China, the US and Transparency

The US has been quick to claim that China’s military plans aren’t transparent. China, though, says the same of the US.

Lately, every major Chinese military development has provoked the same response from the US government. The American reaction to the appearance of new aircraft, ships and missiles is to ask, essentially, ‘What's it for?’

The brief, maiden test cruise two weeks ago of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the former Soviet Varyag, was no exception. ‘We would welcome any kind of explanation that China would like to give for needing this kind of equipment,’ US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. ‘This is part of our larger concern that China is not as transparent as other countries.’

But this lack of transparency can cut both ways, according to Andrew Erickson, an analyst at the US Naval War College and editor of the new book, Chinese Aerospace Power. ‘Lack of strategic transparency and understanding remains a major problem between the US and China,’ Erickson told The Diplomat. ‘Beijing has traditionally disclosed far less information about the most critical aspects of its military capabilities than has the US; its strategists believe that as the weaker party it must use ambiguity to compensate for technological inferiority.’

‘Meanwhile, Beijing complains that Washington lacks “strategic transparency,” or credible explanations, regarding its own intentions,’ Erickson added.

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Beijing’s skepticism was evident in a story published in The People's Daily in response to Nuland’s challenge. ‘Is China's aircraft carrier invisible or miniature? Since you know where it is, why did you say it is not transparent? On the contrary, when US aircraft carriers were sailing in the coastal waters of China or the US high-altitude spy planes were frequently flying above China’s coastal regions, did the United States inform China “transparently?”

‘The Chinese provision of vague, righteous descriptions of Beijing’s strategic intentions that fail to explain key behaviors, coupled with a degree of military power and influence on the part of the United States that causes even its more detailed explanations of intent to be held in suspicion, makes it more difficult for the two sides to achieve a firm basis for robust security cooperation,’ Erickson lamented.