China’s milbloggers debate PLA modernization
A vibrant milblogging community in the People’s Republic of China, where all manners of speech are closely monitored and controlled, may seem unlikely. Chinese milbloggers, however, have closely followed major defense and security developments both within China as well as abroad, from last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah to China’s anti-satellite missile test in January.
Unlike their quarrelsome American counterparts, nearly all of China’s milbloggers are in at least tacit agreement upon a central objective: the need for China to increase its national strength through the modernization of its armed forces, collectively known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This consensus reflects a combination of sources: a well-documented groundswell in Chinese nationalism over the past decade, a system of online censorship that Chinese bloggers know restricts their opinions from criticizing the government, and a widely shared belief that the U.S. and its regional allies seek to contain China’s “peaceful development” through a program of military encirclement.
While these trends restrict debate about fundamental questions of politics, China’s blogosphere has an active and energetic debate about questions of great import for the future direction of China — the development of the country’s military capabilities, an area that Chinese milbloggers appear free to discuss relatively openly. Although a large portion of the bloggers are boastful of China’s military capabilities, a lesser number remain skeptical, convinced that the PLA faces a long road before it can be matched against Beijing’s most likely competitor, the U.S.
The bulk of China’s online discussions center on the PLA’s hardware and platforms, and focus on the massive military modernization program that in recent years has provided no shortage of fodder for military enthusiasts. China’s new J-10 indigenously developed fourth-generation fighter was unveiled in January and has been a favorite topic of China’s bloggers. “Qianlizou Danqi” hails the development of the J-10 as the “pride of the Chinese People” and “Zhonghua Jian” boasts that “after seeing China’s J-10, U.S. Air Force officials’ smiles were abruptly put on hold.” Another blogger at Door of Green Dragon praises the J-10 as being comparable, if not superior, to other fourth-generation light fighters, such as the U.S. F-16 and the Russian MiG-29.
The majority of the discussions are surprisingly specific, with dozens of entries spent examining the plane’s exact capabilities. “Feihua Zhuyue” at Junmeng Zhongwenwang, for instance, devotes an entire entry to scrutinizing the radar specifications of the J-10B, the two-seater electronic warfare variant of the J-10, and questions whether its radar is capable of detecting U.S. F-22 fighters that were deployed to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, in February. He arrives at the sober conclusion that if the J-10B is to be a formidable air superiority fighter, “the objective of its upgrades must be to contend against the F-22’s stealth capabilities.” The J-10’s current planar radar is insufficient, he adds, because it does not offer the long-range detection and counterjamming capabilities necessary to defeat the F-22. “Feiyu,” another blogger, takes a likewise sobering view regarding the J-10’s abilities in air-to-air combat, which he attributes to a deficit in China’s air-to-air missile technology. He states that “without a more advanced air-to-air missile, the J-10 will be vulnerable” to U.S. fighters equipped with the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile.
U.S. capabilities and defense policies are likewise closely monitored, with entire entries examining developments in U.S. military hardware — from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to the Global Hawk UAV — and critiquing statements by U.S. officials. Addressing the deployment of the Global Hawk to Guam, “Xinlang” noted with alarm that the UAV’s surveillance and reconnaissance sensors not only allow it to identify and monitor the movements of large surface ships in the Asia-Pacific area, but also allow it to detect the snorkels of submarines. During a time of conflict, the blogger notes, “the Global Hawk poses an unprecedented threat to the [Chinese] Navy.” Specific technical assessments of U.S. hardware are also conducted by the milbloggers, in which they use available open source specifications to conduct their evaluations. In one entry by “Lingyu Yinglang,” “a virtual matchup” between the F-16E/F and the J-10 is conducted in order to properly assess the J-10’s true technical capabilities. In this comparison, “Lingyu Yinglang” examines the various aspects of the F-16E/F — from its AN/APG-68 pulse-doppler radar to its General Electric F110-GE-100 afterburning turbofan — and concludes that while the J-10 is not yet capable of competing on par with the F-16, there is enormous potential for the J-10 to be improved upon.
This intensive focus on capabilities reveals several aspects about the nature of the milblogosphere debate in China. First, that the focus on capabilities is always of a comparative nature with one particular potential adversary: the U.S. The assumption among Chinese milbloggers is that any likely exercise of Beijing’s military power will ultimately bring it into conflict with Washington, whether over the perennial Taiwan question or a regional territorial dispute with a neighbor such as Japan. The universal, undebated consensus points one to indications that capabilities are indicative of intentions.
Second, the capabilities debate in China’s milblogosphere demonstrates that policy questions are always implicitly being addressed, even if there is a broad prohibition about discussing them in such a manner as to directly criticize the government. This implicit debate is even more obvious in major developments rather than incremental improvements of the PLA.
The question of whether China will develop an aircraft carrier has consumed tremendous energy among the global PLA-watcher community, and even produced some amusing contretemps. The debate over the fate of the incomplete Ukrainian aircraft carrier Varyag, for example, has focused on whether or not it was intended to be retrofitted to serve as a luxury casino resort in Macao or as a prototype for Chinese carrier design.
Like their international counterparts, the Chinese milblogging community has entered into a surprisingly intense debate regarding whether the development of a carrier best suits China’s current military requirements. All bloggers recognize that a carrier would certainly establish China’s identity as a regional maritime power, and most echo the comments of National Defense Science and Technology Committee assistant chairman Sun Laixi, who recently stated that China already possesses the capabilities to construct one.
But a surprising number of bloggers in China have come out against the development of an aircraft carrier at this time. For example, Ye Zicheng, a professor of international relations at the prestigious Peking University, argues in his blog that since China’s naval strategy remains focused on coastal defense, a carrier is unnecessary and a poor allocation of China’s naval resources. The money needed to construct a Chinese aircraft carrier, which Ye estimates to be approximately $3 billion, “would be more effectively spent on the development of modern destroyers, advanced submarines, medium- and long-range land-based missiles and medium- and long-range fighters.” Moreover, he argues that developing a carrier would do China an enormous disservice since it would only provide additional fodder to the advocates of the “China Threat Theory,” the Chinese term for international skeptics of China’s “peaceful development.”
Those supporting the construction of a carrier do so for various reasons. Most point to the need for China to establish itself as a strong naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region and thereby limit the actions of U.S. naval forces, particularly regarding U.S. intervention in the Taiwan Strait. As blogger Jinghao notes, “Only with such strength, would the U.S. military think twice about intervening in the Taiwan Strait.” Jinghao recognizes that there are other means of realizing reunification, such as missile attacks, and capabilities such as satellites and radars are also important. Yet, if unification with Taiwan is to be peacefully achieved, carriers — three of them, according to Jinghao’s calculations — are necessary, because “only though a strong military can peace truly be realized”
All bloggers are in agreement that it is within China’s right to develop a carrier, and as Song Xiaojun states in his defense of China’s carrier ambitions, “China’s construction of an aircraft carrier is only natural,” given China’s role as a regional power and its growing global reach. What is conspicuously absent from these blogs are any discussions that question the general course of China’s military modernization. Perhaps partly because of the conscious realization that all information in the country is closely monitored by authorities in the Ministry of State Security, bloggers avoid explicitly questioning or contradicting official policy. Although Professor Ye may be concerned with the “China Threat Theory,” no blogs question whether China’s lack of transparency or such provocative actions as the recent surfacing of a Song-class submarine near a U.S. carrier or January ASAT test might serve as a legitimate source of apprehension for its regional neighbors.
One area where an absence of truly open debate affects Chinese milbloggers is in the interpretation of China’s strategy and its neighbors’ responses. A key focus is the upgrading of the U.S.-Japanese security relationship, which has so concerned Beijing that it was mentioned not once but twice in the 2006 Defense White Paper as concerning security developments in the Asia Pacific (North Korea’s nuclear test, by contrast, was given a nominal nod at the end of the list). These concerns are strongly echoed in the milblogging community, with many viewing Security Consultative Committee meetings between the U.S. secretaries of defense and state and their Japanese counterparts — more commonly known as the “two-plus-two” talks — with suspicion. Song Xiaojun reflects these pervasive, if erroneous, sentiments when he claims that the talks have resulted in Japan’s willingness to intervene militarily in the Taiwan Strait.
It is also unclear whether there is an official ban preventing active-duty PLA personnel from blogging, despite the fact that bloggers such as Qianlizou Danqi claim to currently serve in the military.
In short, the Chinese milblogosphere provides a useful, if partial, view into the development of popular Chinese thought about the future of that country’s military. More ominously, it also reflects the restrictions on a debate that cannot openly question the objectives or consequences of a military spending splurge that may be pushing China and the U.S. toward conflict.
Almost all Chinese bloggers write under pseudonyms. This in part reflects the concerns of government censorship in a country where “Stainless Steel Mouse,” the nom de plume of an undergraduate who wrote ironic Web essays criticizing censorship, was arrested in 2002 for her entries. Many of the Chinese bloggers’ pseudonyms translate interestingly into English, some of which have been indicated in parentheses below. All of the listed blogs are Chinese-language sites.
Xinglang (New Wave)
Zhonghua Jian (Chinese Sword):
Door of Green Dragon
Feihua Zhuyue (Flying Flower Pursues Moon)
Feiyu (Flying Fish)
Lngyu Yinglang (Commanding Feather Eagle Wolf)
CHRISTOPHER GRIFFIN is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute. Joseph E. Lin is the editor of China Brief at The Jamestown Foundation.