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The China Hedge

John Lee

China’s just released National Defense White Paper criticizes America for reinforcing anti-Chinese alliances in the region, expanding its military presence, and continuing to sell arms to Taiwan—all while reaffirming that PLA budget increases are for purely defensive purposes. White Papers are meant to offer improved information about strategic and military postures. But like previous white papers, it does little to explain China’s still poor record of military-to-military exchanges or its refusal to enhance transparency despite the document’s claims to do so. Beijing’s mantra of ‘building mutual respect and trust’ remains hollow. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to change since ambiguity is at the heart of China’s military grand strategy.

First things first: increases in the PLA’s budget and capabilities can no longer be viewed as ‘defensive’ given last year’s reassertion of Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea. One cannot ‘defend’ disputed territory that one does not actually control. Chinese behavior throughout 2010 and increases in capabilities also suggest that the PLA’s modernization program is no longer simply about defending against potential Taiwanese moves toward sovereignty. This means that America and regional states no longer believe that resolving the Taiwan question will successfully placate Chinese ambitions.

But the issue of meaningful military-to-military exchange and transparency is the elephant in the room. The signing of the U.S.-China Maritime Consultative Agreement in 1998 heralded a false dawn. Since then, despite a number of high-level 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. Despite the cooling in relations that took place between Washington and Moscow 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 than there have been between the Americans and the Chinese.

The current White Paper also does little to further explain Chinese motivations behind the significant increases in the military budget or even a credible justification for development in advanced weapons and delivery systems. Connecting strategic objectives with military capabilities is still a matter of guesswork for regional analysts.

All of this seems a bit bizarre considering China’s integration into the current global order. Unlike the former Soviet Union, China is ostensibly seeking to rise within the existing international order and its economy is immeasurably more important to, and involved in, the regional and global economy than the Soviet Union’s ever was. Moscow explicitly remained a strategic competitor vis-à-vis the United States until the implosion of the Soviet empire. In contrast, Beijing is relentlessly promoting its own ‘peaceful development’ and still adamantly denies that it views Washington as its ‘strategic competitor’ in the region.

Why then the reluctance of Beijing to genuinely improve transparency and further its military-to-military relationship with the United States? China persistently points to American arms sales to Taiwan as the reason behind the impasse. But the Chinese reluctance is about much more than this. Fostering ambiguity is a well-established approach in both ancient and contemporary Chinese competitive thinking. Ensuring poor transparency, heightening ambiguity, and a reluctance to engage in open dialogue is at the heart of China’s strategy in dealing with a much more formidable American competitor.

As the White Paper notes, America and its partners have “increased interference and countering moves” against China. Beijing’s military thinkers are acutely aware that the country is still strategically isolated. In addition to the resilience of American hard power, 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– a trend that accelerated in 2010.

PLA thinkers have also 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 and tactical and operational shortcomings. Second, the PLA is betting 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 figures 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 what the White paper calls ‘core issues’ such as Taiwan and possibly claims in the South China Sea 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. As far as China’s generals are concerned, the ideal outcome is for China to ‘win a war without actually fighting.’ Such an approach massively increases the possibility of miscalculation as well as escalation. Not all of Beijing’s civilian leaders support such a strategy. But the lack of meaningful content in the White Paper makes it apparent that the proponents of ‘enhanced ambiguity’ are winning the debate.

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