In 1990 China’s military was inferior to Iraq and Iraq was vastly inferior to the USA
By 1990, the technical sophistication of the PLA had deteriorated to the degree that Iraqi forces enjoyed a considerable advantage over their Chinese counterparts.
The Iraqi Air Force included MiG-23s, MiG-25s and MiG-29s, while the PLAAF relied on Chinese-produced copycats of the MiG-21, as well as older aircraft such as the MiG-19. Similarly, the Iraqi air defense system, which had failed to incur major damage on waves of attacking American aircraft, was at least as sophisticated as the systems China was capable of employing.
The Chinese had also discovered, through access to Iraqi tanks captured by the Iranians in the Persian Gulf War, that the Iraqi T-72s that presented no challenge whatsoever to the U.S. Army — and were considerably superior to extant Chinese tanks.
Quality and Technology and Air Power were more important than large quantities
The balance between quality and quantity has shifted back and forth historically. In the Chinese Civil War and in Korea, the PLA took advantage of numbers and tactical effectiveness to defeat (or at least level the ground with) more technologically sophisticated opponents.
In 1990, the US-led coalition cut through quantitatively superior Iraqi forces like a hot knife through butter.
The PLA hadn’t quite been on autopilot in the 1980s, but the pace of reform in the military sector had not matched that of social and economic life in China.
China took immediate steps to update its military technology, generally through purchasing the most-advanced Soviet hardware.
Strapped for cash, Russia was eager to make deals, and didn’t worry overmuch about the long-range consequences of technology transfer.
China also attempted to acquire technology with military applications from Europe, but sanctions associated with the Tiananmen Square massacre hamstrung this effort. Finally, China accelerated efforts to increase the sophistication of research and development in its own military-industrial base.
Along with the changes in technology came changes in doctrine and in expectations for how war would play out. The PLA began to emphasize air power more than ground power, and in particular, investigated the potential for long-range precision strike.
SOURCES- National Interest