Peace Disease v. Imperial Overstretch: Assessing New Arguments About China and America

By: - August 20, 2018

One of the major flaws of those who argue against China’s new dominance comes from looking beyond the new technology that makes headlines. When looking at China’s health and recruiting, education, training, corruption, and civil-military relations, as well as the status of their recruiting and retention problems, it suggests that China might be more of a paper dragon instead of a waking dragon.

This kind of in-depth analysis isn’t nearly as attractive as clickbait compared to fearful hot takes about supersonic weapons, drone swarms, and obsolete carriers. But it is very important to move beyond headlines and the short attention span of social media. One of the major concerns is that China hasn’t fought a major war since the border skirmish with Vietnam in 1979. This means that most senior Chinese officers have very little combat experience and the rank and file has none. In contrast, the United States has fought numerous engagements in the war on terror and still has soldiers deployed against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

But Chinese analysts like Zhao Hui have pushed back. After saying that the arguments are “untenable, unscientific, rustic, inhibit self-confidence, and may lead to misguided policy,” he provided two examples. In the Gulf War in 1991, Iraq had just fought an eight-year-long conflict with Iran, and the United States had not fought a major engagement since their withdrawal from Vietnam 16 years earlier. Yet the lack of combat experience didn’t stop the United States from winning in overwhelming fashion.

The other example comes from World War I. The British had been involved in a long string of colonial wars, including the Boer War. Yet in the first (and almost decisive) phase of the war, the British conducted a “continuous retreat” against victorious German forces. The United States in particular should be concerned because their experience comes from counter-insurgency brush wars in contrast to a likely heavy-weight match with China. Just like the British, their experience might be in the wrong area, leaving them over-stretched and unprepared for conventional combat.

Zhao provides several good points that I don’t think completely prove his case. It is possible for an untested military to beat a more experienced one. Yet those armies each had particular advantages in strategy, culture, and training that proved more decisive than the length of time since their last conflict. For example, the German army in World War I had an incredibly high standard of training, their General Staff College was the best in the world other nations tried to copy, and they had a venerable history and culture of excellence. As the Chinese philosopher Sunzi said, the German military was like the release of a torrent of water flowing down a mountain, the swoop of a deadly falcon catching its prey, or the release of a bolt from a crossbow. The German’s lack of recent military experience was a far less measure of their competence than their training, strategy, and élan.

Likewise, the Iraqis fought Iran for almost a decade. But those battles were largely stalemates along a static and somewhat geographically constrained front. The U.S. in contrast had overwhelming airpower, faced the Iraqis across a different front, led a large coalition, and was fighting a war of liberation, in contrast to Iraqi soldiers who were fighting for a dictator. Again, like the Germans, the combat experience was one factor among many that didn’t affect performance in that case.

It’s true the United States is fighting an insurgency and long war on terror. The military faces legitimate dangers as their hardware has deteriorated and many soldiers have faced multiple deployments. But the military is upgrading its equipment. The pilots in particular have received advanced and invaluable training that gives them the edge over Chinese pilots despite fighting brush wars for decades. More importantly, while there are examples of inexperienced forces beating ones that have more experience, China has many other problems that raise significant concerns. The Chinese military remains untested, they have trouble recruiting and retaining high-caliber soldiers, they have new equipment that hasn’t been integrated into the military in combat conditions, and they don’t have the élan and institutional experience of the United States and German militaries that can compensate for peace disease. America might be overstretched, but unlike China’s peace disease, the institutional experience and quality of the American soldier can compensate, while it is doubtful for China.