The Chinese Military and the "Taiwan Issue": How China Assesses Its Security Environment

Article excerpt

This article discusses China's assessment of its security environment by examining the role of the "Taiwan Issue" in China's military modernization and domestic politics. It sheds light on the strategic outlook of the world's largest yet most understudied armed forces: China's People's Liberation Army (PLA). It argues that the remilitarization of the "Taiwan Issue" since 1995-96 has provided the PLA with impetus for acquiring more resources and influence. Although the PLA is a Party army that exists to safeguard the interests of the Chinese Communist Party, interviews and close studies of open-source material reveal interesting differences that result from evolving doctrinal developments, force structures, and broader political considerations. China is not only developing a military option vis-a-vis Taiwan but also building a modern fighting force befitting China's aspired "great power" status. The PLA's evolution will thus test China's "peaceful rise" slogan.

The Might of a Rising Power

China's leaders (the so-called Fourth Generation) (1) have recently advocated a new, more pragmatic and effective foreign policy. (2) Dubbed "peaceful rise" (heping jueqi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) or "peaceful development" (heping fazhan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), (3) this strategy promotes China's growing "soft power," (4) winning China praises and defusing the "China threat" concerns. Epitomizing this statecraft are China's active free trade agreement agenda with its Asian neighbors and its pursuit of worldwide energy security.

Yet China has also become more willing to flex its military muscles. In late 2006, China unveiled its biennial defense white paper, which continued to justify the double-digit increases in China's military expenditures. (5) In January 2007, China unveiled its advanced homemade fighter, the Jian--10a cheaper alternative to advanced Western aircraft. (6) On January 11, 2007, China shocked the world with its anti-satellite technology by destroying one of its aging weather satellites with a medium-range ballistic missile. After failing to confirm the event until almost two weeks later, (7) senior U.S. officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, publicly voiced their concerns about China's rapid development of military power and lack of transparency. (8)

Why did China cast away its carefully nurtured new image? Chinese officials sought to reassure the world that China remained committed to its fundamental objectives of pursuing "peaceful development" in a "harmonious world," notwithstanding these recent events, and that China's military modernization befits its rise as a world power. (9) But soothing rhetoric is unlikely to quell speculation: Are these recent events isolated incidents or signals of a fundamental shift? Into what kind of "great power" will China grow? Only time will answer these questions. But in light of China's rapid economic growth, improved military capabilities, and opaque strategic intentions, a study of how China views the country's security environment--especially the "Taiwan issue," on which the Chinese military rationalizes its buildup--is critically important for not only the Asia-Pacific region but also the world.

This article sheds light on the strategic outlook of a remarkably understudied armed forces that are also the world's largest: China's People's Liberation Army (PLA). With its sheer size, rapidly increasing capabilities, and uncertain intentions, the PLA is a vital pillar for a powerful China. Hence, the PLA's assessment of the country's external security environment, especially regarding the "Taiwan issue," entails profound implications.

Challenges to Understanding China's Intentions

Although important, the study of China's assessment of its external security environment is intellectually challenging. First, given its sheer size alone, China's military warrants scrutiny. …