The Black Box of China’s Military

Beijing is spending hundreds of billions of dollars on defense, but no one quite knows what they're up to.

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

The People’s Liberation Army does not have a website. There is China Military Online, which boasts that it’s "approved by the Central Military Commission," (CMC) the 11-member body chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping, which oversees the PLA, and is the military’s "only news portal website." There are other Chinese news sites, like Chinamil, which hosts Liberation Daily, a newspaper put out by the PLA’s general political department, the shadowy department tasked with running the army’s political activities. And there’s a website for China’s Ministry of National Defense, an organ which is subordinate to the CMC, and which is nominally the public face of the PLA. But the world’s largest standing army, and the CMC which oversees it, has decided not to bother.

On March 5, during an annual meeting of its legislature, Beijing announced that it is increasing its military budget by 12.2 percent, to a total of $131.6 billion in 2014. While still less than a third of the $496 billion that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proposed in February for the U.S. military in 2015, it still represents a significant expansion, even after two decades of double-digit growth in the PLA’s official budget. But few doubt that the grand total allocated to China’s military is yet higher, and many in the U.S. government wish they had more insight into the method to the darkness surrounding the PLA.

There is general consensus that China, like many nations, spends more on its military than it reports: In February, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency said that China’s military budget reached $240 billion in 2013, according to Bloomberg. As the most salient data point of China’s military, Beijing’s official budget gets a lot of attention. And that’s largely because there’s little other information that comes with it. "The single number, without any accompanying detail, represents the sum total of public transparency by the world’s second-largest defence spender and the fastest rising military power, pored over by intelligence agencies and military experts from around the world in an effort to glean any clues about China’s future strategic intentions," reported the Financial Times.

So how opaque is the PLA, and how much insight and information does the United States possess? It’s important to distinguish between what the general public and the media understands, and classified information on the PLA available to U.S. government officials. "There’s a big difference between what you know and what we know," said a senior Pentagon official, who asked to speak on background because of the sensitivity of the matter. The United States has long worried about the Chinese military’s lack of openness. "They mock us some times, for how much we repeat" this call for a higher level of transparency, said the senior Pentagon official. Most recently, Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, expressed concerns about the "aggressive" growth of the Chinese military and "their lack of transparency" in a February speech.

Overall, though, the Chinese military is probably growing more transparent; or at least the United States’ non-classified understanding of it is improving. On a February trip to Beijing, the Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said the two countries’ militaries were planning to start a formal dialogue and exchange program before the end of 2014. "We know a lot about China’s defense budget, especially when compared to a decade ago," said a China military researcher, who asked to speak on background. Part of the reason, he said, is the proliferation of open source material. While the PLA might not have a website, it does support a media industry whose role, just like in the United States, is to explain it and critique it. There are countless newspapers, blogs, and military journals in China that regularly run articles about the Chinese military and what it should or should not be doing. "Technically our understanding of China’s military has improved over the last five to ten years, and we have a decent sense" about intelligence, said a U.S. defense official, who asked to speak anonymously.

The military itself does seem to have taken steps to make itself better understood to domestic audiences and foreign governments. In November, seven units of the PLA and China’s paramilitary People’s Armed Police appointed spokespeople. (Prior to that, a single spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense fielded comments for the PLA.) Not much has changed: six of the spokespeople wrote New Year’s greetings, which The PLA Daily newspaper dutifully published on its Sina Weibo account, and at least two of the spokespeople have, since being named, actually made public addresses. The PLA has made itself more open "in very small increments," said Avery Goldstein, director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania. They’re starting to publish with more frequency "things like defense white papers" and other reports, he said.

The biggest hole in U.S. understanding of the Chinese military appears to be in how it makes decisions. "We are still pretty much in the dark" about decision-making, both in terms of personnel and other areas, said the U.S. defense official, a sentiment widely shared by others interviewed for this article. "We have pretty much zero insight into how the PLA makes decisions," said the military researcher. "Zero."

When asked about how much control Xi has over the PLA — perhaps the most important question if a crisis were to occur — the senior Pentagon official paused for a minute, before replying: "Nobody knows what Xi’s control over the PLA is."

On one level, being able to control what information it releases benefits the PLA. "It’s calculated," said Goldstein. "The Chinese don’t want to reveal too much that exposes weaknesses." The PLA, he notes, realizes that it’s weaker than the U.S. military. They often say, "’if you have a gun and I have a knife, transparency does not make me safer,’" said Dean Cheng, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation. Misinformation, and the selective release of information, plays a bigger role in Chinese tactics than it does in the United States. "Mao Zedong said warfare is 70 percent political," said a former U.S. defense official with extensive experience in Beijing, who asked to speak on background. He cited the concept of san zhan, or three warfares: psychological, media, and legal. "From the Chinese perspective, political warfare, including legal warfare, is seen as a form of combat," Cheng wrote in a May 2012 article.

But the opacity also raises concerns about the intentions of the Chinese military. "They flat out refuse to put limits on what they may do!" said the senior Pentagon official. "There are interminable meetings, where we say, ‘How many submarines? Are you going to build a lot of anti-satellite weapons? 100? Five?’ Anything that would possibly jeopardize U.S. forces, we’d like to know about. But they flat refuse to say anything at all about the limit or future size of the force they might build. ‘Go straight to hell’ is their attitude." That has consequences both in the Pentagon, and repercussions back in Beijing. "Do you think when the Chinese speak this way to an [American] admiral or general, the admiral just takes a sip of tea? No! It makes them paranoid," he said. "The secrecy turns into inadvertent provocation for U.S. defense hawks to spend more on the rebalance" — the U.S. policy of moving forces toward the Asia-Pacific region. "I hate to say it, but [the PLA] have brought this onto themselves."

It’s not only foreigners who are kept in the dark. "One of the biggest discoveries of the last 10 years is that the PLA doesn’t share with the civilian leadership," said the senior Pentagon official. Indeed, an editorial announcing the institution of PLA spokespeople in the Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper, politely offered suggestions for making the PLA more open: "They could also create an ‘Open Barracks’ day for some troops garrisoned in cities, allowing the public to observe the troops going about their daily tasks. This is done by not a few foreign armies, and the positive effects are clear."

Whether the PLA will choose to adopt such nominal efforts at openness is still an unanswered question. What’s not is that China’s military is still a black box. "Is there a Chinese doctrine on military space? How does the military command? If there is a crisis, who do we call. We just don’t know," Cheng said. The key questions are the unknown unknowns in a time of potential crisis. If there is a major, unannounced build-up of China’s military, said the senior Pentagon official, "then not knowing is a disaster."

Yiqin Fu contributed research.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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