How the Chinese Military Became a Threat to the U.S. And Russia After Years of Weakness

Chinese Troops
Chinese troops march as they take part in Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad, Pakistan. Reuters Pictures

Newsweek published this story under the headline "A Look at China's Army" on January 21, 1980. In light of recent news involving China's growing military power, Newsweek is republishing the story.

During his visit to China last week, Defense Secretary Harold Brown inspected the world's largest army—and one of the least up-to-date. In his party was Newsweek's Pentagon correspondent, David C. Martin, who cabled this report:

Harold Brown got the closest look any American has ever had at the Chinese defense Establishment—a tour of the military college, a display of tanks and warplanes in action and a visit (the first by any foreigner) to a submarine yard. Beneath the spit and polish, Brown saw an army uncomfortably poised between the tenets of the "people's war," which brought the Communists to power, and the demands of great-power preparedness in 1980. For the moment, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) seems stranded in mid-century.

At the PLA's military college in Peking, there is a model of a Chinese Atoll air-to-air missile. It is a copy of a U.S. heat-seeking Sidewinder missile captured from Taiwan in the early '60s. Since then, the U.S. has gone through eight different models, each with more sophisticated electronics than the last. As a result, the top-of-the-line missile in the Chinese Air Force is a twenty-year-old weapon by American standards. What's more, most of China's 4,100 interceptors do not even carry the Atoll, but are armed only with cannon.

POLITE PRAISE: The world's largest army (3.5 million strong) has embarked on a new "Long March" to modernize its forces, and the distance to be traveled can be measured in years or decades. Brown himself politely praised China's F-7 fighter after he saw it on display; he said the plan had "considerably better instrumentation" than the Soviet MiG-21 on which it was based. But in general he said that Chinese equipment "corresponds to the best of the U.S. or Soviet Union a dozen years ago."

The PLA's weaknesses became apparent during last year's attempt to teach Vietnam a lesson, China's first military action since 1962. "The Chinese paid a heavy price," a U.S. official says, although by most assessments Vietnam paid a heavier price. "At the tactical level, the performance was sort of pedestrian," says another American analyst. "They lacked sufficient motor transportation and tactical communications, and they had particular difficulty delivering enough ammo to their artillery units."

STRATEGY: Under Mao Tse-tung, that would not have been a source of grave concern. His people's war was a strategy of converting weakness into strength; it relied on China's vast territory and teeming millions to swallow any invader. Even today, U.S. analysts believe that the Soviets could not conquer China; the PLA's ability to defend the country in depth would exhaust invaders.

But post-Mao industrialization calls into question the concept of a people's war. "People's war is good when the society is predominantly agricultural," explains an American expert. "As the society becomes industrialized, people's war means the sacrifice of the cities, and that means the sacrifice of the nation's security. As a nation develops an industrial base, it has to develop strength along the border to protect the industries."

No military analyst thinks the Chinese could successfully defend the frontier. Among the more glaring weaknesses: an air-defense system that, in the words of one U.S. intelligence officer, is "worthless under 5,000 feet." By one U.S. estimate, China would need as much as $60 billion worth of modern arms to repel a Soviet attack against its border. Even if someone were willing to sell that much—and if China were able to pay for it—that amount of new technology would take a generation to absorb.

PURCHASES: The PLA is avidly canvassing the world market for arms, sending literally thousands of technicians shopping in Western Europe. For months, they seemed on the verge of purchasing the Harrier jumpjet from Britain and the HOT anti-tank missile from France, but neither deal has been closed. "They do not want to be in the position of acquiring their weapons systems entirely from other countries," Brown said. "They can afford neither the financial cost [nor the dependence] on other countries. What they have in mind is to buy enough to learn how to make their own."

Although it is declared policy that a strong China is in the national interest of the U.S., American officials agree that there are limits to that concern. The U.S. and China still have major differences of opinion over Korea and Taiwan. Despite the rhetoric about a defensive people's war, the record of Chinese military actions—Korea, India and Vietnam—is one of attack, not retreat. Consequently, the U.S. still will not sell weapons to China. For the foreseeable future, the gap that separates the military power of the U.S. and China will be so great that the question of just how powerful China should be does not arise. But sooner or later, the military advantage that the U.S. and Russia each holds over China will begin to wane. The question then becomes: will the Soviet Union try an accommodation with China, or will it try to exploit its military advantage while that edge still exists?