China's Military Is NOT Going Rogue

There are a lot of things to worry about when it comes to geopolitics and national security. China's military going rogue is not one of them. 

China’s assertive behavior along its maritime periphery continues to raise troubling questions about Beijing’s policymaking apparatus and how much control Chinese leaders can exert over the different actors involved. A growing number of studies, including a recently-released report from the Lowy Institute in Canberra, suggest Beijing is incapable of exerting control because of the variety of Chinese foreign policy actors from the central ministries to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to provincial government elements. Nuanced examinations of Chinese security policy are welcome—in part because such nuance invites policymakers to think more clearly about how best to execute China policy—but the pendulum may have swung too far from the outdated perceptions of a monolithic China. Beijing still exerts control (at the very least) the PLA, and this conventional deterrence provided by the military creates space for other Chinese actors to push the envelope in disputed areas.

In the early years of the Cold War, China watchers often viewed Chinese policymaking as a monolithic structure, capable of readily translating intention into action with little internal, bureaucratic friction. That view probably persisted longer at senior levels of foreign governments—for example, U.S. officials’ immediate reaction that the J-20 test in 2011 was related to the U.S. defense secretary’s visit—while analysts and scholars swung toward subtler interpretations based on the mechanics of how leaders got things done coordinating among the different stakeholders in the party and the state.

In the maritime arena, the modern incarnation of the control school, best represented in the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) report entitled “Tailored Coercion: Competition and Risk in Maritime Asia," bears little resemblance to the old belief of a monolithic China acting in lockstep with leadership intentions, despite critics’ claims to the contrary. The central premise underpinning the CNAS report is that Beijing is capable of internal signaling that changes the permissiveness of the policy environment for different players to take action. The sensitivity of nationalist issues does not affect Beijing’s ability to do so. As Jessica Chen Weiss documented in her book, Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations, Beijing is more than capable of signaling directly and indirectly to domestic players what behavior is allowable in spite of nationalist sentiment. Admittedly, protestors and police are different than the bureaucracies, but the willingness and capability of Chinese leaders to intervene where nationalist sensitivities are most acute indicates that the multitude of policy players do not have carte blanche to act without restraint.

An institutionalized or normalized view of Chinese politics as a bureaucratic competition among interest groups cannot treat all such foreign policy actors equally. No doubt different groups speak in councils with varying degrees of weight and authority, but the issue of Beijing’s control also varies. Most importantly, as the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the PLA does not have a history of disobeying orders from the party center, despite many orders that were detrimental to military effectiveness, such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping’s use of the PLA to model economic policies, and the personal interests of Chinese generals, such as Jiang Zemin’s de-commercialization order in 1998.

The party leadership has given the PLA the mission of deterring infringements on China’s sovereignty and national interests. In a speech in late 2005, Hu Jintao outlined what became known as the “New Historic Missions,” which outlined the need for the PLA to “provide a strong security guarantee for safeguarding the period of important strategic opportunity for

national development” and play “an important role in safeguarding world peace.” This means, in the words of an Xinhua commentary earlier this year, “As a responsible, major stakeholder in regional peace and stability, China needs sufficient strength to prevent hot-headed players from misjudgment and thus forestall conflict and war, so as to maintain a favorable environment for the socioeconomic development of all in the neighborhood.” These sentiments have been echoed by former vice minister and National People’s Congress spokeswoman Fu Ying, institutional editorials in the PLA Daily and Xinhua, and senior military officers like Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Xu Qiliang. Put another way, the Chinese leadership has given the PLA the task of maintaining peace through deterrence.