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More on China's military transparency

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COMMENTS

6 November 2007 09:18

Sam Roggeveen is right to put a spotlight on the US fixation with the ‘transparency’ of China’s military build-up. China’s military rise unsettles many countries. With new missiles, aircraft and ships conspicuously entering service, Beijing surely expects nobody to buy its line that budget increases are about rewarding the men and women of the People’s Liberation Army (admittedly 2.2 million of them) with proper 21st century pay and conditions.

The US strategy of chiding China for lacking transparency seems to be having some effect. China now goes out of its way to portray itself as having nothing to hide, publishing biennial Defence White Papers that get longer, more sleep-inducing and, yes, more transparent with each edition. Beijing has announced it will resume annual reports to the UN’s voluntary register of arms sales. It makes quite a PR fuss these days about inviting foreign (even Japanese) observers to some of its military exercises.  And it cites as another sign of transparency its proliferation of military activities with other countries, from humble search-and-rescue simulations with India to massive ‘counter-terrorism’ wargames with Russia, involving thousands of troops, armour, jets and amphibious landings (any resemblance to an assault on Taiwan being purely coincidental). 

Yet, after several years of huffing and puffing, the US openness drive could be running out of steam. The easy gains have been made. We are likely to start seeing diminishing returns. China is learning, all right.  For a start, it is learning that putting on a good show often works better than pretending to have something to hide (look where the latter got Saddam Hussein). The day may even come when China tries to turn the tables with high-sounding demands for more military transparency by the US, much as it has done with annual human rights reports. The fact that the US armed forces are already too transparent for their own good is beside the point. Like every self-respecting military since the fall of Troy, they still have plenty to hide.

Anyway, it is unlikely that all the transparency-mongering in the world will rewrite the strategic culture of Sun Tzu (‘all warfare is based on deception’), refreshed by Deng Xiaoping’s slightly less venerable advice to ‘hide your capabilities and bide your time’.

So it is a relief that the US appears to be turning down the volume. Two years ago at a defence forum in Singapore, Donald Rumsfeld called on Beijing to explain its growth in military spending, ‘since no nation threatens China’. Robert Gates still asks for answers, but with something approaching subtlety — and without absurdly implying that China’s strategic environment and history is somehow so benign that it might as well be the New Zealand of Eurasia.

The answers to ‘What is the PLA for?’ are not all that hard to find. The 2006 Chinese Defence White Paper may be full of euphemism and generalisation (‘the PLA is dedicated to … providing a solid security guarantee for supporting the important period of strategic opportunity for national development’) but there is plenty to be read between the lines. And, with their annual reports to Congress, the Pentagon’s analysts do a fine job of making the PLA transparent beyond Sun Tzu’s worst dreams.

Photo by Flickr user rpoll, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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