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to think more clearly about how best to execute China policy—but the pendulum may have swung too far from the outdated perceptions of a monolithic China.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.
Deterrence, according to the Science of Military Strategy, “is an important means to contain war and protect peace.” The latest edition from 2013, penned by the Military Strategy Research Department at the Academy of Military Science, offers an extended discussion of deterrence that helps clarify the PLA’s role along China’s maritime periphery. As a kind of military operation, deterrence is the continuation of politics designed to stop an adversary’s threatening behavior and to persuade that adversary that the costs outweigh the benefits. The Science of Military Strategy states the foundation of deterrence is the threat and the possibility of violence, which makes deterrence an unfriendly process that deals in threats. The mechanisms through which deterrence works are power, resolve (a function of interest and willpower), and information transmission (sending and receiving deterrent signals).
The PLA’s deterrent efforts to protect Chinese interests in the South and East China Seas contain at least three elements to transmit Beijing’s apparent power and resolve. The first is a military presence demonstrated through exercises and patrols in and beyond the disputed areas. The second is showcasing advanced military equipment— irrespective of the problems that the PLA itself believes inhibit their successful operation—which must give potential adversaries pause. The third is building of public support for Chinese deterrence and maritime rights protection, which, based on recently-published survey data, appears to have been successful.
The Chinese military frequently demonstrates it possesses the capability to reach and operate in the disputed maritime areas. The periodic South Sea Fleet patrols out to James Shoal for sailors to pledge to safeguard China’s sovereignty send the simple message that the PLA Navy can operate anywhere in the South China Sea. Highlighting air patrols, amphibious exercises, and other naval exercises—as well as their effects for preparing the PLA to fight and win wars—strengthen Beijing’s deterrent posture. Some articles explicitly draw this connection for foreign readers and emphasize that “in a time of peace, the military exercise is the sharpening stone for the PLA to upgrade its combat power.”
Developing China’s technical base and deploying high-tech weaponry, according to the Science of Military Strategy, are important elements to improving the believability (kexinxing) of deterrence. The book highlights former-President Jiang Zemin’s interest in developing so-called “assassin’s mace” as the core of new Chinese deterrence capabilities, because of their potential decisiveness in war. It should come as no surprise that Jiang provided much of the impetus behind one of China’s most effective deterrents, the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, which probably is now deployed in Guangdong Province where it can cover the South and East China Seas. The PLA’s new and emerging weaponry—whether the DF-21D, the stealth aircraft J-20 and J-31, Kilo-class submarines, Su-27/J-11 and Type-052C destroyers among many platforms and systems—offer capabilities that China’s neighbors, especially those less technically-advanced and operationally-competent than Japan and South Korea, must take seriously. As Xi Jinping told a recent PLA conference, “advanced weaponry is the embodiment of a modern army and a crucial support for national security.”
The latest edition of the Science of Military Strategy highlights the need for information channels to communicate deterrent threats and resolve. Apart from military-to-military diplomacy and other direct government communications, propaganda helps transmit both China’s readiness and willingness to fight if necessary. Moreover, U.S. and other international media regularly pick up inflammatory words providing at least a heuristic tool for Beijing to know whether the message has been received. As belligerent and uncoordinated the propaganda voices of military officers in China’s commercial media may appear, those officers describe their work as falling within bounds of policy, opining “propaganda is subject to discipline.”
Using propaganda to build national solidarity and communicate resolve cannot be placed on a roguish PLA, flirting with the boundaries of the permissible. The importance of the Chinese military’s capabilities in this area has reached the level of the Central Military Commission as shown by the 2003 Revised Political Work Guidelines, which formalized public opinion warfare. One lesson the PLA learned from the U.S. victories in the two wars with Iraq was the need to build public support for the use of force. PLA thinkers also positively appraised Saddam Hussein’s efforts to counter U.S. psychological warfare operations against Iraqi forces; however, they observed that Hussein had divided the country weakening Baghdad’s ability to deter. Also in this vein, the PLA has more direct and less propagandistic programs. For example, national defense education, according to the white paper China’s National Defense in 2004, serves to boost “national defense knowledge and education in patriotism.” Although the white paper may seem dated, national defense education is a key component of military-civil integration—an important element of the PLA’s modernization program that continues to receive important coverage at the National People’s Congress and on Army Day. Even if it is tempting to write off the military propagandists’ support as just the General Political Department, its chief still sits on the Central Military Commission and does not operate autonomously.
These are just three elements of the conventional deterrence that Beijing is using to shape the maritime security environment. They demonstrate both Chinese resolve and capability in ways that foreign countries can understand. Whatever difficulty the Chinese leadership has in coordinating and controlling actions by other elements of the government, Xi Jinping does have control over the PLA and, absent compelling logic to the contrary, the military is not just another Chinese maritime actor able to exploit bureaucratic protocols and vague authorities.
Control over the PLA and the ability to signal domestically when Chinese leaders think the military may no longer be able to prevent shots being fired give Beijing a powerful pair of tools to shape the security environment along the country’s maritime periphery. The Chinese central authorities do not need to be able to direct and coordinate strategy so long as Beijing can use deterrence to buy time to rein in actors whose pursuit of parochial interests that reinforce Chinese maritime claims threatens the peace.
China’s leadership has engaged previously in this kind of posturing with domestic unrest, demanding local governments address or suppress unrest while Beijing reserved the right to intervene to answer demonstrators’ demands. This approach, what Brookings scholar Cheng Li called “think national, blame local,” allows Beijing to avoid blame and to be the sole source of succor when the time comes to resolve the situation. The Wukan uprising of late 2011 illustrated this dynamic as the villagers expelled a local cadre but held signs seeking Beijing’s assistance while facing down riot police. As local governments, companies, and other sub-national actors create problems, the Chinese leadership and central ministries become the ostensibly responsible and moderate players in maritime issues.
Can this creation of plausible deniability of the leadership’s responsibility be called a strategy or simply deft management of an otherwise unworkable balancing act? Regardless of the answer, the PLA forms a critical component of China’s approach to maritime security and there is little reason to see the military as an uncontrollable or unpredictable actor. Instead, Chinese deterrence and its ability to generate circumspection in foreign capitals probably allow Beijing the luxury of not expending a great deal of effort to understand what provincial governments, fishing boats, and companies are doing on a day-to-day basis.
Peter Mattis is a Fellow with The Jamestown Foundation and a visiting scholar at National Cheng-chi University’s Institute of International Relations in Taipei.
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