The Beiyang issue in Chinese military thinking.
Updated: Apr 30
During the late 19th century Qing China fought a war that was to shame its legacy for a century. The First Sino Japanese War occurred during 1894 to 1895, and was fought over the imperial interest of China and Japan over the Korean peninsula. During the onset of the war, many predicted China's naval forces, otherwise known as the Beiyang fleet, would triumph over that of Japan's. However, as the war progressed, Japan’s smaller, more well-trained fleet managed to win the war. The failure of the war led to further internal conflicts and unrest in China which ultimately culminated in the downfall of the Qing dynasty in the early twentieth century. The Beiyang fleet's failure to operate effectively and protect China's maritime interest was due to systematic corruption, a delinquent level leadership and lack of training of naval personnel.
Although the Qing leadership believed they could defeat Japan in a protracted war due to superior naval armaments, it was this false sense of security in the Beiyang fleet which ultimately caused the fleet's demise. In terms of ergonomics the Meiji fleets were comprised of highly competent naval officers, very much different from the Beiyang fleet. Japanese naval officers would have attended professional military academies, observed foreign tactics and learned how to operate cohesively, mimicking Western practices. Although the Beiyang fleet existed over a century ago, today the Beiyang fleet is more relevant in geo political and military discourse than ever before. China's economic rise in the late 80s and 90s is a historical comparison to the modernization of the Qing dynasty in the late 19th century.
Industrialization and military modernization by the People's Republic of China was historically parallel to the need of defending Chinese interest along China's coast from foreign adversaries. China needed an effective navy, one which was technologically capable, as well as operationally against the relatively modern navies of the United State, Japan and Taiwan in an event of a war. This was deemed especially important after three separates geo political events; The Sino Vietnam War, The First and Second Gulf War. The impetus that the armed forces of China was seriously outdated and ineffective was initially highlighted during the Sino Vietnam War in the late 1970s. The Sino Vietnam War highlighted the use of traditional human wave assaults by Chinese commanders against the Vietnam border, reminiscent of the first world war.
Learning from the mistakes and bad ergonomics of the Sino Vietnam War, Deng Xiao Ping initiated reforms to modernize the PLA. These include a three-phase reform process beginning in the late 1970s. Modernization was designed to overhaul various institutions and processes of the PLA. The first phase focused on political & organizational administration, the second on military professionalization, organization and doctrine, the third phase was on military ~ civilian investment, the defense economy and the industrialization of military technology. As mentioned earlier the Sino Vietnam War was a pivot in Chinese military thinking. The Gulf Wars would proof to be equally or even more so alarming to Chinese policy makers. The Gulf Wars introduced a major element of modern warfare often understated in military history named network centric warfare.
One simple way of explaining network centric warfare is the integration of computer communication into modern warfare. Such was the impact of network centric warfare it allowed the United States to easily decimate the Iraqi Armed Forces during the first Gulf War. In context the Gulf War led to 25 ~ 50 thousand Iraqi deaths, while coalition forces lost 292 personnel. Observing on the side line the Chinese political establishment saw Iraq, a country with somewhat comparable military capability to itself become squashed by American military power. China had to act. Techno - centric and network centric warfare thereby became an objective of Chinese national security. Between early 1990s and 2012 China's military undergone drastic technological development with the establishment of state owned enterprises to improve defence technology. By investing in defence research development, Chinese firms were able to reverse engineer defence procurement of multiple weapon systems.
Hardware and software development were major elements of Chinese defence, resulting in military systems for missiles, radars, planes, satellites, communications equipment and countless other applications. This led to a great leap in military capability especially in regards to techno - centric and network centric warfare. Due to the radical changes in the Chinese economy constituting a fiscal and technological base, the PLA's modernization was as equally impressive and drastic as a result. In the span of thirty years after the late 80s, the PLA reformed from a militia like force into a global professional military with capabilities and systems easily comparable to Western developed nations. However with all these systems in place there was still the issue of how the PLA would actually perform in war. With reference to the Beiyang fleet, China still had to win battles and wars. Although network centric warfare and technology is a point of importance, there is also the human factor.
The worst-case scenario for a future conflict regarding China's military is to have institutional failures in the military as it had seen in the First Sino Japanese War. This is especially relevant for its naval and aerial forces as there is a very low margin for error in naval and aerial warfare. For China at least before Xi's wider anti-corruption campaign, corruption was a significant problem in it's armed forces. Corruption wasn't the only problem plaguing the PLA however, there was also institutional factors such as in effective organizational structures, culture, the leadership of officers and enlisted men and political interference. One particular infamous example of poor ergonomics by the PLA is the poor training standards of Chinese fighter pilots. Chinese aviators were known to be required to undergo political training which consequently reduced their time allocated to other more job specific training regimes.
According to this article in 2019, China's military training standards are still remarkably problematic despite having superior hardware and military technology. Not only would this be detriment to any future confrontation, but this is a misguided sense of ergonomics according to the author. If China does not address these specific human resource issues of ergonomics, corruption, lack of training, it would not matter even if the Chinese defence establishment has sufficient resources to conduct warfare.