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Chinese Army Building in the Era of Jiang Zemin

Authored by Dr. Andrew Scobell. | July 2000

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China is likely to adopt some combination of the four different army building strategies set out above. However, at least in the medium term it should fail to achieve its goals of becoming a military world power. I now focus on the former point before returning to the latter. Although, as noted earlier, China has, in practice, already adopted a patchwork of elements from all four army building strategies, the inclination of China?s civilian and military leaders will be for China formally to select one.

Army building strategies three and four are least likely because neither offers the prestige and glory to the PLA in the same way that aircraft carriers, armor, and high performance fighters do. Strategy four (?Don?t Play That Game?) is highly touted by some Chinese military thinkers and some analysts in the West but probably enjoys limited appeal in the Chinese defense establishment as a whole. It will also be difficult for civilian leaders to advocate this strategy. Strategy three (?Changing the Rules?) can be largely eliminated?but not completely?because of inter-service rivalry. The various branches of the PLA will likely be competing head-to-head more and more intensely for limited resources.130

The first and second army building strategies are more likely. Doctrine and warfighting scenarios, and perceptions of the international environment all tend to favor the selection of strategy one (?Playing the Superpower Game?) and, to an extent, strategy two (?Playing to Your Strengths?). Domestic variables point the same way except these suggest budget battles will likely lead to strategy one being rejected and strategy two being adopted.Strategy two is more astute budget-wise but probably not politically viable. Strategy one is the most appealing to China?s political and military leaders and to the masses, but too ambitious to implement properly.

Ultimately, probably by default, strategy two will be selected officially, but a combination of the four options will actually be implemented. The powerful appeal of ?Playing the Superpower Game? is likely to win out among China?s civilian and military leaders over the attraction of ?Don?t Play That Game.? For civilian leaders, the craving for international respect and the desire for China to be seen as a bona fide military power will probably win out. The prestige, size of budget share, manpower, etc., are all factors that make military leaders desire conventional military armaments.

Despite the above forecast, there are still reasons for China?s neighbors and the United States to be concerned. It is likely that China?s defense establishment will strengthen over time. However, rather than obsessively focus on the emergence of a more powerful threatening dragon, other countries should give more attention to the strategic implications of a weak China. Indeed, China today is not as powerful or as significant a player as it is often made out to be.131 And there is the possibility that China might become weaker militarily and economically and perhaps evolve into a looser federal system or in a more extreme case, even to fragment. While the probability may be low, it cannot be completely ruled out, and this eventuality must be seriously considered as a future scenario.132 The dangers of not contemplating the unthinkable are evident when one recalls that few analysts in the 1980s anticipated or even entertained the possibility of a Soviet collapse.

Moreover, China?s prospects for democratization tend to be rated as minimal. While the likelihood of China making rapid strides toward democracy in the short term is virtually nil, long-term trends are more promising. 133 Recent survey research reveals the presence of attitudes receptive toward multiparty democracy among Chinese entrepreneurs and local government officials. 134Whether China is making great strides or small steps toward democracy, this does not necessarily mean that China will become pacifistic. While a widely-held rule of thumb is that democracies do not fight democracies, research suggests that democratizing states tend to be bellicose. 135

In many ways it can be far easier to deal with a strong, centralized great power than a sick or dismembered one. When the Soviet Union existed, one knew that negotiating with the regime meant dealing with Moscow. If an agreement was worked out with some kind of verification mechanism in place, one could be fairly sure that it would be implemented. In the post-Soviet era, an agreement in Moscow is more difficult to achieve, and one has less confidence that it will be implemented. Even if the provinces tow the line, 14 additional republics must be consulted. Today in China, what goes in Beijing does not necessarily hold true for Guangzhou or Shanghai.

Although I argue that China will not succeed in becoming a military world power during the next 10-15 years, this does not mean I believe that China poses no threat to the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, the widely-held conviction that the PLA poses a modest or nuisance threat gives rise to a dangerous tendency to downplay or dismiss the very real threat China?s military presents. 136 Despite assurances that China will be too preoccupied with domestic matters to have time to get involved in foreign adventures,137 it should be remembered that China?s leaders seem particularly prone to perceiving foreign threats if the country is beset by domestic upheaval? especially if Beijing concludes that there is ?collaboration? between internal and external hostile forces as in the case of the popular protests of spring 1989. 138Itis precisely at these moments when Beijing is likely to lash out in order to demonstrate to its enemies that China remains ever vigilant and prepared.

However, rather than fear a highly capable PLA winning stunning victories, the militaries of the Asia-Pacific region should be more concerned about the prospect of spectacular failure. The most plausible scenario is Taiwan. Failure on a grand scale can come about either if China?s leaders mistakenly believe the PLA can win in a specific scenario and so proceed to launch an attack, or if Beijing believes it is unlikely to win but has no choice but to go ahead and attack anyway. Either way the results of a failed military strike may be worse than victory, particularly in the case of action in the Taiwan Strait. This is because where Taiwan is involved, China is unlikely to admit defeat and desist. If the PLA is vanquished on the battlefield China is likely to persist in its quest. Beijing will seek to rebuild its military might in order to ensure success next time. Thus defeat, rather than clear the air, will probably prolong and heighten tensions in the region. It may well spark a serious arms race, as China?s neighbors perceive an increasingly threatening security environment and respond.

In sum, China?s national military and national security strategies in the Jiang Zemin era merit careful scrutiny, not merely in the context of the specific military capabilities that the PLA is acquiring or seeking to acquire, but also in terms of China?s aspirations. China?s expressed intentions and goals, as reflected in the statements of top officials and the writings of strategic thinkers, must be constantly monitored.


130. Stokes, China?s Strategic Modernization, pp. 14-15.

131. Gerald Segal, ?Does China Matter?? Foreign Affairs, Vol. 78, No. 5, September/October 1999.

132. Recent analyses give this scenario a low probability but do not rule it out. See Pei Minxin, ?Will China Become Another Indonesia?,? Foreign Policy, No. 116, Fall 1999, pp. 94-108; Khalilzad,et al., The United States and a Rising China, pp. 14-16.

133. Andrew Scobell, ?After Deng, What?: Reconsidering the Prospects for a Democratic Transition in China,? Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 44, No. 5, September/October 1997, pp. 22-31.

134. More than 50 percent of local officials and more than 50 percent of entrepreneurs do not think a multiparty system would result in political chaos. While this is not strong evidence of activist democratic beliefs and difficult to interpret conclusively, the implications of these findings are enormous. See Bruce J. Dickson, ?Private Entrepreneurs and Political Change in China,? Paper presented to the Annual Meeting of the Association of Asian Studies, Boston, MA, March 1999, p. 18 and table 11. For more on the democratic attitudes and prospects for democracy in China, see the special issue on ?Elections and Democracy in Greater China,? The China Quarterly, No. 162, June 2000.

135. Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder, ?Democratization and the Danger of War,? International Security, Vol. 20, No. 1, Summer 1995, pp. 5-38. For a study that applies this idea to China, see Garver, Face Off.

136. Solomon Karmel, ?The Maoist Drag on China?s Military,? Orbis, Vol. 12, No. 3, Summer 1998, pp. 375-386; Bates Gill and MichaelO?Hanlon, ?China?s Hollow Military,? The National Interest, No. 56, Summer 1999, pp. 55-62; Patrick Tyler, ?Who?s Afraid of China?,? New York Times Magazine, August 1, 1999, pp. 46-49; Segal, ?Does China Matter?,? pp. 29-32.

137. Tyler, ?Who?s Afraid of China?.?

138. Wu, ?China,? p. 133. See also Allen Whiting, The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence: India and Indochina, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975.