Paper Tigers and Eagles: Why the United States Should Not Underestimate the PLA

By: Annie Kowalewski, Columnist

Photo Credit: The National Interest

In the past several decades, China has made huge strides in modernizing its military technology, training, and organization. Yet, US military officials continue to dismiss the real threat the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) poses because the PLA lacks real combat experience.[i] It is true that the PLA hasn’t fought a war since a 1979 dispute with Vietnam; however, China’s military modernization efforts and massive investments into modern technology suggest that, if an armed conflict should occur between the United States and China, it would be dangerous to underestimate the PLA.

Do Not Underestimate the Paper Tiger

While the United States has utilized its armed forces abroad over 50 times between 1979-2004, the Sino-Vietnamese border war in 1979 heralded the most recent conflict that involved the PLA.[ii] After China failed to re-conquer its self-perceived territory and islands from Vietnam in February 1979, the short but fierce battle revealed that the PLA was disorganized, underfunded, and lacked the technology and training to fight even the smallest of adversaries. Since then, the Chinese PLA has generally been described as a “ragtag” military with no real experience, technology, or warfighting capabilities.[iii]

Consequently, the 2016 US-China Economic and Security Review Commission reports that China is “not ready” to fight in a modern war. China experts such as Paul Dibb further explain that China’s lack of combat experience and the technological gaps in China’s air defense severely weaken the PLA’s ability to win a war against a major power with high technological capabilities.[iv] These critiques of the Chinese state ignore recent Chinese modernization efforts, where China has begun addressing each of the military’s deficiencies. The United States should thus be wary of underestimating the PLA’s warfighting capabilities.

After decades of reform, China is second only to the United States in defense spending, investing heavily in modern warfighting technology, and has completely restructured the PLA’s doctrine and training. The PLA’s “rolling” military doctrine has made huge strides in identifying potential contingencies and PLA vulnerabilities, including attempts to strengthen the PLA’s ability to conduct joint operations and project power beyond the mainland’s borders.[v] Perhaps the most notable shift in the doctrine has been China’s commitment to “active” defense, or using the PLA to protect its interests beyond the mainland’s borders.[vi] A recent example of this shift includes China’s increasingly aggressive power projection in the South and East China Seas.

Additionally, the PLA has replaced its old Soviet-style centralized command structure with seven theatre commands that emphasize training on that theatre’s specific geographic threats. For example, China’s Eastern Theatre focuses on naval training and amphibious assaults needed to protect Chinese interests in the East and South China Seas, while China’s Northern Theatre focuses on mission-essential tasks necessary in case of a Russian land invasion.[vii] Moreover, China has invested heavily in “new” technologies that are crucial to the future of warfare, including space technology that enhances China’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities and cyber infrastructure.[viii] Together, these reforms suggest that the PLA is preparing to fight a short, high-tech, localized, information-centered war if necessary—not a long, protracted war of annihilation like it attempted to pursue in Vietnam in 1979.

Although these military reforms are still in progress and the United States can expect the PLA to encounter a learning curve, the Chinese have been extremely efficient in rolling out military reforms in the past. For example, when Deng Xiaoping rolled in the first wave of reform by shifting the PLA’s military doctrine from a “people’s war” to a “people’s war with modern conditions” in the 1980s, China almost immediately shifted tracks from recruitment and manpower to gaining a modern arsenal in just a few years.[ix] Therefore, the United States should be wary of underestimating how quickly the PLA can adapt to and execute its modernization process.

Do Not Overestimate the Eagle

Likewise, the United States should not overestimate the advantage of its own warfighting capabilities in a potential conflict against China. In terms of training, nothing can replace combat experience.[x] Compared to China, there is no doubt the United States has an asymmetric advantage with its institutional knowledge and long history of combat experience. However, the United States may lack the kind of combat experience needed for the type of war that is most likely to occur with China.

First, US military branches and think tanks tend to agree that a conflict between the United States and China would most likely occur in the maritime space, in either the East or South China Seas.[xi] The United States has not fought in a naval battle since Operation Custom Tailor in May 1978, and much of US modern naval training has focused on asymmetric warfare like piracy rather than traditional naval battles.[xii]

Second, the PLA has been preparing for war with new, high-level technology and in new domains of warfare in a way that the United States has not. Fundamentally, the nature of warfare is changing due to higher-level technologies, new frontiers of warfare, and an increased importance of the information environment. Compared to China, the United States is simply not investing in or integrating these technologies into its military strategy in comparable speeds and amounts. While the United States currently remains the world leader in space technology, recording the highest number of satellites and launches, China has quickly progressed to overtake Russia as the second, with an aim to become a “global space power” by 2030.[xiii] To achieve this goal, China has incorporated space power and capabilities into its military doctrine and the PLA is training to prepare for a future war that utilizes, or takes place in, the space domain.[xiv] Moreover, China is actively studying how to “use cyberspace operations to augment counter-space and other kinetic operations during a wartime scenario” to specifically interfere with US network-based logistics.[xv] Meanwhile, the United States defense budget for “modernization funding”, which includes investments in space and cyber infrastructure, has decreased in the past five years.[xvi]

Given the United States’ own experiential gaps in naval battles and utilizing space and cyber in warfare, the United States shouldn’t be too quick to overestimate the advantage of its own combat experience in a potential war with China. Instead, the United States should recognize the PLA as a capable adversary that may have a few advantages of its own.

[i] Richard Grimmet, “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2004,” Congressional Research Service Report RL30172, October 5, 2004, Accessed March 3, 2017,

[ii] Paul Dibb, “Not So Scary: This is why China’s Military is a Paper Tiger,” The National Interest. October 15, 2015, Accessed March 3, 2017,

[iii] Xuan Loc Doan, “27 Days of Hell: When China and Vietnam Went to War,” The National Interest, February 26, 2017, Accessed March 3, 2017,

[iv] Paul Dibb, “Not So Scary: This is why China’s Military is a Paper Tiger.”

[v] Robert Cliff, “Chapter 2: Doctrine,” China’s Military Power, (CT: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 17-36.


[vii] Robert Cliff, “Chaper 6: Training,” China’s Military Power “(CT: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 120-138.

[viii] “China Dream, Space Dream: China’s Progress in Space Technologies and Implications for the United States,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), March 2, 2015, Accessed March 3, 2017,

[ix] Ellis Joffe, “People’s War Under Modern Conditions: A Doctrine for a Modern War” The China Quarterly, Vol. 112(1987):555-571.

[x] Eric L. Haney and Brian M. Thomson, Beyond Shock and Awe: Warfare in the 21st Century (NY: Beakley Caliber, 2006).

[xi] Gompert, Cevallos, and Garafolla, War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable, (DC: RAND Corporation, 2016) Bonnie Glaser, Armed Clash in the South China Sea, (DC: Council on Foreign Relations, 2012); “Asia Pacific Maritime Security Strategy,” Department of Defense, June 15, 2015, Accessed March 3, 2017,

[xii] Ryan Faith, “What the World’s Largest Naval Exercise Reveals about Modern-Day Warfare,” Vice News, August 11, 2014, Accessed March 3, 2017,

[xiii] “China Dream, Space Dream,” USCC.

[xiv] “US Space Capabilities: Doctrine, Roles and Systems,” Air University, Accessed March 3, 2017,; Michelle Shevin-Coetzee and Jerry Hendrix, From Blue to Black: Applying the Concepts of Sea Power to the Ocean of Space, (DC: CNAS Reports, 2016); Todd Harrison, Defense Modernization Plans through the 2020s (DC: CSIS reports, 2016)

[xv] Phil Muncaster, “US DOD: China Ramped Up Cyber Warfare Capabilities in 2015,” Info Security Magazine, May 17, 2016, Accessed March 3, 2017,

[xvi] Todd Harrison, Defense Modernization Plans through the 2020s: Addressing the Bow Wave, (DC: CSIS Reports, 2016).

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