September 1, 2010  

China’s naval ambitions

10 myths America holds about China

The U.S. maritime strategy charges the naval services to develop “cultural, historical, and linguistic expertise … to nurture effective interaction with diverse international partners.” Unquestionably, no nation demands this expertise more than the People’s Republic of China. Its sheer size and pace of growth, coupled with a strategic stance that is often divergent from ours, demands attention, particularly in the maritime realm. Indeed, China’s leadership shares this perspective. Gen. Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission said that “the China-U.S. relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world. … The military relationship constitutes an important part of the overall bilateral relations. It is important not only to the strategic trust and comprehensive and practical cooperation between our two countries, but also to regional stability and world peace.”

While few can doubt the importance of trust and cooperation between the U.S. and China, recent activities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), including the fall 2008 and winter 2010 cessation of military-to-military contact, the cancellation of the 2007 visit of the carrier Kitty Hawk to Hong Kong and the 2009 harassment of the Navy survey ships Impeccable and Victorious are cause for serious concern. Understandably, these events have reinforced and added urgency for U.S. senior leaders to pursue an understanding of this enigmatic people and military.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, commented that the Chinese “are developing capabilities that are very maritime focused … and in many ways, very much focused on us.” While in Beijing in April 2009 for the PLAN Fleet Review, Chief Of Naval Operations Adm.Gary Roughead stated that understanding PLAN developments is important: “We can look at the types of ships and airplanes … but it is how countries elect to use those capabilities and how they would interact with other navies that’s important.”

This understanding of the PLAN is critical to the Navy Department’s worldwide interaction with PLAN platforms and personalities. Over the authors’ nearly two decades of China experience, however, it has become very evident that the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps combat team suffers from gross conceptual errors in its understanding of China and the PLAN. While this is not surprising, in light of common misperceptions of China and the Chinese in the U.S., it is a serious challenge that should be immediately addressed and remedied. Failures to correct our preconceived notions will at best prove embarrassing, and at worst facilitate a catastrophic miscalculation between the U.S. Navy and the PLAN. We have identified 10 myths that should be debunked in the U.S. maritime services.

Myth 1: The People’s Republic of China has a Navy and a Marine Corps.

In reality, the People’s Republic of China has an army-subordinate navy and two brigades of marines administratively subordinate to the South Sea Fleet of the PLAN. This argument is not one of semantics. It is difficult, if not impossible, to examine any organization with “navy” in the title and not place it in our experiential context. Unlike the U.S. Navy, however, the PLAN is not a separate, independent organization within the Chinese defense establishment.

Its name is instructive: It is the People’s Liberation Army Navy — a navy subordinate to the People’s Liberation Army and under the operational control of the PLA General Staff Department. This is not because it is a “joint” force, but because the PLA is the military of China. The PLAN has its own bases, a navy career path, navy uniforms and recognition as a major regional navy, but in China’s current military culture, it remains heavily dominated by the Army’s history and experience, which retains a continental orientation. Indeed, the PLAN’s most influential commander, Liu Huaqing, was a PLA officer “seconded” from the PLA to the PLAN for service in 1952 following more than 20 years of army service.

While the PLA ground forces remain the predominate military culture, under the current PLAN commander Adm. Wu Shengli, this singular strategic orientation is changing, albeit slowly. The fact that it was only in 2006 that PLAN officers were finally authorized to wear naval uniforms in billets outside of the navy demonstrates the often glacial pace of the trend away from PLA ground forces primacy. Nevertheless, Wu recognizes the rewards and challenges of building a “separate” navy and has called for the “development of an advanced military culture with naval characteristics.” This is an important shift from a continental orientation toward a maritime, power-projection alternative. It is our view that Wu will be a transformative leader of the PLAN and, in the future, likely be viewed as the father of the modern PLAN. This is not simply due to the influence of his personality but, rather, because the navy’s alternative approach — overseas presence/power projection — is increasingly viewed as more relevant to evolving pressures on national security than the PLA’s continental orientation. As China has become more engaged internationally, particularly economically, it has fueled support for Wu’s vision and, seemingly, been embraced by at least some senior party leaders. This emerging alternative, naturally, drives competition for resources, which apparently kindles friction as the divergent approaches vie for relevance, bureaucratic authority and patronage.

Myth 2: The PLAN doesn’t really “get it.”

Actually, the PLAN understands the U.S. Navy far better than the U.S. Navy understands the PLAN. During the Cold War, our Navy enjoyed an almost singular focus on the Soviet Navy. While there were other occasional “pop up” concerns, the Soviets were clearly the main effort. Cold warriors were singularly focused and experienced, and the Soviet target set was relatively easy — the U.S. and the Soviet Union shared a similar background and similar historic concepts and we defined each other as enemies. Nothing could be farther from today’s China challenge. PLAN “America” experts spend an entire career developing a deep understanding of the language, culture, history, strategy and current significant personalities of the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps combat team, while U.S. Navy personnel are rarely able to focus on one area for longer than a single tour. China’s effort has built PLAN foreign affairs officers who are fluent in English, have studied abroad, possess an intimate understanding of U.S. Navy issues and are trusted advisers to PLAN senior leaders. The PLA’s research and evaluation of U.S. strategy and operational art is shockingly deep and broad, and often shapes war-fighting doctrine.

Conversely, while many U.S. maritime services personnel are dedicated to China, few currently on the “China account” have visited China, fewer still speak Chinese and nearly none have enjoyed direct, day-to-day experience with the PLAN and PLAN strategic initiatives. Disappointingly, no experts are placed to affect critical Navy Department planning and policy efforts. The deep understanding by the PLAN allows its officers to be extremely predictive on how the U.S. will act, react and negotiate. The inverse is also true — our superficial approach does not allow deep, predictive analysis of PLAN strategic initiatives.

Myth 3: History is history.

The Chinese view of history is fundamentally different from the American perspective. PLA officers frequently quote a 5,000-year history of China. While this statement is somewhat true, it facilitates a very selective view of history. A 5,000-year history provides multiple, and in many cases, contradictory, historical cases to support arguments. For example, while Chinese officials prior to 2006 argued that China was a continental power, an examination of the great voyager Zheng He reveals a time when China “ruled the waves” and was undoubtedly one of the world’s pre-eminent sea-powers. Since 2006, however, China and the PLAN have recast China as a maritime nation and claim the logical Zheng He lineage.

Americans are very much prisoners to views of history in linear, discrete periods, sometimes identified with four-year blocks of presidential administrations. Conversely, Chinese see history in a way that facilitates strategies bounded in decades, if not centuries. Apocryphally, when asked in 1972 about the importance of the 1789 French Revolution, Premier Zhou Enlai responded that it was “too early to tell.” It is fair to state that this historical long-view greatly shapes PLAN strategic thinking and enables very different approaches to engagement and planning.

The frequent, and simplistic, assumption by U.S. officers is that Chinese officers know “true” history, but are obliged to repeat the Communist Party of China (CPC) narrative. In practice, the party perspective is an accepted construct. While the complex and paradoxical jingoism of its narrative often muddies even its own debates, it is naïve to assume the PLAN can be persuaded simply by our rational, frank talk, or personal relationships built during a single meeting. Right or wrong, divergent perceptions shape the relationship.

Myth 4: PLA senior leaders are party hacks.

While this argument may have been accurate in the past, the PLA continues to professionalize and modernize. A crude mistake is to assume it is simply a numb, incompetent tool of the party; it is not. Many of the new generation of PLAN senior leaders are leaders because, like U.S. leaders, they have mastered their craft. While they are all party members, to view them solely in a party context is not appropriate — these seniors are not just party members (all are), but they truly understand the maritime profession of arms. For example, Wu is a party member and a member of the 17th Central Committee of the CPC. He also has had a significant operational career in the PLAN including a destroyer command, a destroyer flotilla command, command of the pre-eminent PLAN naval academy (there are multiple PLAN academies), a fleet command, and service as a deputy chief of the PLA General Staff prior to assuming command of the PLAN in 2006. Other significant PLAN leaders such as Deputy Commander Vice Adm. Xu Hongmeng, Chief of Staff Vice Adm. Su Shiliang, North Sea Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Tian Zhong and Wu’s possible successor, Vice Adm. Sun Jianguo, currently a deputy chief of the General Staff, have had similar career progression. While meritocracy is progressively becoming more influential to advancement, especially for senior leaders, party loyalty remains the pre-eminent condition for a successful career. But extrapolating increased professionalism as a signal of impending emancipation from the CPC is to apply our ideal state-military relationship to the PLA. Simply, PLA officers will never be an entity detached from the party apparatus; they are a part of it even as they develop greater professionalism.

Myth 5: They’re structured like us.

While partially true, this is a misconception. The PLAN has, and displays, a rank system comparable to our British Royal Navy-derived structure. The PLAN officer’s rank, however, is not the indicator of hierarchy in the PLA. It is, instead, the positional grade or zhiwu dengji of the officer. Every officer’s job in the PLA is coded to a positional grade — from platoon leader to central military commission vice chairman. Every positional grade can be filled by a primary or secondary rank. For example, the position of commanding officer of a frigate may be “coded” to the positional grade of a regiment deputy leader (fu tuan). As such, the primary rank for that commanding officer would be a commander, while the secondary rank would be captain. This causes a great deal of confusion among American interlocutors, particularly when confronted with a base/ship/squadron commander who is actually junior in rank to his deputy commander.

Recent evidence of this phenomenon is exemplified by the PLAN Gulf of Aden Task Group of late 2009-2010. The task group was commanded by Senior Capt. Qiu Yanpeng. The deputy commander was Rear Adm. Gu Likang. The important question is not the rank, but the positional grade of the officer. U.S. Maritime Service personnel comprehension of the PLA system is further complicated by the absence of the rank of brigadier general, and the addition of the PLA rank of senior colonel (senior captain in the case of the PLAN; the Chinese words to describe army and navy ranks are the same, a navy commander, therefore, is referred to as a “navy lieutenant colonel”). This does not, however, necessitate the equivalence of a PLAN senior captain to a U.S. rear admiral. There are many senior captains in expert, technical jobs such as photographer, band leader, etc., yet there are no U.S. Navy rear admirals serving as the chief of naval operations’ photographer.

Myth 6: The PLAN will pursue “dual wins.”

This myth is based on U.S. desire. The PLAN, actually, will pursue Chinese wins. The U.S. very much seeks cooperation, transparency and reciprocity from China and the PLAN. Indeed, the 2009 Annual Report to Congress on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China explains “the limited transparency in China’s military and security affairs poses risks to stability by creating uncertainty and increasing the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation.” It is imperative to understand, however, that China, and by extension the PLAN, will behave in its own interest, even as the U.S. seeks cooperation and avenues for PLAN transparency. While we continue to pursue “dual wins” with the Chinese, it is very instructive to note that the Chinese language has no native means of conveying this concept. Diplomatic language used to convey this widely sought result expresses “dual win” as shuangying, or literally, “a pair of wins.” If 5,000 years of Chinese history have not required a means to communicate dual wins, is it realistic to believe that it will be a pursued Chinese methodology? It is counterintuitive for the PLAN to pursue outcomes seen as advancing U.S. worldwide goals. PLAN leaders have heard the translation of “dual win” enough to understand how much emphasis the U.S. places on these outcomes, and parrots “dual win” discussions. Evidence since the commencement of contemporary military-to-military relations with China does not support, however, that the PLA or PLAN will work to advance U.S. goals, but will pursue the goals of a modern, growing China. The PLA strongly reflects balance-of-power realism and typically uses a “win-win” paradigm only when it actually calculates some advantage.

Since 2005, when then Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick urged China to become a “responsible stakeholder,” PLA officers regularly, and enthusiastically, use this verbiage to assert mutual benefits. When the PLA applies this premise, however, the U.S., often mistakenly, assumes its counterparts are seeking dual wins or are concerned with the well-being of the international system when, in fact, PLA officers routinely assess a zero sum benefit. The PLA profits from this misperception and the PLAN, in particular, echoes this tactic loudly.

Positive outcomes for the PLA may be access to venues not previously accessible, new opportunities to operate autonomously, or even an ability for China to maneuver independently bolstered by international legitimacy. For the PLAN, it also justifies a broadening reach. For example, many would herald the PLAN deployment to the Gulf of Aden as evidence of new Chinese and PLA desires to behave as a responsible stakeholder. It is more likely, however, that the perception of danger to Chinese-flagged shipping caused this decision, which validates the PLAN’s — and by extension the party’s — strategic framework. It is important, therefore, that the PLAN has deployed to the Gulf of Aden — not because of a desire to combat worldwide piracy, but in spite of a desire to remain outside of regional issues.

The reality of Chinese actions in the interest of China does not suggest we should ignore the PLAN. The PLAN’s deployment is an important step. It should be interpreted, however, using Chinese logic, not ours. Even for the most benign issues, the PLA seldom compromises, rarely concedes, and never considers “paying it forward.” Logically, we can not resent or admonish the Chinese from acting in accordance with their vital interests, even when it is applied with realist arithmetic. It is critical, however, to appraise Chinese motivation honestly, and candidly manage our approach and expectation. This demands we continue to seek participation and cooperation in areas that are of high importance to PLAN and Chinese leadership, and facilitate the mutual understanding and trust we so strongly pursue. Further, this also compels the U.S. maritime services to pursue a deeper understanding of PLA and PLAN methodologies and strategic thought — if for no other reason than the comprehension of what is, and is not possible, in the U.S.-Chinese relationship.

Myth 7: The PLAN is not transparent.

Where you sit determines what you think. The PLAN is transparent — but only to the PLAN. The U.S. continues to pursue and encourage transparency from the PLA and PLAN. Through the U.S. prism, of course, the PLAN is anything but transparent. According to the 2009 Military Power Report, there are ample examples of PLA obfuscation, deception and espionage. The PLAN’s perspective of transparency, however, was exemplified by the April 2009 International Fleet Review in Qingdao, China. At the review, the PLAN “debuted its nuclear submarines.” Submarines, to include the nuclear-powered, 30-year-old Type 092 Xia-class SSBN, were in fact on parade — transparency according to the PLAN. The fact that the modern 093 (Shang-class SSN) or 094 (Jin-class SSBN) submarines were absent was beyond the scope of relevancy to the PLAN. PLAN leadership reasoned that, since the PLAN had never displayed the 30-year-old Xia, a 2009 Fleet Review presence allowed them to “debut” the boat.

This example highlights the common misinterpretation that characterizes many military-to-military events: an assumption that Chinese officials will reciprocate U.S. efforts equally. Naturally, we use our definitions of reciprocity, transparency and sincerity; Chinese perspectives on these topics, as well as continuity of PLA personnel, facilitate PLA exploitation of the mil-to-mil relationship.

Myth 8: The PLAN is developing a professional NCO corps.

The PLA certainly desires a professional noncommissioned officer (NCO) corps. In fact, the Chinese Ministry of Defense 2008 White Paper even highlights that the PLAN is “also endeavoring to expand the scale of training for NCOs and foster intermediate and senior NCOs qualified for technically complex posts.”

Of course, identifying the need or desire for a professional NCO corps, and making it work are two different things. It is useful to examine the PLA’s challenges by applying the theories contained in Geert Hofstede’s “Power Distance,” concepts that are also addressed in the best-selling work “Outliers,” by Malcolm Gladwell. Power distance is the difference between groups, or individuals, in a system of inequality; in this case, the difference between officers and noncommissioned officers. American military power distance is somewhat low, Hofstede would argue, as American NCOs can address problems, mistakes or efficiency and make substantive decisions. The PLA, however, suffers from high power distance; it increasingly appreciates the strength the U.S. military draws from the skill, leadership and intelligence of our NCOs. Chinese society, however, creates an atmosphere where the Chinese non-college-graduate, non-party-member NCO, cannot, and likely will not in the near future, be empowered to suggest, critique or lead to the commander’s intent.

Even the ability to discuss NCO-related issues for the PLA is difficult. In June 2008, the Pacific Command’s senior enlisted leader led a delegation of senior command NCOs to China. The reciprocal visit during October 2008 was led by Maj. Gen. Zhong Zhimin, chief of military affairs at PLA General Staff Department, not a Chinese NCO. How will a military establish a professional NCO corps when the NCOs are not empowered to speak to other NCOs? The Chinese are likely attempting to “downgrade” positions previously held by junior officers to NCOs as well as attract some college graduates as NCOs for short-term service. This is, however, more likely described as “noncommissioned officers with Chinese characteristics,” not a professionalization of the NCO corps.

Myth 9: It’s all about the guanxi.

Guanxi is defined as relations, as well as connections or networks, and is extremely important in Chinese society, as well as the PLA. Indeed, leadership monitoring of China is heavily involved in the understanding of the relationship linkages of different camps such as the Shanghai clique or Communist Youth League clique. To a certain extent, these linkages continue into the Chinese military with different military members likely tied to different party leaders. These relationships, however, are far more important to the Chinese and the PLA culture than they are to the U.S.-PLA military relationship.

There is a very common misconception that we can find “our guy” in the PLA who understands us, will talk to us and with whom we can work. This has even become a joke to the Chinese, with a recent lampooning of U.S. military leadership desires for friendship with PLA generals in an infamous cartoon showing four PLA generals around a map of the mainland and Taiwan. One general states that a U.S. military leader “in addition to wanting your mobile phone number also wants to be your Facebook friend, sir.” This one-to-one desire for a personal relationship is, however, contrary to PLA organizational behavior.

Understandably, the U.S. places high premiums on interpersonal relationships — it has served us well in the past and it is how we approach our personal friendships. The PLA, however, has demonstrated that there are not personal relationships that can be leveraged during periods of tension or emergencies.

The example of Adm. Joseph Prueher, former commander of Pacific Command and former ambassador to China, on relationships with senior Chinese decision makers, is instructive. During his tenure as PACOM commander, he met most of the senior PLA leaders. When the EP-3 crisis unfolded, these same leaders would not accept Prueher’s calls. Charles Hooper points out in “Going Nowhere Slowly: U.S.-China Military Relations 1994-2001” that: “The secretive and conservative culture of the PLA and the nature of domestic PRC politics precludes meaningful relationships between senior PLA officials and their U.S. counterparts. … The facts remain that in crisis, a top priority of most senior Chinese leaders — in addition to resolving the crisis — is assessment of how their involvement might impact or influence their future position and status. … Since no PLA leader would risk being labeled as a potential traitor in the aftermath of a potential Sino-U.S. crisis, regardless of the stakes or outcome, it is unlikely that they would reach out to a U.S. counterpart or that they would accept a telephone call from one.” Even with the 2008 implementation of the Defense Telephone Link, or hot line, it is likely that PLA, and PLAN, leadership will continue to use practiced tactics of “silence, denial, and obfuscation.”

Myth 10: The PLA (and therefore the PLAN) is a national military.

The PLA, including the PLAN, is the military arm of the Chinese Communist Party. It is a party, not a state or national, military. Officers, soldiers and sailors swear allegiance, first and foremost to the party, then to the people with the service member’s oath of: “I am a member of the People’s Liberation Army. I promise that I will follow the leadership of the Communist Party of China, serve the people wholeheartedly, obey orders, strictly observe discipline, fight heroically, fear no sacrifice, loyally discharge my duties, work hard, practice hard to master combat skills, and resolutely fulfill my missions. Under no circumstances will I betray the motherland or desert the army.”

Indeed President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission Hu Jintao outlined the values of the PLA as: “Be loyal to the party, love the people, serve the country; devote yourself to [the party’s goals]; and value honor.”

Party control of the military is not just a holdover from the Red Army days of Zhu De and Peng Dehuai. As recently as spring of 2009, Gen. Li Jinai, director of the General Political Department, called debate on government control of the PLA “wrong thinking.” Li stated that the PLA must “unshakingly uphold the basic principle and system of the party’s absolute leadership over the army.” Loyalty to the party is so important that it is often reiterated and reinforced. Officers and sailors of the PLAN task groups deploying to the Gulf of Aden, usually shortly after departing Chinese waters, swear an oath of success for their mission. This oath begins with a statement of loyalty to the party, and then to the Chinese motherland, and lastly to the mission. While it is imperative to understand party loyalty, this by no means argues for a “less than loyal” PLA. A PLA Navy officer is just as capable, just as loyal and just as patriotic as any American naval services officer.

It appears that both sides of the Chinese-U.S. relationship are still attempting to define each other in today’s post-Cold War world. Some people, such as retired Adm. James Lyons, former commander of the Pacific Fleet, see a “real and growing” Chinese threat in the Asia-Pacific region. Others, such as Thomas Barnett, argue that much deeper and broader military-to-military engagement is possible — even in areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The truth is somewhere between the two. The PLAN is here to stay. It is successfully deploying, rapidly developing and revamping its doctrine. The most important near-term task is not establishing whether the PLAN is or is not a threat, but truly establishing a deep understanding of the PLA Navy, one that would rival the PLAN’s understanding of the U.S. Navy. Then, with clear penetration of Chinese maritime strategic thought, U.S. Navy “China hands” will be prepared to answer any call — from a PLAN threat or a PLAN partner. AFJ

Navy CMDR. TOM HENDERSCHEDT is a China specialist in the U.S. Navy. He previously served as the assistant naval attaché in Beijing, China, and currently works in Washington, D.C. He will return to sea duty in the fall. LT. COL. CHAD SBRAGIA is an infantry officer and China foreign area officer. He previously served as the Marine attaché in Beijing, China. He is currently assigned to U.S. Pacific Command. The views expressed here are the authors’ and do not necessarily represent the policies or positions of the government, Defense Department or the Navy. Research for this paper was drawn entirely from unclassified sources.