Understanding China's military might, and whether Beijing will use it

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This undated photo taken in April 2018 shows J15 fighter jets on China's sole operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, during a drill at sea.  (Photo credit should read -/AFP via Getty Images)
This undated photo taken in April 2018 shows J15 fighter jets on China's sole operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, during a drill at sea. (Photo credit should read -/AFP via Getty Images)

China’s current military exercises around Taiwan are a demonstration of two things. An aggressive political posture. And, military might that's surprising even long-time China watchers.

"The 15 years I've been watching the Chinese military, 13 of those, they have said that they couldn't beat the United States. So it's only recently that we see Chinese discourse saying that they can possibly win," Oriana Skylar Mastro says.

In hypersonic weapons and AI, the Chinese military may outclass the United States.

"U.S. bases in Japan –absolutely, the Chinese can take these out," Oriana Skylar Mastro adds. "And the United States has no means of defending those bases."

Today, On Point: China's military might. Its size. Its technology. And whether Beijing would actually use it.


Oriana Skylar Mastro, center fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Non-resident senior fellow at American Enterprise Institute. Author of The Costs of Conversation: Obstacle to Peace Talks in Wartime. (@osmastro)

Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project. Senior fellow for Asian Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Interview Highlights

If China launched an invasion of Taiwan and the U.S. attempted to intervene, could China possibly win that conflict?

Oriana Skylar Mastro: “The short answer is yes. There are conditions under which China could win a war. Even with U.S. military intervention. Those conditions specifically are if China moves fast and hard when the United States has very little early warning to respond. At this point, the Chinese strategists that I've read, that I've talked to, still think that the United States has some advantages in a more protracted conflict. So if it lasts, you know, months and months, years and years. But that's not the war that China's going to try to initiate. So when they take a move, they're going to do it in such a way that all the conditions are the most favorable to them.”

On live fire exercises the Chinese military undertook

Oriana Skylar Mastro: “There's a few things about those exercises that I think are important if you're interested in understanding where we are today and how different the Chinese military threat is. The first is to take a look at the last time we had a Taiwan Strait crisis. In 1996, China conducted four rounds of live fire tests. There are very few similarities. I mean, what we look at today, that they did with Taiwan, makes that look like child's play. Un addition to doing a number of missile tests, and back then, they never launched more than five or six missiles at a time.

"Now we're looking more at like nine or 11. They also included all components of their military. So we had a hundred different aircraft fighters, bombers, early warning aircraft tankers, conducting all sorts of operations from air superiority, reconnaissance, to ground assault.

"Then you also have the Navy component that was involved. You had ten destroyers, allegedly submarines doing submarine exercises, and aircraft carrier. And all of these different components also encircled the island. Even the missiles went over the island to the other side, which was not the case in 1996. And they were all conducting relatively sophisticated exercises.

"We can see that they can now mobilize and move large amounts of their military, and that they can conduct these things at the same time. However, there's still some uncertainty about the degree to which these elements were operating together. As an outside observer, I can't tell, for example, how closely they were in coordination with each other, versus did they just get orders ahead of time, like be at this place, you know, at 9:32 a.m.

"Versus they were actually coordinating in real time. And of course, this is an uncontested exercise. So it tells us something, but doesn't give us a complete picture of how the Chinese would be able to conduct, in this case, a blockade if they were actually met with force and resistance.”

On what triggered the Taiwan Strait crisis in the mid-90s

Oriana Skylar Mastro: “In the 1990s, the crisis was primarily triggered by Beijing's discontents with Taiwan domestic politics. So somewhat different than the crisis that was triggered today. In the 1990s, a No. 1 concern that would lead us to war was that Taiwan, you know, might declare independence or go a different way. So in 1995, 1996, you had the first democratic election in Taiwan, and China was not particularly happy with this.

"Taiwan was not a democracy beforehand. It was actually a pretty brutal dictatorship. And so they were moving towards democracy. And China, through its missile tests, was trying to warn the people of Taiwan not to vote for a particular candidate. Now, the United States had sent an aircraft carrier strike group, then called the Battle Group, in the vicinity of Taiwan once before. Didn't work. The second time we sent two. And after that, in March 1996, the Chinese stopped all of that military activity.

"So the United States role was really to warn China, to deter China, to say to China, listen, we have the military power to shut this down, so you better cool it. And China did cool it. So that is sort of seen as a success story in the use of a military tool to achieve, you know, political goals. Now, the Chinese, you know, also had that same experience. But from their perspective, in 1996, they didn't have a lot of options.

"You know, the United States sails an aircraft carrier near you. You know, you stop what you're doing. But in the meantime, they developed the capabilities to sink an aircraft carrier. And I don't think that is coincidental. I think they primarily wanted to be able to keep the United States military out. And they wanted options to respond if the United States decided to use its military, in the future, to shape its choices.”

Background on the Chinese military

Oriana Skylar Mastro: “China has one of the largest militaries in the world. There's about 2 million members of the Chinese military. Most of them are still in the army. Almost a million of them are in the army, with much smaller amounts in the Navy and the Air Force. China still has a conscript system. So about 700,000 are conscripts. So they're just coming in for a shorter period of time, you know, 18 months, two years.

"Some of them choose to stay, but not all of them do. And then they have a separate force, the People's Armed Police, which was kind of a deal that the Communist Party made with the PLA after Tiananmen, when the military said, you know, okay, we know a big part of our job is to be loyal to the Communist Party and ensure the stability of the Communist Party.

"But we're not particularly happy about killing Chinese people. So can you give the majority of that mission to someone else? So the People's Armed Police was set up to do that. Now, the individuals in this military are, as I mentioned, it's, you know, of a lower education level. It's been very difficult for the Chinese to recruit college graduates, for example. It's improved in recent years, but they've never hit the recruitment targets, and they're primarily concerned about developing a noncommissioned officer corps.

"So this is one of the strengths of the United States military, is within our enlisted ranks. We have noncommissioned officers that are really the backbone of our military. And so when the Chinese would come to the United States for military to military exchanges, for example, they were more interested in seeing how we trained, our enlisted in some cases, then taking a look at a fancy aircraft. Because it was so important to them.

"The individuals also, I mean, there's just so many controls on them, in terms of what they could do. I remember there was, you know, a story about certain units not being able to have cell phones, for example. Even after you get married, you still live in the barracks. Being a member of the Chinese military is not great. And that's what Xi Jinping has been trying to improve. When they say that a lot of the money of their budget increases are going to personnel, I mean, that's partially true. They're trying to improve the lifestyle of those people, in order to recruit more people to join the force.”

I heard you say earlier that in an invasion scenario, that China could potentially overwhelm U.S. capability in the region and even take out U.S. bases. Is it really as serious as that?

Oriana Skylar Mastro: “So I think the issue here is that the United States would be fundamentally fighting a different war than what China would be fighting. So even though the U.S. military is more capable, it's somewhat irrelevant. So I'll give you sort of a comparison, with the war in Ukraine right now. We're looking at Ukraine using javelins against Russian tanks. And it's interesting to me that we think China should learn lessons from Russia.

"But the better comparison is that the United States is Russia. We're the ones with this big equipment. China is the ones with the javelins, in that sort of comparison. That's why they have what we call anti-access area denial capabilities. They need one missile that costs, you know, a few million dollars to take out billions of dollars of aircraft carriers. So they're just planning for a different type of conflict. And most of U.S. systems are actually not in Asia.

"Even the ones assigned to Indo-Pacific Command, many of those are homeported, back in California and San Diego or other places where I am right now. And so the way the United States fights wars, as we have in the past, is we have the time to amass all of our forces in theater. So we move all of our forces. We move all of our stuff, right?

"The munitions, the fuel, we get it all in place. We send our aircraft to take out the air defense systems of our adversary, so that we can fly freely and safely. In Afghanistan and Iraq. You know, there was no dog fighting. No one was up there with us. We were by ourselves, you know, safe. Even if you saw Top Gun Maverick, you know, I was the annoying person turning to my husband, being like, we would never bring an aircraft carrier that close to China. This is not the way we should be fighting wars.

"So the problem is that China knows how we fight wars. And so their view is just don't let the United States bring all that stuff in. Don't give them time to do it. And, for example, there was a recent study that said if you did have dog fighting, if you had fighters, China versus the United States, the United States shoots down 13 Chinese aircraft for every one they shoot down of ours. So what China learned from that is just put holes in their runways so they can't take off.

"Then we don't have to deal with the fact that they are more capable. Just blind them in space so they can't talk to each other. ... So that's why we refer to China's strategy as asymmetric, because they've basically identified the key nodes of the U.S. military and they can take those out, so they don't have to deal with the ways that we are so capable."

On the future of the State Department and White House's involvement in China-Taiwan relations

Bonny Lin: "We are definitely in an extraordinarily sensitive moment, and potentially a moment, like Oriana pointed out, in which China is trying to set a new normal. Or China can operate with, so far, limited impunity closer to Taiwan. So as we move forward, I think a couple of things we need to focus on and pay attention to.

"One is how do we balance supporting Taiwan with activities that might be perceived by the Chinese side as additional provocations, or increasing the escalation risks? So what we saw in terms of the U.S. response, to date, to the Chinese military exercise, is right now an erring on the side of not allowing China to act out, but not necessarily encouraging China to escalate."

This program aired on August 10, 2022.


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Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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