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China’s Got a Secret

John Lee

Every country has its diplomatic style: Protocol matters to the British; elusiveness matters to Russia; and fortitude matters to France and Brazil. For China and its military, it’s all about ambiguity. Beijing has become the master of winning arguments without actually having them.

Witness the defense ministers’ meeting at this week’s annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates used his remarks to openly criticize Beijing for resisting U.S. efforts to improve the military-to-military relationship. Speaking immediately after Gates and in response to a question from the floor, Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), accused Washington of “creating obstacles” to such cooperation by continuing to support Taiwan and interfering in China’s sovereign affairs.

At first glance, it was all quite predictable: The United States approves an arms transfer to Taiwan, and China balks. But in truth, Beijing’s reluctance to commit to meaningful high-level military-to-military talks is part of an agenda to deliberately foster ambiguity—a well-established approach in both ancient and contemporary Chinese competitive thinking. It’s an infuriating strategy for Beijing’s Washington counterparts, but a rather brilliant one for the PLA and China more broadly, so long as it’s pulled off right. China has to engage just enough to be a partner and hide just enough to remain a threat.

Nowhere is this strategy more clear than in military affairs, and so it is not surprising that the U.S.-China military-to-military relationship has made the least progress of any area in bilateral relations. The only real agreement on the matter, the 1998 U.S.-China Maritime Consultative Agreement, has essentially lapsed into irrelevance today. That agreement, meant to reduce mistrust and miscalculation, had provided for the sharing of operational information between the respective navies, and the establishment of more comprehensive communication procedures. Despite a number of dialogues, several military-to-military exchanges, and countless Track 1.5 diplomacy (that is, meetings that involve both officials and independent experts) and Track 2 meetings, there have been no meaningful exchanges between the two militaries for the last decade.

Those who watched the U.S.-Soviet relationship, which despite its chill was replete with military-to-military engagement, will surely find this phenomenon quite odd. Unlike Soviet Moscow, Beijing is apparently not trying to create a new world order. Instead, it is relentlessly promoting its “peaceful development” within the international system, sticking to the rhetoric of “win-win” relationships that deny any suggestion of Washington as its “strategic competitor” in the region. These themes were reiterated by Ma over the weekend at the dialogue when he called for “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, and coordination” in matters of international security.

If China wants to “rise peacefully,” however, it first has to overcome its isolation—a reality of which the country’s military thinkers are acutely aware. Beijing is distrusted by every major power in Asia, including Russia, despite the country’s economic importance to the regional and global economy. So the Chinese quietly conceal the military advances they make and insist that they pose no threat to U.S. influence in the region. PLA thinkers have preserved, but refined and reinterpreted, the late Deng Xiaoping’s long standing dictum to “hide brightness, nourish obscurity,” and advance incrementally.

But there’s a danger in projecting too much friendliness and underplaying its capabilities. The PLA must assure Washington that it is not seeking to match America in terms of military strength (for the moment), while demonstrating that the cost of any military action against China would be prohibitively high.

So why such hostility to deepening military-to-military ties to the United States?

Part of deterring U.S. military engagement in the region is keeping up a facade. The PLA’s capabilities are rapidly improving but are still unproven. China has not been in a war since 1979 (with Vietnam), and its burgeoning naval capabilities have never been seriously tested. Sharing too much information might reveal not just the military’s expansive strategic outlook, but also its hardware, tactical, and operational shortcomings. PLA strategists reason that a lack of solid information will make it impossible for Washington to accurately ascertain the military costs of intervention in any number of scenarios (such as a war in the Taiwan Strait). And the PLA is betting that the resulting uncertainty will in turn make Washington more reluctant to use force in the region. In other words, the ideal outcome is for China to win a war without actually fighting.

Despite this calculus, there are possible signs that a minority within the Politburo in Beijing is divided on the virtues of the PLA’s approach. For example, the recent creation of the Ministry of National Defense Information Office is one possible acknowledgment that the PLA’s reputation for secrecy is generating mistrust abroad, undermining Beijing’s attempts to play down the “China threat” narrative. The country has used this new office as the center of the PLA’s engagement with international media and strategic communities.

Formal discussion between the American and Chinese militaries will eventually begin again. And hopefully, the PLA’s affection for concealment and fostering uncertainty will eventually fade. But that might take far longer than Gates would like. And until it occurs, any dialogue will fall far short of U.S. expectations. That, Washington can be certain of.

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