INTELBRIEF

August 28, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Japan’s Increasing Wariness of Chinese Military Ambitions

As of late August 2012, Japan's concerns about China's growing military expenditures have been highlighted anew in its most recent defense white paper, "The Defense of Japan 2012," published on July 31st. An annual exercise, this year's white paper again focuses much attention on China's military buildup in Asia as well as on what the authors believe to be China's increasingly assertive military chest-thumping in the region, particularly in the maritime arena. As is typical in response to foreign military white papers, Beijing's reaction was critical and dismissive of Japan's concerns about a potential Chinese military threat. One Chinese analyst even termed the white paper evidence of Japan's "unbalanced mindset."

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What's New in This Report

As in past iterations of the report, Japan's primary focus is on China's rapid military buildup, lack of transparency regarding military plans and intentions, and increases in defense spending, while highlighting the fact that China's military expenditures have more than doubled in the past five years. But in a notable departure from the past, the 2012 defense white paper for the first time raises Japan's concerns about civil-military relations in China, a subject which Western analysts have been examining with growing interest in recent years. The provisional translation of the white paper states, somewhat obliquely, that the relationship between Chinese Communist Party leaders and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) are "getting complex." The substance of Japanese concerns is their belief that the evidence shows military influence on political and foreign policy decision-making in China may be expanding.   Part of this evidence, the paper states, is that the PLA is increasingly and more publicly expressing its position on a broader range of national sovereignty and maritime issues. In addition to more intrusive Chinese naval activity, the white paper also reports that more frequent Chinese aircraft incursions into Japanese territorial space has resulted in a substantial increase in the number of instances where Japan's Air Self Defense Force intercept aircraft were scrambled in response. Japan's overall assessment is that the PLA's more muscular and farther reaching regional military activities are becoming a risk-management issue that needs to be carefully watched.  

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The Civil-Military Debate

Although Japan is not the only nation to express concern on this subject, the jury is decidedly still out on whether problems exist in China's civil-military relations. Some analysts believe the PLA has risen in influence and responsibility, and go so far as to question the extent to which the Communist Party actually controls and directs military policy in China. Other expert analysts watching the PLA believe the opposite to be true, with one 2010 study by the U.S. National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies expressing the view that the PLA now actually has a "markedly reduced role" in elite politics in China. It is thus worth reviewing several of the basic arguments on both sides.

Party Dominance.  There is a wealth of supporting evidence suggesting the PLA's role in elite politics has been reduced over the years and remains so today:

• In China's senior Party organization, the 25-member Party Politburo (now 24 with the dismissal of Bo Xilai earlier this year), only two are professional military officers, and neither is a member of the all-powerful, nine-member Politburo Standing Committee. This contrasts with a more substantial military presence in senior Party leadership during the Mao years, when the military was far more influential in politics.

• The military's authoritative leadership body, the 12-member Central Military Commission (CMC), is led by the head of the Party, a civilian, Party General Secretary Hu Jintao. This places the Party at the pinnacle of military leadership and subordinates the PLA to the Party.

• PLA ground forces, the main potential vehicle for PLA domestic influence, have been continually downsized in recent decades, while the power-projection forces of the PLA Navy, Air Force, and strategic missile forces have been expanded and professionalized. This suggests that the military's focus and mission are increasingly based on security calculations rather than political ones.

• Military think-tank analysts in China routinely emphasize that the Party remains firmly in control of the military.

Military Ascendancy.  As asserted this year in Japan's 2012 defense white paper, it is also possible to find evidence suggesting that the military is more influential and assertive in Chinese politics and policy formulation than the leadership organizational chart would suggest:

• Party Secretary Hu Jintao is one of just two civilians in the 12-member CMC, the other being Vice-President Xi Jinping, appointed only in October 2010. Neither has military experience or background, suggesting that civilian leadership of the military may be more symbolic than substantive, and that civilian CMC members may often defer to the experience and extensive knowledge of the ten professional military CMC members.

• As specified in Japan's white paper, military leaders in China are speaking out on policy issues more frequently than in the past, assuring the military view on issues is publicly known. This suggests to some a new level of confidence within the military about not only its views on policy, but also its level of influence.

• There appears to be a disconnect in China between diplomatic rhetoric and action on one side, and military rhetoric and action on the other, suggesting either a lack of interagency communication or a military that appears to enjoy independence from bureaucratic oversight. For example, the operational tempo and assertiveness of Chinese military actions in recent years, particularly in the maritime domain, at times seem to come either at diplomatically inconvenient times or to contradict official diplomatic statements. In other cases, as with the 2007 anti-satellite test, aggressive and controversial PLA actions are followed by long diplomatic silences from Beijing, suggesting that the civilian bureaucracy was caught by surprise.   • The disgrace and fall earlier this year of Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai, who had close ties to the PLA, particularly in the Chengdu Military Region, has raised questions and concerns about whether the scandal surrounding him may affect or could even be related to the military.

Much of this is informed speculation, the reality being that the civil-military interagency coordination and communication process in China remains murky and little understood. But the questions Japan's 2012 white paper raises about the civil-military relationship in China are pivotal and have serious implications for both Japan, the United States and a host of nations with deep interests in the Pacific Rim. At the very least, the issue raises concerns about whether the current bifurcation of civilian and military elites is sustainable, or whether Beijing instead should seek to connect and cross-pollinate what are now completely divergent career paths to senior civilian leadership and senior military leadership positions. Such a move could give civilian leaders more credibility in the military arena while also knitting the PLA more snugly into China's vast geopolitical bureaucracy.

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