Why Isn’t China’s Military More Transparent?
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Why Isn’t China’s Military More Transparent?


One of the oft-heard complaints leveled against China’s military modernization is that it lacks transparency. The U.S., in particular, has persistently called for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to embrace greater transparency, in light of various surprises such as the first flight test of the J-20 stealth fighter while U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Beijing, or the more recent hypersonic missile test.

It is indeed worth asking why China isn’t more transparent when it comes to its military. On the surface, there are a number of compelling reasons for the PLA to be less opaque. To begin with, by demonstrating military prowess, China would be better able to deter its adversaries. And deterrence after all is China’s stated rationale for modernizing its military.

Moreover, there are strong domestic motivations for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to showcase its military achievements. Specifically, highlighting military achievements plays well with nationalistic domestic audiences, and helps advance the CCP’s argument that it is rejuvenating the nation. In fact, the CCP does often seek to highlight the PLA’s modernization for this very reason. It would seem that greater transparency would only bolster this effect.

The fact that the PLA is nonetheless rather opaque suggests that there are countervailing forces that outweigh these benefits. It’s impossible to know with any degree of certainty what exactly these are, but there are a number of possibilities.

One such possibility, which seems to be Robert Gates’ favorite, is that the PLA operates with a large degree of autonomy from the CCP leadership. If the PLA does enjoy a high degree of autonomy, it may resist transparency for a number of reasons. First, many foreign analysts maintain that PLA officers are far more hawkish than other leaders in China. In fact, some go so far as to claim that certain factions in the PLA believe the U.S. and China should fight a war. To the extent this is true, the PLA may not be interested in the enhanced deterrence effects that transparency could bring. Moreover, the PLA brass would presumably be far less interested in using its own achievements to bolster the CCP’s nationalist credentials. Finally, opaqueness could be useful to China’s military brass in so far as greater scrutiny could reveal large-scale corruption, particularly among the officer corps.

Another possibility is that China resists transparency because it fears that foreign nations would use this transparency to weaken China’s defenses. After all, giving foreign militaries and intelligence agencies greater access to its military hardware would presumably allow them to devise better ways to defeat it in battle. The same goes for doctrine.

A related (and the most dangerous) possibility is that China resists greater transparency because it has a military doctrine that relies on the element of surprise to be effective. The strategic doctrines that rely on the element of surprise, of course, tend to be offensive in nature. Steven Van Evera, among others, has warned of the dangers of doctrines that rely on first-move advantages. In describing the five dangerous effects of first-move advantage, Van Evera argues that the greatest danger is “the concealment of grievances, capabilities, plans, and perceptions.” He goes on to explain: “In a world of first-move advantage, states conceal their military capabilities to preserve their capacity to strike by surprise. At a minimum they conceal their strengths; at a maximum they actively feign weakness.” The same can be said of military doctrines that rely on first-move advantage. Notably, China does have a history of using first-move advantage military doctrines, as it did when intervening in the Korean War and again in its border war with India in 1962.

A final possibility, however, is that China opposes greater transparency because its military capabilities are not as great as they generally perceived. In this scenario, China prefers opaqueness because greater transparency would allow opposing militaries to gain a greater understanding of what Chinese troops and hardware are capable of. If, as many have suggested, PLA troops struggle to properly operate their more advanced platforms, Beijing has an interest in concealing this fact in order to preserve deterrence. Similarly, if the military hardware itself is much less capable than it appears from the outside, China would again have an interest in hiding this reality from potential adversaries.

I tend to believe that this last possibility is probably the most likely. However, as noted above, it is impossible to know the truth with any degree of certainty. This is what makes military opaqueness potentially so dangerous, as a lack of knowledge allows potential adversaries to come to a host of very different conclusions.

February 10, 2014 at 19:37

Who wants China’s military to be more transparent? The enemies and potential adversaries, of course. It would be insane for China to just comply because someone asked for it. Transparency is a new and alien concept to most governments, not just China.

February 9, 2014 at 15:49

I also believe like Russia, China has to be opaque and avoid transparency with their military wares as well as the status of their soldiers.

The Business Insider had a great article regarding the inability of China’s 1.5 million strong army to be a reliable fighting force today because over 70% of the Chinese military are from China’s one-child policy fiasco. Considered totally spoiled, undisciplined, and untrustworthy by the Chinese government, which also reportedly scares the hell out of Beijing if war should be in China’s future. Many Chinese recruits tend to feign illness rather then complete simple training exercises according to the Business Insider report and would rather play video games all day instead! Then, there are reports that Chinese crews on those anti-piracy missions off the horn of Africa are so stressed after returning from those patrols that they require two weeks off at Hainan island resorts to completely recover from being in a cramped unreliable maintenance plagued Chinese ship at sea. It’s no wonder the Chinese navy likely will have problems trusting a skipper/crew of a nuclear ballistic missile submarine at sea anytime soon.

Then of course, I read the Kanwa Defense Review in which Russia, Poland, and the United States all stated the J-20 is a lemon. The chief designer of Russia’s Mikoyan military aircraft design bureau said the J-20 doesn’t fit the profile of a fifth Gen fighter. The chief designer of Sukhoi stated the J-20s doesn’t have any turbofan jet engines capable of allowing ‘super cruise’ ability. Aviation expert from Poland said front wing design of J-20 is flawed as it will enhance detection by western radars and AWACS aircraft. Designers at Lockheed-Martin said the J-20 is too big to avoid radar detection, as it’s the size of an F-111 bomber.

Kanwa said China could attain ‘super cruise’ of the J-20 if they can purchase AL-31FM1 turbofan jet engines from the Russians, but the question becomes, just what does that reveal about the domestic abilities of the Chinese to build their own turbofans as well?

Yes, I think it’s easy to see why the Chinese military can’t be transparent about their corruption, hardware, or their personnel, because they can’t afford the Chinese people to see what a massive waste of resources the PLA and PLAN is as a fighting force today! But Chinese Generals and Admirals are great at spending the people’s money for Ferrari’s, Lamborghini’s, and Mansions fit for a king in China!

February 9, 2014 at 04:34


“it is good enough as long as one warhead reaches its target.”

“PLA ensures the ability of mutual destruction is enough for transparency.”

Why thank you for telling us that.

If what you are saying is really true and believed by the PLA, then it follows that the PLA regard the total destruction of Chinese civilization, with casualties of perhaps 1.2 to 1.3 billion Chinese is acceptable for the sake of one warhead landing in the USA. The only “Chinese” left alive will be those outside of China proper.

Please confirm that is the official view of the PLA and the Chinese “People’s” Republic of China so that the rest of the world can plan accordingly.

I am sure that the Chinese people will be so thrilled by the willingness to sacrifice 1.3 billion of them for the sake of maybe 100 million US casualties (one successful bomb, maximum estimate).

Once the Chinese people realize this, I am sure they will be ready to give their “People’s” Republic of China leadership and their “People’s” “Liberation” Army who are making such moments decisions on behalf of the Chinese people a long term renewal of the Mandate of Heaven.

That is to say, they will send the “People’s Republic of China” cadres and their “People’s Liberation” Army leaders and soldiers all to heaven before they can act.

Imagine having the Mandate of Heaven from Heaven!

Or should I say…. Hades.

Little Helmsman
February 7, 2014 at 04:47

The funny thing is how do we know what China’s military spending is actually what it is intended? That’s the big question. Why are to PLA military brass driving luxury cars and live in mansion? :))

There is a purpose for transparency which the CCP robots don’t understand or care to address. Accountability and waste are serious issues. If military spending goes to corrupt PLA officers instead of the intended purpose of actual defense then it actually weakens China and China becomes vulnerable. D’uh! One of the weaknesses of Qing military was the sheer amount of waste and corruption that existed which allowed the Imperial Japanese military to humiliate them in the Sino-Japanese war.

I guess China never really learned those lessons. But our red comrades insist there is no problem here, look elsewhere.

February 8, 2014 at 06:28

You have no idea how defense appropriations have not kept up in China with inflation.

The price of mistresses, imported luxury cars, multiple flats, imported and domestic liquor, gold, diamonds, and so many things that no decent officer of the People’s Liberation Army, Navy and Air Force just cannot be without have gone through the roof.

The defense budget is growing at low double digit levels, far below the level needed to maintain, let alone increase the standard of living of the officers.

February 7, 2014 at 01:08

I believe that whole Chinese strategy is rested upon 2 basic principles of Opaqueness and Hawkishness.

These 2 are used as deterrence measure to avoid large scale conflict. In fact, in case of Japan’s Senkaku island and India’s Depsang incident (2013), it was quite clear when China aggressively invaded the territory and then stepped back, it just wanted to make the other country being afraid of Chinese intentions.
If one could go a bit deeply into these incidents, it seems that PLA does these kind of maneuvers only when it finds itself into most vulnerable condition. It is a well tested strategy that being hawkish induces fear and this alone is used by PLA to maintain its high status. Otherwise it is a very weak and hollow force from inside.

February 7, 2014 at 03:10

“Hawkishness” is playing right into the hands of advocates for a defense buildup just in case China’s intent is not changed from the most recent past century.

February 7, 2014 at 06:03

The most serious problem & also its chronic weakness of the PLA so far has been its logistic support. In Korea War (1950-53), Chinese volunteered forces were almost annihilated & defeated due to the problem of insufficient logistic support for its frontline units . That’s the reason commie China , since then, always ‘teaches its rivals a lesson’ by surprise attacks, then voluntarily withdraw its invading force immediately for fear of being cut off & defeated (border wars with India, 1962, & with Vietnam, 1979)!

admiral Cheng
February 6, 2014 at 13:55

Please tell us which military in the World is very transparent????? This is just to make China angry. Please don’t play with fire.

February 7, 2014 at 01:18

Well, Armies can’t be transparent than a certain degree, but govt can and they must.
When you say “this is to make China angry” do you mean Chinese govt or Chinese Army or Chinese people. Because the 3 would get angry on entirely different issues.
Chinese govt will get angry when anyone calls for freedom to speak, to gather , to criticize govt policies and to tell the truth about the corrupt leaders of CCP.
Chinese PLA would get angry when someone blows the lid over their only strong point that is secrecy. As they know they are quite weak and hollow from within.
On the other hand Chinese ppl would be actaully happy when the govt or PLA get angry. They care about their basic rights which is freedom of expression and speak out agianst repressive policies .They care about putting an elected govt in place instead of a authoritarian dictatorship of CCP. They care about getting to live in an open environment.
They would get angry when they are denied this and not when someone writes the bitter truth about their PLA or CCP.

February 8, 2014 at 11:06

No one care about basic rights. As long as we can make as much money as we want, who care about election. Democracy is just a waste of time and resource. It don’t work in China and we don’t want it.

admiral Cheng
February 8, 2014 at 17:40

Mr Bj the Chinese people, their military and their government are one. I am afraid your vain attempt to saw discontent and disharmony among the Chinese will end up a failure. Because in China everyone is solidly behind their beloved government, and their valiant military.
If you like your so called freedom please feel free to exercise it within your borders. We are happy with our ample freedom that not only promises prosperity and strength but makes it a reality on the ground. With your so called freedom why are Western countries flocking around China to do business like vultures? You know deep inside that you need us more than we ever need you.

Jen Whitten
February 6, 2014 at 11:13

I don’t suppose the PLAN is eager to publicize the fact that it’s first and only aircraft carrier is a 30-year-old second-hand Soviet model called the Varyag, re-named the Lioaning. When they bought it they claimed it was to be used as a floating casino in Macao. Other countries are scrapping younger carriers than the Varyag/Liaoning, but China expects it to oppose state-of-the-art vessels like the Gerald R. Ford.

February 7, 2014 at 03:19

The PLN appear to be very eager to publicize the whereabouts of their Type 094 / Jin Class submarines.

With radiate noise in excess if 110db, they might as well go out on patrol on the surface with navigation lights, AIS, and to add a Chinese touch, frequent fireworks displays launched from the sub.

Little Helmsman
February 7, 2014 at 04:34

“Chinese touch, frequent fireworks displays launched from the sub”.

LOL! Pretty funny, Ivan, but you will upset admiral Cheng with this characterization of PLA capabilities.

February 8, 2014 at 11:16

it is good enough as long as one warhead reaches its target.

February 8, 2014 at 11:18

PLA ensures the ability of mutual destruction is enough for transparency.

February 6, 2014 at 11:09

The United States uses overwhelming force to deter its enemies, but China saves money by using ambiguity to deter its opponents. It uses risk, instead of certainty, to scare off opponents from pursuing military solutions.

This is very canny, but it has its drawbacks. It was very useful when China was a minor power, whose main assurance of survival was the power relations between the Soviet Union and the United States; if either acted to take out the Chinese, they would make themselves vulnerable to their rival, but as China becomes a more major player, it becomes more vulnerable to smaller players with bigger risk appetites.

February 6, 2014 at 11:27

Rereading your article, I note the effectiveness of Chinese strategic ambiguity. The very point is that the Chinese intentionally make it difficult to find out exactly what their capabilities are, and they use that ambiguity to confuse the calculations of their enemies. It’s evinced in your article; you have to go through a set of possibilities, and your decision chain ends up being complicated instead of clearly-defined.

This is useful not only on a strategic, but also on a tactical level. When actually implementing the attack, you’d have to fight Chinese phantom capabilities as well as their real capabilities, and your attack will take more casualties as you’ll underestimate their strong points and send insufficient force.

February 6, 2014 at 10:08

to regular follower of the PLA, its clearly the last one that rings the truest.

we all know that the PLA is behind when it comes to technology and by not revealing what they are working on until it succeeds it gives their competitors the least amount of time to counter their advancements(among other benefits opaqueness has for the weaker party). in addition as the PLA becomes more and more wealthy and is able to now develop some state of the art equipment it is becoming more and more transparent. any long time follower can see this trend. it took them like years after it joined service to reveal the j-10 , yet the j-20 has plenty of publicity and its not even near finished developing yet. The PLA is in fact quite transparent if you know where to look. unfortunately the news is often buried often under piles of rumors and false alarms as well as being in Chinese, making it difficult to access unless you speak the language, the lingo and speak them well.

February 6, 2014 at 05:50

Cmon’ now.

The PLA (army, navy, AF) in deployment, or R&D field test, can’t take a wiss without NSA and SAT ‘genetic sequencing’ its content.

Just because you are not in-the-know, that does not mean the US does not know.

February 6, 2014 at 04:07

The lack of transparency in defense goes to the heart of what “China” is really about as a modern nation.

China is in theory a unitary state. But in practice, it is historically governed by a very weak central government that have the most tenuous of grips on its collection of “local” governments.

At certain times, central authority was able to concentrate its forces, and impose authority, typically for a brief moment in time and on a narrow policy space, and get compliance, but overall, the central characteristic of Chinese governance is the simultaneous theoretical exercise of absolute power by the central authority, and the feigned or pretend compliance by local authorities, who do their own thing.

In between this are the competing factions at court between different ministries, military regions, etc. that have to thread their way through a morass of patronage, clan, familial, tribal, and other ties that basically result in a system that is largely checkmated from doing anything major.

Into this space comes policy entrepreneurs who profess to be acting to fufill the wishes of the central authority, and then, turn around and use that as justification for their own selfish interests.

Transparency in a system like this will expose the reality of how fragile China is as a modern nation at its core — loyalty of people who profess to be Chinese.

The reality is that “Chinese” is an abstraction that is no more real than “Europeans”, or “Arabs”, or “Latin Americans” or “Africans” or “Indians” or “Soviets”.

It is too big, too obscure, and too impractical for people labeled “Chinese” or “Han Chinese” to attach their loyalty to except in the most cursory of terms, like a person being classified as “white” or “black” or “Asian” in USA.

Chinese regimes, especially the nominally “national” organizations like the PLA or PLN, is acutely aware of the difficulty of forging a national identity and most importantly, a notion of loyalty anywhere near as powerful as smaller collectives, like the Germans, British, French, Japanese, Manchus, or Mongols was able to do.

Inability to rely on “national” loyalty and the fear of disloyalty and betrayal goes to the heart of Chinese politics and is memorized in the classic “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”.

From this perspective, the need for secrecy and lack of transparency is absolutely essential for a Chinese organization, for they simply cannot trust their own “Chinese” race.

Jen Whitten
February 6, 2014 at 17:03

Excellent points, you should make this into an article and have The Diplomat publish it.

February 7, 2014 at 02:43

The Diplomat may have to change their name to publish it.

Manila Boy
February 6, 2014 at 03:40

Chinese historical, military culture embraces deception to win decisively. I’m not buying Sun Tzu at this time but if I was I would say the PLA conventional forces are probably weak based on the 39 chapters’ dictum of “appear strong when you are weak.” Th PLA is weak from corruption and staggered command and control.

TV Monitor
February 6, 2014 at 02:46

Most of things in China aren’t transparent; the communist party, private businesses, and of course PLA.

February 6, 2014 at 02:23

Has every single so-called “expert” on the Chinese military never read Sun Tzu?

Military opacity is a cornerstone of Chinese military thought.

“They’re not like us! They’re not like us! Waah! What do we do?! Mommy! Make them more like us!”

Sheesh. Pick up a book, do a little reading and a lot of understanding and you can save everyone a lot of pointless pondering.

February 6, 2014 at 00:47

The last reason is the most likely, but even if the PLA has the most technologically sophisticated military, it’s hard to imagine them showing any measure of transparency regardless.

To a quasi-communist state such as China, it would be SOP to limit the flow of information and introduce a degree of uncertainty to foreign defense analysts. It maybe even more disruptive for the PLA to become more transparent, if existing measures are a more a consequence of bureaucratic inertia than a calculated plan hide their true military capabilities.

February 5, 2014 at 23:36

Another possibility is that the notion of transparency is highly foreign in Chinese culture and to communism. Whether it’s the military, bureaucracy or SOEs, tranparency is a principle that is normally associated with a functioning democracy. It has no historical or cultural resonance in China. Remember the US embassy’s daily posting of air quality and the fuss that made? And now you expect publication of the PLA’s military specs?

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