Small Wars

This Week at War: Whose Chinese Military Is It?

Hu Jintao's seeming lack of control over the PLA should worry Washington. 


Is China’s military under civilian control?

Chinese President Hu Jintao has completed his state visit to Washington, having received the welcoming ceremony and state dinner that he is said to have long sought. But the "deliverables" from the visit seem scant — a few trade deals and some bland remarks promising better cooperation. If little was expected and even less delivered at the summit, it may be because Hu lacks the authority to produce significant results from his own government. On the eve of Hu’s arrival in Washington, aNew York Times article questioned the Chinese president’s authority over a wide range of controversial issues, including China’s exchange rate policy, its trade barriers, and its influence over North Korea.

If that is so, does the Chinese president’s weakness extend to his control over the military? There have been numerous instances over the past 15 years of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) running on a seemingly very long leash. In 1995 and 2005, Chinese generals made specific threats, in the presence of the U.S. ambassador to China and to foreign journalists visiting Beijing, of nuclear attacks against U.S. cities. In 2001, when a U.S. patrol plane made an emergency landing on Hainan Island after colliding with a Chinese fighter, China’s military leadership did not cooperate with its civilian counterparts in quickly resolving the incident. And the PLA’s destruction in 2007 of a weather satellite using a ground-launched missile took the government by surprise and left the Foreign Ministry unable to respond to international concerns for 10 days. These cases of apparently roguish behavior by the PLA are most likely the result of the military’s bureaucratic independence. But they are also carefully calculated attempts to bolster the credibility of China’s military deterrence.

This seeming lack of control was worryingly highlighted last week when China conducted an unusually public test flight of its new stealth fighter during U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s visit to the country, an action some considered to be a rude provocation. The affront was compounded when it became apparent that Hu was kept in the dark about the test. Later in Tokyo, after himself listing several incidents that raised more questions about who in China is in charge, Gates asserted that "there is no doubt in my mind that it is President Hu Jintao and the civilian leadership of that government." But merely having to address such a question seems to be evidence of an unsettling problem.

A 2009 research paper by Andrew Scobell, a China scholar then at Texas A&M University, discussed the apparent gap that exists between the country’s civilian and military leadership. Scobell attributes this gap to differences in the culture and experiences of China’s military and civilian leaders. For China, this divergence is a relatively recent phenomenon. Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, who led the People’s Republic from its founding into the early 1990s, had very deep experience in both military and civilian political roles. The recent generations of Communist Party leaders have, for the most part, lacked much if any military experience. As a result, according to Scobell, the PLA has achieved a large measure of bureaucratic independence compared with the Mao and Deng eras. It doesn’t help that the staffing of the supervisory Central Military Commission is composed entirely of senior military officers except for Hu and, very recently, his likely successor, Xi Jinping.

Although the incidents cited above are indications that the PLA occasionally operates under very loose control from civilian leaders, there is, according to Scobell, a large portion of premeditation in this arrangement that seems to suit both the military and civilian leadership ranks. Scobell asserts that PLA leaders have delivered seemingly bellicose remarks and used incidents such as the 2001 Hainan Island patrol plane incident and the 2007 anti-satellite test in a calculated manner to bolster the PLA’s authority and display its determination to use force when it considers it necessary to defend China’s interests. Most notable in this regard is the PLA’s displays of determination to use force if necessary to establish China’s sovereignty over Taiwan, in the hope of deterring U.S. intervention should a crisis over the island occur. But even if the PLA’s leaders display bellicosity and independence, the ends they are attempting to achieve match those of the civilian leadership.

Should a military crisis occur, ambiguity over who controls the Chinese military could increase the risk of miscalculation and miscommunication for diplomats scrabbling to avoid a war. China’s leaders may hope that their calculated ambiguity will deter a U.S. response during a crisis. But if this gambit fails, such a crisis might end up messier than it would need to be.

Red flags for the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan

What are the best ways to fight an insurgency? Researchers at the Rand Corp. think they have an answer. These analysts studied all insurgencies begun and concluded between 1978 and 2008. Their goal was to find strong evidence that would either support or reject various approaches for combating insurgent movements.

In an article written for Small Wars Journal, Rand’s researchers summarized the detailed report. The 30 cases examined in the study occurred on six continents and across a variety of cultures and terrain. From the cases, Rand extracted 15 "good" practices and 12 "bad" practices for counterinsurgents. As one would expect, virtually all the cases exhibited a combination of good and bad practices.

The good news is that the researchers believe they can make some conclusions about what approaches work — when good approaches outnumbered bad, the counterinsurgents always prevailed. The bad news is that according to their analysis, things don’t look good for the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

The report highlights the need for positive involvement in the counterinsurgency campaign by the host-nation government. The local government should achieve legitimacy with the local population and practice good governance. By all accounts, the Afghan government has much room to improve on these measures.

Next, the report recommends that the counterinsurgent forces engage in multiple lines of efforts simultaneously. These would include security, economic development, and building indigenous capacity. In Afghanistan, economic development and local capacity seem to be lagging behind the security effort.

According to the report, steady access by the insurgents to tangible support was the single best explainer of success or failure. Cut off insurgents from support, whether from the local population or from across a border, and the counterinsurgents nearly always succeed. By contrast, failure to isolate the insurgents from support invariably leads to defeat for the counterinsurgent. In the case of Afghanistan, Taliban access to support and sanctuaries in Pakistan remains an unresolved and perhaps unsolvable problem and thus an ominous red flag for the counterinsurgency campaign.

The Rand report has its flaws. It follows the conventional wisdom and codes the Soviet counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan as a failure. By contrast, a team of U.S. military officers, most of whom have combat experience of their own in Afghanistan, concluded in their own study that the Soviet campaign was a success the Soviets withdrew their forces on terms of their choosing and left a friendly government behind, a regime that ended up outlasting the Soviet Union itself. In another example, the Sri Lankan government’s crushing of the Tamil Tigers occurred too recently to make it into the report; this government’s harsh but thus far successful methods would clash with a few of the conclusions in the Rand report.

These points aside, the Rand study draws some useful evidence from recent history about what does and doesn’t work when battling an insurgency. Policymakers responsible for Afghanistan very likely agree with much of the report’s conclusions. Unfortunately, Afghanistan’s stubborn facts are getting in the way of implementing this sound advice. 

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