The opac­ity of China’s mil­i­tary

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

For 10 years, the Clin­ton, Bush, and now Obama ad­min­is­tra­tions have lamented what their po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary leaders pro­fessed to con­sider the lack of trans­parency in China‘s mil­i­tary strat­egy. Most re­cently, it was an un­der­ly­ing theme in Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton’s visit to Bei­jing last month.

Now comes a thought­ful U.S. mil­i­tary as­sess­ment of the fu­ture with a some­what dif­fer­ent — and re­fresh­ing — view of Chi­nese think­ing. It says, in ef­fect, a look at Chi­nese his­tory and cur­rent ef­forts to mod­ern­ize China’s forces make their ob­jec­tives more ap­par­ent.

The Joint Forces Com­mand, with head­quar­ters in Nor­folk, Va., has pub­lished an ap­praisal of what it terms the “Joint Op­er­at­ing En­vi­ron­ment” that is in­tended to pro­vide “a per­spec­tive on fu­ture trends, shocks, con­texts, and im­pli­ca­tions for fu­ture joint force com­man­ders and other leaders and pro­fes­sion­als in the na­tional se­cu­rity field.” True to the U.S. mil­i­tary ad­dic­tion to acronyms, it is per­haps bet­ter known as JOE.

On China, JOE says the ad­vice of Bei­jing’s late leader Deng Xiao-ping for China to “dis­guise its am­bi­tion and hide its claws” may rep­re­sent a forth­right state­ment. The Chi­nese think long-term, JOE says, “to see how their eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal re­la­tions with the United States de­velop.” The Chi­nese cal­cu­late that “even­tu­ally their grow­ing strength will al­low them to dom­i­nate Asia and the West­ern Pa­cific.”

While cau­tion­ing that JOE is spec­u­la­tive and does not pre­dict that reaches back to the Han Dy­nasty 2,200 years ago. From then on, the Chi­nese saw them­selves as the suzerain to which leaders of neigh­bor­ing na­tions paid trib­ute in ex­change for Chi­nese pro­tec­tion and suf­fer­ance. In some cases, such as Viet­nam, Chi­nese forces oc­cu­pied part of the neigh­bor’s ter­ri­tory for long pe­ri­ods.

The Joint Forces Com­mand, whose task is to help sol­diers, sailors, marines and air­men to ing Mao’s rule,” re­fer­ring to the late rev­o­lu­tion­ary and dic­ta­to­rial leader Mao Tse-tung. The for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to Bei­jing, James Lil­ley, has writ­ten: “It was tricky keep­ing China en­gaged when its lead­er­ship seemed con­tent to shut it­self off.”

JOE con­tin­ues: “Yet, one of the fas­ci­nat­ing as­pects of China’s emer­gence over the past three decades has been its ef­forts to learn from the ex­ter­nal the other, cau­tioned their Chi­nese op­po­site num­bers against mis­judg­ing — and un­der­es­ti­mat­ing — Amer­i­can ca­pa­bil­i­ties and in­ten­tions.

“Above all, the Chi­nese are in­ter­ested in the strate­gic and mil­i­tary think­ing of the United States,” JOE as­serted. “In the year 2000, the PLA [Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army, which in­cludes all of China’s mil­i­tary forces] had more stu­dents in Amer­ica’s grad­u­ate schools than the U.S. mil­i­tary, giv­ing the Chi­nese a grow­ing un­der­stand­ing of Amer­ica and its mil­i­tary.”

“As a po­ten­tial fu­ture mil­i­tary com­peti­tor,” JOE con­cluded, “China would rep­re­sent a most se­ri­ous threat to the United States, be­cause the Chi­nese could un­der­stand Amer­ica and its strengths and weak­nesses far bet­ter than Amer­i­cans un­der­stand the Chi­nese.” Maybe that’s the rea­son Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal leaders have re­peat­edly urged the Chi­nese to be more trans­par­ent, while the Chi­nese have said they have gone as far as they will go.

Richard Halloran is a free­lance writer and for­mer New York Times cor­re­spon­dent based in Honolulu.

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