China’s Military Power

As followers on X know I adjusted to become significantly more bearish on China, in economics and (esp.) politics and soft power. (Note for historical context that this comes after being a China bull since I began blogging in 2008, during that period that was in fact the correct perspective by and large).

However, I am paradoxically not quite ready to do that regarding its military power, simply because the relevant arguments – taking the recent Economist series on that topic are representative – are unchanged from those brought up years ago and are no better today.

The Economist’s critiques center on perceived problems in manpower, equipment, (lack of) experience, command, and logistics. I’ll address all of them below.

Manpower

It is alleged China struggles to attract skilled soldiers. However, according to its own charts, ~25% of PLA recruits have a Bachelor’s, whereas it is <10% for the US. The negative impact of the PLA’s focus on political education/indoctrination is mentioned, as well as the downstream effects of the One Child Policy, but it is worth noting that Woke Mil – while its negative effects have been vastly exaggerated by conservative commenters – has also had bad effects on recruitment from traditional Red State demographics, and China still has a vastly bigger population to draw from than the US.

Xi’s anti-corruption drive in the military is brought up, but it’s actually good for generals to be fired (see Putin/Russia for what happens when you don’t). The poor physical lifestyle of Chinese recruits is negatively cited, but modern militaries need brains, not brawn. In fact even in WW2 the German officers had far lower physical fitness requirements than US officers and that didn’t stop the Wehrmacht from developing a 1:1.25-1.4 advantage in combat effectiveness over the Americans in the battles in Italy and France.

The Economist says that virtually no top students join the PLA but it’s not like the Ivy League is brimming with aspiring recruits either. Military service is just universally very low prestige in the modern world, the state of military science seems to have regressed accordingly (Ukraine War illustrates this very well), though this is probably for the best at the global level since the world doesn’t benefit from killing machines hovering up brains.

Equipment

The Economist claims that the Chinese MIC is inefficient, suffers from widespread graft, is not self-sufficient. This is all either obvious or at least highly credible. But it goes overboard. At the end of the day, China is still the world’s dominant industrial manufacturing power (if not in the most added value spheres), it is 20x bigger than Russia in that respect and does 50x as much elite scientific output (Nature Index), it would almost certainly be able to fill in any gaps in a major war scenario given some moderate level of industrial mobilization. Even the specific critiques are getting dated. Chinese air engine tech was known to be backward during the 2010s, but there has been rapid convergence with even The Economist acknowledging in its piece that the new WS-15 on the J-20 matches the P&W engine on the F-22. Not that this is even all that relevant because the future of warfare is essentially mostly all drone warfare and China doesn’t lag in that sphere at all.

In fact I would say that the major bearish point for China is that observation that pay in the military-industrial complex (MIC) is low relative to wages in the civilian economy. This plagues the Russian MIC with attendantly catastrophic results for brain drain from the sector which was very much revealed over the past 1.5 years.

Experience

The PLA’s lack of combat experience is cited as a minus but this is entirely irrelevant, fighting essentially colonial wars of choice in Iraq (or Russia in Syria) adds very little XP and is in fact negative value added in that it doesn’t prepare you for big wars against peers where you no longer enjoy ISR hegemony against insurgents. I was making this point wrt US vs. China before the Ukraine War and the Ukraine War where Russia took all the wrong lessons from Syria while increasing in confidence reinforced this point.

At least they had the good sense not to prattle about “naval tradition” like George Friedman is wont to do.

I am actually impressed by the observation that Xi Jinping is skeptical about the capabilities of his own armed forces and constantly disses them as the “Two Inabilities” and the “Five Incapables” even if it occurs in that autistic numerical CPC manner. It is very good to regard the vast bulk of your own officers and generals as stupid and lazy because then any surprises would be to the upside. Certainly this suggests that for all Xi’s possible late problems with reality perception this isn’t one of them (possibly monke watching helped) and a welcome change from the “second Army in the world” dreck that the likes of Gerasimov unironically believed before the war. This makes me relatively bullish on China’s ability to respond to and dynamically adapt to apparent mistakes, e.g. the move away from big units towards Russian-style BTG’s, which even Russia now realizes was a bad idea.

Command

This is the most bearish aspect about China and the main one in which I share The Economist’s negative assessment. It has political commissars and limited NCO autonomy. Furthermore, unlike in the USSR, officers and commissars are formally equal, which exacerbates questions of authority that could be quite ruinous in emergencies. Obviously, none of this is news, but what is news is that Xi is not only OK with it, but demands more of it. It is claimed that officers spend 25% of their time on political work. If accurate this is very bearish as it would be far more than the much more cursory nods to Woke that occurs in the US military. Normal, talented, creative people flee from such environments.

Finally, there is the implicit assumption under all this, doubtless an accurate one, that for the CPC regime stability must take priority over military competence. In this respect, closed, paranoid authoritarian polities will always be at a disadvantage to open, democratic ones – though at least in principle and in HOI4 though perhaps no longer so in today’s radically open and globalized world (again see Russia), authoritarians have a greater mobilization capacity through repression.

Logistics

Remarks about corruption in the PLA logistics sector and the relatively limited scale of PLA exercises (200 sorties over 5 days in PLAAF exercises vs. 1,000-1,500 daily sorties over the several weeks of a major American air campaign). However, ultimately China accounts for like a third of world manufacturing output, its road and rail networks are dense, its e-shopping services can be repurposed to deliver fuel and materiel, it’s got a vast civilian air fleet that can be requisitioned into military logistics service if necessary. Fujian is easily accessible. The idea that Chinese logistics can break down there are deranged wishful thinking even if the question of how feasible it will be to overpower Taiwanese defenses remains in a complex amphibious operation remain very much open.

The Economist mentions a paucity of Chinese foreign military bases. The question of how this would be relevant to a Taiwan conflict or even a wider WW3 against the US in the context of the US retaining naval dominance in the Pacific must remain open. They would in fact just be liabilities in this scenario.

Conclusion

Chinese military strength continues growing rapidly relative to the US and there’s no reason for this trend to stop even if China has a long economic slowdown, because it currently spends only a small percentage of GDP on the military and can dial it up considerably without exerting undue strain on its economy.

We are therefore moving from a phase of history in which China was known for fast economic growth and industrial prowess and a budding cultural renaissance (remember a decade ago when everyone was sending their children to Mandarin lessons, transhumanists were enraptured by Beijing Genomics Institute, the China model had more adherents than just impoverished developing countries, etc., all of it to end with a whimper) to a hard power menace more in the style of the Cold War era USSR.

Though this is a somewhat different tangent that I’ll develop on at greater length in some other post.

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.

 

Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.

 

Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.

Comments

  1. Yellow Russia says

    China’s biggest geopolitically vulnerability is petroleum imports.
    over the next 10-15 years the creation of a renewables-centric grid paired with electrified transportion eliminates the majority of its petroleum imports.

    • Yellow Russia says

      China is doing what Germany couldn’t do, Solar, Hydro, Wind (Onshore/Offshore), Nuclear, Russian Natural Gas, Massive Coal reserves of its own.

      Malacca Dilemma becomes how to continue to export Electric vehicles to the Gulf States.

  2. US has grown faster than EU since the GFC. Thus the gap has increased.

    PRC has grown faster than US since the GFC. Thus the gap has decreased.

    In both cases, the gap in favor of the US is currently artificially bigger due to temporary, interest rate driven forex effects.

  3. yakushimaru says

    Commissars can’t be purely negative. After all the Red Army did win the war against Germany. And their initial defeat were hardly the fault of the commissars. And when you think about the command structure of an armed force, the local flexibility at different unit levels can’t be all good. Sometimes you simply want the soldiers to die for a mission. To a rational mind with sufficient flexibility, it can be impossible I dare say. The current day western critic against the commissar institution seems more like a tired repeat of a non-argument.

    It is not an easy task to make a modern, normal man to kill and to die for a mission. Without political work, how exactly are you going to achieve that? Especially when you want a talented, creative man of modern sensibility to kill and to die willingly, with efficiency. Does US know how to do it? To fight against a very weak opponent is not the same thing.

    I am not saying the Red Army way or the CPC way is all good. I just do not follow the argument put forth by the usual western commenters.

  4. Kind of interesting that EV development and manufacturing in China is basically 10 years ahead of the US. The US has fracking and oil sands, and China has the most sophisticated battery supply chains and R&D.

  5. Sawtelle310 says

    I agree with the general gist of China having a strong military, and I wouldn’t be surprised at this point if it is the strongest on earth. Their manufacturing capacity is totally unrivaled, they could conceivably pump out drones by the millions. Their tech industry is a bit behind the USA but I think good enough to do autonomous drones on a scale that would dwarf America’s own efforts. In the pacific theater, an interesting analogy to the dynamics between America and China in 2023 would be Japan and the USA in 1941, but with the roles reversed for America. Both Japan in 1941 and America in 2023 start off with a very formidable navy and air force due to legacy militarization, but they trail badly in terms of industrial power and production capacity.

    I do think more generally you fell too heavily into the doomer camp regarding Russia. If I try to look at Russia’s position from a “glass half full” perspective, this war may end up being like a mini version of what WW2 was for the USA. A shakeup for the previous period’s economic dysfunctions and lethargy, and something that brings the country together. Look, another country like South Korea in the 1970s wouldn’t need a war with 100 KIA in order to revitalize itself and finally get around to ridding itself of previous dysfunctions. But you take what you can get. I think you massively underestimate Ukrainian casualties, I think their KIA is on the order of 400k. There is plenty of public satellite data of massively expanded cemeteries, slips of the tongue from random Ukrainian officials, etc, which suggest they are taking enormous losses. If Russia was commensurate more or less with Ukrainian losses you would see similar satellite images of Russian graveyards all over western media, with analysts and politicians gloating about It. Winning a war by literally killing all available manpower in a brother country is certainly not ideal, far from it, but after Putin’s initial miscalculations, this was the strategy he set upon and which is likely to win the war for him, unless he manages to snatch a poor negotiated settlement from the jaws of victory (high probability though that is). Russia will end the war with its oligarch class forced against their will to get off their lounge chairs in the Riviera and actually rely on Russian domestic capacity for all sorts of things they had previously subcontracted to W Europe. They are being forced by Western sanctions to do what the Koreans were forced to do by their own government in the 1970s-80s (even foreign vacations were against the law there back then). The Russian MIC is outproducing the entire western world, no small feat, especially for an industrial plant I had thought was totally emaciated from its soviet peak.