The defense ministers meeting at the recent annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore began with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticizing Beijing for resisting U.S. efforts to improve the military-to-military relationship—an issue which dominated headlines over the weekend. Speaking immediately after Secretary Gates, General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, accused Washington of “creating obstacles” by continuing to support Taiwan and interfering in China’s sovereign affairs.
In truth, the Chinese reluctance to commit to meaningful high-level military-to-military talks is about much more than Taiwan. Fostering ambiguity is a well-established approach in both ancient and contemporary Chinese competitive thinking. Ensuring poor transparency and a reluctance to engage in open dialogue is at the heart of the PLA’s strategy in dealing with a much more formidable American competitor.
Secretary Gates is correct in saying that the U.S.-China military-to-military relationship is the one area that has made the least progress in relations between the two countries. The signing of the U.S.-China Maritime Consultative Agreement in 1998 heralded a false dawn in a new era of bilateral military-to-military engagement, especially with regard to confidence-building between the American and Chinese navies. Since then, despite a number of dialogues, several military-to-military exchanges and countless Track 1.5 and Track 2 meetings, there have been no genuinely meaningful confidence-building measures to speak of. Indeed, the 1998 agreement has lapsed into virtual irrelevance.
In comparison, despite the cooling in relations that took place between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, there were more productive confidence-building initiatives, “hotlines,” military-to-military exchanges, agreement of protocols, and other frank discussions taking place among senior defense officials from the two countries in this period.
This is an anomaly. Unlike the Soviet Union, China is ostensibly seeking to rise within the existing order and its economy is immeasurably more integrated into, and important to, the regional and global economy than the Soviet Union’s ever was. Moscow explicitly remained a strategic competitor vis-à-vis the U.S. until the implosion of the Soviet empire. In contrast, Beijing is relentlessly promoting its own “peaceful development” and adamantly denies that it views Washington as its “strategic competitor” in the region.
Why then the reluctant of the PLA to improve its military-to-military relationship with the U.S.? It comes down to the PLA’s contemporary grand strategy.
China’s military thinkers are acutely aware that the country is still strategically isolated. In addition to the resilience of American hard power strengths, Chinese military strategists work within an environment in which Beijing is distrusted by every major power in Asia (including Russia) despite the country’s economic importance to the regional and global economy. Subsequently, in addition to the undeniable enhancements in China’s military capabilities, PLA thinkers have preserved, but refined and reinterpreted Deng Xiaoping’s long-standing dictum to “hide brightness, nourish obscurity, and advance incrementally.”
This is where the strategic value of inscrutability and poor transparency comes in as far as Chinese military strategy is concerned. The PLA is pursuing an “asymmetrical” strategy that does not necessarily seek to match America in terms of military strength (for the moment) but which is designed to make the costs of any military action in the region against China prohibitive. In this context, the perceived benefits of avoiding closer military-to-military relations with the U.S. are twofold.
First, PLA capabilities are rapidly improving but still unproven. China has not been in a war since 1979 (with Vietnam) and its burgeoning naval capabilities have never been seriously tested. As the weaker and more vulnerable side, it is perceived to be in the PLA’s interest to avoid interaction and the sharing of information that might reveal not just the military’s strategic outlook but also current limitations—in terms of hardware, tactical and operational shortcomings.
Second, the PLA is calculating that creating ambiguity—with respect to its military and strategic doctrine in addition to capabilities—will make it impossible for Washington to accurately ascertain the costs of military intervention in a number of scenarios (such as in the Taiwan Straits.) The PLA is betting that this will make Washington more reluctant to use force against China in the region.
In this sense, the PLA is walking a fine line. It needs to convince Washington that its willingness to resort to force over “core issues” such as Taiwan are serious and its capabilities are formidable enough to inflict unacceptable damage on American forces in the event of conflict. But the PLA must also ensure that accurate assessments of the PLA’s capability are elusive. Ideally, as far as China’s generals are concerned, the ideal outcome is for China to “win a war without actually fighting.”
Secretary Gates has argued that more open dialogue with respect to military modernization programs and strategic views of the region would be a constructive development in the bilateral relationship.
That the PLA is pursuing a dangerous strategy since the possibility of miscalculation—as well as escalation—is enhanced, is beyond doubt. Although the culture of “concealment” and “deception” is well established in Chinese military thinking, there are signs that the Politburo in Beijing is divided on the virtues of the PLA’s approach. The hope is that the skeptics of the doctrine of “asymmetric ambiguity” will eventually win the debate.