TODAY -

Military Strategy of China

Abo Mangang *



It is widely acknowledged that the 21st century is an Asian century. All the major powers today are Asian players, either because they geographically exist on the same continent, or because, like the US, they make their powerful presence felt through their vital interests in, and direct impact on, the politics of this continent. Whether they will cooperate with each other or choose to compete with each other can partly be determined by the kind of military postures and strategies that they adopt.

China clearly is critical in this regard. Few will doubt the important role of Chinese military- its impact on the Asian stability as well as on India's security. China's military modernization has also generated considerable debate. Its rapid rise as a major economic power coupled with its military expansion, has serious implications for Asia and the world.

The pace of its military modernisation and the secrecy that shrouds it is also worrisome. The development appear to be part of a larger pattern of rising military expenditure but there is a general opaqueness about its military programmes and ambitions. For e.g. SIPRI, an independent Swedish think-tank, reported that the Chinese military expenditure , if calculated in purchasing power parity(PPP) terms, comes to almost $200 billion every year. It is also one of the world's top arms importers. Its anti-satellite (ASAT) test in January 2007 was another indicator that its ambitions go well beyond its borders. Concerns also stems from the fact that the military leadership in China sometimes appears to have an independent agenda.

However, before one gets down to Chinese military strategy, it is essential to define what strategy is and, more specifically, what constitutes military strategy. Strategy is usually defined as a long term plan of action designed to acheived a particular goal.

Originally, the term was used only in military sense, evident from the origins of the term. Strategy is derived from the greek word strategos which is derived from two words: stratos(army) and ago(leading). Hence, the term took a military connotation. Today, the word is used in economic or commercial sense, besides political, geopolitical, and even grand strategy to cover the entire gamut of fields employed to achieve a goal.

Strategy is often confused with tactics, although the two words have distinctly different meanings. 'Tactics' are the actual means- practical set of steps-used to gain a particular goal, whereas 'strategy' is the overall plan, which may involve complex patterns or series of individual tactics. Military strategy is essentially a collective name for planning the conduct of warfare. It comprises the planning and conduct of campaigns, movement and disposition of forces, logistics, maintenance of the army, and deception of the enemy- the last one being a particularly crucial element in the Chinese military strategy.

Carl von Clausewitz, father of modern strategy, defined military strategy as 'the employment of battles to gain the end of war.' It is also to be noted that a nation's strategic culture influence the strategies and the kind of policy options that it takes. Alastair Johnson, who studied China's Seven Military Classics, has argued that the Chinese strategic culture is 'expansionist'. He further stated that the former Soviet Union tended to employ pre-emptive and offensive use of force, which was an offshoot of its history of external expansion and internal autocracy. These historical offshoots might be more true in the case of China, as is clearly evident in its quest for power and territory. Most among the Chinese elite would argue that its strategic culture is Confucian as clear strands of realpolitik runs through it.

In fact, the concept of realpolitik is significantly influenced by the writtings of the great military theorist Sun Tzu. His work, Art of War, one of the oldest military classics, remains a constant guide not only for the Chinese military strategists, but military thinkers all over the world. One of the key aspects in the Art of War is the concept of strategic advantage(shi), which has become a defining theme in Chinese strategic thinking.

One might argue about the relevance of a book written in 490 BC, but some of its strategic concepts such as deception, rapidity in military operations, and decapitation, still continue to be relevant in contemporary Chinese military strategy, though in a suitably modified form. China scholar Andrew Scobell describes its strategic culture as the result of 'interplay between Confucian and realpolik strands.' He in fact has coined the term 'Cult of Defense' whereby the Chinese elite believe that their country is pacifist, non-expansionist, and purely defensive. They justify any use of force, including offensive and pre-emptive strikes, by arguing that they are defensive in nature.

The aspect of offensive operations is another evidence of the continued relevance of Sun Tzu's Art of war in Chinese military strategy. A counterpoint that needs to be emphasized is that China has moved away from its stated defensive strategy, which is to fight a war only to protect its own sovereignty. The Chinese stand on sovereignty is unclear and sometimes used instrumentally.

For instance, the origin of the Taiwan Straits crisis in 1995 was the acceptence of an invitation by Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui to his alma mater, Cornell University, to deliver a lecture on Taiwan's democratisation experience. Beijing construed it as US interference in Beijing's domestic affairs, and also felt the Taiwanese president was a threat to regional stability. Such analysis, which China could be using deliberately to warn external powers against any intervention in matters of interest to China, would fuel tensions in the region.

Many Asian powers may face a problem of taking these Chinese claims at face value. The expansionist tendencies in Chinese strategic culture could get more pronounced as it gets more powerful and dominant in Asia. China remains a 'revisionist' power. In a recent essay, Twomey looks at strategic culture in a much narrower sense, which is closure to the definition offered by Lieutenant Colonel B. Breslin in his work, Organizational Culture and Military, the driving imperative of military strategy being 'to fight and win wars'.

The military culture and or the theory of victory will drive a country's force adjustments or the kind of army that one should have, arms procurement, and the strategies to be adopted in various crisis situation, depending on the enemy. Another important element would be the effect of one's own military culture in understanding the other side's intentions, particularly in times of crisis. A nation would interpret an adversary's signal by analyzing it through its own military doctrine

There have been as many debates as have been perspectives about the rise of China. The growth of China as a major military and economic power, along with its global aspirations for a superpower status, remains a serious concern not only to the US but also to Russia, Japan, and certainly, India.

The China threat theory, which was a by-product of the tremendous economic growth that China witnessed in the 1980s and 1990s, took its origin in the US in 1993. What fortifies the China threat theory is the largest surviving communist power in the world today, with an authoritarian political system. While the opening up of economy started towards the end of 1970s, there have been no political reforms in the country. Beijing leaders have time and again reiterated that no amount of economic openness and globalisation would have an effect on the political system of the country.

The US and other Western powers have continually asked the political leadership of China to undertake political reforms, and improve their track record on issues like democracy and human rights. Further Beijing's image were badly damaged following the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, where pro-democracy protester were crushed brutally by the People's Armed Police. There was also worry in the late 1970s that there could be a complete takeover by the military after the death of Deng Xiaoping.

One of the crucial interests of China is to keep the nation 'unified under a central, authoritarian government.' It is relevant, in this regard, to understand the powerful role of PLA in the Chinese political, economic, and strategic landscape. It is the manifestation of the trauma rooted in the pre-independence Chinese history, when the nation faced attacks from within and outside, be it from the Nationalists, the Kuomintang forces, the warlords of the north or the invasion by Japan.

Another contributing factor to the China treat theory is the aggressive military modernisation programme that it has undertaken and its impact at the regional ! and glob al level, as also on the Asian balance of power. As stated earlier, the issue is further complicated due to the general opaqueness and lack of transparency that shrouds these modernisation programmes. Other factors aggravating the issue include the Chinese attitude in settling the border and territorial problems with its neighbours, as also its re-unification plans vis-a-vis Taiwan, especially after the takeover of Hong Kong in 1997 and Macau in 1999.

The rising Chinese nationalism and the anti-US and anti-Japanese sentiments add to the threat theory. These sentiments became well pronounced especially after the US imposed economic sanctions in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. Similar was the case with the anti-Japanese protests in April 2005. While the Chinese government has taken advantage of incidents like the bombing of its embassy in Belgrade or the Spy plane incident of 2001 to arouse Chinese national sentiments within and outside China, more serious are the consequences of the rising Chinese nationalism and the rise of the Chinese power in Asia and at the global level.

Surveys conducted in several Chinese cities, particularly among the intellectual community, show that the rise of Chinese nationalism was a direct consequence of: first, anger at the West for propounding the China threat theory and at the Japanese for publishing a distorted version of history; and second, its feeling of pride among the people arising from the nation's rise economically, militarily, and in political terms. China has been pragmatic and realistic in undertaking such a mission to influence Asia and the rest of the world through economic, scientific, technical, and military modernisation. As the realist thinking goes, when national interests can only be pursued by power, the pursuit of power itself becomes a national interest.

Another important factor arises from the perception among some China watchers that China might disintegrate as a result of internal political disillusionment and economic failings or even civil war. The social and economic problems along with extreme poverty in the rural areas make it a fragile state, despite the above mentioned scenario of growth and modernisation. The rising disparity in wealth urban and rural areas is alarming and froths with the threat of unrest. How the CPC will deal with this crisis and how long the leadership will manage to keep the genie in the bottle are matters of concern.

Such disparities have resulted in large-scale migrations from China's western and central provinces to the booming economies of Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. The statistics are revealing: where once only a mere 18% lived in cities or towns (1978), today more than 40% live in cities and towns. Another internal threat is the civic protests that have become common in today's China.

The Communist Party of China(CPC) may have itself provided the original inspiration during the various protests against the US and Japan, but these may rebound on the CPC itself, as the Chinese people use such methods to protest on issues of corruption, unemployment, and so on. Today, China is witnessing a rash of protests against local officials and government branches. There were about 60000 protests in 2003, an annual increase of 17% over the last decade, and it is believed that in some of the inland regions, protests are a daily feature.

Whether the CPC can mobilise such movements against outside forces and prevent it from spilling over as domestic anti-government protests, remain to be seen. Nevertheless, the possibility of domestic fragmentation, as forecasted by a few, appears to be a little too far-fetched. It should be kept in mind that whether the fear of China threat is valid or not or whether the Chinese have those expansionist tendencies or not, it is the perception that matters. Perception of a potential China threat would produce a series of actions that may be visible in the form of alliances or force posturing against such threats. The lack of transparency in Chinese policy and its military modernisation has created worries among almost all its neighbours.

In addition, China also follows an 'exclusive' approach as it tries to establish the Asian security order, in contrast to the Indian or Japanese notion of an 'inclusive' approach in laying a foundation for the Asian security architecture. The Chinese government and the PLA, through its newspaper, PLA Daily, have repeatedly refused any theories about any danger from China, and have blamed the US of starting and playing up this Sino-phobia. On the other hand, the responses from the general public and the academic community have been rather emotional.

The reaction to the publication of a book , China can Say No, in 1996, was overwhelming in China, strengthening the waves of Chinese nationalism. The academic community tried to rationalise the rise of China, stating that the nature of China's socialist system determines that China will never seek hegemony, that China needs a peaceful international environment, and that its defence expenditure is low- just enough to meet its national security needs- and that China is a peace loving country with no intention to invade other countries.

Among the student community, was a bit more nuanced, they being of the view that it was important to cooperate with the US. Several surveys conducted in the mid-1990s brought similar results. However, there appears to be overwhelming support for the anti-US and anti-Japanese stances, which have enhanced internal unity as well as China's own strengths in negotiating with foreign powers. Another point regards Chinese military expenditure. China's military expenditure figures illustrate the direction in which the PLA is going.

Even though there have disagreements about the size of the Chinese defence budget, it still remains an important indicator of its national defence priorities, strategies and capabilities. The discrepancies have varied from the current Chinese official estimates of USD 45 billion to the Defence Intelligence Agency estimate of USD 115 billion. Chinese military expenditure grew at a fast rate of 12% in2006. China is the 4th largest military spender after the US, UK and France, but in PPP terms, China stands 2nd at USD 188.2 billion after the US at USD 528.7 billion.

According to official Chinese sources, its military budget for 2007 is roughly $ 44.94 billion, which is a 17.8% increase over the previous year. The Chinese argue that the growth is primarily caused by the sharp increases in the wages, living expenses and pensions of 2.3 million PLA officers, civilian personnel, soldiers and army retirees. It should be noted that there was a rise in pay in the latter half of 2006.

Chinese defence budget comes under sharper criticism owing to the fact that several critical heads are not covered under the budget. These include military related research and development costs, arms imports, expenses for the People's Armed Police and reserve forces, as well as the financial support for China's military-industrial complex. Several of the PLA-run businesses also provide revenue to the government, which is being diverted for the modernisation purposes. It was also revealed that the defence budget covers only 70% of the PLA expenditure and the remaining 30% has to be generated elsewhere.

Other critical heads not covered include: military R&D, including space and nuclear issues that have a military content, paramilitary forces, militia, People's Armed Police and military- industrial construction and maintenance. However, as the country reaches higher stages of economic growth, the military spending power is only bound to increase; hence one can visualize higher per capita military spending as well.

Echoing such a view, President Hu Jintao has said: 'Economic growth is the basis for enhancing defence capability, which is, in turn, an important indicator of overall national strength.' China is a competitor in every sense of the word and in every sphere.




* Abo Mangang contributes regularly to e-pao.net . The writer can be contacted at abo(dot)mangang(at)gmail(dot)com
This article was webcasted on July 22, 2010.


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