is the chinese military ready for war?

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A Vietnamese soldier guards a captured Chinese tank crewman, 1979

The 1979 war against Vietnam, on the other hand, is generally regarded to have been a fiasco. China invaded Vietnam in the spring of 1979, only to discover that its tried and tested tactics worked poorly against the battle-hardened, more experienced Vietnamese Army

by Kyle Mizokami

China hasn’t fought a war in more than forty years, a fact that haunts the modern-day People’s Liberation Army as it grows to fit the country’s new great-power status. The country’s lack of recent military experience could prove the decisive factor in a future conflict, one that would be utterly unlike any conflict China has ever fought before.

China fought three wars in the 20th century: Against U.S. and U.N. forces in the 1950 to 1953 Korean War, a brief war against India in 1962, and another brief war against Vietnam in 1979. The first two wars were generally favourable to China’s mass infantry tactics and benefited from large numbers of combat veterans in the PLA ranks.

The 1979 war against Vietnam, on the other hand, is generally regarded to have been a fiasco. China invaded Vietnam in the spring of 1979, only to discover that its tried and tested tactics worked poorly against the battle-hardened, more experienced Vietnamese Army. China lost an estimated 30,000 killed in action in just one month of grinding combat, with a high proportion of wounded to killed in action and a logistics system that couldn’t sustain even the shortest of supply lines into a neighbouring country.

Now, nearly forty years later, some are wondering if history could repeat itself and China could lose the next war for the same reasons: inexperience in the ranks. A new article in Foreign Policy argues that this could be the deciding factor in China’s next war, and that the PLA could be a “force or a flop."

The article argues that China’s relative inexperience—compared to the armed forces of the U.S. and the West—could prove disastrous on a future battlefield. Military forces seasoned with battlefield experience fight more successfully and take fewer losses. The wars of the post 9/11 period, while not training for big-power warfare between major conventional armies, navies, and air forces, are also useful in learning lessons about force projection, logistics, and medical operations in the 21st century, experience that would still count in a major conflict.

China, on the other hand, has none of this. China has never fought a major mechanised war. It hasn’t fought a major naval battle in nearly a hundred years, and has never done things like operated aircraft carriers or anti-submarine warfare forces in wartime. China’s most likely adversaries, including the United States, have extensive amounts of experience, if not at the soldier then at institutional levels.

China is pushing the PLA hard to gain peacetime experience. The PLA Navy participates in the anti-piracy mission in the Horn of Africa, which gives it considerable experience in long-distance voyages and security missions. PLA peacekeeping forces also gain overseas experience, and earlier this year Chinese air and ground forces participated for the first time in Vostok 2018, Russia’s far-Eastern military exercises. How much all of this counts, however, nobody will know for sure unless China goes to war.

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