Zachary Keck

Why Isn’t China’s Military More Transparent?

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Zachary Keck

Why Isn’t China’s Military More Transparent?

A number of widely different reasons potentially explain why China shrouds its military modernization in secrecy.

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.