One of the worries many people have about a potential military confrontation between China and its neighbors in East Asia is whether Beijing’s civilian leadership has a firm grip on the military. This particular concern has been aroused by a series of disturbing incidents going back a decade—the collision between a Chinese jet fighter with an American naval surveillance plane near Hainan Island in April 2001, the surprise test of an anti-satellite weapon in January 2007, the rollout of a stealth fighter during the visit by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January 2011, and various others.
Most recently, as territorial disputes between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands escalated, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) actions triggered even louder alarms. One of its warships aimed its fire-control radar at a Japanese destroyer in February last year, an act that could have provoked an accidental conflict. In November 2013, the PLA suddenly announced the establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that overlaps with those of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
In early December last year, in another hair-raising encounter, a Chinese naval vessel intentionally cut in front of an American missile cruiser, which was monitoring a Chinese naval exercise in the international waters in the South China Sea. Only the quick reaction by the American crew averted a collision that could have resulted in a maritime disaster.
These incidents have raised serious questions about the degree of control exercised by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which the PLA is supposed to serve, over the actions of the Chinese military.
The most alarming concern is that the PLA (or at least some of its commanders) has been pursuing an agenda that is in conflict with that of the civilian leadership. The Chinese civilian leaders believe that the imperative of maintaining economic development as the principal means of regime survival dictates strategic restraint. However, the PLA may prefer a more confrontational security posture, because tensions with Chinese neighbors and the U.S. would support the case for more defense spending, which would benefit the PLA.
Another explanation, albeit less worrisome, is that the Chinese national-security apparatus suffers from the same problem of poor bureaucratic coordination as in most other countries. According to this interpretation, the Chinese national-security apparatus has a “stove-piped” organizational structure, in which interagency communication and coordination are poorly conducted. Consequently, the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.
While these two explanations may have some partial truth to them, they are too simplistic and ignore the real political context in which the PLA operates and the incentives that motivate Chinese military commanders. In deciphering the strategic intentions of the Chinese military, a more productive approach is to analyze the degree of operational freedom enjoyed by the PLA in the context of a one-party regime that has consistently failed to penalize excessive risk-seeking behavior.
One useful observation that can be derived from this perspective is that the PLA, generally speaking, is firmly under the control of the CCP and exercises secondary influence in setting major security policies. The CCP’s most potent means of control over the Chinese military is personnel appointment. The Central Military Affairs Committee, the supreme command of the PLA, is staffed by senior commanders handpicked by the civilian leadership on the basis of their proven political and personal loyalty. These generals or admirals may have a voice at the table when Chinese national-security policy is discussed, but the ultimate decisions are made by the civilians.
If this line of reasoning is correct, then decisions such as establishing an ADIZ over the East China Sea are certainly above the “pay-grade” of PLA generals. The most likely decision-making process may involve the following steps in this particular case. The civilian leadership initially decided that China must have a strong countermeasure against Japan’s refusal to acknowledge the disputed ownership of the islands and asked various components of the Chinese national security apparatus to come up with solutions. A proposal like the ADIZ, which might not even originate in the military, was finally adopted by China’s top civilian leaders because it was viewed as a calibrated and effective move. In the same vein, major decisions like testing an antisatellite weapon or unveiling a stealth fighter could not have been taken without the approval of the civilian leadership (even though the timing was determined by the military).
While the PLA may not have decisive influence over major policy, it does have enormous operational freedom. If we analyze recent incidents that contributed to tensions between China, its neighbors, and the United States, these could be characterized, mostly, as dangerous tactical moves. Here, again, we first need to resist the temptation to exonerate the civilian leadership completely.
It is reasonable to assume that the PLA personnel were acting under general and vague directives approved by the civilian leadership. For example, it is no secret that the Chinese government has long viewed American surveillance activities along its coasts with anger. One can thus surmise that the civilian leaders have approved, in principle, that the PLA take counter-measures. However, the PLA has enormous discretion in terms of setting operational parameters.
Although there is the possibility that the PLA, as an organization, may not have well-developed procedures to set operational freedom for its front-line officers, the more likely culprit behind recent incidents is a mindset prevalent among Chinese military officers. In Chinese, this mindset is called ninzuo wuyou, or “rather left than right.” In plain English, the essence of this mindset is that officials throughout the chain of command (or officials in the entire bureaucratic system of the Chinese state) have a proclivity to interpret—and implement—generally vague top-level policy directives in a more aggressive (usually more conservative than liberal) direction. In domestic affairs, this mindset has resulted in excessive repression. In foreign policy, the same mindset leads to disproportional response or overly risky actions.
Unfortunately, based on past record, it seems that officials who have committed more “leftist” acts have either done well or avoided punishment. For example, one PLA general who threatened to “nuke” the United States a few years ago has not only retained his job, but has remained one of the most visible official spokesmen on security issues. So far, no PLA official responsible for any of the incidents that damaged Chinese ties with its neighbors or the U.S. is known to have been disciplined.
So the answer to the question whether the PLA has gone rogue is both reassuring and worrying. As an institution, the PLA has remained firmly under the CCP control. But at the same time, the Chinese leadership is giving the PLA policy guidelines and missions that, in themselves, contain seeds of conflict. In the context of the PLA’s enormous operational freedoms and mindset of amplifying the nationalist or confrontational aspects of top-level decisions, maintaining China’s long-standing policy of “conflict avoidance” is definitely getting harder. The ultimate solution, however, lies with the Chinese civilian leadership. It must assert greater operational control over the Chinese military by laying down more specific and explicit limits. Most importantly, it must dismantle the dangerous incentive structure that unfailingly rewards reckless behavior.
Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.