Is There a Civil-Military Gap in China's Peaceful Rise?

Article excerpt

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the People's Republic of China appears intent on becoming a responsible great power. Beijing continues to insist--as it has for several decades--that "peace and development" are the key trends of the times. President Hu Jintao claims that China is focused on building a "harmonious" and "moderately prosperous society" at home and a "harmonious world" abroad. Beijing has taken great pains to stress that its growing power does not threaten any nation, and the world is witnessing China's "peaceful rise" or "peaceful development." (1) China is increasingly integrated into the global economy and embracing multilateralism in unprecedented ways. Yet, at the same time, observers are alternately alarmed and perplexed by the recurring harsh, threatening rhetoric of senior Chinese military leaders and the intermittent but provocative acts by the People's Liberation Army (PLA), as all branches of China's armed forces are collectively identified. Is there a civil-military gap in China's peaceful rise? The author suggests the answer is "yes."

Perhaps the most infamous bellicose blasts were those uttered by Chinese generals in late 1995 and mid-2005. These remarks concerned bravado about nuclear weapons and the targeting of the United States. The most incendiary military actions were missile tests in 1995 and 1996 in the vicinity of Taiwan; a collision between PLA and US military aircraft in 2001; an incident involving a Chinese submarine and US aircraft carrier in 2006; and an unannounced antisatellite test in 2007. The hawkish verbiage of PLA generals seems part of a deliberate and calculated Chinese deterrence effort, and the periodic provocative acts by the Chinese armed forces reflect a civil-military relationship in which civilian control is loose and hands-off.

Mixed Messages

What explains the outspokenness of Chinese officers and the audacious actions of China's military? Why does the PLA appear so belligerent? These harsh words and apparent provocations could be counterproductive. Indeed, they seem to contradict the peaceable image Beijing so assiduously tries to cultivate around the world. China insists that it seeks to have good relations with all countries, especially the United States.

Many China analysts assume that Chinese commanders are more hard-line--but not bellicose--toward the United States and the Taiwan issue than are civilian leaders, and that the PLA is tightly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). (2) Outspoken officers and belligerent events, however, raise questions about these assumptions. Is there a significant chasm between the thinking of Chinese civilian and military leaders? Is there a worrisome laxity in civilian control of China's military? In other words, are there serious gaps in China's civil-military relations? The answers to these questions require an examination of China's civil-military relations.

A Gap in Attitudes and Perspectives?

The term gap is used in two ways: First, to refer to a possible serious difference or disconnect between the attitudes and perspectives of civilian and military elites based upon different career paths and life experiences and, second, to refer to possible loose civilian control of the military. (3) Members of a nation's armed forces are part of the larger society and hence share key aspects of its culture and values. Nevertheless, due to the nature of their profession they possess their own distinct culture with a set of core values and attitudes that are significantly different from those of the civilian world. (4) Samuel Huntington's depiction of a conservative, pessimistic, and realistic "military mind" is born out in empirical tests: Military personnel hold different perspectives and mind sets than civilian elites, especially political leaders who have never served in the armed forces. These differences include how they approach the use of military force. …