Written by Jeffrey Engstrom and Michael S. Chase.

In a recent RAND study sponsored by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which we co-authored with our colleagues Scott Harold, Kristen Gunness, Susan Puska, Tai Ming Cheung, and Sam Berkowitz, we argued that although the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has made very impressive progress over the past 20 years, it still suffers from a number of potentially serious problems. Some recent media reports, in Asia and elsewhere, appear to have misinterpreted our study’s findings, suggesting the key takeaway is that China’s military power is hollow and that the PLA’s shortfalls mean there is nothing for policy-makers and planners in the United States and other countries to worry about. On the contrary, we found that as a result of Chinese military modernization over the past two decades the PLA is already capable of causing serious problems for the United States, its allies, and partners in the event of a regional conflict. Nonetheless, we also found potentially serious weaknesses in the form of gaps between the PLA’s missions, as assigned by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders, and its ability to fulfill them.

How to define military weakness? First, we maintain that one must understand the missions that a military may be called upon to execute. This is important because the PLA should be judged solely on its ability to perform the missions that the CCP might task it with. In the report, we define eight broad mission categories for the PLA—border, periphery, Taiwan, maritime claims, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, noncombatant evacuation operations (NEO), sea lane of communication (SLOC), and strategic deterrence—and consider the military campaign types that the PLA would use to prosecute many of these missions.

Second, because military weaknesses do not entirely exist in a vacuum, the threat environments in which missions may be conducted must be also considered. To date, the PLA has been highly successful when performing missions globally, whether protecting merchant ships from Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden (a SLOC mission) or rescuing its citizens from instability in Libya (a NEO mission). However, it is all too easy to think of scenarios (such as a state-based threat to merchant shipping) that might tax or even make a PLA response ineffective. Consequently, where threats exist to potential mission sets, PLA capabilities must also be assessed in light of these threats.

Taking these factors into account we analyze the PLA’s institutional weaknesses as well as the PLA’s combat capabilities by domain (land, air, sea, cyber, space) and strategic deterrence. For the former, these include organizational weaknesses that exist in the PLA’s structure, culture, force structure, command structure, human capital and defense industry. For example, the PLA’s command structure, centered on the seven geographically defined military regions (MR), does not fully meet current requirements for joint operations. PLA organizational culture undervalues operational initiative and PLA media reports note the need for more realistic training, while corruption stretches to the highest levels of command. Furthermore, China’s defense industry has made impressive strides in recent years, but it is still a monopoly that faces little to no competition and relies on outdated administrative tools. While none of these weaknesses prevent the PLA from carrying out its missions, they do carry the risk of degrading the PLA’s overall effectiveness.

Weaknesses resident in PLA combat capabilities are also potentially serious. Some missions face high risks of failure under certain threat environments. For example, against highly capable militaries, weaknesses in close air combat, logistics, special mission aircraft, fleet air defense, and anti-submarine warfare mean that the PLA could potentially be unable to successfully achieve various border, periphery, maritime claim, and Taiwan missions. Weaknesses resident in PLA’s lift capacity, both sea lift and airlift, mean that the PLA is still unable to successfully prosecute a Taiwan invasion or rescue significant numbers of citizens abroad in harm’s way using military transports.

The PLA itself recognizes these shortcomings as potentially limiting its ability to successfully fulfill some of its deterrence, war fighting, and military operations other than war missions, and it appears to take them quite seriously. As a result, the PLA is working very hard to address them in a number of ways. With respect to institutional challenges, an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign is underway, the PLA is focusing on increasing the realism of its training, and China is looking at reorganizing the MR system in a way that will better enable the PLA to deal with the kinds of conflicts it anticipates as most likely or most dangerous in the future. The PLA is also beginning to open, though ever so slightly, competition in defense procurement.

As for addressing potential shortfalls in combat capabilities, China is developing new capabilities like the Y-20 strategic transport aircraft, new air defense destroyers, new types of ballistic missiles, and so on. Indeed, almost every identified combat weakness has an obvious program that seeks to mitigate or even overcome the weakness. These are all things that reflect an increasingly professional military and a very determined effort to identify and address the problems they see as potentially having the biggest impact.

In short, we are quite impressed with what the PLA has accomplished over the past couple of decades, and with the challenges the PLA’s growing capabilities create for the United States and its allies and partners. At the same time, however, we argue that understanding the PLA’s weaknesses is just as important as studying its strengths. Knowing the weaknesses—and particularly what PLA officers themselves see as the most important shortcomings—is critical to understanding what areas the PLA will emphasize as it continues to modernize. This also will improve the United States’ ability to deter China from using coercion or force to resolve disputes with its neighbors and, if deterrence fails, to prevent China from successfully using force to achieve its political aims.

Jeffrey Engstrom is a senior project associate and Michael S. Chase is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Image credit: CC by Times Asi/Flickr.