The Diplomat last month published a penetrating article by Peter Mattis that asked how much influence the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was having on foreign and national security policymaking, and whether that influence was growing as China’s armed forces expand. That article, which didn’t receive the attention it deserved, however, only asked — and perhaps answered — half the question.
What Mattis, and several others, haven’t asked is whether the civilian members within the Politburo are becoming more enamored with the PLA as an instrument to achieve their political objectives. In other words, the question that needs to be asked is whether recent Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Sea is the result of greater “push” by an increasingly vocal PLA, or more “pull” by the civilian leadership.
The answer to that question is more important than it might appear, as it could reveal the pressure points that are key to understanding, and in turn dealing with, the future behavior of the Chinese military. It could also shed light on the deployment of a military garrison on Sansha Island in the South China Sea, and whether the move is a purely political expression or part of the militarization of China’s foreign policy.
As Mattis rightly notes, the PLA only “controls” a limited number of spots on the CCP Central Committee, which, while not making it a kingmaker, could give it enough clout to “extract concessions, collect promises, and encourage the politically ambitious to support PLA preferences.” While the PLA element within the CCP has traditionally been described as an advisory body that simultaneously must “educate” and “convince” the CCP — thus limiting its influence to its ability to make its case, and consequently keeping militarism in check — what if the remaining members of the Central Committee who are not part of the PLA are themselves becoming more amenable to the concept of the military as an acceptable element of policymaking?
That possibility is not as outlandish as it seems. Western powers, the U.S. included, have a long tradition of civilian leadership that did not hesitate to turn to the military to fix foreign policy problems. In many instances, it was civilian members of the National Security Council and the State Department, not the top brass, that sought to use force, as epitomized by Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, in her famous rebuke to then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell “What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can’t use it?”
While Clinton’s relationship with the U.S. military was initially uncomfortable, his administration eventually changed its attitude vis-à-vis the use of force abroad, leading to interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo at a time when the Pentagon, chief among them Powell, was reluctant to involve itself in operations that did not meet Powell’s operational preferences. After Clinton, George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein was much more the result of civilian members of his Cabinet, people like Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney, than U.S. generals, who again signaled a certain reluctance to use force. After Bush left office and was replaced by Obama, who ran for office as a peacemaker intent on repairing Washington’s image abroad following eight years of military adventurism, the U.S. again embarked on military adventures — from Afghanistan to Libya — that, particularly in the case of Libya, were largely driven by the civilian leadership. From Clinton to Obama, the militarization of U.S. foreign policy was not the result of growing influence of the U.S. military on the White House, but rather greater willingness on the part of the civilian Cabinet to use the immense powers and reach of the armed forces to accomplish its political aims.
There is no reason why things should be any different with China, especially as its civilian leadership, for the first time since 1949, is endowed with a military that is modern and flexible enough to complement foreign policy imperatives. Factor in the element of nationalism, which is undeniably on the rise within China, and it becomes clear that the recent saber rattling by Yang Yi, PLA Major-General Luo Yuan, and others could be the result not of the PLA pressuring the CCP, but rather of militarists recognizing that the civilian leadership has created an environment that is more permissible for such expressions.
Under a “push” scenario, trends toward militarism would conceivably progress slowly and as per calibration by the civilian leadership. Conversely, a “pull” by civilians would likely accelerate the process, as both factions would work toward the same objective.
To come back to an earlier point, the differences are crucial, as they could very well determine the extent of the PLA’s role in formulating Chinese foreign policy. If, as Mattis and others argue, the question is how much influence the PLA has on the Politburo, then we can safely expect that militarism will remain a fringe factor in an otherwise carefully balanced foreign policy. However, if the key point isn’t PLA influence, but rather growing willingness among the civilian leadership to rely on the PLA to achieved its political objectives, then the checks on militarism disappear, and suddenly augmentations on Sansha, to use one example, become much more alarming than would otherwise be the case.
The same holds true for China’s recent assertiveness in its disputes with Japan over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea and other claimants in the South China Sea. If Beijing’s recent behavior is the result of pressure from the PLA, at some point the civilian leadership, aware of the political costs, will stand back and allow the situation to calm down. If, however, China’s recent behavior is the result of an increasingly militaristic civilian leadership, then the chances that it will back off become smaller, unless the PLA, much as Powell did in the 1990s, decides that adventurism isn’t worth the risk and attempts to stymie the civilians.
Should that be the case, then Mattis’ question as to whether “China’s civilian leaders have the intellectual experience or the ability to draw on military expertise independent of the PLA to manage the PLA’s increasing competence and influence,” becomes doubly important, especially as the CCP is about to undergo a power transition. Unlike his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping, Hu’s likely successor, actually has a close relationship with the PLA and worked in its upper echelons for three years, which could make him more comfortable with the military, if not more inclined to call upon it to fix political problems.
Whether the influence of the PLA on the Chinese civilian leadership is growing remains to be seen and must be monitored closely. Just as importantly, albeit often ignored, is whether the civilians in the Politburo themselves are becoming more inclined to use the increasingly powerful arsenal at their disposal to conduct foreign policy. Instead of looking at the Politburo in terms of the balance of power between brass and civilians, we should perhaps try to determine whether the civilians are not themselves calling on the military to do more.
J. Michael Cole is a regular contributor to the Diplomat's Flashpoints Blog.