The Buzz

How China's Military Really Sees America

In December 2017, the U.S. Government published a new National Security Strategy. This remarkable document referred to the People's Republic of China (PRC) as a "revisionist power" that sought "to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests." One month later, in January 2018, the Pentagon released the unclassified version of its National Defense Strategy, which stated that "China is a strategic competitor." Thanks to these documents, we now know how the American military―and the broader national security community―officially views China.

 been how the Chinese military, as an institution, views America. Indeed, many of the messages emanating from uniformed officials in Beijing appear mixed and even self-contradictory. The overall message they appear to be conveying is that China's armed forces have benign, peaceful intentions toward America, but they must sometimes react aggressively to destabilizing events created by others.

An initial assessment of authoritative Chinese sources indicates that Beijing is exploiting increased international attention to (and engagement with) its military to engage in a well-orchestrated strategic deception campaign. While the Chinese military's external propaganda tends to deny or downplay strategic competition between the U.S. and China, its internal writings are often strident and anti-American. The reality is that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) sees the U.S. as an adversary and acts accordingly―while at the same time working to lull American officials into a false sense of complacency.

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Defining the Problem

China is not known for its transparency. In the most recent World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders described China as "the planet's leading censor and press freedom predator," and gave Beijing a score of 176 out of 180, ranking it fifth from the bottom. Yet while it might be difficult to assess the validity of specific pieces of information appearing in Chinese propaganda, it is relatively easy to spot broad narratives and themes. China's state-run media might not tell its consumers everything that is going on at home and abroad, but it will tell them how they should interpret the events that are selected for coverage.

Chinese military writings offer many insights. Unlike the United States, China does not have a professional national military. The PLA is the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a political organization that has exercised a monopoly on power in China since 1949. As such, PLA writings must pass through a rigid censorship process to make sure they are "correct" reflections of the CCP's official position before they can be published. This process ensures that communist party officials speak with one voice on all important issues.

Like any military, the PLA produces field manuals, technical studies, and other written materials that are not intended for outside consumption. Compared to propaganda writings, internal PLA materials are often more candid and detailed. What is the official PLA view of America? Is there a difference between how Chinese military sources portray the U.S. in public statements and internal ones? If so, what does this imply about Beijing's intentions?

PLA Propaganda

Authoritative PLA writings that are made available to external audiences will sometimes make unflattering remarks about the United States, but they avoid describing America as an adversary. They do not portray the U.S. as a strategic competitor, hostile force, or enemy. They generally use neutral or mild terms to describe U.S. actions. When they are critical, China's military writings will often refer to the U.S. indirectly, and they will not suggest the possibility of armed confrontation.

For example, the most recent white paper made available by China's defense ministry is entitled, "China's Policy for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific." Published in January 2017, this report hints that problems between the U.S. and PRC might exist, but stresses the stable and constructive nature of bilateral security relations. Prior to that, "China's Military Strategy in 2014" made note of the U.S. rebalance to Asia strategy, but did not express any explicit concerns.

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