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Sunday, June 17, 2001

China no threat to Asia just yet

CHINA AND THE PEOPLE'S LIBERATION ARMY: Great Power or Struggling Developing State? by Solomon M. Karmel. MacMillan, 2000, 229 pp., 35 UK pounds (cloth).

China is a revisionist state. It wants to challenge the existing international order -- or at least the way things work in Asia. The country's history, its size and its culture all confirm China's belief that it is the rightful leader of this region.

How can Beijing bring about that dominance? Traditionally, that is a job for the armed forces (frequently acting as the handmaiden of economic interests, to be sure). Is the Chinese military up to the assignment?

That is the question Solomon Karmel, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, takes up in this slim but convincing study. He concludes that, "by almost every measure, China is a developing state.

"Like the Loch Ness Monster, [China's] threat to other great powers, regional powers, or even small but well-defined nation states is unlikely to emerge anytime soon," Karmel writes.

Admittedly, the sheer size of China's military is impressive. It has nuclear weapons and millions of men under arms, and it has embarked on an aggressive modernization campaign designed to create an efficient and effective 21st-century fighting force.

But that is only half (perhaps less) of the story. Numbers can be fiddled; budgets are proof enough of that. Just as important, if not more so, is the thinking that guides military planning and the operational procedures that put the pieces together.

That is where Karmel directs the bulk of his attention. His book, he says, was "written in response to writings that appear to fundamentally misrepresent the goals, the force structure, the economic foundations and the budget of the People's Liberation Army and the state leadership that it is designed to defend."

Move beyond the numbers and things look very different. Karmel writes that "even if we assume that China has updated some 10 percent of its army groups (all those listed as crack troops for whatever reason), this still leaves over 2 million soldiers in the standing army with aging weapons and an unclear mission. . . . In internal circulation documents, China's self-assessment of its naval forces is that they primarily comprise small vessels with limited capacity far from the mainland. Many open sources claim that the power and responsibilities of the Chinese Navy, despite increased budgets, are not up to the task of protecting China's great seas and coastlines. Meanwhile, closed sources decry the air force as even weaker."

China is changing its strategy. Strategists recognize that the concept of people's war that propelled Mao Zedong to power and has been gospel ever since is outdated. They also know they must move carefully: It is gospel and Mao's legacy remains powerful.

Modernization requires a new ethic and, quite frankly, a level of elitism -- a word that is anathema in a "people's republic." Karmel believes that this new strategy is emerging. It embraces technocratic command, but that label will never be used by the military leadership. Its central precepts have been endorsed, however. It calls for a more powerful, more centralized, better educated, better trained and leaner officer corps as the central component of military strength. It will be complemented by the development and acquisition of affordable, manageable and select high-tech ordnance.

That is the plan, at least. Can it work? Can a half-century of strategy, tactics, philosophy and organization be changed? Karmel is skeptical and with good reason. Political clout is needed, and the last man who had sufficient standing with the party and the military was Deng Xiaoping.

"It is not clear that China will have the internal political will to throw off the legacy of excessive force size, backward technology, and socialistic management," writes Karmel. "The Chinese armed forces may be condemned to prolonged and indefinite modernization."

Expand the focus and the conclusion seems inescapable. "A comparative analysis of regional developments negates the idea that China is hegemonic or could in any way dominate its neighbors. . . . Even if China's power is increasing, the words and deeds of China's neighbors suggest that they feel more secure and confident vis-a-vis China than they have felt in decades."

Karmel believes that China's modernization and growth are not bad in themselves. Maturity may temper Beijing's revisionist inclinations. Joining the World Trade Organization, for example, will require expansion of the rule of law, a more liberal economy and a more international and less mercantilist outlook. If economic growth requires political stability, there should be better relations between the state and its citizens. A more professional and better-managed military could aid external relations. Armed forces are nationalist, but they also know most intimately the price of war.

That sort of realism is needed in Beijing and elsewhere as China enters the 21st century.

Brad Glosserman is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank, and a contributing editor to The Japan Times.

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