China’s ready for a war

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Gra­ham Al­li­son o mark Gra­ham Al­li­son is a pro­fes­sor of govern­ment at Har­vard Kennedy School’s Belfer Cen­ter for Sci­ence and In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs and the au­thor of “Des­tined for War: Can Amer­ica and China Es­cape Thucy­dides’s Trap?”

Tthe 90th birthday of the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army on Aug. 1, China’s Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping went to the In­ner Mon­go­lian steppe to the site where Genghis Khan be­gan his con­quest of Eura­sia. There, at Zhurihe, he was wel­comed by an im­pres­sive dis­play of China’s mar­tial might: a pa­rade of Chi­nese troops, tanks, he­li­copters, air­craft and mis­siles. But the main course was a mas­sive war game demon­strat­ing the state of China‘s prepa­ra­tion to “fight and win” fu­ture mil­i­tary con­flicts.

For what war is the PLA pre­par­ing?

Re­cent events should make the an­swer abun­dantly clear. In July, North Korea con­ducted two ICBM tests that put the Amer­i­can heart­land within reach of its nu­clear weapons. In re­sponse, the U.S. flew two B-1 bombers over the Korean penin­sula to send the mes­sage, in the words of Pa­cific Air Forces com­man­der Gen. Ter­rence J. O’Shaugh­nessy, that the U.S. is “ready to re­spond with rapid, lethal and over­whelm­ing force at a time and place of our choos­ing.”

Pres­i­dent Trump has di­rected his ire at China, tweet­ing af­ter the North Korean mis­sile test: “I am very dis­ap­pointed in China … they do NOTH­ING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer al­low this to con­tinue.”

Xi’s pa­rade, along with re­cent Chi­nese mil­i­tary ma­neu­vers, sends an equally un­am­bigu­ous mes­sage: If war breaks out on the Korean penin­sula, China is ready to pro­tect its na­tional in­ter­ests. A ma­jor pil­lar of Xi’s pro­gram for “mak­ing China great again” is build­ing a mod­ern mil­i­tary fully “ca­pa­ble of fight­ing and win­ning” a 21st cen­tury war — in­clud­ing, if need be, against the United States.

In re­cent months, China has moved ad­di­tional mil­i­tary units to its bor­der with North Korea. It has es­tab­lished new for­ti­fi­ca­tions and 24-hour video sur­veil­lance us­ing aerial drones. But PLA spe­cial forces and air­borne troops have be­gun re­peat­edly drilling for mis­sions that go far be­yond clos­ing the bor­der or es­tab­lish­ing a buf­fer zone: They ap­pear to be pre­par­ing to push deep into North Korea in the event of cri­sis.

Those who doubt China’s will­ing­ness to act, or its fe­roc­ity, should re­view what hap­pened in 1950. That June, North Korea in­vaded South Korea and would have gained con­trol of the penin­sula had the Amer­i­can-led United Na­tions Com­mand not come to the res­cue. With lit­tle thought for how China — which then had barely 1/50th the GDP of the U.S. — might re­act, al­lied forces un­der Gen. Dou­glas MacArthur pushed North Korean troops back across the 38th par­al­lel and ad­vanced rapidly to­ward the Yalu River bor­der­ing China. U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers dis­counted the pos­si­bil­ity that China might in­ter­vene on be­half of the North.

Nonethe­less, MacArthur awoke one morn­ing to find the van­guard of a 300,000-strong Chi­nese army slam­ming U.S. and al­lied forces. Caught off-guard, Amer­i­can units suf­fered se­vere losses. One regiment of the U.S. 1st Cav­alry Di­vi­sion lost 600 men in close com­bat in a mat­ter of hours. In the weeks that fol­lowed, what MacArthur and his fel­low com­man­ders had dis­missed as a “peas­ant army” not only halted the U.S. ad­vance but beat al­lied forces back to a stale­mate at the 38th par­al­lel.

If Chi­nese and Amer­i­can forces once again meet in Korea — per­haps in what Gen. Ray­mond Thomas has warned could be­come a “ver­ti­cal track meet” to se­cure the North’s nu­clear weapons — the PLA will not at all re­sem­ble the low-tech army of the past.

In 1991, Chi­nese lead­ers were stunned by the ef­fec­tive­ness of the U.S. mil­i­tary dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Desert Storm in Iraq, when it de­feated Sad­dam Hus­sein’s forces in less than a month with fewer than 150 com­bat deaths. Watch­ing Amer­ica’s “full-spec­trum tech­no­log­i­cal dom­i­nance” via space-based nav­i­ga­tion and sur­veil­lance sys­tems, pre­ci­sionguided bombs and radar-evad­ing stealth air­craft, Chi­nese lead­ers de­ter­mined to ac­quire the tech­ni­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties to counter and ul­ti­mately sur­pass what they re­ferred to as “Amer­i­can magic.”

Ac­cord­ingly, Xi has made it his mis­sion to ruth­lessly re­build and re­or­ga­nize China’s armed forces on a scale that Rus­sia’s fore­most ex­pert on the Chi­nese mil­i­tary, An­drei Kokoshin, calls “un­prece­dented.” And the Pen­tagon is tak­ing no­tice. Its an­nual re­port on the Chi­nese mil­i­tary, re­leased in June, warned that the PLA had “mod­ern­ized its con­ven­tion­ally armed mis­sile force ex­traor­di­nar­ily rapidly,” while the PLA Air Force was also “rapidly” clos­ing the gap with the U.S.

“The world is not peace­ful,” Xi said at Zhurihe, warn­ing, “we need more than any pe­riod in his­tory to build a strong peo­ple’s mil­i­tary.”

No­tably, the ex­er­cises there fea­tured Chi­nese forces fac­ing off against a “Blue Force” mod­eled on the com­mand struc­ture, tech­nol­ogy, weaponry and tac­tics of the United States.

As Sec­re­tary of De­fense James N. Mat­tis keeps say­ing, North Korea is a “clear and present” threat. Events there could drag the U.S. and China into a ma­jor war nei­ther wants. Es­pe­cially in the con­text of Thucy­dides’ Trap — the dan­ger­ous dy­namic when a ris­ing power threat­ens to dis­place the rul­ing one — once mil­i­tary ma­chines are in mo­tion, misun­der­stand­ings and mis­cal­cu­la­tions could es­ca­late all too eas­ily to a cat­a­strophic con­flict no one in­tended.

If Chi­nese and U.S. forces once again meet in Korea, the PLA will not at all re­sem­ble the low-tech ‘peas­ant army’ of the past.

Li Tao As­so­ci­ated Press

CHINA’S Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping in­spects Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army troops at a pa­rade com­mem­o­rat­ing the PLA’s an­niver­sary.

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