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Facts and arguments regarding China’s military

Late last month, the front page of the Washington Post contained the kind of story that I, as a professional educator, like to see.  The piece discussed the work of Georgetown University’s Asian Arms Control Project. Specifically, it chronicled the laborious effort of a couple dozen Georgetown graduate students to uncover, over the course of ...

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

Late last month, the front page of the Washington Post contained the kind of story that I, as a professional educator, like to see.  The piece discussed the work of Georgetown University's Asian Arms Control Project. Specifically, it chronicled the laborious effort of a couple dozen Georgetown graduate students to uncover, over the course of years, China's "underground great wall," a network of thousands of kilometers of underground tunnels constructed by the People's Liberation Army Second Artillery Corps - the same branch of the Chinese military that controls Beijing's nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles.  The students have amassed a lot of evidence, including some eye-catching pictures, of China's tunnel system.

The Georgetown project demonstrates the value of open-source basic research on the Chinese military.  Unlike the Soviet Union, which closely guarded even the most mundane bits of information, China publishes quite a lot on its military, including voluminous information on its underground tunneling program.  The problem is that, until the Georgetown students began to document the program, few in the United States paid much attention to the fact that China has poured massive amounts of resources into underground facilities over the course of decades.  Indeed, it was not until this year's edition of the Pentagon's Congressionally mandated report on Chinese military power that China's tunneling program received official acknowledgement.

China's tunneling program is of more than academic interest, however.  It raises legitimate questions about the ability of the United States to verify the scope of Chinese military modernization, including the size of China's missile force and its nuclear arsenal.

Late last month, the front page of the Washington Post contained the kind of story that I, as a professional educator, like to see.  The piece discussed the work of Georgetown University’s Asian Arms Control Project. Specifically, it chronicled the laborious effort of a couple dozen Georgetown graduate students to uncover, over the course of years, China’s "underground great wall," a network of thousands of kilometers of underground tunnels constructed by the People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery Corps – the same branch of the Chinese military that controls Beijing’s nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles.  The students have amassed a lot of evidence, including some eye-catching pictures, of China’s tunnel system.

The Georgetown project demonstrates the value of open-source basic research on the Chinese military.  Unlike the Soviet Union, which closely guarded even the most mundane bits of information, China publishes quite a lot on its military, including voluminous information on its underground tunneling program.  The problem is that, until the Georgetown students began to document the program, few in the United States paid much attention to the fact that China has poured massive amounts of resources into underground facilities over the course of decades.  Indeed, it was not until this year’s edition of the Pentagon’s Congressionally mandated report on Chinese military power that China’s tunneling program received official acknowledgement.

China’s tunneling program is of more than academic interest, however.  It raises legitimate questions about the ability of the United States to verify the scope of Chinese military modernization, including the size of China’s missile force and its nuclear arsenal.

It is that inconvenient fact that has drawn the ire of the arms control community. Over the past month, arms controllers, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and the blog Arms Control Wonk have launched a series of vitriolic attacks on the Georgetown students; their professor, Phillip Karber; and that staunch member of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, the Washington Post, which had the temerity to report on the students’ efforts.  The Post’s Ombudsman summarized the attacks – and stood by the paper’s original story – yesterday.

If this were an isolated event, I wouldn’t give it too much attention.  Unfortunately, it appears to part of an emerging pattern that indicates that the debate over China’s military modernization is entering a new phase.  Over the past few months, I’ve been peripherally involved in an academic controversy that offers both similarities and contrasts to the contretemps between Georgetown and the arms control community.  The latest issue of The Journal of Strategic Studies (which I help edit), contains "Space: China’s Tactical Frontier," an article by Eric Hagt and Matthew Durnin, that documents China’s growing military space program and explores its implications for the United States. Hagt and Durnin’s manuscript was vetted through the journal’s peer review process and was deemed worthy of publication.

Like the Georgetown project, Hagt and Durnin’s work has drawn a sharp response from the Union of Concerned Scientists’ David Wright, who objected to the researchers’ methodology and conclusions and argued that the authors overestimated China’s space capabilities.  We agreed to publish the critique as well as the authors’ response.

I draw a couple of conclusions from these episodes.  The first is the need for additional scholarly research on the Chinese military.  The Chinese write extensively about modern warfare, but the vast majority of their publications remain beyond the reach of all but the small number of researchers who are fluent in Mandarin. 

The second is the need for a civil scholarly debate.  The increasing modernization of the Chinese military, combined with the Obama administration’s "Pacific Pivot," strongly suggests that there will be more rather than fewer controversies over Chinese military power and what it means for the United States.   The sort of ad hominem attacks that the arms control community has aimed at the Georgetown team over the past month are unbecoming and, in fact, undermine their case.  The American people deserve a real debate, not name-calling.

Thomas G. Mahnken is president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He is a senior research professor at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and has served for over 20 years as an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

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