly kind to their own people.

As an outside observer, as bad as I feel about how we treated the Chinese a hundred years ago. I see a country who, nearly out of the blue, do to Vietnam and the Philippines say “Nope that’s ours and we’re taking it.”

Historic claims are an excuse if you haven’t really cared about it for the past several hundred years. This is about who is claiming it now and talking about it and working through it without bullying through it. I seriously doubt the Philippines has the ability to drill for oil; at best its about fishing rights. As for the Vietnamese, it seems to be pride and resources although not exactly seeing them drilling for oil any time soon even if they could.

I know personally, I could care less about the rise of China as a power; good for them just as long as you don’t do it through bullying others and stealing. Again just because someone else did it in the past doesn’t make it ok for you to do it now.

Resources can be shared and pride can be swallowed. Agreements can be made and kept. Nobody is going to walk away totally happy but it can be done. Needs to be done.

So what do we all do? How do we get Japan, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to sit down and hammer out a rock solid agreement on sea territories and stick too it. “Keep you nose out of our business” isn’t going to happen. So…how?

Posted by BadChicken | Report as abusive

China has no aptitude or interest in sea-borne power politics. There is nothing to gain. It does have an interest in Siberia, a depopulated region China claims as its historic territory seized by Russia in the 18th Century. Keep your eye on the Russia-China conflict latent now but eventually to emerge probably by 2050. All resources China requires (water, cropland, minerals, wood products, oil, gas, etc.) are abundantly available in their backyard Siberia. No other area has as much, and as a land based power China can take Siberia by stealth or force if necessary.

Posted by CALARISTOS | Report as abusive

Calfri is obviously operating under the tired “west is best” assumption. Who said China and its people are even remotely interested in embracing a western system of government? Do they have any obligation to do so?

That type of ‘everyone should be like us’ thinking is the main fallacy behind the US zealotry of exporting democracy and why such efforts have ended in miserable failure more often than not. It is an inherently arrogant, misguided and hypocritical ideology, perpetuated by a global hegemon that is hellbent on maintaining its continued domination. No, the US isn’t even close to being the best in everything, least of all our form of dysfunctional government.

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive

@Laster

Sorry, Laster, I just don’t buy your economic reductionist way of looking at the world. Obviously corporate influence is important and economics is important, but that doesn’t mean freedom and democracy don’t mean anything, or that they only mean what each individual wants them to mean. In my own experience with people on the left — I assume that’s what you are — they are among the first ones who’d object to elections being canceled where they live, yet somehow they think democracy and freedom are unimportant or even meaningless for people who live in distant places. I wonder why that is.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

@Calfri I don’t know why that is either.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

China’s island-building in the south-china sea is an outright invasion: these locations are much closer to multiple other countries. Calling these areas “disputed” is an absurdity – there’s no reason to present China’s claim as plausible.

Posted by markhahn | Report as abusive

Wow, reuters did not publish my comment again.

Goes to show you cannot comment on anything that goes against the governments line right here in the good old US of A, the beacon of freedom……………

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

No country will fight one on one alone.It will be always goup fighting and in that respect US far more effective.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Commenting has been removed from news articles, though not for opinion columns. We encourage our readers to engage with us on our Facebook page and on Twitter at @reuters.

Posted by Jason Fields | Report as abusive

Presumably you call yourself an analyst and write grand articles about geopolitics. But you can’t even get your facts straight right at the beginning.
” . . . the planet’s wealthiest and . . .”
Since when is someone who owe lots of money to others the wealthiest? The largest economy, maybe. But the richest? Not even on a GDP per capita basis. Look up the CIA, IMF or World Bank reports, if you know how to do basic research.

Posted by axioum125 | Report as abusive