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«August 1998 1 2 Chinese Military Modernization and Asian Security* Michael Swaine I’ll speak on the question of Chinese military defense ...»

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Chinese Military Modernization

and Asian Security

Michael Swaine

August 1998



Chinese Military Modernization and Asian Security*

Michael Swaine

I’ll speak on the question of Chinese military defense modernization and its implications for

the Asian security environment. I’ll try to keep my remarks at a level where we can talk about

broader issues and concepts, and the implications of all this for regional evolution in the

security environment, U.S. security interests, U.S.-Japan relations, etc. I want to cover four different areas in my remarks.

First, I’ll speak a little bit about the logic, as I see it, behind Chinese military moderniza- tion. What drives it and what are some of its objectives? Second, what can we say about the kinds of capabilities that will likely result from China’s military modernization effort? I will look out roughly ten years and then as far as twenty years. Keep in mind that the longer you get out on this timeline, the more everything becomes informed speculation and subject to enormous caveats of various types. But I’ll nonetheless try to assess capabilities from a reasonably long-term perspective. Then I’ll address the implications of what I see in these capabilities for the Asian security environment—what do they imply for specific issues of interest for the United States and its allies? Finally, I’ll say something about how to respond to all this. What sorts of things could be done today in the near term to deal with Chinese military modernization and its implications?

First, the logic of PLA modernization. It’s important to draw a distinction between the conditions that drove Chinese military modernization or Chinese military thinking and military postures in the past—and by the past I mean up until the late 1970s during the Communist period, from the late ’40s until the ’70s—and what has been driving it under the reforms. During the past, the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, Chinese defense policy was driven by a specific set of conditions that the Chinese confronted at the time, both internally and externally.

They had, obviously, a very large population with a low level of education; a relatively low level of technology; and a relatively underdeveloped economy, and they were existing in an * This is an edited version of a lecture given at the Asia/Pacific Research Center on April 30, 1998.

3 environment that was very much dominated for most of this era by the bipolar confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, both of which were much stronger powers than China militarily and both of which had considerable reach. Moreover, one of these powers shares a long border with China and the other is a Pacific power that had (and continues to have) an enormous Asian presence, right on the Chinese periphery. At the same time, after the breakup of the Sino-Soviet alliance in the fifties, the regime in China became very much wedded to a notion of self-reliance and to a Maoist approach to development, if you will—highly ideologically charged, centrally controlled in many ways. The defense posture resulting from these conditions was characterized by three major features.

The first was a concept of defense-in-depth. By this I do not mean the technical definition of defense-in-depth as it is used to describe the placement of forces on a battlefield, but rather a broader definition of the concept as a defense strategy keyed to the idea of dealing with a superior military force by absorbing that force into your own territory because you could not engage the enemy beyond your territorial borders, and then hoping to whittle that force down, exhaust it through attrition, through fluid mobile guerrilla warfare and the employment of massive ground forces. This strategy of absorption and attrition was also possible because China had a dispersed infrastructure; that is, critical social and economic resources were not concentrated in any one particular area, but tended to be dispersed across the country. This was a concerted policy by the Chinese leadership that began in the late ’50s and early ’60s and led to the transition of and movement of large amounts of industrial infrastructure from the northeast to the southwest of China.

The second major feature of China’s past defense strategy was the use of the specific tactics of “people’s war”: relying upon a low-tech military structure centered on large ground forces, backed by massive reserves and militia forces, trained to live off the land and conduct fluid combat maneuvers. This involved an application in the postwar period of the kinds of tactics that were used by the Chinese against the Japanese and against the Nationalists during the 1930s and 1940s.

The third element of this defense strategy, which evolved in the mid-1960s, was the creation of a minimal low-tech nuclear force, which was regarded as the critical element of deterrence against an attack from these two larger and stronger military powers. This “counter-value” force contained a small number of relatively unsophisticated nuclear weapons and delivery systems that could pose a threat to a small number of cities and populations of either the Soviet Union or the United States. It obviated the need for a large, “counterforce” nuclear arsenal with a full second-strike capability and the accompanying doctrine of mutually assured destruction that was basic to U.S./Soviet thinking and strategic doctrine.

Those were the elements that drove a lot of Chinese military thinking and defense policy throughout these decades. What has happened in the last fifteen years is that many of these assumptions and conditions in the Chinese environment have changed radically. On the one hand, a new notion of development has emerged that rejects the past Maoist approach toward internal development, which was ideologically driven, mass-mobilization oriented, and stressed large-scale production campaigns. In its place, China has adopted policies and reforms emphasizing very much the idea of pragmatism, market orientation, opening to the outside, greater use of foreign technology, greater use of foreign markets, greater use of foreign know-how, etc.; all these phenomena have led to a much greater level of interaction with the outside world.

This transformation reflects in part an erosion in the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and its communist ideology occurring after the tumult of the Cultural Revolution.

4 Rather than the use of Maoist ideology, we have seen a much greater reliance on economic growth and continued economic development—delivering the goods, in other words—in order to maintain the authority and legitimacy of the Chinese state. Reform-oriented economics has become increasingly important. Moreover, as part of this process, there also occurred a shift in the infrastructure in China, a concentration of Chinese industrial power and economic development along the coastline. This has become a pronounced feature of China’s development under the reforms; it emerged in the ’80s and is continuing to deepen.

Despite efforts to increase the amount of development in the inland areas, there is still a pronounced emphasis on coastal areas.

On the military side, very significant changes have taken place. Globally, there have been major leaps in military technology that have increased the accuracy and the firepower of weaponry and that have also increased the speed of warfare and the scope of battlefield awareness. All of these things have eroded the ability of China’s past military strategy to provide for China’s security in a conventional sense. In addition, major changes have also occurred in the nuclear arena; these include increasing capabilities to detect and also to attack nuclear facilities and nuclear weapons, and the potential, at least, for the development of some type of missile-defense capability by the more advanced industrial states. These developments have eroded the efficacy of China’s relatively unsophisticated, minimal deterrent nuclear force structure.

So what has all this led to? It has produced a transformation in the way the Chinese look at their security environment and what they need to do, in many respects, to ensure their future security. Doctrinally, it has led to a concept of what the Chinese call active offshore peripheral defense. In other words, in order to try to maintain security in this kind of situation, which has in many respects increased the vulnerability of China, as the Chinese see it, over the longer term, you have to establish the ability to defend China beyond its territorial borders, to engage and defeat a potential enemy before he reaches your borders.

That doesn’t necessarily mean extending your military reach to enormous distances from continental China. But it does require trying to deal with threats to China’s territory that could emerge along China’s periphery, especially its maritime periphery, and being able to control such threats, counter them, and in some cases act preemptively to prevent them in ways that the Chinese military has been completely incapable of doing in the past, and in many respects is still incapable of doing to this day. At the same time there is also a growing awareness that China’s security interests are extending beyond simply that of the continent itself, that of the territory of China. China has a greater interest in foreign markets, and has a greater interest in and will have an increasing interest in foreign energy supplies. That has provoked discussion within Chinese strategic circles about how China goes about trying to ensure the security of those aspects of its economic growth and development that lie outside its territorial borders.

In terms of military modernization, this has led to an emphasis on trying to acquire types of conventional weapons that can be used to counter or eliminate some of the vulnerabilities that are presented by the evolution of global military technologies. It has also led to efforts to attain some capabilities in the areas of battlespace denial and battlespace control beyond China’s borders. This has involved an increase in air and naval capabilities of various types, and has involved attempts to increase jointness within the Chinese military; that is to say, greater levels of coordination across the different services and among different components of the military. All of this is becoming the emphasis of military modernization because the PLA has shown consistently major weaknesses in being able to adjust to this kind of new 5 situation. It has large numbers of weaponry, but of very low quality—still ’50s and ’60s equipment. Most of the weaponry is of limited range, endurance, and maneuverability, including the ground forces as well—certainly, their air and naval components. They have very limited air and naval transport, including transport of combat troops, both across ground and even more so across water. They have poor coordination within and among their different units and very poor, until recently, command control and intelligence that would knit together large scopes of essential battlespace. Because of this poor coordination, military regions have long been the core of the Chinese military structure, reflecting in part the inability of the Chinese to coordinate large amounts of forces across relatively large amounts of territory. They have also had very poor early-warning and battle-management systems. They don’t have such things as AWACS, they don’t have such things as long-range or over-the-horizon radar for long-range surveillance. And, finally, they don’t have a very strong, in my view, defense industrial base. The defense industrial base has in many ways been weakened, not strengthened, by the reforms, because of the emphasis on defense conversion—on converting defense industries and factories to commercial production to generate profit to ultimately then be used to try to improve the science and technology level, industrial level, and military capabilities of China. This process is still very much, in my view, in the early stages and has led to a decrease on the part of many defense industry infrastructures in China in their ability to produce weaponry of any kind, be it good, bad, or whatever.

In response to all this, the Chinese have been trying to acquire certain types of capabilities. What have they actually attained in terms of their military modernization effort to try to close some of these vulnerabilities and attain some of these other capabilities that would better protect their territory and also protect their force structure? They started off in military modernization in a very incremental, systematic way. They began by dealing with the living conditions and the lives of the troops themselves. They began by improving the situation of troops because that was, in some sense, the easiest to remedy and also the most immediate in need of attention. The Chinese military is very, very large; the educational level is very low; what it takes to maintain these troops is extensive; and they were living in very primitive conditions. There were improvements in these areas, and in the nature of the officer corps as well. In other words, there was a lot of emphasis on what we call “software” as the first stage of Chinese military modernization, rather than the acquisition of certain types of hardware capabilities.

The professionalization of the officer corps has gone forward and has shown some very significant improvements under the reforms. It’s more merit based and it’s developed according to professional criteria much more than in the past. It’s much more technically oriented, and a much more regularized system of promotion and retirement for the Chinese military is in place which has in some ways revolutionized the officer corps in China. A decade ago the average age of officers at each level of rank was roughly six years above what it should have been according to regulations. Today there are officers at each level who are actually about six years younger, on average, than the regulated retirement age. In fact, they’re often younger, on average, than their equivalents in the U.S. military, at many different levels. We’ve seen a real change in that sense and also a change in many of the more professional aspects of training.

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