5. Paper tiger or fire-breathing dragon?
There are many other imponderables in China's military. Chinese cyber-espionage has been effective in obtaining foreign military secrets, but it's unclear how much of this know-how has been successfully and usefully absorbed into China's own military programs and doctrines. The overhaul of the Chinese defense industry has revolutionized the country's indigenous capabilities, but how close has China really got to ironing out the kinks in its military-industrial structures and processes?
All of the unknowns feed into one larger question: Is the PLA worth the hype? China's military is untested; it hasn't fought a major campaign since a disastrous war with Vietnam in 1979. In the event of conflict, would its performance live up to the nation's expectations, or would disadvantages like corruption and inexperience critically undermine its war-fighting capability? Is the 21st-century PLA even designed to be used, or does it exist to prop up and counterbalance the Communist Party domestically in a world where Beijing calculates that large-scale warfare is increasingly unlikely? Maybe the answers to these questions are buried in some secure vault at the Pentagon, but they're not in its latest report.