Home Can’t be Called a ‘Paper Tiger’, China Gears its ‘Combat Readiness’

Can’t be Called a ‘Paper Tiger’, China Gears its ‘Combat Readiness’

In 1956, calling US imperialism a “Paper Tiger”, Mao Zedong stated:  “In appearance it [US] is very powerful but in reality, it is nothing to be afraid of, it is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain”.[i] Similarly, China today is strong as defined by its meteoric rise both economically and militarily. With a steady double-digit economic growth China superseded Japan in 2010 to become the world’s second largest economy and second only to US as the largest military spender globally. However, despite its strong military muscle, China suffers from ‘combat inexperience’. Calling it People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) “peace disease”,[ii] People’s Liberation Army Daily in an editorial stated: “Peace disease has been a common symptom in our military for decades” […] “If we do not make up our mind to eliminate those evils, we must pay a heavy cost in the event of a war” and that “we can only stop a war if we are able to fight”.[iii]  This very statement reflects China’s current dilemma. This lacunae undermines the fighting capability of the world’s largest military and more importantly, runs in contrary to China’s aspirations for great power status. Does this ‘peace disease’ then make China a ‘Paper Tiger’ despite its strong military muscle?

Why is PLA suffering from such an ailment? To note, historically, China’s combat experience is mainly drawn from four episodes: in 1950-53 against US and UN forces in the Korean War, in 1962 against India, in 1969 against the Soviet Union and in 1979 against Vietnam. This creates the gap as over 40 years it has not engaged or experienced any real warfighting. To add further, China’s rise has mainly focused on securing its contours. In doing so, China has mainly engaged in taking precautionary measures to safeguard its core interests such as establishment of Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea in 2013 against Japan; since 2014 China has been engaged in building artificial islands and flexing military muscle in the disputed South China Sea; set up its first overseas military base in the east African nation of Djibouti, road build-up activity along the tri-junction area in Doklam that called for a stand-off with India in 2017 and others. This relative inexperience in fighting a mechanized war puts China in a comparatively weaker spot in fighting modern wars despite its growing military profile. This calls for a grave concern given if faced with a contingency; China will suffer then from a circumstantial deadlock of battle-readiness. Can China afford to act so?

This dilemma, therefore, has necessitated the need for China to make itself ‘combat ready’ in the 21st Century. This need is also catalysed by China’s growing ambitions in securing its core interests supplemented by Xi’s aspirations to build a security maximising state. To fill up the gap, Xi’s agenda entails two key goals: First, build a “world-class military” by mid-century. To achieve this, China has two-fold objectives: PLA needs to “achieve its mechanization, make big strides in informatisation and gain substantial improvement in strategic capabilities” by 2020; and become “a modernized force” by 2035. Second, make the PLA a ‘combat force’, transforming it from being a “regional defensive type to the full-spectrum combat type, so as to build a powerful, modern and new-type Army”.[iv] That is, a combat force that is capable not only to fight but most importantly, efficient in winning wars. 

To achieve these objectives, China has upscaled its training to prepare PLA troops for the future. Of which, the most noted are the activities in the Zhurihe Combined Tactics Training Base, located in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. What makes it significant is that it is PLA’s largest and most advanced training base, which provides realistic battle conditions in a variety of terrains for Chinese soldiers to enhance their combat skills.[v] Most importantly, in the battle exercises called “Stride”, the combat training involves two units- red and blue units. Wherein, the red unit is comprised of PLA troops from different regions, while the blue force is called the 195th Mechanised Infantry Brigade, which was officially set up at Zhurihe in 2014. This Blue Army Brigade is China’s first professional simulation opposition force brigade, which as of now has won 31 of 33 simulated battles against the “Red Army”.[vi] To note, the ‘Blue Force’ is trained to simulate the tactics and operations of NATO ground forces like the US Army.[vii]

Further testing its mettle, in January 2018, PLA Air Force (PLAAF) for the first time deployed its most advanced J-20 stealth fighter in combat exercise. This is significant given J-20 is a typical “offensive weapon” with “good stability, stealth capability, situational awareness capacity, and fire-control systems”- argued to be the “backbone” of PLAAF for the next 20 years.[viii] What lies at the core is that China’s new found military preparedness is informed by the strategic goal of “winning informationised local wars” (信息化條件下的局部戰) which recognises the centrality of information and information domain as a battlefield in modern warfare. China is aiming at network-centric warfare, wherein domination in the information realm determines one’s capability to dominate combat in all other domains by gaining greater battlefield transparency. This is exacerbated by China’s military modernisation wherein Science and Technology (S&T) holds the key. China is constantly engaged in absorbing as well as assimilating high technology. Furthermore, in 2016 China established the Central Military Commission on S&T- an agency similar to the Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) of the US. These activities thereby, reflect China’s sincere attitude in gaining combat readiness.

China’s combat readiness is driven by twin goals:[ix] First, the core objective to fight and win “informationised local wars”. Second, to increase the PLA’s ability to carry out joint operations on a modern high-tech battlefield. Wherein, the type of missions that the PLA seeks to be ready to execute as the 2015 White Paper[x] notes are: safeguard the sovereignty of China’s territory; safeguard national unification, safeguard China’s interests in new domains such as space and cyberspace; safeguard China’s overseas interests; maintain strategic deterrence; participate in international security cooperation; maintain China’s political security and social stability; and conduct emergency rescue, disaster relief, and “rights and interest protection” missions.


Given these actions at play, it remains indisputable that owing to its longstanding inexperience in war fighting since 1979, China today is faced with the pressure to perfect the art of combat. Its growing military muscle does not guarantee it an absolute win unless it trains itself in combat readiness, thus, making ‘combat inexperience’ an ‘achilles heel’ for Xi Jinping to cure.





[i] Mao Zedong (1956), “U.S. Imperialism is a Paper Tiger”, Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, 14 July 1956, at https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-5/mswv5_52.htm (accessed on 13 December 2018).

[ii] Quoted in “China’s army infiltrated by ‘peace disease’ after years without a war, says its official newspaper”, South China Morning Post, 03 July 2018, at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2153579/chinas-army-infiltrated-peace-disease-after-years (accessed on 14 December 2018).

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China (2016), “China establishes Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force”, 01 January 2016, at http://eng.mod.gov.cn/DefenseNews/2016-01/01/content_4634924.htm (accessed on 14 December 2018).

[v] “8 things to know about China’s biggest army training base”, South China Morning Post, 24 July 2017, at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2103593/8-things-know-about-chinas-biggest-army-training-base (accessed on 19 December 2018).

[vi] Yang Sheng (2017), “Zhurihe base makes ideal PLA training ground: expert”, Global Times, 31 July 2017, at http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1058807.shtml (accessed on 19 December 2018).

[vii] Jeffrey Lin and P. W. Singer (2015), “Stride 2015: China’s Best Troops Take On A Grueling Combat Simulation”, Popular Science, 30 July 2015, at https://www.popsci.com/great-stride-forward-chinas-best-troop-take-realistic-training (accessed on 19 December 2018).

[viii] Quoted in Zhao Lei (2018), “J-20 fighter takes part in first combat exercises”, China Daily, 12 January 2018, at http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201801/12/WS5a580a87a3102c394518eb05.html (accessed on 19 December 2018).

[ix] Amrita Jash (2018), “With H-6G Bomber, China Gears Up to Win Informationised Local Wars”, CLAWS FOCUS, 28 January 2018, URL: http://www.claws.in/1863/with-h-6g-bomber-china-gears-up-to-win-informationised-local-wars-amrita-jash.html (Accessed on 14 August 2018).

[x] The State Council of the People’s Republic of China (2015), “China’s Military Strategy”, 27 May 2015, at http://english.gov.cn/archive/white_paper/2015/05/27/content_281475115610833.htm (accessed on 19 December 2018).

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Dr. Amrita Jash
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