Is There More Transparency to Come?
   2013-04-19 16:48:20      Web Editor: Liu Yuanhui

A shipborne fighter jet is about to land on China's Liaoning Aircraft Carrier during a training session on Thursday April 18, 2013. [Photo: CFP]

By Stuart Wiggin

The release of China's 8th Defense White Paper on April 16 has been referred to by domestic and international media as evidence of the Chinese military's efforts to promote transparency in terms of the data that it releases. For the first time, a Chinese defense white paper detailed the personnel size of the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) three main forces and their military area commands. According to the most recent white paper, the Chinese military comprises 850,000 serviceman in 18 land corps, 235,000 in the navy and 398,000 in the air force. The white paper also outlines the priorities of the PLA and reaffirms China's much talked about principle of non-interference. So, does this herald a move towards further transparency, or is this the most that international observers can hope for?

Whilst details concerning the PLA's three main forces were provided, the White Paper did not reveal the numbers of the PLA's Second Artillery Force or the People's Armed Police Force. Yet, the unveiling of data is still significant and should not be downplayed because of this fact. Furthermore, the document also outlined that due to increasing "hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism," China's most pressing challenges now lie in the Asia-Pacific region. The document noted that an adjustment in the United States' Asia-Pacific strategy, an increased military presence within the region, and the generally tense nature of the situation, alongside China's longstanding issues with Japan, form the core of China's strategic concerns.

Earlier in the year, on March 5, the government unveiled its planned defense budget, totaling roughly 114 billion USD, representing a 10.7 percent nominal increase from the year before; in line with a trend of double digit defense spending increases over the past several years. Such a significant increase in military spending, at a time when governments around the world are largely scaling back such costs, has caused alarm outside of China due to the lack of information that the Chinese military provides to outside observers. According to official statistics, defense spending represents approximately 1.3 -- 1.5 percent of China's GDP.

Previous increases in spending without concurrent increases in transparency certainly led to debate abroad about the proposed direction of China's military. At the start of April, during a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, Dr. Andrew S. Erickson, Associate in Research at the John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University, noted that there is little mystery surrounding the reasons behind China's increased spending. PLA modernization and personal development, and the desires to assert control over contested territorial and maritime claims, develop world class capabilities, address significant domestic and regional stability challenges on Beijing's terms and enhance China's international status were among the reasons cited by Dr. Erickson.

And yet, while the motives are more or less clear, unwillingness to cede information on China's part has led to increasing levels of mistrust. As Fan Jishe, senior fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has previously noted, "Officials from both the US and China do not talk publicly about the increasingly competitive flavor of bilateral relations, but there is no denial that strategic mistrust and suspicion has deepened rather than been reduced over the past few years."

To echo this point, Dr. James Mulvenon, Vice-President of the Intelligence Division and Director of the Center for Intelligence and Research Analysis, at Defense Group, Inc., a company that performs open-source research for the US government, stated during the CSIS forum, "In the long view, it is actually becoming detrimental to China by not being more transparent about things that it can be transparent about without losing capability. There are many situations in which China, in my view, because of its unwillingness to discuss anything, is unnecessarily in some cases riling up countries in the region who in the absence of data have to assume the worst." Mulvenon went on to add, "You're playing into a military security community in many of these countries who by definition are worst case planners; and when you give them nothing to work with you have to start with extreme scenarios and work backwards."

So, it would be fair to assume that details of China's military structure revealed in the recent defense White Paper would be welcomed by outside observers hoping to gain a more concrete picture of Chinese capabilities. However, strategically speaking, scholars and officials may still want more information from China. On the topic of whether the latest data will help towards ameliorating concern among China's neighbors or the US, Li Bin, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and professor of international relations at Tsinghua University told CRI that such a result is probable but added, "I don't know to what extent it will serve that purpose, but definitely it is useful. I personally believe that such kind of transparency is useful to clarify some suspicions or concerns."

On the issue of military transparency, Professor Li was keen to point out the domestic dimension and the international dimension. "The Chinese government wants to offer military transparency to international readers to convince them that China is a peaceful country; China's military development [and] deployment is not a threat to other countries. That is the purpose of the national defense white paper. However, how much transparency China can offer is decided by domestic politics. If Chinese people want to know more about China's military, then the Chinese government would provide more transparency," Li noted.

Working on the assumption that the level of Chinese military transparency depends upon how much the Chinese people want to know, Professor Li stated that the White Paper marks the start of what will probably be a continued process of providing more military information to domestic and international observers. "I believe Chinese people will want to know more and more about Chinese military capability and plans in the future. So, the Chinese government will provide more and more military transparency, simply because the Chinese people want to know that. At the same time, the Chinese government will be able to offer more and more military transparency to the outside world."

With China's Ministry of National Defense expected to open its doors to journalists some time within the next couple of months, it appears that China is looking to boost military transparency without losing capability. And though such measures are probably the byproduct of domestic politics rather than the results of external pressure to become more transparent, it is hopeful that such moves will improve the level of strategic communication between China and countries within the Asia-Pacific region.


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