Reasons why China's People's Liberation Army is not invincible

WION New Delhi, Delhi, India Jun 09, 2020, 09.13 PM(IST) Edited By: Palki Sharma

File photo. Photograph:( Reuters )

Story highlights

It is the largest military force in the world. It has the second-largest defence budget in the world and it's under the absolute control of the Chinese communist party.

A force to reckon with or a paper dragon? A question aimed at understanding the so-called might of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Tonight, this army is retreating from the border in Ladakh. And the question becomes all the more significant.

Does the PLA live up to the eulogizing reports by the Chinese state media?

Is their ground enough for the hyperbole and hubris around its capabilities?

It is the largest military force in the world. It has the second-largest defence budget in the world and it's under the absolute control of the Chinese communist party.

The People's Liberation Army has grown more assertive during this pandemic. It is militarizing disputed islands in the South China sea, it is intensifying pressure on Taiwan and is attempting to grab territories at the India-China border.

But lost in the hyperbole of its might and technological prowess is a sense of perspective. The PLA continues to be plagued by enduring weaknesses.

The conscription challenge

Technically the military service is mandatory for all Chinese citizens. The practice of conscription is held high even in the Chinese constitution. But the conscription cycle comes with its own set of challenges.

The PLA is said to rely on approximately 800,000 conscripts that have to serve for a period of two years. Each conscript is trained for 90 days along with 15 days of political indoctrination.

Due to this policy, the forces lose 20 to 35 per cent of their combat power for a period of three to four months annually. It recruits heavily but fails to retain professionals.

Professionalism of recruits

The second big challenge is recruiting and retaining qualified personnel. China's army recruits a higher number of poor youth from rural backgrounds.

They join for the perks. The educated city dwellers tend to leave. Experts blame the one-child policy for this. A policy which is said to produce pampered children who cannot withstand military discipline.

When in the army, they're dissatisfied the post-service perks are few. This weakens the force by depriving it of high-quality professionals.

Civilian oversight

The PLA is characterized by extremely weak civilian control. There's an almost total absence of civilian oversight. The only civilian in the military's chain of command is said to be the chairman of China's Central Military Commission President Xi Jinping himself.

This leads to rampant corruption and allows the PLA to demand and spend its budget without accountability.

There is no discussion or debate over the levels of allocations funding or PLA strategies in the National People's Congress.

Operational initiative

The CCP doesn't allow decision making at lower levels. It's the same with the PLA. This prevents the front-line commanders from taking initiative. It hinders soldiers from responding quickly to developments.

The result is confusion and frustration at lower levels as troops await decisions from above.

Insufficient training

The videos don't tell the real story, they gloss over the fact that China's soldiers undergo insufficient training in conditions that are not challenging enough.

Military exercises are not seen as a chance to identify problems. The aim is to always succeed. This reduces military training into opportunities to impress superiors.

A few headlines give a preview to what it is. 

The military's orienteering team was disqualified for cheating at the military world games held in China last year and in 2015, Chinese troops as part of a UN peacekeeping force in Sudan are said to have fled the battlefield rather than engage in combat.

This is the People's Liberation Army, burdened with organizational problems and riddled with inefficiencies.

Neither perfect nor invincible.