Compared to Western nations of similar size and influence, the People’s Republic of China has not been involved in nearly as many post-WWII/Chinese Civil War military engagements as, for example, the United States and Russia. That said, conflicts that the People’s Liberation Army have chosen to get involved in have been fairly destructive, each seeing military casualties upwards of 10,000. The most recent of these being the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, over 35 years ago. This raises a question, for a nation for a nation erupting onto the world stage as fast as China is, what problems does having a military with no modern combat experience present?
The Sino-Indian War of 1962 occured as tensions boiled over regarding border disputes along the Himalayan border. As negotiations deteriorated and the Chinese government grew impatient, the PLA launched a two-pronged invasion of Northern India along the Himalayan frontier. As a result of the fighting 1383 Indian soldiers were killed along with 722 Chinese soldiers despite the fighting only lasting a month. Similar to the United State’s recent war in Afghanistan, the entirety of the Sino-Indian war was fought in mountain terrain at elevations of over 14,000 feet however, neither side made use of any type of air forces. Following a ceasefire declared on November 21st, 1962, the Indian government conceded the Aksai Chin area of Northern India, allowing it to be fully under Chinese control.
Similar to the Sino-Indian War, the Sino-Vietnamese War was another short yet immensely destructive war that arose in the wake of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, an important Chinese ally. While only lasting about 4 weeks, contradictory figures from both nations put military deaths on both sides at around 20,000. Despite the Chinese taking a small chunk of northern Vietnamese territory, the Sino-Vietnamese War had no clear victor, and skirmishes along the border and in the neighboring oceans occurred throughout the 1980s. Also similar to the Sino-Indian War, air support was not utilized by either side, despite both having fully capable air forces within relatively close distances.
Even though it has been 30 years since the Sino-Vietnam War, strategies and tactics utilized by the Chinese in both wars continue to resonate. One of the most important assets to any major military in the modern era is a well maintained and effective air force. Air support operations in support of troops on the ground minimize friendly casualties as well as allowing ground troops to advance quickly and efficiently. The fact that China chose not to make use of the PLAAF in either of these engagements means that the last Chinese pilot with official combat experiences would have flown in the Korean War, their insights being less valuable as time goes on and air combat evolves. Essentially, at the moment the Chinese air force has no relevant combat experience, and should the Chinese choose to go to war any time soon, this would put them at a severe disadvantage.
In addition to this, much of the strategy employed by the PLA in both of these wars involved throwing wave after wave of infantry at the enemy in the hopes of overwhelming them. While this may have worked at the time, combat has evolved from the open-plains type battle seen here into a much more precise form of warfare carried out by highly trained and highly skilled operators. While the PLA acknowledges this and has special forces of their own, they are at a disadvantage when compared to special forces of other nations. The Navy SEALs, Russian Spetsnaz, and British SAS units have been extremely active in the past few decades
carrying out operations all over the world. Experience in this line of work is key, and this again puts the Chinese at a disadvantage.