China: April 17, 2001


It's Not 1941 Again; A crises with China brings back memories of other Pacific conflicts. We have fought five wars in the far east in the last century (OK, 103 years.) We beat the Spanish in 1898, took possession of the Philippines (and sundry smaller islands) and fought rebels there for several years. In 1941, Japan dragged us into the biggest Pacific war of all time. In 1950, we were at war with North Koreans and Chinese. By 1965 we were fighting Vietnamese. The current confrontation with China reminds many of the build up to 1941. Back then, Japan was a newly minted, and newly industrialized, superpower, itching for a fight. Today, China is beefing up its armed forces and making noises that tell everyone there's a tough new kid on the block. 

But we got to know 1941 Japan really well, and early 21st century China is no 1941 Japan. There are some superficial resemblances. Both nations are actually economic midgets and had but a fraction of the American economic might (7 percent for Japan in 1941, ten percent for China today.) Both nations had built up large armed forces. Both nations claimed extensive portions of the southeast Asia. Both nations were antagonistic towards the United States, and scared the hell out of their East Asian neighbors. Both nations had a lot of troops who were short, skinny and not all that impressive looking.

Once you get past these items, the comparisons fall to pieces. By 1941, Japan had been at war for ten years. They had combat experience. Japan selected officers for ability and trained them very hard. Same with Japanese troops. They trained hard and shocked Western troops when Japan began invading Southeast Asia and the Central Pacific in late 1941. 

China's armed forces are rife with corruption. This has been going on for some time and the government has been reluctant to take on the tainted generals. China has no combat experience. Their last major war was Korea (1950-53). When they invaded Vietnam in 1979, they took a beating from the more experienced Vietnamese. 

Japan also built it's own major weapons systems. And they built some good stuff. The Japanese had been building a lot of weapons in the two decades before Pearl Harbor. By 1941, they had the third largest fleet (after the US and Britain) in the world. China has been trying to build warships and warplanes over the last two decades, with scant success. As a result, they have been buying modern ships and aircraft from Russia. Integrating the more modern Russian ships into China's fleet hasn't been easy. China has no where near the naval power Japan possessed in 1941, and the American fleet today is much more powerful. 

China has been putting a lot of money into submarines. During World War II, the Japanese had a large submarine fleet that they would not use against vulnerable Allied merchant shipping. This was a doctrinal decision, they preferred to use their subs against warships. In this they were very successful. Chinese subs have not distinguished themselves when observed during exercises. American subs and anti-submarine forces (aircraft and surface ships) have little trouble in tracking Chinese subs. In wartime, whatever you can track, you can quickly sink.

In 1941, Japan had a first class air force. It's naval aviation was the best and most numerous in the world. Pilot selection and training were exacting, although their system was not very good at replacing combat losses. This proved to be a fatal flaw. The Chinese have lots of poorly selected and trained pilots. Since all their warplanes are Russian built or based on Russian designs, they are expensive to operate. This discourages a lot of training flights, and as a result pilots have minimal skills. China has been buying modern Su-27 fighters from Russia, and has selected their better pilots to train with them. But it will take years to obtain the results. Right now, the Chinese air force flies, as American pilots like to put it, targets.

The Japanese had a well trained and led army in 1941. Equipment was not as lavish as in the West, but it did the job. The Chinese army today is large, poorly equipped, indifferently led and infrequently trained. This is what the Chinese say about it, and the generals are constantly arguing for more money and time to rectify the situation.

Today, China has 2.2 million troops, 8,000 tanks, 70 submarines, some 5,000 warplanes and a lot of other weapons of questionable vintage and value. China is not a paper tiger, but it's not nearly as much a military threat as Japan was in 1941. China knows this, and realizes that pushing any situation to the point of war risks losing much of their navy and air force. 

Then there are nuclear weapons. But China has few that can reach America, and it will be some years before they can have the "mutually assured destruction" (or MAD) that kept the United States and the Soviet Union at peace for many decades. Until China achieves MAD with the U.S., any Chinese nukes landing in North America would result in the obliteration of China. 

So for the moment, and the near future, China's military is a paper tiger. They can't hurt us, we can hurt them and what we really have to worry about is being dragged into a war to defend Taiwan. 


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