Chinese Military Culture

As budgets soar, China still fears its military isn’t growing fast enough

When China looks at its own army, it is often with fears that it is not big enough and is lacking in competence and modernization.
By William Wan, Published: March 7
BEIJING — When American analysts talk of China’s military, they often describe it in terms of the looming threat of the future, a rapidly modernizing and expanding force that could one day rival, or even worse, overtake that of the United States.

Such anxieties were fanned further this week with China’s announcement of yet another year of double-digit growth in military spending. The news prompted public alarm from Manila and Tokyo to the Pentagon.

But when China looks at its own army, it is often with fears that it is not big enough and is lacking in competence, modernization and the sheer hardened will of a well-trained force.

Chinese soldiers are wimps, bemoaned a prominent Communist Party publication, describing them as “male soldiers with female characteristics.”

“Dangerously corrupt,” wrote a famous Chinese colonel in a recent book, describing brothers-in-arms who had been fattened on bribes and grown complacent.

The polar extremes are a reflection of the complex, paranoid and intertwined state these days of the U.S.-China relationship as frenemies.

China’s Foreign Ministry scoffed Wednesday at the alarm among the United States and its Pacific allies at China’s increased military budget.

“The moderate growth . . . is totally reasonable and justifiable, and there is no need to feel surprised,” said Qin Gang, the Foreign Ministry spokesman.

He added with unusually colorful language and sarcasm: “I want to reiterate that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is not a children’s army equipped with red-tasseled spears. Some outside China hope to see China stay as a Boy Scout who never grows up.”

His reference to child armies and red-tasseled spears drew chuckles online in China, where such images remain as relics from decades gone by.

To Westerners, what’s especially notable is that China’s rapid expansion has occurred right as the United States and its NATO allies have grappled with cuts.

China’s budget announcement Wednesday came just one day after the Pentagon announced plans to cut the U.S. Army to its smallest size in decades.

Chinese military spending now ranks second in the world. But analysts say its official budget — $131.56 billion for 2014 — doesn’t include billions spent in secret.

This year’s 12.2 percent increase in China is “just what we can see,” Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said in testimony to Congress this week. “There’s much more that, I’m told, lie below that.”

The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimated that China’s real sum for last year could be as high as $240 billion, double the official number.

And IHS Jane’s, a defense analysis company, projects that by 2015, China will be outspending Britain, France and Germany combined.

China’s army is growing not only in an abstract sense but also in a literal sense, according to an odd but fascinating military report last month. The People’s Liberation Army’s official newspaper said the average Chinese soldier has grown two centimeters (about 0.8 inches) taller and five centimeters (about two inches) thicker in the waist in the past two decades.

The bigger soldiers have brought with them problems as well as praise, the military newspaper said. Tanks three decades old are now suddenly too snug, and rifle butts are too short, causing accuracy problems.

But for all the talk these days of China’s bigger, beefier and expanding force, Chinese analysts clamor that the military budget remains dwarfed by that of the United States. U.S. military spending for fiscal 2014, for example, stood at $526.8 billion, four times that of China.

“China is not as strong as the West describes,” said Song Xiaojun, editor of an online Chinese military magazine, who likened the nation’s army to a sickly child still on the mend. “I actually don’t think the current increase is enough; it should be accelerated.”

Analysts here often point out that China’s army troops haven’t seen combat since 1979.

In a scathing piece two years ago, the Communist Party’s influential Study Times newspaper said the Chinese army lacked a manly, martial spirit. It blamed China’s one-child policy for raising a generation of entitled, soft little emperors unready for war.

An even bigger problem is corruption, according to Col. Liu Mingfu, a former professor at China’s National Defense University. In a 2012 book, he called corruption “the No. 1 danger and No. 1 opponent for the People’s Liberation Army,” and compared China’s current weaknesses to its corruption-riddled forces in 1894 that were soundly defeated by a modernized Japanese military.

Some U.S. experts also subscribe to this alternative narrative of China’s army as a bumbling, still-nascent force. Ian Easton, a researcher at the Arlington-based Project 2049 Institute, recently catalogued a long list of embarrassing, Keystone Kops behaviors, such as missile-launch readiness drills that he said include movie and karaoke breaks.

“China’s military is in many ways much weaker than it looks,” Easton wrote. But what should be frightening to Western powers, he argues, is how China is looking to make up for that weakness with increasing investments in asymmetrical, nontraditional tools of war such as space weapons, ballistic and cruise missiles and cyber-warriors.

The message Chinese officials have tried to convey this week is that those who underestimate China’s military as well as those who wish it wouldn’t expand quite so fast are equally mistaken.

At the Foreign Ministry briefing — flogging his metaphor of child armies and red-tasseled spears — spokesman Qin said, “Even if China were a Boy Scout, he will grow taller and his feet will grow larger year by year. You cannot simply have him wearing the same small clothes and shoes, can you?”
Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.

China’s Leader, Seeking to Build Its Muscle, Pushes Overhaul of the Military


China’s military budget is the second largest in the world, behind that of the United States. Credit Feng Li/Getty Images

BEIJING — Driven by ambitions to make China a great power, President Xi Jinping is staking his political authority on a huge task: overhauling the Chinese military, which is still largely organized as it was when a million peasant soldiers mustered under Mao Zedong.

Mr. Xi wants a military that can project power across the Pacific and face regional rivals like Japan in defense of Chinese interests. To get it, he means to strengthen China’s naval and air forces, which have been subordinate to the People’s Liberation Army’s land forces, and to get the military branches to work in close coordination, the way advanced Western militaries do.

China’s military budget has grown to be the second largest in the world, behind that of the United States, and the country has acquired sophisticated weapons systems. But Mr. Xi has told his commanders that is not enough.

“There cannot be modernization of national defense and the military without modernization of the military’s forms of organization,” Mr. Xi told a committee of party leaders studying military reform at its first meeting in March, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, reported. “There has to be thoroughgoing reform of leadership and command systems, force structure and policy institutions,” he was quoted as saying.

It will not be easy. Reorganizing the People’s Liberation Army, or P.L.A., will pit Mr. Xi’s ambitions against the entrenched power of the land forces, with about 1.4 million troops, and he will have to manage the overhaul while ensuring that the military remains a reliable guardian of the Communist Party’s hold on political power, experts said.

“Military reform is part of the larger program that Xi Jinping is putting in place to put his imprimatur on the Chinese party-state,” said David M. Finkelstein, vice president and director of China studies at CNA Corporation, a research organization in Alexandria, Va., concentrating on security and military affairs.

“ ‘This time, we’re serious’ — that should be the subtext of this new tranche of reform,” he said. “It will be five years before you see the fruits of it. But 10 years from now, you might see a very different P.L.A.”

As it is now, the army is structured around seven powerful regional commands, originally set up to defend the country against invasion from the Soviet Union and to uphold the party’s domestic control. A recasting of those military regions is at the heart of Mr. Xi’s plans. The Chinese military that emerges is likely to be much more focused on confronting Japan, whose navy is generally considered to have an edge over China’s, and on enforcing Beijing’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.

That will inevitably mean transferring or decommissioning significant numbers of soldiers and bureaucrats, who can be expected to argue against Mr. Xi’s plans. Underemployed or unemployed former soldiers are already a persistent source of protests in the country.

“Forces for inertia are making real military reform more difficult,” said Andrew Scobell, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation in Washington who studies the Chinese military. “You’ve got a lot of fiefdoms, and there’s the strong, disproportionate influence and power of the ground forces.”

Money does not appear to be an issue, Western analysts said. “I’m not sure there would be much cost savings” from the overhaul, said Roy D. Kamphausen, a former military attaché at the United States Embassy in Beijing who is now a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research in Washington. “There seems to be a comfort level with current spending.”

China spends about 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product on its military; the United States spends about 4.5 percent, Mr. Kamphausen said.

The Chinese military was already trying to accomplish a lot by 2020, at which point it hopes to have completed its mechanization and made major progress in spreading the use of information technology, said Dennis J. Blasko, another former American military attaché in Beijing.

“I see the P.L.A. undertaking a much more complex modernization process, with more components than the U.S. military after Vietnam — but without the recent combat experience, Reagan-era defense budgets, and N.C.O. corps the U.S. military had,” Mr. Blasko said, referring to noncommissioned officers.

Japan and its alliance with the United States have become prime strategic interests for China, whose commanders have been referring to their country’s defeat at Japanese hands in 1895 and using that humiliation as a prod for change.

“Japan’s victory was a victory of its institutions,” Gen. Liu Yazhou of the Chinese Army’s National Defense University said in an interview with the Chinese news media last month. “The defeat of the Qing empire was a defeat of its institutions.”

Mr. Xi appears well positioned to take on the obstacles to the overhaul, analysts said. Unlike his weaker predecessor Hu Jintao, Mr. Xi became chairman of the Central Military Commission at the same time he became party leader. And Phillip C. Saunders, director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington, said it was clear he had the backing of the six other members of the country’s most powerful body, the Politburo Standing Committee.

Mr. Xi’s efforts may be helped by the impending trial of Gu Junshan, a general whose charge sheet reads like a list of the army’s most flagrant corruption problems. Mr. Kamphausen of the National Bureau of Asian Research said the selling of promotions became so widespread that General Gu’s case appeared to be an especially lurid example of widespread graft.

Now, by campaigning against corruption, Mr. Xi has military commanders “so scared, they can’t even park their cars in a restaurant parking lot — they send the driver somewhere else,” Mr. Saunders said.

Besides the senior leadership group Mr. Xi convened in March to oversee reform, five task forces have been set up to examine specific issues, Mr. Saunders said: on training, force reduction, political indoctrination, rooting out corruption and improving the way the military manages its infrastructure.

But the biggest challenge may be loosening the grip of the ground forces.

“That’s the key to everything, because at this point, if you analyze the structure of the P.L.A., the army dominates,” said Nan Li, an expert on the Chinese military who teaches at the United States Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “All these services other than the ground force, their officers are marginal in the regional command structure. They are not integrated. They are on the sidelines.”

Mr. Li said solving that problem would require creating separate headquarters and shifting personnel and resources to the navy, air force and missile forces, which are better able to project power abroad than the land forces are.

One basic tenet will remain: There are no signs that China’s military commanders will challenge the party’s control over the army, even if they privately blanch at some of Mr. Xi’s demands, analysts said.

“Defense of the party is always Mission No. 1,” said Mr. Finkelstein of CNA. “The officers of the P.L.A. are party members who happen to wear uniforms.”

Leader of China Aims at Military With Graft Case

A People’s Liberation Army guard at the Bayi Building in Beijing. President Xi Jinping has reportedly called military corruption the “Gu Junshan phenomenon.” Credit Pool photo by Lintao Zhang

Sharing Power With China


CANBERRA, Australia — For 40 years American leadership has kept Asia stable and fostered economic growth, especially in China. But today China’s growing power is undermining that old order and posing big questions about America’s future role in the region.

Those questions loom in the ongoing dispute between China and Japan over a chain of tiny uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that could easily spark an armed clash between the two rivals. Such a conflict would escalate fast, and the United States would have to quickly take action to support Japan militarily against China — or not.

Washington remains neutral on who owns the islands, while criticizing China for using displays of force to challenge Japan’s de facto control of them. As Secretary of State John Kerry has said: “The United States, as everybody knows, does not take a position on the ultimate sovereignty of the islands. But we do recognize that they are under the administration of Japan.”

American officials have also affirmed support for Japan as an ally under the United States-Japan defense treaty. But it’s clear that Beijing doesn’t buy that. Instead, China has concluded America would stand back in an armed conflict, which is why it increasingly courts confrontation with Japan so brazenly. China’s ships and aircraft regularly patrol in areas claimed by Japan. Beijing’s declaration late last year of an air defense zone covering the islands took the confrontation to a new level.

Only a formal and explicit statement from President Obama laying out a new American policy will reduce the risk of a crisis in the East China Sea. What should Mr. Obama say?

If America makes it clear it would not support Japan in a fight with China, Tokyo’s confidence in the alliance will be shattered. Japan would then face its own choice: Rearm to defend itself against China without American help or submit to Chinese pre-eminence in Asia. Other American allies would also reconsider their options. American leadership in Asia would never be the same again. This is what China hopes will happen.

But a statement of unconditional support for Japan would commit America to a potential war that it could not control and probably would not win. We cannot assume China would simply back down: It has too much at stake. China does not want a war with America, but Beijing probably believes it could force a favorable draw. Ultimately, China is just as willing to fight to change the Asian order as America is to preserve it, and perhaps more willing.

Of course there are doves as well as hawks in Beijing, but even the doves believe China should be reclaiming its place as a great power in Asia. Beijing no longer thinks that American primacy is essential for the stability that China itself needs. No one in China, not even the more liberal-minded officials, believes that it’s their destiny to submit to American leadership indefinitely.

When both of America’s options are so bad, it is not surprising that the Obama administration finds it hard to articulate a clear policy. That is why Washington’s signals have been mixed, with the president remaining silent.

The fact is that, for America, these East China Sea islands, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, are not worth a fight with China. Still, preserving the American alliance with Japan, its regional leadership role and the whole Asian status quo are vital United States interests.

There is a third way. An American policy not to fight for the status quo does not have to lead inevitably to Chinese hegemony in Asia. A new Asian security arrangement could be forged in which America concedes a larger share of leadership to China but remains engaged to balance and limit Chinese power and help uphold key norms — including the all-important norm against the use or threat of force to settle disputes.

Ultimately this norm is more important than any particular alliance. It is the foundation of America’s post-1945 vision of international order. Washington should worry more about China’s willingness to defy this norm in the East China Sea than about its determination to challenge the United States-Japan alliance and change the regional order. America should be willing to fight China to protect that norm. This makes Washington’s choice a little clearer.

Mr. Obama should say that he is willing to negotiate a new security arrangement in Asia that accords China a bigger share of regional leadership, but only if China forgoes the use or threat of force to compel such changes.

If China persists in threatening the use of force, then America should be willing to fight, and must say so clearly. If China is prepared to desist, then America should be willing to talk about sharing power, and it should say that clearly, too.

We cannot know exactly how this kind of regional power-sharing would work. It would have to be negotiated with China and with the region’s other great powers. The best historical template might be the Concert of Europe that kept the peace in Europe for the 100 years until 1914 — based on principles of equality and power-sharing among the big players.

Like Europe then, Asia today needs a new arrangement in which no country has a unique leading role, and all the great powers agree not to seek primacy over the others. All the big regional questions would then have to be settled by negotiation between equals.

It would mean a lot of give and take. For example, America might accept that China will eventually assert control over Taiwan, and in return China could accept that it cannot make a territorial claim over the whole South China Sea.

Proposing to share power in the Pacific would not be easy for Mr. Obama (or for any American president). He’d face tremendous resistance at home. But American hawks who would oppose negotiating with China need to realize what’s at stake: The problem of China’s growing ambitions can be solved through war or pre-emptive diplomacy.

This third way offers a realist solution. And most important, addressing these issues now would be a lot easier than confronting the choice that America could face any day if Chinese and Japanese forces clash in the East China Sea.

Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University and the author of “The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power.”

China’s Actions in Hunt for Jet Are Seen as Hurting as Much as Helping


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — When a Chinese government vessel took the world by surprise this month with its announcement that it had detected underwater signals that might have come from the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, China suddenly looked like the hero of the multinational search effort.

Within days, however, the Chinese claims were discounted, and attention shifted to another set of signals recorded by American personnel aboard an Australian ship hundreds of miles away.

Still, the Chinese claims have exasperated some officials from the United States and other participating countries. The announcement was only one in a series of moves by China that might have been intended to project competence, according to officials and analysts, but only served to distract and delay the search effort.

“Everybody wants to find the plane,” said a senior Defense Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to appear overly critical of the Chinese. But, he continued, “false leads slow down the investigation.”

Most of the passengers on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 were Chinese citizens, so the matter became a top priority for China. Since the plane’s disappearance on March 8, Beijing has deployed reconnaissance aircraft, more than a dozen vessels and, it said, 21 satellites in the search. Many of the ships in the current search zone, in the southern Indian Ocean, are Chinese.

The mission has clearly been a prime opportunity for the Chinese government to demonstrate its determination and technological abilities to its domestic audience, and to improve on its response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year, which was widely criticized as late and tepid.

“This is a chance for China to regain some of its lost prestige and show the world what it’s capable of,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University. “There’s a lot of prestige on the line here.”

But the search has also brought China into sudden and close contact with regional competitors who have been uneasy with China’s rapid military expansion and its increasing willingness to project force across a wider area of the globe. With regional tensions already high before the plane disappeared, China’s rush to be first upset others involved in the search — not least because the Chinese turned out to be wrong.

In the first week of the search, China released satellite photographs purportedly showing wreckage in the South China Sea. The objects, however, turned out to be unrelated debris. The claim eventually elicited a rebuke from Malaysian officials that China had wasted the time of other nations looking for the missing Boeing 777-200.

On April 5, Chinese state-run news media reported that Haixun 01, a Chinese government search vessel apparently operating outside the zone designated that day by the search coordinators, had twice detected underwater signals that might have come from the missing plane’s flight recorders.

Photographs published by the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, showed crewmen using a hand-held hydrophone intended for use in shallow water, casting doubt on the value of the claims.

Still, search officials sent H.M.S. Echo, a British vessel equipped with highly sophisticated listening technology, to verify Haixun 01’s report. Several days later, Echo was quietly pulled from the area of the Chinese ship and sent to assist Ocean Shield, an Australian vessel also equipped with high-tech listening equipment that had detected four signals that search coordinators believed came from the plane’s flight recorders.

The delay in deploying Echo to join Ocean Shield may have cost searchers the opportunity to record more signals and narrow the underwater search area, officials say.

Willy Lam, a specialist in Chinese strategic policies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that the lack of more sophisticated Chinese equipment was striking.

“According to the state propaganda, they are supposed to have sent the best they could muster, because it’s national prestige at stake, and they face a lot of pressure from the victims’ families,” Mr. Lam said. “In spite of all the hoopla over China building an advanced military, they seem to have not much to show in this operation.”

In an interview, a high-level official in the Malaysian government stiffened when Chinese involvement in the search arose. “Really helpful, aren’t they?” he said sarcastically.

Several analysts said that Beijing was under intense pressure to show its domestic audience that it was not only in the forefront of the search effort but also the most productive.

“The question is, Who delivered first?” said Carl Thayer, professor of politics at University of New South Wales in Australia.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond Monday to messages seeking comment on the search.

The international response to China’s missteps might not have been so negative had China been less critical of Malaysia’s handling of the investigation, analysts said. For weeks, the Chinese authorities and the state-run Chinese news media hectored the Malaysian government and demanded more transparency and information sharing.

Despite China’s clumsy execution, few observers question the government’s commitment to finding the plane.

“The scope, scale and expense of Chinese operations exceeds anything that China has undertaken to date,” said Jonathan D. Pollack, senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “The Chinese are at least as intent on achieving definitive results as anyone else.”

“It’s possible that this has led some Chinese personnel to reach premature judgments based on limited or inconclusive observations,” Mr. Pollack said. “But this hardly seems unique to China.”

About Jerry Frey

Born 1953. Vietnam Veteran. Graduated Ohio State 1980. Have 5 published books. In the Woods Before Dawn; Grandpa's Gone; Longstreet's Assault; Pioneer of Salvation; Three Quarter Cadillac
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