Could China Now Defeat the United States in a Battle Over the South China Sea or Taiwan?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping kicked off the latest round of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) reforms at a September 3, 2015 military parade. Aside from reducing the PLA’s size by 300,000 personnel, the reforms eliminated the corruption-prone general departments, adjusted the command structure to focus more on joint operations, and consolidated the theater command system. The reforms, likened by some analysts to the sweeping U.S. military changes that resulted from the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, could result in a leaner, more combat-effective PLA. This could create new operational challenges for the U.S. military in the Western Pacific, limiting U.S. ability to intervene in a crisis related to the self-governing island of Taiwan or elsewhere in the region. Do these reforms improve the PLA’s chances of defeating the U.S. military in a battle over Taiwan or the South China Sea?


The current round of Chinese military reforms could result in a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that is more operationally effective across a range of potential contingencies, including those involving Taiwan or the South China Sea. There are a number of reasons why this might be the case:

  • The PLA’s composition will shift from a heavy focus on ground forces to a more balanced mix of army, navy, air force, and missile units. The navy and air force are expected to grow in numbers and budget share even as the army shrinks. This will improve the PLA’s ability to conduct operations on and over water.
  • The new Strategic Support Force could improve the PLA’s ability to integrate space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities into its combat operations, allowing it to target enemy forces and to disrupt adversary sensors and networks.
  • The PLA will have a more modern command and control system in which forces from all the services are more tightly integrated. This could improve its ability to conduct complex joint operations, such as an island landing campaign. PLA training and exercises will also focus more intensively on conducting joint campaigns.

Taken together, these improvements could pose new challenges for U.S. intervention in a conflict related to Taiwan or the South China Sea. U.S. forces would have to contend with a larger, better equipped PLA navy and air force, increasing threats in the space and cyber domains, and a Chinese military that is able to work more cohesively to deny the United States access to China’s maritime periphery. These challenges are amplified by ongoing PLA hardware advances in areas such as anti-ship ballistic missiles and advanced sensors, which already pose concerns for U.S. forces in the region.

Nevertheless, the PLA will face several obstacles in fully implementing the reforms. One problem is inter-service rivalry. In an era of slowing economic growth, services will naturally compete for budget share and hold onto unique advantages, which could limit cooperation. A second challenge concerns ground force influence within the PLA. Despite the reforms, the army will be the largest service by far, and most of the PLA’s senior leadership will remain career army officers. This could inhibit the development of a joint mentality in which all service perspectives are represented. A third problem is the lack of combat experience. The PLA hasn’t fought a major war for over 35 years, which means that its organizations, systems, and doctrine haven’t been tested under the “fog of war.”

Another reason for skepticism is that the U.S. military is attempting to stay ahead of the curve by investing in new technologies and developing new operational concepts designed to assure access to contested regions, such as maritime Asia. Greater use of undersea warfare, distributed basing of forces, and other means will help to “offset” China’s growing advantages. If successful, U.S. forces will retain an ability to win in a Taiwan or South China Sea scenario.

As the latest phase in a long-term modernization process, the structural reforms of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are intended to improve its warfighting capabilities against the United States or other potential adversaries that threaten China’s sovereignty or territorial claims. The ongoing reform will help develop a “modern maritime military force structure commensurate with [China’s] national security and development interests,” according to a Chinese military white paper released in May, 2015. But these changes require abandoning the “traditional mentality that land outweighs sea,” a fundamental shift in mindset and doctrine that will likely take decades to achieve in a military that the Army has long dominated. This batch of reforms will proceed through 2020, but they will not be the last as the PLA strives to complete military modernization by the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in 2049.

Beijing seeks to achieve its national objectives through the use of all elements of comprehensive national power—of which military is but one—without going to war. The intention of military modernization is first to deter threats to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to contribute to attaining the ruling Chinese Communist Party and government’s national strategic objectives; i.e. to “win without fighting.” Strategic deterrence is based on the development of a credible fighting force, the will to use that force, and an exchange of messages between the deterring side and those to be deterred in a psychological tug-of-war. If China is compelled to engage in a major use of military force, its national strategy will have failed—whether it wins or loses the battle.

Despite increased defense budgets and the influx of new equipment over the past two decades, the senior PLA leadership understands that time and training are even more important to prepare the force for future challenges. When speaking to foreigners, the senior PLA leadership has framed the force’s capabilities as lagging behind those of modern militaries by 20-30 years. That timeframe may understate progress made in some fields like missiles, cyber, and electronic warfare but overstate capabilities in joint and combined arms operations. Among themselves, the men tasked with leading operational units are frank about PLA capabilities. They use formulations like the “Two Inabilities” (两个能力不够), “our military’s ability to fight a modern war is not sufficient, the ability of cadres at all levels to command modern war is insufficient,” and the “Five Cannots” (五个不会): “some commanders cannot judge the situation, cannot understand intentions of higher authorities, cannot make operational decisions, cannot deploy troops, and cannot deal with unexpected situations.” Current reforms aim to overcome these deficiencies.

PLA doctrine emphasizes “prudence in fighting the first battle” and “fighting no battle you are not sure of winning.” The senior uniformed leadership understands the difficulties in building the PLA’s deterrence and warfighting capabilities. China’s civilian leaders and events beyond the control of the PLA may, however, not allow them the time to prepare as much as they would prefer. If directed, the PLA will nonetheless obey orders to defend China’s sovereignty. Success is never guaranteed.

Will restructuring the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as a joint force boost China’s chances of defeating the U.S. military off Taiwan or in the South China Sea? Probably. Eventually. Insofar as there exist eternal principles of warfare, attaining unity of command and effort counts among them. But by reforming itself to make the army, navy, air force, and fellow branches work together, the PLA is undertaking a massive project that promises uncertain gains.

Look at the American experience with remaking military institutions. Washington created the Department of Defense in the late 1940s with the same basic aims Beijing is pursuing today. The institution—particularly the Joint Chiefs of Staff—was still finding its footing when the Korean War broke out in 1950. Its immaturity let General Douglas MacArthur run amok in an effort to forcibly reunify the Korean Peninsula. China intervened on the peninsula and MacArthur publicly challenged civil authority—all due, in part, to incomplete transformation of U.S. fighting forces.

Congress saw fit to reform the armed forces once again in the 1980s, enacting “Goldwater-Nichols” legislation in an effort to perfect what the 1940s restructuring left imperfect. But problems lingered even then. Consequently, there’s ample talk among lawmakers about revisiting Goldwater-Nichols.

Now, China’s authoritarian leadership doesn’t have to worry about the myriad clashing interests that typify democratic legislatures and shape military institutions. But even if Beijing transmutes the PLA into a joint force twice as fast as Washington did, the process threatens to consume several decades.

But there’s a more basic reason than congressional and bureaucratic politics why disharmony of effort persists among armies, navies, and air forces—namely that soldiers, mariners, and airmen see warfare in fundamentally different terms. Admiral J. C. Wylie, an illustrious predecessor of mine here on the Naval War College faculty, proclaimed in effect that where a warrior stands on tactical, operational, and strategic questions depends on the medium where he operates.

Think about it. Groundpounders operate mainly on land, so they think in terms of terrain. Their core assumption is that decisive ground combat represents the key to controlling territory and defeating foes. Seafarers roam that featureless plain that is the sea. They assume command of sea lanes crisscrossing that plain is the goal of military operations. Aviators soar over embattled land and sea, largely exempt from geography. They assume warplanes’ capacity to destroy from aloft confers control of events below.

It verges on impossible, says Wylie, to fully reconcile arguments deriving from outlooks that disparate. Fierce interservice feuding results in many instances. It tends to drive debates among army, naval, and air commanders and their political masters tend toward the lowest common denominator—that is, toward whatever partisans of terrestrial, oceanic, and aerial warfare can manage to agree upon.

Can PLA and Chinese Communist Party leaders tame the impulse to interservice partisanship? Doubtful. If they do, it will constitute a wonder for the ages. If not, a long, slow, bureaucratic grind awaits Beijing—along with a joint force that may underperform its potential.

In the United States, and other liberal democracies, the armed services protect the state as a whole against mainly foreign adversaries. This has evolved into the professionalization of military service, with operations conducted at the direction of elected civilians, supported by the advice of commanders in accordance with constitutional processes.

Inter-service rivalries certainly create a distorted view of national interests, as each service emphasizes threats and commitments most relevant to them in order to increase prestige and budgets. While this takes advantage of the relative knowledge asymmetry that exists between military specialists and elected officials, the case is always made in terms of delivering on civilian-led objectives and strengthening the overall protection afforded to the state.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), in contrast, was founded as an insurgency against fellow Chinese, resulting in the formation of the People’s Republic of China 22 years later. This means two things: the preponderance of land forces in securing victory is beyond question in Chinese service culture; and, the PLA does not exist to serve the state as a whole, but rather a faction within the state: the Communist Party.

To that end, for many decades the PLA’s primary role has been to ensure continued Party control over the mainland territory. Reforms to this system, however well crafted, must overcome the inertia created by myths that extol the domestic struggles of PLA forebears. This challenge should not be underestimated, as even in liberal democracies primacy is generally afforded to the service responsible for the most celebrated battles of national identity.

Yet even more fraught from the perspective of communist leaders are reforms that could foster loyalty to the state as an entity that exists separately from themselves. To my mind, this is the greatest impediment to delivering on a truly tri-service command structure that increases the likelihood of victory in battle against U.S. pacific forces. It is not so much that these reforms are impossible to implement, although there are impediments, but rather that having a professionalized command structure necessarily weakens Party control over military leaders.

This is because a professional military views itself as the most qualified to defend the state from foreign adversaries. In liberal democracies, the military subordinates itself to civilians on matters of national security due to the legitimacy conferred on the latter through popular elections. In China, however, it is unclear how the Party would bring a professionalized tri-service PLA to heel when senior commanders believe national security imperatives demand disobedience.

This is not to say it cannot be done. After all, contrary to many predictions, China has liberalized its economy without hitherto implementing corresponding political reforms. Nevertheless, the conflicting imperatives of ensuring continued Party control at home while satisfying growing ambitions abroad is likely to prove a tension that impedes the efficacy of China’s modernization reforms into the future.

China currently is implementing a sweeping reorganization of the military that has the potential to be the most important in the history of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Xi Jinping, who serves as China’s president, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, and chairman of the Central Military Commission, seeks to transform the PLA into a fully modernized and “informatized” fighting force capable of carrying out joint combat operations, conducting military operations other than war (MOOTW), and providing a powerful strategic deterrent to prevent challenges to China’s interests and constrain the decisions of potential adversaries. Scheduled for completion by 2020, the reforms are likely to offer benefits in several areas, including improving joint operations, optimizing organizational structures for combat, and ensuring the PLA is able to wage war in new domains, seeking to attain information dominance against an adversary:

  • Historically, the PLA’s ground forces dominated the entire military, but under the new system, they will be on par with the PLA’s air, naval and newly formed strategic missile service, the Rocket Force. This should reduce the dominance of army-centric thinking and leadership and emphasize the contributions of other services. Additionally, the announced reduction of 300,000 troops will likely free resources to further improve air, missile and naval capabilities.
  • The second major benefit derives from the replacement of the PLA’s outdated Military Regions with Theater Commands, which is intended to improve the PLA's ability to prepare for and execute modern, high-intensity joint military operations and, if necessary, preemptively respond to threats at China’s borders. It should also make transition from peacetime to wartime command much easier. Under the new system the Theater Commander automatically assumes wartime command duties and therefore should be immediately poised to prosecute military operations, if ordered to.
  • A third advantage could come from the creation of the PLA Strategic Support Force which is responsible for space, cyber and electronic warfare, and is intended to enhance the PLA’s ability to fight multi-domain conflicts against high-end adversaries.

What does this mean for hypothetical conflict against the United States in the South China Sea or in a Taiwan scenario? If Xi’s aspirations are realized, his reformed PLA will be one that is more capable of protecting China’s regional and global interests as it will be increasingly able to execute its main functions of strategic deterrence, combat operations, and MOOTW. As a result, it will be capable of posing an even more potent challenge to China’s neighbors, and to U.S. interests in the region. Yet even with a stronger, more capable military China is not likely to be eager to take on a potential adversary as powerful as the United States. Even highly successful reforms will not guarantee victory on the battlefield, and any hypothetical conflict involving the United States would carry tremendous risks. China might plan for a quick, limited conflict, but instead find itself embroiled in a prolonged and highly costly war.

There is general consensus that on paper, these reforms to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) address the various obstacles to it fulfilling its assigned missions. Whether they actually achieve this will only be proven by war against a superior or near-peer opponent such as the U.S. or Japan. Absent this, the reforms’ efficacy is a “known unknown.”

By contrast, a “known known” is the trend favoring anti-access and area denial (A2AD) capabilities against those on which the U.S. military currently depends to project power. This stems from geography and the laws of physics, described in a recent study. Assuming rough parity in defense spending and technological prowess, this means that the type of campaigns the U.S. has conducted for the last quarter century will be hard to prosecute against a mature and land-based A2AD system. Assuming the PLA reforms—and the parallel defense industry reforms—allow China to effectively field such a system, this can be expected to create a zone extending 400-600 kilometers (250-375 miles) from its coasts within which the PLA can seriously impede adversary operations. Fortunately for most U.S. allies, they are outside this zone. Taiwan, however, is well inside it. The most recent public modelling by RAND of a U.S.-China war highlights how geography, combined with the PLA’s progress, may give it a decent chance of successfully invading or strangling Taiwan in the near future. As one of that report’s authors has noted above, there are no guarantees, and war against the U.S. will remain a highly risky endeavor. But clearly, the balance in the Taiwan Strait is not just a question of Chinese reforms: it depends on what changes the U.S. military makes to reverse the trend.

The U.S. defense establishment certainly seems seized of the challenge. For instance, the U.S. Air Force’s own estimation is that its “projected force structure in 2030 may not be capable of fighting and winning against those adversary capabilities” against expected opponents, language strangely reminiscent of the PLA’s unflattering self-assessments. And the 2017 defense budget request includes a large chunk designed to “offset” the closing capability gap with potential adversaries like China. Time will tell whether the U.S. will take such radical steps as shifting away from space-based systems and matching China’s buildup of A2AD-type weapons, or whether it will pursue the air-sea battle concept against an unfavorable cost curve, going double or nothing on preserving a technological edge.

As for the South China Sea, distance from China could make a clash there with the U.S. military a much less evenly matched affair than in the Taiwan Strait. Equally important, there is a lower chance of developments in this area triggering a full-blown war. There is no government on the Spratlys providing a counter-narrative to Beijing’s on what constitutes “China.” And notwithstanding the bellicose response to the arbitral award, there is more room for non-zero sum approaches to China’s claims here than there is over the status of Taiwan. Rather than set a course for war in the South China Sea, China is more likely to continue pushing the envelope in creative ways.