Chinese Military Posture

16 April 2013


Chinese defense budget

The Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China has just released a white paper on China’s military posture, which can be read in its entirety online: The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces. This document is remarkable not for its insights into Chinese strategic thinking or its application of Sun Tzu’s philosophy of war or even “strategy with Chinese characteristics” but only for its resemblance to military white papers from western nation-states, which idiom (and acronyms) it has thoroughly adopted.

This use of the idiom of contemporary western military professionalism is doubly interesting, since public statements of the Chinese government often continue to be jargon-laden pieces of communist theory — sometimes to the point of impenetrability. Some time ago in What is Strategic Trust? I mentioned an article in Foreign Policy by Isaac Stone Fish, Hu Jintao on China losing the culture wars, which very effectively poked fun at the irony of the Chinese leader’s formulaic use of communist nostrums in the attempt to urge his fellow Chinese to improve the quality of their cultural production.

It is precisely this absurd communist jargon that is missing from the just released report The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces. Instead, the report indulges in the western parallel to this: the absurd jargon of western bureaucratic military jargon and acronyms. There is a pattern here of rigidly formulaic thinking. Of course, such patterns are to be found in the official documents of all nation-states, but the question is whether it is believed by those who use this language, or whether such language is used merely out of a misplaced sense of bureaucratic necessity.

It was interesting to note that the report mentions the “three evil forces” which have been a talking point for the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and I recall when I last wrote about this I remarked on how the press releases of the SCO read like those of any western military exercise. And while the report mentions the three evil forces of “terrorism, separatism and extremism,” Tibet and Xinjiang, where the Chinese are most likely to encounter these forces, are only mentioned peripherally in this report (in relation to rivers and schools in the section titled “Participating in National Development”), as the Diaoyu Islands (which Japan calls the Senkaku Islands) are mentioned only once.

At the same time that the Chinese were releasing their official version of China’s military posture, Focus Taiwan published a short piece, China yet to deploy 094 sub, JL-2 & DF-41 missiles: security head, mostly about China’s failures to fulfill its military ambitions for weapons systems commensurate with the technologically advanced weapons systems of western nation-states. The article was concerned with the trouble China continues to have with their latest submarines and ICBMs.

It is easy to focus on Chinese ambitions to join the club of nation-states operating aircraft carriers or fifth generation fighters, but it is also important to recall that China has had difficulty in tooling its industries to design and build world-class weapons systems. The Chinese have long had difficulty building missile boats (as with the above-noted difficulties with the 094 Jin-Class submarine and the JL-2 ballistic missile), for example.

The Chinese still buy the jet engines for the most sophisticated fighter jets from Russia, which despite its decrepit communist economy was able to create and sustain an industrial plant nearly equal to that of western powers during the Cold War (including supersonic jet turbines and missile boats). This came at a price for the Soviet Union, of course, and it would come at a price for China. So is it the case that the Chinese are unwilling to pay the price for a world-class defense industry, or that they would be willing be to pay the price, but are simply unable, as yet, to design and build the hardware? It would take a China specialist to give a definitive answer to this question, but it is a crucial question, because to answer this question would be to determine whether China’s military posture is voluntary or involuntary.

If China’s present military posture really is voluntary, that means that China’s leadership really does believe in their own “peaceful rise” and in “strategic trust.” If, however, China’s present military posture is involuntary, forced upon it by circumstances beyond the control of China’s leadership, then that means that “peaceful rise” and “strategic trust” really are the formulaic platitudes that they appear to be. We must be prepared to entertain either of these hypotheses, as, at present, they are empirically equivalent theories.

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Chinese defense spending

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Grand Strategy Annex

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8 Responses to “Chinese Military Posture”

  1. China’s situation reminds me of Germany in the late 19th Century after they were united, but without the worst silliness of the Kaiser. They also have already solved (via Tibet) some of their living space issues, but their resource issues may be more severe.

    They want to be a great power, but have a lot of conflicting goals. They are a continental power, but one who could gain a lot by building up its naval capabilities. But if they do that, they risk (as happened to the Germans) fighting a continental war and seeing all their naval spending going to waste. They also seem to oscillate between near-shore (Taiwan) and blue navy (Africa et al.) strategies.

    My guess is that they cannot afford to upgrade the truly expensive items in-house, and still maintain their size. If I am recall correctly, their military also tended to be very zone focused, and they likely risk angering one area, if another area gets all the cool toys.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Thanks for your perceptive comments!

      I don’t disagree with anything that you’ve written here, although I have to admit I would not have come up with the parallel to 19th Germany on my own.

      With this parallel in mind, it is interesting to note how Europe, at least in a few places, managed to make multi-ethnic states work. Not only Germany, but France, Italy, and Spain are patchwork states of many different ethnic groups. Italy, like Germany, was unified in the 19th century, while Spain was unified by the reconquista in late medieval period and France was one of the first unified kingdoms in Europe.

      There were also experiments in multi-ethnic European states that failed (Czechoslovakia), and those that failed catastrophically (Yugoslavia).

      In Asia, Singapore has made a multi-ethnic state work (Singapore is very small — Dubai might provide a similar example), but China is dominated politically by Mandarin-speaking Han Chinese, and many of the constituent peoples of China, nominally Chinese, but in effect left out of the social contract, are kept in line only through force and the threat of force.

      Thus Chinese military posture is first and foremost an instrument of internal power projection, and only distantly second an instrument of external power projection.

      I believe that these sociopolitical forces are as much ingredients in China’s strategy recipe as those that you mention.



      • Dexter Trask said

        Nick, I would also point out that for most of modern European history (since 1648, say), multi-ethnic states have been the norm rather than the exception. The House of Austria comes to mind as possibly most emblematic, but Russia was and continues to be a multi-ethnic state par excellence. Indeed, I cannot think of a single European state outside of the micro-states or maybe Ireland that is not multi-ethnic (and not just through immigration). Spain has Basques. The U.K. has geological strata of conquered or annexed Celts. France has Basques and Celts. Denmark has Germans. Sweden has Lapps. Finland has Swedes and Lapps.

        Regarding the PLA, I think that you give the PLA’s own sense of purpose too little credit. I would agree that of late it has not been used for any external power projection (to the extent that, as a recently as a few years ago, I have heard any potential invasion of Taiwan referred to around the Pentagon as ‘the million-man swim’). But the PLA’s own terror at what it saw of U.S. military performance against a relatively large Iraqi army in both Gulf Wars was genuine enough. If the PLA (really, the Central Military Committee of the CCP) saw garrison duty of Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia as its primary function, a conscript infantry army would more than suffice. But it the PLA is modernizing furiously not because it sees itself as a sword of the Party to project Chinese power abroad, but because it sees itself as the guarantor that the humiliation of Chinese civilization at the hands of foreigners will not occur again. 1991 and 2003 convinced the PLA that they would have to modernize to have a prayer of countering U.S. military capabilities. But its self-image as a defending power as opposed to a conquering one also goes a long way to explaining why it has focused on asymmetrical and anti-access/area-denial weapons and strategies as opposed to trying to match U.S. capabilities peer-to-peer.

  2. said

    Typo in para 2: “What is Strategic Trusk”

    • geopolicraticus said

      Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I’ve just fixed the error, and a couple more typos that I found.

      Corrections are always welcome!

      Thanks again,


      • said

        You had me going for a couple of seconds: for a moment I thought that ‘trusk’ was a particularly recherche pun I would have to Google.

        • geopolicraticus said

          Sorry I wasn’t quick enough to spin it that way and play you a little longer.

          Best wishes,


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