China’s PLA Plagued By 6 ‘New’ Incapabilities That Could Cause Its Eventual Downfall: Ex-Indian General

OPED by Lt Gen. PR Shankar (Retired)

Xi Jinping is betting on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to deliver the goods to China. He believes that a strong military is required if China is to be a superpower. PLA is his global enforcer to establish a Sino-centric world order and wreak revenge on the century of humiliation.

He attempts to build the PLA into a modern, world-class military on tight timelines.  As per his guidance, the PLA is to be mechanized (with weapons and equipment), informatized (information warfare capable), and “intelligentized” (AI in military planning) by 2027. PLA must be comprehensively modernized by 2035; by 2049, it must become a world-class force.

To achieve these goals, massive defense outlays are the norm in China,  backed by an ambitious military-civil fusion strategy. Costly high-tech defense equipment is being inducted into the PLA at breakneck speed.

Prima facie, vast quantities of new rockets, missiles, aircraft, and ships in China’s armed forces are certainly impressive. This shiny new hardware with well-publicized and supposedly frightening capabilities captures global and domestic eyeballs. It enables the communist apparatchiks to quantify and conveniently project an image of the PLA’s invincibility. However, one has to look beyond this facade.

Xi’s Worry

Recent reports indicate that Xi Jinping is worried about the PLA. He is concerned about its political reliability, mobilization capabilities, and ability to fight and win wars. Most importantly, there are questions on its leadership and command ability.

There have always been lingering doubts about the PLA on these issues ever since the days of Mao. The loyalty issue surfaced way back in the Mao-Lin Biao era. It ended with the plane crash of a fleeing Lin Biao al la Prigozhin.

In his days, even Deng Xiaoping expressed doubts about the PLA with his slogan of “Two Inabilities” (liǎnggè nénglì bùgòu, 两个能力不够). These pertained to the PLA’s inability to fight a modern war and the insufficiency of its cadres (mainly officers) at all levels to command in contemporary warfare. 

In 2006, Hu Jintao expressed his view of the  “Two Incompatibles” (liǎnggè bùxiāng shìyìng, 两个不相适应) of the PLA. As per this, the PLA’s level of modernization did not meet the requirements for winning local wars under “informatized” conditions, and its military capability did not meet the requirements for carrying out its historic missions.

In 2013, Xi Jinping revived Deng’s  Two Inabilities and added “Two Big Gaps” to it. The first gap was between the PLA’s military modernization level and the requirements for national security compared to the world’s advanced militaries. The second gap was the concern over PLA fighting abilities in general as compared to other advanced militaries in a relative sense.

In 2014, Xi spoke of  “Three Whethers” (sāngè néngbùnéng, 三个能不能)  — whether the PLA can maintain the party’s absolute leadership, whether it can fight victoriously when needed, and whether commanders at all levels are competent to lead troops and command in war.

In 2015, he targeted the PLA leadership with his thoughts on  “Five Incapables [Cannots]” (wǔgè bùhuì, 五个不会). The ‘Five Incapables’ is directed towards officers who cannot judge situations, understand higher authorities’ intentions, make operational decisions, deploy troops, or deal with unexpected situations. Denis Blasko has highlighted all this in his outstanding War On The Rocks article.

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping/Twitter

Six New Incapabilities

The ‘Two Inabilities,’ ‘Two Incompatibles,’ ‘Two Big Gaps,’ ‘Three Whethers,’ and ‘Five Incapables’ expressed by the Chinese leaders pose a problem. For leaders who have always placed their faith and relied on the PLA to deliver political goods to express such thoughts is perplexing for outsiders.

This is especially so when the PLA is the centerpiece of China’s global initiatives — Security, Development, and Civilisation. However, a deeper analysis of the PLA indicates that it is a considerable force with significant drawbacks.

As the force attempts to transform into a modern army per Xi Jinping’s wishes, It has to shed many ghosts and has taken on a few headaches. A study beyond the façade of invincibility built by Chinese propaganda indicates that the PLA has entered a state of constant flux where most of the fundamentals on which it functions are always “New.”

The PLA is a force that constantly has new soldiers, new leaders, new equipment, new roles, and new organizations and is expected to perform in new battlefields. All these ‘New’ factors make  PLA a force with ‘Six New Incapabilities.’ Let me elucidate these.

New Soldiers

The  ‘single child’ population of China is opposed to voluntary enlistment. The PLA relies on conscription. Conscripts serve for two years. At any given time, 1/3rd of the force comprises conscripts with less than two years’ service.

Like in any armed force, all these inexperienced freshers must be sent to front-line units. They cannot be sent to specialized units or deployed for complex tasks. At the same time, these freshers are also expected to handle high-tech weaponry and the latest equipment in difficult terrain and bear the brunt of enemy action in case of war.

In any case, the motivation of these ‘single children’ to ‘sacrifice for the nation’ is questionable. Overall, things do not fall into place. Hence, frontline units cannot be professionally rugged or fighting fit.

Very importantly, the immediate seniors of these shaky youngsters are also single children with no battle experience. Hence, the PLA is in a situation wherein it constantly has new soldiers due to high turnovers without adequate expertise, motivation, or leadership in cutting-edge units.

There are credible reports that Chinese soldiers have abandoned posts and run away in challenging situations in United Nations missions. Recent wars have also proven that the man on the ground is essential and that technology alone will not win battles.

The performance of young and inexperienced conscripts in the Ukraine war and the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict must be giving Chinese military planners sleepless nights. This condition of always having New Soldiers is a constant incapability of the PLA.

New Leaders

Xi Jinping has read the riot act to the PLA leadership. He does not seem to trust the loyalty of his armed forces leadership. As a result, the PLA is poorly led and managed. This is manifested by the fact that two successive defense ministers have been purged recently.

As of now, China does not even have a defense minister. The top leadership of China’s shiny new PLARF has been purged wholesale. Severe restrictions have been placed on the PLA leadership (past and present). My educated guess is that leadership in the PLA must be a constant merry-go-round.

For example, a person could get promoted due to the constant purges the PLA has been put through. He could also get promoted due to PLA’s rapid expansion and the induction of new equipment. This is especially true of their rapidly expanding Navy.

As a result, there would always be new leaders without requisite leadership experience at the helm whose only qualification to be there is either loyalty or by default. This is confirmed by reports which indicate that the PLA does not have enough pilots or ship captains.

Hence, the overall situation is that New Leaders are constantly leading New Soldiers. It’s not a good situation for any force. This is not likely to change.


New Equipment

The time cycles for new equipment induction are almost standard for all professional militaries. If these cycles are shortened, then there will be problems. The rate of new equipment induction into the PLA must be very high due to expansion and modernization.

Modern equipment hastened into service will not be effective due to its teething problems and lack of maintenance experience. If this equipment is of poor quality, the trouble is further compounded.

The fact that the quality of weaponry being inducted into the PLA is sub-par has surfaced too often. As per Chinese media reports, this is primarily due to corruption, lack of transparency, and improper procedures.

This is further substantiated by the poor quality of the PLA equipment sold internationally to China’s partners, including Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Unreliable high-tech military equipment manned by inexperienced soldiers and poor leadership invariably results in low operability, high maintenance costs, reduced operational life cycles, and high replacement costs.

When compounded by systemic corruption, the effect is lethal. Overall, new soldiers with new leaders handling new equipment of substandard quality untested in battle is not the best recipe for success in operations.

New Roles

Traditionally, the PLA is meant to support the communist regime first. It was much later that it transitioned to defending China. PLA has recently been entrusted with protecting its overseas assets and securing its energy corridors.

It has also been tasked to transform into an expeditionary force consistent with China’s global ambitions. These new outbound roles need a change in military mindset and political thinking. These are complex for an inexperienced PLA.

Further, the Chinese leadership hesitates to commit the PLA into active conflict. The PLA cannot even guard its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) overseas assets. It also does not appear that China plans to be anything but defensive in its military approach.

In the 20th Party Congress in October 2022, Xi Jinping stressed the need for military capabilities “to shape our security posture, deter and manage crises and conflicts, and win local wars.”

However, five years earlier, in the 19th Party Congress, “local wars” had disappeared from his speech, indicating an outward military orientation. The reversal to “local wars” means the reality China faces.

Hence, the role definition of PLA also seems to be changing. An inexperienced PLA has been tasked to take on ambiguous roles at best. Such a force cannot be a world-beater.

New Organizations

Due to the PLA’s expansion and new roles, the PLA has spawned new organizations. The new organizations sound menacing on paper. However, new organizations take time to mature. The central question is: Are the new organizations compatible with the new roles envisaged for the PLA?

In a situation where the role definition is hazy, the organizations must also constantly change and evolve. This ambiguity is best seen in the theatre command system of the PLA.

China’s theatre commands are primarily meant for continental defense or, at best, for protecting offshore assets within continental reach. China lacks organizations that are meant for the security of their overseas assets or expeditionary tasks.

As and when these new organizations come up, they will go through their teething cycles. Most importantly, all their existing organizations are yet to be stress tested. New Organizations will also increase to suit these roles as New Roles are defined. This state of flux seems inevitable.

New Battlefields

Gray zone tactics and salami slicing might work in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea. Beyond that, the PLA must encounter new operational situations in new battlefields, which are yet to be defined.

To be a superpower, it must be prepared to fight conventional and hybrid adversaries on such battlefields. The PLA last fought a proper battle in 1979 against Vietnam. China’s current obsession is Taiwan. The fight for Taiwan is completely amphibious, in which the PLA has no experience or tradition whatsoever. Further, as and when the PLA decides to be expeditionary, it will have to fight its future battles in faraway unknown areas.


Hithertofore, the actual capabilities of the PLA could not be assessed due to the limited exposure of the Chinese military to the outside world.

Moreover, the PLA had spun a charade through its information operations and propaganda that technology-dominated multi-domain operations were the order of the day where China’s superior comprehensive national power would prevail.

The days of gory kinetic wars were painted as long past sell-by dates. Everyone, especially in India, was under a spell that China would win its wars without fighting, as per Sun Tzu’s dictum.

However, the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts have proven that war will be bloody and protracted and that technology has severe limitations. Moreover, with increasing exposure as part of UN forces, international conferences/meets, and action on the ground/sea, there is a lot of clarity emerging on the capabilities and culpabilities of the PLA.

Undoubtedly, the PLA remains a formidable force and is being groomed and nurtured to play a world-beating role. However, I doubt if it can fulfill its envisaged part since no power can succeed with new soldiers, leaders, and equipment based on new roles and organizations on new battlefields. The Six ‘New’ Incapabilities of PLA will prevail for a long time.

I do hope Xi Jinping reads this and ponders on it. However, I doubt he will. Leaders like Xi Jinping live in echo chambers where only words sweet to his ears will be repeated. Why would he listen to a retired general from the Indian Army?