Analysis: China military risks treading on policy toes

By Chris Buckley

BEIJING (BestGrowthStock) – China’s military, emboldened and ambitious for respect, risks steering a course that jars with the country’s foreign policy soft-sell, raising the risk of confusion and blunders in a region already wary of its expanding reach.

People’s Liberation Army officers have loudly warned that national interests are threatened by neighbors’ rival claims in the South China Sea, and decried planned U.S.-South Korean drills in the Yellow Sea, between Korea and China.

“A country needs respect, and a military also needs respect,” wrote Major General Luo Yuan in the PLA’s paper.

Stressing the point, the PLA navy will hold artillery exercises on the Yellow Sea from Wednesday.

Beneath that public assertiveness, lie questions about evolving Chinese civil-military relations, a murky area with broader implications for foreign policy, especially in Asia.

The Chinese military remains firmly subordinated to the ruling Communist Party, but it has grown less finely meshed with civilian leaders, and that matters for coordinating and communicating policy, especially under pressure.

“Civil-military relations in China are very different from the old days. There used to be a symbiosis. Now they are more distinct spheres,” said Nan Li, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College on Rhode Island, who specializes in the PLA.

“Inter-agency coordination is a big problem,” he said.

With China exploring how to use its fast-expanding military, such internal uncertainties could have consequences in the region, where the U.S. keeps a big military presence.

“It clearly has tremendous implications for real policy choices both in Beijing and abroad,” David Finkelstein, an expert on the Chinese military at CNA, an institute in Virginia that studies security issues, said of PLA-civilian ties.

“China’s global security interests have expanded faster than the capacity of its traditional bureaucratic institutions to handle them,” he said.

Lobbying or wrong-footing among civil and military players could make Chinese policy-making even less like a tightly-rehearsed orchestra, and more like a band with members competing for attention, risking miscues or confusion.

One PLA strategist recently warned as much.

“With no concrete leadership for national security, when many departments become involved, coordination is difficult, responses tend to be tardy, counter-measures lack focus, and constantly problems emerge in certain links among the institutions dealing with matters,” the strategist, retired Rear Admiral Yang Yi, wrote in a study published late last year.

DEMANDING RESPECT

The PLA has received two decades of annual rises in its official budget that average out at a 12.9 percent increase every year. That rise has made it more powerful, and more impatient with foreign pressure, said PLA Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu.

“In the past, the focus was on economic development and our (PLA: ) budget was low and we were marginalized. But now it’s very different. We understand that a prosperous country needs a strong military,” he told Reuters earlier this year.

In June, the U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates took on what he saw as PLA pushiness. He claimed it was thwarting efforts to improve military ties, going against Chinese government efforts to ease tensions.

Gates’ complaint came after vehement criticism of Washington by PLA officers, and Beijing’s rejection of Gates’ hopes to visit and revive military ties put on hold by China over U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan, the self-ruled island that China claims.

PLA officer-commentators have recently renewed tough words aimed at Washington. These public growls appear aimed at a domestic audience hungry for a strong voice, said Li, the analyst from the U.S. naval college.

But by creating public and elite expectations that China will stand tough, such talk may narrow room for quiet back-downs or sow uncertainty abroad about who is steering policy in Beijing.

“Compared to the past, the influence or constraining role of Chinese public opinion on Chinese foreign policy is striking,” Wang Wen, a senior commentator at the Global Times, an often ardently nationalist newspaper, wrote recently.

NOT A ROGUE

In Zhongnanhai, the Chinese Communist Party’s walled compound where big decisions are made, the real problem may be ill-coordination, not disloyalty or outright division.

The Party demands unswerving military loyalty, especially to the top leader, currently Hu Jintao, who is also chairman of the Central Military Affairs Commission, the top body on PLA affairs.

“The PLA is still the Party’s army. They’re not running a rogue foreign policy,” said Finkelstein, the CNA analyst.

But under the canopy of Party-PLA unity, an “experience gap” has emerged, said Finkelstein.

Since the passing of China’s revolutionary elders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, both deeply involved in military command, Chinese leaders have had little to do with the PLA until they reach the cusp of top power. In turn, PLA commanders are more focused on external priorities.

The naval analyst Li said an examples of the trouble that can create was China’s anti-satellite test in 2007, when the foreign ministry appeared ill-prepared for the test, which created international worry over space debris and Beijing’s space plans.

By saying that the South China Sea is also an area of “core national interest” for China, the country’s policy-makers have also risked their credibility, because their navy is not strong enough to enforce control of the sea, said Li.

“By elevating it to a core national interest without the means to defend it, China’s deterrence is weakened,” he said.

(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)

Analysis: China military risks treading on policy toes