In The Diplomat, Ian Easton gives some anecdotal run-downs of People’s Liberation Army operations (and mishaps) over the last decade:
In April 2003, the Chinese Navy decided to put a large group of its best submarine talent on the same boat as part of an experiment to synergize its naval elite. The result? Within hours of leaving port, the Type 035 Ming III class submarine sank with all hands lost. Never having fully recovered from this maritime disaster, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is still the only permanent member of the United Nations Security Council never to have conducted an operational patrol with a nuclear missile submarine.
China is also the only member of the UN’s “Big Five” never to have built and operated an aircraft carrier. While it launched a refurbished Ukrainian built carrier amidst much fanfare in September 2012 – then-President Hu Jintao and all the top brass showed up – soon afterward the big ship had to return to the docks for extensive overhauls because of suspected engine failure; not the most auspicious of starts for China’s fledgling “blue water” navy, and not the least example of a modernizing military that has yet to master last century’s technology.
Indeed, today the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) still conducts long-distance maneuver training at speeds measured by how fast the next available cargo train can transport its tanks and guns forward. And if mobilizing and moving armies around on railway tracks sounds a bit antiquated in an era of global airlift, it should – that was how it was done in the First World War.
While recent years have witnessed a tremendous Chinese propaganda effort aimed at convincing the world that the PRC is a serious military player that is owed respect, outsiders often forget that China does not even have a professional military. The PLA, unlike the armed forces of the United States, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and other regional heavyweights, is by definition not a professional fighting force. Rather, it is a “party army,” the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Indeed, all career officers in the PLA are members of the CCP and all units at the company level and above have political officers assigned to enforce party control. Likewise, all important decisions in the PLA are made by Communist Party committees that are dominated by political officers, not by operators. This system ensures that the interests of the party’s civilian and military leaders are merged, and for this reason new Chinese soldiers entering into the PLA swear their allegiance to the CCP, not to the PRC constitution or the people of China.
This may be one reason why China’s marines (or “naval infantry” in PLA parlance) and other amphibious warfare units train by landing on big white sandy beaches that look nothing like the west coast of Taiwan (or for that matter anyplace else they could conceivably be sent in the East China Sea or South China Sea). It could also be why PLA Air Force pilots still typically get less than ten hours of flight time a month (well below regional standards), and only in 2012 began to have the ability to submit their own flight plans (previously, overbearing staff officers assigned pilots their flight plans and would not even allow them to taxi and take-off on the runways by themselves).
And yet, despite the occasional comic opera situation, the PLA (especially the PLAN) seems to be more dangerous to neighbouring countries:
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.