How Well Does China Control Its Military?
Image Credit: REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic

How Well Does China Control Its Military?


Developments in East Asia in recent years hint at the possibility that communication between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is not all that it might be when it comes to coordinating military activities. Incidents such as the surprise stealth fighter test during former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ visit in 2011, or the 2007 anti-satellite test, are prime examples of the CCP’s leadership being seemingly unaware of what its military is doing. This suggests weakness in coordination between the center and the military, and helps explain numerous episodes where the civilian apparatus seemed oblivious to the PLA’s activities and confused about officers’ statements that made the PLA appear “rogue.”

In 2009, Andrew Scobell argued for the existence of a “civil-military gap” in China’s peaceful rise. Scobell uses this expression in two ways. First, it refers to a potentially serious difference between the attitudes and perspectives of civilian and military elites based on different life experiences and career paths; second, it refers to a possible “loose civilian control of the military.” The PLA detests political intrusion by the party into its own affairs and has subsequently carved out more autonomy for itself. Thus, the claim that in recent years, “civilian CCP leaders seem to have adopted a hands-off approach to the day-to-day affairs of the PLA” seems to plausibly describe the relationship between the military and the civilian leadership.

This could have far-reaching implications. In 2012, outgoing President Hu Jintao hinted that the chain of military command “might be more fragile than commonly understood,” although the true meaning of this statement remains abstruse. Certainly, confusion in the chain of command is not a new problem for China. Past examples include the 16th Party Congress, when Jiang retired from his post as general-secretary, but retained his seat as chairman of the CMC, while Hu became the new general-secretary. This led to ambiguity as to who was China’s commander in chief and ultimately in charge of the PLA, particularly for potentially explosive issues like Taiwan, where conflict control is complicated by the involvement of the United States.

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It is assumed that senior CCP leaders hold decisive authority over the main foreign and defense policy issues, but that their authority on military actions of foreign policy relevance on subordinate levels of the policy process is not as clear. Given their status as commander in chief, technocratic civilian CCP leaders possess a broad knowledge of military programs and defense priorities. However, they appear to grant the PLA considerable autonomy and latitude as to how and when programs are implemented. The result is that civil-military coordination regarding specific types of military action impinging on foreign policy is weak.

The 2011 stealth fighter test during Gates’ visit is generally regarded as a prime example of the party’s number one not knowing what his military is doing. Yet the idea that Hu would not have known about the test, or would not have been informed of it, appears inconceivable in a system based on collective direction and mutual control. Thus, the timing with Gates’ visit was not coincidental. Indeed, Gates later affirmed that, “I asked President Hu about it directly, and he said that the test had absolutely nothing to do with my visit and had been a pre-planned test.” The PLA was undoubtedly determined to display its prowess and was intent on sending a message to the U.S. at a time many had hoped tensions might be declining, given that China had resumed military contacts with the United States after suspending them following the U.S. announcement that it would sell arms to Taiwan in January that year.

A repeat performance took place during U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s trip to China in September 2012, when another stealth fighter was revealed. The incident contained elements of both “showmanship and boasting,” and, as was the case one year earlier, was “carefully timed to reinforce some political point.” A renewed denial by China’s number one that he had been informed about the disclosure makes clear that again a message was supposed to be sent.

It is quite possible that some of these incidents are the result of the PLA’s “rogue” tendencies, meaning that the military does not always communicate vital information, such as the dates of tests or other military activities, to the party leadership in Beijing. The 2007 satellite test is perhaps most conceivable as an example of roguish PLA behavior, since evidence suggests that top-level Chinese leaders really weren’t informed of the test details or schedule, consistent with the idea of a PLA operating on a loose leash, albeit not necessarily with malicious intent. The PLA’s attitude sometimes seems to be that if a policy issue is determined by the PLA to be an agenda exclusive to the military, its external effects need not be taken into consideration, leading to unintended consequences for Chinese foreign relations.

A similar, if more pointed assertion, has been put forward by the Japanese National Institute for Defense Studies. Contending that the Chinese military is in fact unwilling to coordinate, the Institute’s scholars assert that the PLA “does not fully recognize the need for policy coordination with the government departments.” They argue that is particularly evident in the relationship between the PLA and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 2010, Professor Wang Yizhou, Vice Dean of Beijing University’s School of International Studies, stated in reference to various military exercises conducted in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Yellow Sea that “the PLA’s recognition of its right to hold independent events ‘led’ the [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] to lose time to have enough discussions.” In other words, naval activities could not be properly coordinated in advance.

Prominent analysts of Chinese foreign policy have hypothesized that the CCP general-secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission is generally not being informed of issues at the operational level, such as specific weapons tests and training exercises or small military patrols outside of China’s immediate borders. Given the apparent absence of any requirement for the PLA to provide operational information, China lacks an explicit mechanism to make sure that coordination between civilian and military authorities takes place. An exacerbating factor is China’s stove-piped bureaucratic system, which aggravates difficulties in horizontal and vertical coordination as well as information sharing between the army and the civilian apparatus.

In a crisis, this lack of a reliable management at the highest levels may lead to unintended and far-reaching consequences, such as accidental escalation. Yet the Chinese foreign policy establishment continues to rely on temporary mechanisms created on an ad hoc basis. During a politico-military crisis, these mechanisms are often as inefficient for information processing as they are ineffective for coordinating actions, since quality information does not reach those in charge in a timely fashion.

The decision-making procedure, too, has the potential to slow crisis management. Judging from the procedures applied in the EP-3 incident and the Chinese embassy bombing, it was the top leaders in the Standing Committee of the Politburo who called the shots. But because those leaders were not able to come together quickly, China’s responses were slow.

In recent years, there has been talk in Chinese academic and policy circles about the advantages of establishing a supervisory body to facilitate foreign policy coordination, prevent escalation, and manage conflicts. The new Chinese National Security Council, established in 2013, was described by Li Wei, director of the Anti-Terrorism Center at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, as “an organization that has the power to coordinate different government organs at the highest level in response to a major emergency crisis and incidents which pose threats to the national security, such as defending China’s borders and dealing with major terrorist attacks.” Although this seems like a step in the right direction, it serves primarily internal security purposes, and its precise relationship with the CMC and Xi Jinping remains obscure. And so it appears that despite an increasingly pressing need, foreign policy coordination is unlikely to improve anytime soon.

 Johannes Feige is a Junior Researcher at the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS), Brussels.

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