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Institute for National Strategic Studies

Strategic Trends in China

Defense Policy and Posture II


JOHN CULVER, U.S. Government
MICHAEL PILLSBURY, Policy Analysis International

John Culver: As a large, underdeveloped country with a huge population, a rapidly growing economy, and access to Russian hardware, China could develop in any number of directions. In the course of examining the spectrum of development possibilities for the Chinese military in the next 10 to 20 years, two possibilities at the extreme ends of that spectrum stand out: China could continue to make halting progress, without major breakthroughs, excepting the evolution of a few pockets of modernity in the military; or, China's development pattern could break completely with the past and exhibit unprecedented abilities to integrate a new level of technology into its military. Either of these development trends is possible (as are any number of alternatives falling between these points on the development spectrum), and most prudent analysts of the Chinese military rule out very few scenarios.

This analysis will focus on the developmental status of the PLA today, followed by a brief exposition of the how the PLA achieved that status. The focus will then shift to the types of obstacles the Chinese military will have to overcome in order to become a significant threat either to the region or to the United States.

A survey of analytical documents prepared by the U.S. intelligence community over the past decade reveals a tendency toward "optimistic" assessments of developmental weapons programs or changes in the force structure of the Chinese military. That is, changes predicted in these analyses usually tend to take far longer to actually emerge. This elongated timeframe is often a reflection of factors external to the development process.

Some of these external factors include a decade-long effort to meet the Soviet threat that was coming to fruition just when the USSR collapsed.

From the collapse of the Soviet Union until approximately 1993, the Chinese focus was threat-diffuse. The Chinese military planned for regional warfare in a very general sense, which reflected an inability to predict either the nature or likely origin of the next threat to Chinese security. Instead of responding to clearly articulated threats, the PLA prepared to respond to a certain scale of warfare, a concept not unlike that driving some areas of U.S. force structure over the last decade.

PLA threat perceptions shifted when Taiwan reemerged as a salient issue in 1995. Today, Taiwan is the focus for the PLA as it defines its mission; it is the most likely challenge to Chinese security and defines the scenario in which the PLA would be most likely to be called upon to use large-scale force.

The PLA today, despite the aspirations expressed in Chinese publications, is still largely the same force it was at the time the USSR collapsed. It is still overwhelmingly a ground army with an inventory that, in most cases, has been deployed with the same units for up to 30 years. The few "pockets of modernity" in the PLA have drawn much attention in recent years. For example, Chinese acquisition of KILO-class submarines, SU-27s, SOVREMMENYBclass destroyers, and M-9 missiles.

The PLA remains a conscript army in which, for example, air force pilots whose average age is early thirties fly fewer than 100 hours each year. Even that meager flying time is consumed mostly by maintaining basic flight proficiency under ground-control-intercept conditions. Advanced tactical training and night and bad weather training are largely absent from pilot training. Thus, while training may be improving and growing in scale, there is little evidence of the kind of sophisticated training that conforms to U.S. definitions of joint training. Chinese exercises largely involve forces operating in close regional proximity, over the same training areas, but they lack combined command centers. This type of training is more than coincidental military training but still falls far short of integrated military operations.

The question arises then, why doesn't the PLA move faster? Why doesn't China dedicate more resources to addressing these shortcomings if, as revealed in PLA writings, China sees the United States as a threat?

The United States still applies Cold War concepts to China, posing questions about when China will become a peer competitor and when it will develop a power projection capability that could threaten U.S. interests.

China, on the other hand, does not frame its approach in those terms. China's opening to the outside world started as the USSR began to decay and when the shortcomings of attempting to build regional or global great power status mainly on military might were becoming apparent. At the same time, the Chinese leadership drew some important lessons from Japan's emergence as a great power. Japan's rise as a power was based not on military strength but on its economic power.

When the Chinese talk about their position in 20 to 30 years, they emphasize the importance of developing what they call "comprehensive national power"-the combined weight of economic, diplomatic, and military power necessary to guarantee China what it terms "appropriate influence on the world stage." Viewed in the context of this "comprehensive national power," the status of the PLA and its future direction become clearer. Because Chinese self-perceptions and threat perceptions are changing, history is less helpful as a guide to the PLA's future.

The Chinese military is modernizing slowly but in a deliberate manner. The PLA is aware of its shortcomings; it defines threats coherently, orients its force structure, and makes procurement decisions based on those threats. Military modernization, however, is still subordinated to the goal of economic modernization. China has not made any decisions to augment its military power at the expense of key economic goals. China's leadership seems to understand that if China is to achieve great power status, economic power with a commensurate amount of military power will be key.

If one focuses on the resources being dedicated to the Chinese military as a measure of change in intentions or difference in capability over time, spending changes in orders of magnitude are not apparent over the last decade. Instead, the force remains roughly the same size as it was 10 years ago, following the force reduction of approximately 1.5 million soldiers. PLA weaponry is essentially the same as it was 10 years ago, and even training has not increased substantially. The greatest increases in military spending have come as the PLA has tried to protect officers' salaries and troops' living standards from the corrosive effects of inflation.

Nevertheless, the Chinese military clearly does have some goals and aspirations for the future. It is important to understand these not as military objectives per se but as institutional objectives tied to China's broader goals. The military, for example, does not plan to retake Taiwan by 2010 or to challenge the United States across the spectrum of military forces by 2050.

Rather, the PLA's goals are to assert the military power necessary to defend China's interests. The Chinese policy on Taiwan is illustrative in this regard. Taiwan has been the locus of Chinese threat perceptions since at least 1993, when procurement from the former-Soviet Union began to be directed to the Nanjing Military Region (opposite Taiwan) and military training activity near the Taiwan Strait increased. While these developments might point to a more aggressive stance, in fact there is little evidence that the PLA is prepared to use military force to resolve the Taiwan issue. The PLA is not building LSTs and landing craft at a rate that would allow it to invade Taiwan, nor is the PLA modernizing its air force or making resource decisions, even taking into account the SU-27s, that will fundamentally alter the air balance over the Strait in the near term. The PLA's limited modernization will not confer the ability to conduct decisive military operations against Taiwan.

The PLA's objectives with regard to Taiwan should be characterized as comprising a deterrent strategy. Making Chinese military capabilities in the Strait credible is the PLA's goal. China wants to be able to change political behavior on Taiwan or to influence decisionmaking in the United States. This is reflected in the fact that in the last 10 years, the classic instruments of power projection-such as amphibious lift capability and even air force long-range strike capabilities- have changed little. Instead, developments have focused on weapons such as SRBMs, which, although they could inflict unacceptable levels of economic damage and perhaps precipitate a political crisis on the island, do not give China the ability to invade Taiwan. This is unlikely to change.

It is necessary to add one caution about complacency regarding the prospect for conflict in the Taiwan Strait, in spite of China's inability to achieve re-unification by direct military means. Perceptions on both sides of the Strait are as important as any subjective assessment of the military balance. China's willingness to use force in the face of challenges to its sovereignty or to "resolve" international disputes is well documented, as is its willingness to do so even when it faces the prospect of heavy casualties. Some recent Chinese publications have openly questioned the Taiwan military's will and ability to fight. Such calculations raise the possibility that China may believe that it need not invade Taiwan to advance its political objectives-and that a destructive missile strike or maritime blockade could create a political and economic crisis on Taiwan that could precipitate a change in government to a regime more to Beijing's liking.

Turning to the debate on Chinese views of future warfare encapsulated in Michael Pillsbury's work, three schools of thought are discernible:

  • The first focuses on the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). Its adherents are found at the National Defense University, the Academy of Military Science, and some of the military think-tanks. This school is not dominant, and its ideas do not drive procurement, doctrine, or force structure decisions within the PLA.

  • Lessons from the Gulf War and the Arab-Israeli wars animate the second and dominant school of thought in the PLACthe "local war" school. This is reflected in the PLA desires to acquire air-land battle and joint-doctrine type weapons and capabilities. The PLA has been focused on procuring tactical combat aircraft, advanced SAM systems as well as naval systems.

  • A third and perhaps declining school still advocates Maoist People's War concepts. They do not argue for any coherent modernization program.

How China might actualize its understanding of the RMA is a difficult question. Any PLA attempt to acquire a set of foreign technologies that will give them an asymmetrical ability to overcome U.S. battlefield advantages will still hinge on one of the weakest links in the Chinese military-industrial complex- China's defense labs and factory floors. To date, these two areas are where systems have failed, in part, at least, because of a lack of systems integration expertise or management capability.

In sum, it is unlikely that the Chinese will "leapfrog" Western technology for two primary reasons: the Chinese military industrial complex is too weak and, to this point, all the most sophisticated Chinese military technology is derivative of Western and Russian technologies.

Michael Pillsbury: John Culver correctly summed up my view of the three schools of thought in the PLA about "Future War," and I agree with his assessment of the PLA today. The "people's war" school remembers the good old days of Chairman Mao. The local war school emphasizes modernizing the navy, air force, and missile force using lessons from the Gulf War, and the RMA school is largely a theoretical enterprise looking ahead 10 to 10 years when China might possibly be able to leapfrog the United States.

These three schools of thought are not unique to China. Washington, Moscow, and Beijing all have defense debates about future warfare, and each has an RMA school of thought looking ahead to really radical changes in warfare.

Turning to views of future war in the three capitals, we find evidence of "cross-fertilization" between RMA school advocates in Beijing, Moscow, and Washington. Partisans of this set of views seem not only aware of each other's views but in some cases are personally acquainted. This phenomenon is reflected in the writings of a Captain Shun at the Naval Research Institute in Beijing. Captain Shun's views of future navy force structure stand out in their similarities to both Russian and U.S. formulations of RMA-type future navies.

This RMA school, whether in Russia, China, or the United States, also shares a disdain for the traditional modernizers who advocate a gradual, deliberate approach to military modernization. In Moscow, the RMA school supports reconnaissance strike complexes and the creation of a highly mobile set of brigades with organic logistics capabilities that can bring heavy fire power to bear quickly over long distances. These brigades would be able to resolve disputes quickly in crisis or border areas on their own, obviating the need for lengthy buildups or large logistic footprints. In Moscow, Beijing, and perhaps even Washington, this RMA school is in the ascendant but is not yet dominant. These RMA advocates, although they see themselves as outsiders, have access to budgetary and other resources and are able to further their goals in their systems in part, because of their institutional affiliations.

In the United States, RMA projects have found a home in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which has a $2 billion budget. DARPA has cooperated with the Navy to develop the arsenal ship and with the other services on such projects as Unmanned Aerial Reconnaissance.

In China, the China Aerospace Corporation (CASC) is able to dedicate its considerable financial and personnel resources to the development of advanced technologies. Cruise missiles, antisatellite weapons and antiship cruise missile program and a range of asymmetrical warfare programs fall under its purview.

Another well-funded center for RMA-focused research in China are think-tanks that make up the Commission on Science Technology and National Defense (COSTIND) complex. These think-tanks are modeled on the Soviet Defense Industry Commission (VPK) defense industrial system in Moscow.

Thus, although the RMA advocates do not control the military services in China, Russia or the us, they are able to funnel large sums of money into research that has serious implications for the U.S. military.

In Moscow, the recent privatization of industry exempted approximately 100 defense labs and factories, according to a systematic plan. These same institutes, mostly involved in fields such as military laser research and antisatellite weapons programs, also have a robust exchange program with their Chinese RMA school counterparts.

The second school, the "people's war" advocates in China, like their counterparts in Moscow and Washington, have no coherent modernization program and feel that the "old ways are best." As a concept however, "people's war" is not dead, and its advocates still have access to resources and even a certain amount of prestige. This prestige is reflected in the seemingly obligatory references to Mao Zedong thought and "people's war" in major speeches in the Politburo and elsewhere.

The third school, a moderate middle ground and currently in power in all three capitals, shows a good degree of flexibility. In the past in Washington there was a concerted anti-RMA campaign, but attitudes have begun to change. The three- and four-star generals of the "local war" school have started to create new modes of warfare. There is currently a new emphasis on experimentation and prototyping, as opposed to a pure research approach.

Chinese RMA advocates have been observing these developments closely and have made important criticisms of American experimentation. As an example, a leading Chinese RMA partisan, General Wang Pufeng, points out that the experimental American "digitized division" will not be an effective force until the Navy and the Air Force are integrated into its operational concepts. General Wang estimates that the potential of this division will not be realized until 2050, therefore Chinese modernization efforts need not proceed at a breakneck pace. Gradual, deliberate development will be sufficient in General Wang's opinion.

Chinese perceptions of the future remain strongly influenced by the concept of "comprehensive national power." Writings of both civilian and military think tanks in China emphasize that future power will be evenly distributed among five roughly equal "major powers"-China, Japan, America, Russia, and Germany. International relations among these powers will resemble those among ancient Chinese states-they will be characterized by fluid alignments and alliances, changing as warranted by perceived national interests, as in ancient China.

Other writings emphasize the utility of ancient statecraft, from the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history. Americans neglect this subject, hindering our understanding. These concepts, comprehensive national power and the use of ancient statecraft, resonate with the "local war" school in China. They argue that the "inferior defeating the superior" or asymmetric warfare is the best option for China. This is true because first, it is inexpensive. Military modernization need not, in this formulation, damage a country's comprehensive national strength. Second, the Chinese argue each of America's high-technology weapons is fatally flawed in one way or another and can be defeated. Finally, they point to American overreliance on satellites for targeting, reconnaissance, and battle-damage-assessments. They believe the United States relies on satellites for 90 percent of its combat information and communications and that asymmetric warfare targeting these assets could cripple the United States at a low cost to China.

The Chinese emphasis on RMA/asymmetric warfare shows that platform-based assessments of Chinese military capability cause American misperceptions and underestimate China. Measuring Chinese platforms and comparing them with similar U.S. assets is not only useless, it is problemmatic, because it underestimates Chinese perceptions of future warfare, and the problem of what it may take to deter China from attacking Taiwan. We must address Chinese misperceptions.

Let me offer some observations about improving policy toward China in the area of the PLA exchange program and, more generally, how the United States "comports itself" vis-a-vis the Chinese. It will illuminate some of the misperceptions that the respective leaderships in Washington and Beijing hold about each other.

The United States is, at best, being nadve and, at worst, may be making a mistake in the belief that it is worthwhile to approach China in general, and the PLA more specifically, in hopes of building trust with the Chinese. Building trust by introducing the Chinese to American society and by attempting to reassure the Chinese of good U.S. intentions has little impact on the Chinese. A reading of Chinese publications shows that this approach may actually be contributing to the most unfortunate Chinese misperceptions about the United States, particularly in the area of military power.

American policy, therefore, needs to be reoriented in such a way that exchange programs and visits of various kinds display information to the Chinese that undermines their mis-perceptions about U.S. power. It is important to demonstrate to China that the United States is not a "declining superpower." American policy should undertake programs that show the Chinese proof of the robustness of American productivity and the advancements in U.S. science and technology. The Chinese must also be made to understand that the capabilities gap between U.S. and Chinese Armed Forces is growing.

Instead of initiating explicit programs to demonstrate these facts to the Chinese, American policy makers wait for American strength to speak for itself. In the meantime, however, Chinese thinkers are writing about how the PLA defeated the United States in Korea and Vietnam and how Chinese Armed Forces could do it again if necessary. These are the types of misperceptions that U.S. policy makers must work to overcome. American China policy must make explicit the power at the disposal of the United States. Furthermore, American exchange programs with China are with the "wrong" people. That is, American exchanges are redundant in the sense that they focus on the government organs, think tanks, and institutions that already understand the United States.

To dispel Chinese misperceptions about the United States, U.S. policy should pursue more frequent, more robust, and denser exchanges with as wide a spectrum of Chinese thinkers as possible. Exchange programs should not be limited to the "friends of the United States" but should focus on those who harbor risky misperceptions about U.S. power. It should be noted that these people and institutions are often the most inaccessible to U.S. visitors.


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