China: Keep Your Distance


January 23, 2011:  What is the Chinese military up to? This question is in the news, although it's been rattling around inside intelligence agencies, and among diplomats, for decades. Once this sort of thing hits the mass media, however, things get a bit distorted. What alarms Americans is how the U.S. is being demonized by the Chinese military leadership. Chinese politicians speak in more friendly terms, while tolerating the bellicose attitudes of their generals and admirals. The politicians refuse to rein in the aggressive attitudes of their military commanders. China experts counsel that the rants from the military are mainly to build morale within the ranks, and make it easier for the politicians to reduce corruption in the armed forces. This corruption is an old, old problem in China. It's been reduced in the last two decades, but is still there, in a big way. By whipping up this fervor for dealing with a major war, it becomes unpatriotic (for many, but not all, officers) to steal and connive. But to outsiders, it looks like the Chinese are preparing for something ominous. This is reinforced by the increasingly aggressive Chinese attitudes towards its neighbors over ownership of uninhabited islands (often just rock outcroppings only visible at low tide). Outright possession of these islets gives the owner possession of nearby oil or natural gas deposits. Something worth fighting for, and that's what worries neighbors when it comes to China's growing naval strength.

Inside China, military analysts decry the sorry state of military leadership, training and doctrine. It's easier to build new weapons than it is to train and maintain troops capable of using them effectively. The Chinese are more concerned with that, while the U.S. Department of Defense wants to portray China as a formidable foe, in order to justify a large defense budget. This is a pattern that developed during the Cold War, and continues. China has replaced Russia as the arch-foe. While the U.S. still pays attention to the defense of Taiwan, Chinese military power is seen expanding farther and farther into the Pacific and Asia.

Just how real is Chinese military power? Technically, a lot of Chinese gear is well built. This we know by observing how China has absorbed Western (including Russian) technology over the last sixty years. They can build stuff (if you have an iPhone or iPod, you are using Chinese built, or at least assembled, tech). China is still learning how to invent, design and build many of the iPhone/iPod components. Chinese have the talent and persistence to acquire the needed management and technical skills. It takes time, and Chinese leaders like to take the long view. That means realizing that current Chinese armed forces are not so good. Peacetime soldiers in general, and Chinese ones in particular, develop a lot of bad habits, that translates into defeats early in a war. But in a world with nuclear weapons, the old Chinese strategy of fighting a long war and grinding down a superior (man-for-man) force, no longer works. If you use conventional forces, you strike first and fast, then call for peace talks before the nukes are employed. This situation does not work to China's advantage. Chinese generals are going through the motions of creating a well trained and led army, like many Western nations have. The Americans are particularly admired, with all their practical training methods and combat proven NCOs and officers. But China still has far too much corruption in their military establishment, and too little initiative and original thinking. Going through the motions may work in peace time, but not once the shooting starts.

China insists that it's growing military power is for defense only. That makes sense, as a lot of money is going into the navy, which protects the imports (mainly of raw materials) and exports (of manufactured goods) that are driving the unprecedented economic growth. The Chinese try to explain away the military buildup opposite Taiwan as political theater. This may be true, for a failed attempt to take Taiwan by force would not only disrupt the economy (and create a lot of unhappy Chinese), but would be a major failure by the government. Dictatorships cannot survive too many such failures, or too many angry citizens. So it makes sense that the Chinese military growth is largely for defense. But those large defensive forces can also be used to bully or intimidate neighbors, which is what the neighbors are worried about.

Chinese leaders have more military problems internally than externally. Unrest is growing because of the government's inability to deal with corrupt officials. All this made worse by the fact that the entire population is now connected by cell phones and the Internet, a communications network that the government has not been able to control. So news of corruption, and police violence often applied to protesting victims, gets around. There are thousands of these demonstrations every year, and the size and frequency has been increasing more rapidly over the past decade. While American pundits go on about Chinese politicians and generals feuding (they aren't, as the senior civil and military leadership are all senior Communist Party members as well), the real story is the increasing civil disorder, and police officials concerned about continuing to stay on top of the unrest.

Chinese leaders are annoyed at growing pressure from their American counterparts to "do something" about growing North Korean aggression. The Chinese try to explain that they have plenty of problems with neighboring North Korea (refugees, crime), but have been dealing with the problem longer, and in more detail, than anyone else. China counsels patience, but the death of fifty South Koreans from North Korean attacks in the last year has made patience a hard sell in South Korea and the United States. Patience won't do when the public is aroused. The Chinese are coping with these excitable foreigners as best they can.

One aspect of the Chinese military buildup is the effort to force U.S. naval forces to operate farther away from the Chinese coast. That concept is very popular with most Chinese, and not acceptable to Americans. China wants the U.S. to keep its military ships and aircraft 371 kilometers from the coast (the distance international law recognizes as the "economic zone"), rather than 22 kilometers (the distance international law recognizes as "territorial waters"). Ignoring international agreements on this subject, China is determined to bully the U.S. into backing off to the 371 kilometer line. So far, the U.S. is refusing.  Both nations realize that this could lead to an accident (an aircraft or ship opening fire), which has the potential for escalation. China is apparently willing to take the risk, confident that a major escalation could be avoided.

The Chinese are also having a hard time convincing the world that China is not starting an arms race. Experienced military analysts do understand that China has not mass produced, at least at "arms race" levels, any of its new weapons. Indeed, most of those new ships, aircraft and tanks are produced in only in sufficient quantities to replace older stuff. Thus the Chinese are not staging an arms race as much as an arms upgrade. Most Chinese military equipment is still a generation or more (usually more) behind what is used in the West.  

January 22, 2011: A Japanese rocket, for the second time, delivered six tons of supplies to the International Space Station. While China spends billions on space theater (putting a man on the moon), Japanese space efforts tend to be relentlessly practical.

In China, a new law made it illegal to use force when displacing people from their homes or property. Perhaps the major source of discontent in China is local politicians (who are also Communist Party officials) illegally taking the farms or homes of people for new projects, paying the previous occupants a pittance, and often removing them by force. But potential victims of these real estate thefts (most of them technically legal) point out that corrupt officials are not reluctant to break the law, when they cannot bend it to their purposes. The national government promises to punish local officials who break the new rules. But potential victims have heard that before. The core problem is that the corruption reaches to the top. Not so much the money, but the need to maintain control over local (provincial and city) leadership. Protecting a lower level official from prosecution for corruption gives you more control over people who are now in your debt.  Then there is the influence of history, something Chinese leaders pay a lot of attention to. In the past, civil war and rebellious provinces have been all too common. Keeping local officials loyal to the center is seen as more important than keeping them honest. But at the same time, you don't want a popular insurrection on your hands. It's all a tricky balancing act, the details of which are deliberately kept from public view.

January 8, 2011:  Japan and China agreed to coordinate counter-terrorism operations. Despite frequent diplomatic disputes, Japan and China are linked by major Japanese economic investment in China and growing trade between the two nations.





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