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China’s Growing Transparency: Why it’s not all good news

by Elizabeth C. Economy
June 14, 2010

Chinese sailors stand guard onboard the Shi Jia Zhuang, a Luzhou class missile destroyer, at Valparaiso port, about 75 miles (121km) northwest of Santiago November 23, 2009. Two Chinese vessels docked at Valparaiso on Monday as the navies from both countries sought to exchange experiences as well as strengthen cooperation between each other. REUTERS/Eliseo Fernandez

Eliseo Fernandez/Courtesy Reuters

The lack of transparency in Chinese strategic thinking and intentions has long been a bugaboo in U.S.-China relations. U.S. policymakers argue that it is hard to build trust and cooperate without transparency, while the Chinese argue that such transparency only serves the benefit of the stronger power. It is therefore telling that we are now getting a strong dose of transparency from some of China’s leading strategic and political players.

The good news about this new found openness is that the United States no longer has to read the tea leaves to know what the Chinese have in store. The bad news is that we may not like what we hear.

Above all, the message from China is that its global economic reach will soon be matched by a dramatic expansion of its military reach. Rear Admiral Zhang Huachen set the stage back in April of this year, when he stated, “With our naval strategy changing now, we are going from coastal defense to far sea defense. With the expansion of the country’s economic interests, the navy wants to better protect the country’s transportation routes and the safety of our major sea lanes…in order to achieve this, the Chinese Navy needs to develop along the lines of bigger vessels and with more comprehensive capabilities.”

Leading scholar and policy adviser, Wang Jisi, elaborated on this point just a few days ago in an interview in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun:

“There are communication lines China is concerned about. There are sea lanes not only through the Malacca Straits, but also through the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and Central Asia. Military forces are needed. We already have sent fleets to fight piracy in Somalia and elsewhere. We also have to protect China’s economic interests and our citizens in many countries…maybe sometime in the future China would use its rapidly deployed forces to rescue Chinese citizens…Many Chinese will say we have peaceful intentions, and the growing of our military power will pose no threat to anyone. This is a sincere statement. But in the real world, we see the security dilemma faced by every country.”

And more transparency concerning Chinese priorities appears likely in the future. The South China Sea—long an area of contention between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors—has reportedly been declared a core issue of national sovereignty on par with Tibet and Taiwan.

Now that we know where the Chinese are going, what we need is for the Chinese and American defense planners to sit down to talk. At the very least, we can avoid conflict as we try to find our way toward cooperation. Thus far, China has not been so interested. Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait as long for China to be confident enough to reopen the military-to-military dialogue, as we did for them simply to tell us what they were planning to do.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by RousseauChen

    Quite a spokeswoman for Robert Gates. I hope you would take on the US military sometime, which is regarded by the whole world as a bully, making Iraq a worse place than under the rule of dictator Hussein.

    It is no surprising that the author would say what she said because China’s rise has made many utterly uncomfortable. Someone you can boss around all the time suddenly graduated with a PhD degree and would not like to be housemaid and demand more say…

    This does not mean that China’s military is perfect. It is not. But picking fault from the US military makes more sense,maintaining a military budget larger than the rest of the world combined.

    The whole rhetoric is speaking for the US military as an excuse for the Congress to appropriate more money. It’s an old trick employed….. We have enemies everywhere, so we need more money, despite the oil spill, the high unemployment and crumbling health care system…

  • Posted by Ben Lowsen

    This is a good piece, but I think the title is a bit misleading. China’s “openness” here seems to be mostly about PLA leaders making aggressive statements, but the kind of openness the U.S. seeks concerns processes and trends, especially military, which of course the PLA jealously guards.

    Protecting LoCs isn’t very controversial–it looks a lot like what the U.S. envisions for China, a task which will indeed require some expansion of its capabilities. Talking about expanding “core interests”, on the other hand, rightfully puts other interested parties ill at ease.

    But what is happening within Chinese government? The PLA has a distinctive view on this, and it looks expansionist. Civilian officials, conversely, whether they agree with their military or not, are much more diplomatic and measured in their statements. Is there a rift? Or is it all some sort of grand trick to gain power?

    Historically, the CCP has had a tough time keeping its military under control, and that may be the case here. It would probably be easier for China to increase its span of control with a truly peaceful rise–aggressiveness inspires fear of a “China threat”, and ultimately works against China’s development. The PLA may have difficulty grasping this and be culturally resistant to it. The CCP leadership likely understands this and may feel a need to tamp down on what its military says.

  • Posted by Ben Lowsen

    In the U.S., the military works for the government. RC’s criticisms have some validity, but should be focused on the government, not the military.

    New China, on the other hand, unlike the U.S., was founded by its military, and has yet to this day to bring its military fully under political control.

    I could be wrong on this, but why else would it be necessary for the CCP chairman also to hold the CMC chairmanship? Why military leaders’ statement contrast so sharply with those of the central government?

  • Posted by ko

    It’s interesting to note that Clinton framed the recent demonstration of US Naval prowess in the South China Sea as a matter of US National Interest to protect strategic shipping lanes while suggesting China is an aggressor” for doing exactly the same thing.

    The difference, I suppose, is a matter of geography; when you are the world’s only superpower with global military reach, the world is your national interest and all others should stick to their knitting within territorial limits you decide.

    Shame on China for allowing it’s boats to drift due South into American waters.

  • Posted by ko

    @Ben Lowsen

    Ben, is not the US President also the Commander in Chief, and did we not see a clear demonstration of that recently in the forced resignation of General McChrystal?

    Perhaps if Mr. Hu would like to lower the contrast in political discourse he could arrange Rolling Stone interviews for the PLA.

    Your thoughts?

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