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China Takes Baby Steps On Military Transparency; Blots Copybook Whining About Pacific Pivot

Posted by Colin Clark on

WASHINGTON: Even the grim, dark and powerful Soviet Union came to share fairly detailed information about the size and potency of its military to ensure nobody made a wrong step by over- or underestimating its military prowess. The current rising power, China, so far, has largely refused to share much information about either how its forces are organized or what weapons it fields.

So when official Chinese media were joined by Western media in reporting that the Peoples Liberation Army had issued a White Paper, “Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces,” offering greater transparency, I checked with a range of experts on the PLA to see if that was, in fact, the case.

“There is really nothing that stands out as a remarkably new emphasis or form of ‘transparency.’ The identification of all PLA Army units as mobile forces with their military region affiliation is a better explanation of order of battle,” said Larry Wortzel, one of Washington’s most respected China military analysts and also a member of the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, in an email.For contrast, here’s what the Peoples Liberation Daily says about the White Paper:

“…China’s military is transforming from ‘responding to questions’ to ‘explaining proactively’, which shows the country is more transparent and willing to take on responsibilities. The national defense white paper shows Chinese army’s transparency and openness. Along with the accelerating pace of going out, Chinese army has taken the initiative to show its image to the world. It is obvious to see the country’s sincerity and hard working in military transparent.”

OK. And Dean Cheng, China analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation (where Wortzel used to work), offered the Chinese a tiny nod.

“To give the Chinese credit, I don’t think we’ve ever had a nice, neat summary by them of which units (or at least their designations) are in the Nanjing or Lanzhou Military Region. It’s a (baby) step towards transparency. It’s also at an extremely meta-level: armies, fleets,” Cheng says in his email.

But the real problem both the Chinese and Western countries face is that, as the Chinese paper said: “Western countries have suspected Chinese army for a long time, guessing whether Chinese army is defensive or offensive.”

The Chinese says simply that this latest paper, “has answered the suspicion directly. ‘China will never seek hegemony or behave in a hegemonic manner, nor will it engage in military expansion,’ the white paper says.”

As is clear from Wortzel and Cheng’s observations, that may not entirely be the case.

Cheng also detailed how this paper differs from earlier Chinese offerings:

  • “Space and cyber are only mentioned twice (as far as I can tell), both in passing. However, some mention of informationization (which is broader than cyber). Information dominance (specifically mentioned) would include counter-space and cyber activities.
  • “Military support to national development is now listed AFTER protecting territorial sovereignty. This is a shift from the previous order when discussing ‘new historic missions” of the PLA.
  • “Heavy emphasis (or at least prominent reference) to maritime security, including securing SLOCs (Sea Lines of Communication), defense of territorial waters, etc.”

In what appears to be a wrinkle in keeping with the greater emphasis on protecting territorial waters protection and SLOCs, the White Paper then takes a right turn, blaming somebody for destabilizing the region.”‘Some countries are strengthening their Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanding military presence in the region, and frequently making the situation there tenser,’ the 40-page report on the ‘Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces’ said, without naming any particular state,” the People’s Liberation Daily says.

Wortzel’s take on the Chinese assertion? “The more interesting development is the accusation that the US strategy transition to Asia (the ‘rebalance’) is the cause of turbulence in the region when, in reality, the cause is aggressive Chinese behavior.”Transparency is also — at least to some degree — about truth telling. Come on, China! You really can do it.

What do you think?