Is China's army too corrupt to win wars?

Officers worry senior posts are not going to talented people because of graft

BEIJING - As tensions spike between China and other countries in Asia's disputed waters, serving and retired Chinese military officers as well as state media are questioning whether China's armed forces are too corrupt to fight and win a war.

A slew of articles in official media in recent months have drawn parallels between the rampant graft in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and how a corrupt military contributed to China's defeat in the first Sino-Japan War 120 years ago.

The concerns are striking given the rapid modernisation of the PLA, including the development of stealth fighter jets and the 2012 launch of China's sole aircraft carrier. With a budget that is second only to the United States', China's military is projecting power deep into the South and East China seas, unsettling the region as well as Washington.

But two scandals have shone the spotlight on deeply rooted graft in the PLA - a key target of President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive.

China said in June it would court-martial former general Xu Caihou, who retired last year as vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, the top military body, for taking bribes.

Earlier this year, the authorities charged one of his proteges, former lieutenant-general Gu Junshan, with corruption. Gu was the deputy head of the PLA Logistics Department until he was sacked in 2012. Sources told Reuters that Gu stands accused of selling hundreds of military positions, raking in millions of dollars.

What worries some generals and other Chinese experts is that the buying and selling of senior jobs - long an open secret in China - has led to those with talent being cast aside.

"However much you spend on the military, it will never be enough if these corrupt officials keep appearing," retired general Luo Yuan told Shanghai-based news portal The Paper last week.

"The money sucked up by corrupt officials like Xu Caihou and Gu Junshan is hundreds of millions or billions of yuan. How many fighter jets could you build with that? If corruption is not excised, we will be defeated before we even go into battle."

Mr Xi has demanded that the 2.3 million-strong armed forces, the world's largest, become more combat-ready, although the government stresses it wants peaceful ties with its neighbours.

Chinese forces were last seriously tested in 1979, when the army invaded Vietnam as punishment for Hanoi's ousting of Cambodia's China-backed leader, Pol Pot. The PLA, however, was beaten back by Vietnam's battle-hardened troops.