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Understanding China’s Military Transparency

Zhou Bo, an honorary fellow with Academy of Military Science
July 18, 2013
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When China published her defense white paper “the Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces” in April 2013, the western critics lauded the efforts but pointed out that China didn't put much meat on the bone and that the paper is again short on details that people would like to see. 

This raises a question: To what extent does a country need to be transparent militarily in order to build confidence with other countries? 

The first answer is: It depends on whom you are dealing with. Transparency is based on trust.  You are unlikely to make a ‘confession” when you are not sure the listeners are your friends or, in the worst case, they could be your adversaries or even potential enemies. While the west holds that criteria such as the weapons system, break-down of military expenditure, and listing of R&D efforts are essential for transparency, China stresses that there is no absolute transparency (as Prism whistleblower Edward Snowden seems to have proven. Otherwise why would the US monitor even his allies?) And, transparency only comes as a result of trust. 

Transparency also has a lot to do with military strength. Normally under-developed countries hold more things as military secrets and the militarily strong ones are not shy of showing off their muscles.  While the west believes that China today is strong enough not to be attacked by anyone, China is still concerned with a number of worst case scenarios where external forces could be involved in either China’s internal affairs like the Taiwan issue, or maritime territorial disputes with other countries. China believes that there is still a gap between her strength and that of western powers. Her objective, as laid out in the defense white paper, is to achieve military modernization by mid-century. 

Transparency is also dependent on strategic equilibrium.  During the cold war, strategic arms reduction talks took place between the US and the Soviet Union, only because both sides believe that their nuclear warheads are more than enough and that their strategic equilibrium would not be jeopardized even if they cut off the excessive warheads. But China doesn’t boost such a strategic equilibrium with, say, the US. 

Then what explains China’s efforts of publishing a white defense paper biennially since 1998? Such regularity is even rare among major powers. The answer is the growing confidence of China in her comprehensive national strength, including military strength. Recent years saw China’s state media much more willing to unlock China’s “military secrets”, from the test flight of J-20 and J-31 stealth fighters, to success in ground-based mid-course anti-missile test. The Chinese military has also stepped up PR efforts ranging from regular press briefings since 2008 to setting up an English MOD website in 2009. Foreign delegations are invited for observing exercises. Apart from the “Liaoning” aircraft carrier and nuclear submarines, China’s military “warehouse” has basically all been open to foreign military visitors. With all this together, China wishes to project a comprehensive and positive image of a peace-loving country with a peaceful rise. Put in another way, the more confident China is about her military strength and the good intentions of others, the more transparent she will be. 

Transparency is a western conception while ‘keeping secret’ is part of the Chinese culture. Yes, culture can be cultivated. Today, even the most outspoken critics in the west would agree that the Chinese society is much more liberal, and the Chinese military much more open than before. Therefore for the Chinese military to become more transparent, the west needs to convince China that their intentions are not ill and, above all, win trust from China. 

Zhou Bo is an honorary fellow with Center on China-American Defense Relations, Academy of Military Science.

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