China's People's Liberation Army Gen. He Lei, one of the more hawkish voices asserting Beijing's absolute rights to the South China Sea, made a telling observation at a defense conference in Singapore that reveals his military's biggest weakness.
China has undertaken massive strides to build a world-class navy. After what the nationalists in China call a century of humiliation, going back to Japan's occupation of China, Beijing has emerged as a military power that could soon surpass the US.
But even with the world's largest military, cheap labor, massive spy services, and suspected cyber theft of US military secrets, the Chinese can't match the US where it counts.
"I am retiring soon. My one big regret is that I never had a chance to fight in a war," Gen. He said, according to Aaron Connelly, director of the Southeast Asia Project at the Lowy Institute.
Though it's strange to regret peace, He correctly identified what the Academy of Military Science of the Chinese People's Liberation Army previously told Business Insider was the Chinese military's biggest weakness: inexperience.
The People's Liberation Army, the military owned by China's Communist Party, has never fought a real war. Its missions center around humanitarian relief and policing its own borders. Besides a brief fights with Vietnam, India, and Russia on its borders, as well as involvement in the Korean War, the entire post-World War II period for China has been peaceful.
Meanwhile, the US and Russia, other top-tier militaries, have engaged in regular battles.
While much of China's emerging new military doctrine seems sound in theory, it's yet to be tested.
China can build ships and planes, but can't shake the doubt ::
China has impressed with quick progress on military projects like fighter jets and building new navy ships, but US Navy Vice Admiral Tom Rowden, the commander of the US Navy's Surface forces, told Defense News in 2017 that it might just be hype.
Rowden explained that while a US and a Chinese ship may both appear combat-ready,"[o]ne of them couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper bag and the other one will rock anything that it comes up against."
But that's just at sea, and ground combat with its toll on individual soldiers is a whole different beast. When Chinese soldiers, many of them conscripts, are tested in battle, it's unclear if they'll soldier on with the same grit as the US's all-volunteer force.
While the world can appreciate peace and a lack of fighting, as China looks to displace the US as the dominant military power, it will remain untested and doubt-ridden until it faces real combat.