The People's Liberation Army and China in Transition

By Elleman, Bruce | Naval War College Review, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The People's Liberation Army and China in Transition


Elleman, Bruce, Naval War College Review


Flanagan, Stephen J., and Michael E. Marti, eds. The People's Liberation Army and China in Transition. Washington, D.C.: National Defense Univ., 2003. 364pp. $34.50

Based on an October 2001 conference at the National Defense University, but published with revised papers two years later, this collection of seemingly miscellaneous essays all too often either misses the mark completely or treats only very lightly a long list of potential U.S.-Chinese problems.

After an introduction, the book is divided into six sections examining respectively, China's fourth-generation leadership, growing nationalism, military trends, key policy challenges, U.S.-China military relations, and, finally, future options for U.S.-China relations.

Part 1 includes essays by Bates Gill and David Shambaugh. Although these chapters are well written, many of the political leaders and structural issues they describe in such detail have changed since they were submitted. For example, Jiang Zemin did resign, and many indicators suggest that he did so unwillingly. Jiang's remaining power base, or guanxi network, may therefore be severely limited. Meanwhile, the membership of important structural bodies such as the Central Military Commission, rather than going down from eleven to eight and staying there, was later increased from eight to thirteen, thereby giving Hu Jintao crucial support to retire Jiang Zemin.

The dangers inherent in Chinese nationalism are discussed in chapters by Nan Li and Edward Friedman. Li's essay, in particular, gives real insight in his discussion of the continuing importance of "face" in China. This cultural characteristic, he argues, can have an enormous impact on how Chinese assess their enemies: "To save face, or not to lose it, for instance, the incentive is not only to show self-righteousness or all the good, positive, and strong points of the self but also to show the evil, negative, and weak points of the other," which can result in "an exaggeration of the strength of the self and the weakness of the enemy." When joined with the Maoist idea of "voluntarism, which stresses the power of the mind and consciousness that can overcome obstacles of material conditions," the two can create a deadly combination in which the "PLA strategic analyses may reflect not the balance of forces in the real world but rather an overestimation of PLA strength and an underestimation of the adversary's abilities." Friedman adds to this dire warning by stressing: "The political atmosphere in this China precludes accurate descriptions of Japan, America, or Taiwan and makes self-interested, common-sense compromises by the Chinese government seem, to many Chinese, to be virtual treason."

James Mulvenon, Bernard Cole, Richard Fisher, and Richard Bitzinger contribute worthy essays describing Chinese military reforms, naval and air units, and the level of military expenditure. Although technically sound and informative, these essays reflect the extreme fluidity in China's military modernization. It is potentially dangerous to predict China's strategic behavior solely by observing her military. Cole, for example, even while concluding that China's navy is focused mainly against any "East Asian force that stands in the way of achieving China's objectives in the region," appropriately hedges his bets in an endnote (no. …

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