For 10 years, the Clinton, Bush, and now Obama administrations have lamented what their political and military leaders said was a lack of transparency in China’s military strategy. Most recently, this was an underlying theme in US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Beijing last month.
Now comes a US military assessment of the future with a somewhat different and refreshing view of Chinese thinking. It says that a look at Chinese history and current efforts to modernize China’s forces make their objectives more apparent.
The Joint Forces Command, with headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, has published an appraisal of what it terms the “Joint Operating Environment” to provide “a perspective on future trends, shocks, contexts, and implications for future joint force commanders and other leaders and professionals in the national security field.” True to the US military addiction to acronyms, it is perhaps better known as JOE.
On China, JOE says that the advice of late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) for China to “disguise its ambition and hide its claws” may represent a forthright statement. The Chinese think long-term, JOE says, “to see how their economic and political relations with the United States develop.” The Chinese calculate that “eventually their growing strength will allow them to dominate Asia and the Western Pacific.”
While cautioning that JOE is speculative, it says “history provides some hints about the challenges the Chinese confront in adapting to a world where they are on a trajectory to become a great power. For millennia, China has held a position of cultural and political dominance over the lands and people on its frontiers that has been true of no other civilization.”
JOE says the continuities in China’s civilization have a negative side: “To a considerable extent they have isolated China from currents and developments in the external world. China’s history for much of the twentieth century further exacerbated that isolation.”
JOE points to civil wars, the Japanese invasions of the 1930s and 1940s and “the prolonged period of China’s isolation during Mao’s rule,” referring to late Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東). Former US ambassador to Beijing James Lilley wrote: “It was tricky keeping China engaged when its leadership seemed content to shut itself off.”
JOE continues: “Yet, one of the fascinating aspects of China’s emergence over the past three decades has been its efforts to learn from the external world. This has not represented a blatant aping nor an effort to cherry pick ideas from history or Western theoretical writings on strategy and war, but rather a contentious, open debate.”
Some China hands, however, would argue that the Chinese are still ignorant of the outside world and that this could cause them to miscalculate military power. Leaders of the US Pacific Command have, one after the other, cautioned their Chinese opposite numbers against misjudging — and underestimating — US capabilities and intentions.
“Above all, the Chinese are interested in the strategic and military thinking of the United States,” JOE says. “In the year 2000, the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] had more students in America’s graduate schools than the U.S. military, giving the Chinese a growing understanding of America and its military.”
“As a potential future military competitor,” JOE concludes, “China would represent a most serious threat to the United States, because the Chinese could understand America and its strengths and weaknesses far better than Americans understand the Chinese.”
Maybe that’s the reason US leaders have repeatedly urged the Chinese to be more transparent, while Beijing has said it has gone as far as it will go.
Richard Halloran is a freelance writer in Hawaii.