Xi’s dilemma over China’s deliverable internal and external security capacity

While presiding over a meeting of National People’s Congress Standing Committee on March 8, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed on enhancing capacity for national security to safeguard sovereign interests, hinting categorically about his unhappiness over the country’s preparedness to fight internal and external threats in the face of intensifying geopolitical competition.

At the 170-member National People’s Congress Standing Committee, President Xi’s views on the country’s security situation have come at the time when Beijing is in the midst of dilemma over its military capability as challenges to maintain its claim over the South China Sea are increasing, while its preparedness to forcibly annex Taiwan appears to be unconvincing.    

However, this was not the first time when President Xi had expressed his concern on the preparedness of the PLA. In November 2022, when China was undergoing harsh lockdowns under zero-Covid policy, President Xi, in view of widespread corruption in the Chinese military and its weakness on many fronts, including military training, had called for “comprehensive” strengthening of “military training in preparation for war,” People’s Daily said.

This view got reflected well when General He Weidong, the second-ranked Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission vowed to crack down on “fake combat readiness” of the People’s Liberation Army, emanating from procurement of inferior military hardware and not up to mark military training. General He Weidong, as per South China Morning Post, made such remarks during a discussion with a People’s Liberation Army delegation on March 5 in Beijing.

At the centre of China’s key concern is the PLA’s Rocket Force, an elite military wing which has been described by President Xi as a “core of strategic deterrence, a strategic buttress to the country’s position as a major power, a cornerstone on which to build national security.”

In January this year, the world woke up to a major shock when a Bloomberg report quoting US intelligence sources said PLARF commanders had filled up some missiles with water instead of rocket fuel. Just after publication of Bloomberg report, an ex-PLA Navy officer Lt Colonel Yao Cheng who defected to the US in 2016 told Radio Free Asia that while corruption is pervasive in the Chinese military, lack of basic supplies and equipment is normal for soldiers.

The former Chinese naval official said he often used small chunks of solid-state fuel meant for missiles to cook his meals. He further told Radio Free Asia that the rocket fuel burns cleanly and without any emission and as such comes in handy when cooking with a hotpot, a Chinese culinary staple where water or oil is kept at a constant boil to cook meat and vegetables. The ex-PLA Navy officer said when rocket fuel was not available, he and his fellow naval personnel would take out fuel from aircraft tanks to cook meals instead.

Examples of corruption plaguing the Chinese military are varied and disconcerting. According to Bloomberg, PLARF’s underground missile silos, which protect its nuclear-tipped rockets, have defects which would prevent them from opening properly. The F-22P frigates are said to have various technical issues, including engine degradation, faulty sensors, and the missile system’s inability to lock on the target.

Onboard imaging device of the FM90(N) missile system is having a defective infrared sensor (IR17) system and SR-60 radars. While China’s F-7 and JF-17 aircrafts suffer from issues related to inferior radars, Rand, the US-based non-profit global policy think tank said. With such flawed weapons in the arsenal, they would have implications on the PLA’s performance on an actual battlefield, feel some experts. “The weapons and equipment should reach the technical standards,” Fu Qianshao, a former equipment expert with the PLA was quoted by South China Morning Post as saying.

Along with such inferior military hardware, China is also facing problems in having qualified and well-trained military personnel. The PLA Daily in a rare report published on December 26, 2022 highlighted acute shortage of qualified personnel in the navy. “Lack of hi-tech expertise is limiting state-of-the-art equipment from use to its full extent, especially in the navy,” the PLA Daily said. “Some veteran soldiers have to be trained as fresh recruits are to be ready for their new roles, such as commanders and key operators of more modern warships,” South China Morning Post, quoted Song Zhongping, an ex-instructor of the Chinese military, as saying.

There is a huge gap between ambition and ground reality. According to a report, one-third of PLA officers lack even the most basic higher education. China has developed and deployed many cutting-edge weapons, including some that are the best in the world, but there are not enough soldiers to handle many of those advanced weapons. The CMC, China’s highest national defence organisation, has concurred that human talent matters to the PLA “more than at any other time in history,” said Defence One, a US-based defence news portal.

Experts say when PLA doctrine was centred on mass infantry, a ninth-grade educated youth suited Chinese armed forces’ requirements. But when the battlefield scenario is fast changing, China requires personnel with “scientific literacy and technological know-how,” President Xi said in his speech at the 20th National Congress in October 2022.

To stop situation from getting messier, confused and disarray, there has been major purges of Chinese military officials in the recent past. Defence Minister Li Shangfu was removed from his post in October last year with no explanation why he was sacked. Then nine generals, including top rocket force commanders were ousted from the national legislative body in December citing their “violations of discipline and the law”, a euphemism for corruption.

In the same month last year, three senior executives from the country’s aerospace and defence sector were sacked from the top political advisory body. Close on the heels of these sackings, a prominent rocket scientist was removed in January this year. Given the prevailing condition, experts say that it will take years for the Chinese military to fight full-fledged wars with the US and its allies over the South China Sea or Taiwan.






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