- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 10, 2009


For 10 years, the Clinton, Bush, and now Obama administrations have lamented what their political and military leaders professed to consider the lack of transparency in China’s military strategy. Most recently, it was an underlying theme in Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s visit to Beijing last month.

Now comes a thoughtful U.S. military assessment of the future with a somewhat different - and refreshing - view of Chinese thinking. It says, in effect, a look at Chinese history and current efforts to modernize China’s forces make their objectives more apparent.

The Joint Forces Command, with headquarters in Norfolk, Va., has published an appraisal of what it terms the “Joint Operating Environment” that is intended to provide “a perspective on future trends, shocks, contexts, and implications for future joint force commanders and other leaders and professionals in the national security field.” True to the U.S. military addiction to acronyms, it is perhaps better known as JOE.

On China, JOE says the advice of Beijing’s late leader Deng Xiao-ping for China to “disguise its ambition and hide its claws” may represent a forthright statement. The Chinese think long-term, JOE says, “to see how their economic and political relations with the United States develop.” The Chinese calculate that “eventually their growing strength will allow them to dominate Asia and the Western Pacific.”

While cautioning that JOE is speculative and does not predict exactly what will happen, it says “history provides some hints about the challenges the Chinese confront in adapting to a world where they are on a trajectory to become a great power. For millennia, China has held a position of cultural and political dominance over the lands and people on its frontiers that has been true of no other civilization.”

Though JOE doesn’t say so, this accords with the Chinese concept of the Middle Kingdom that reaches back to the Han Dynasty 2,200 years ago. From then on, the Chinese saw themselves as the suzerain to which leaders of neighboring nations paid tribute in exchange for Chinese protection and sufferance. In some cases, such as Vietnam, Chinese forces occupied part of the neighbor’s territory for long periods.

The Joint Forces Command, whose task is to help soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen to operate together, says in JOE that the continuities in China’s civilization have a negative side: “To a considerable extent they have isolated China from currents and developments in the external world. China’s history for much of the 20th century further exacerbated that isolation.”

JOE points to civil wars, the Japanese invasions of the 1930s and 1940s and “the prolonged period of China’s isolation during Mao’s rule,” referring to the late revolutionary and dictatorial leader Mao Tse-tung. The former U.S. ambassador to Beijing, James Lilley, has written: “It was tricky keeping China engaged when its leadership seemed content to shut itself off.”

JOE continues: “Yet, one of the fascinating aspects of China’s emergence over the past three decades has been its efforts to learn from the external world. This has not represented a blatant aping nor an effort to cherry-pick [select] ideas from history or Western theoretical writings on strategy and war, but rather a contentious, open debate.”

Some China hands, however, would argue that the Chinese are still ignorant of the outside world and that could cause them to miscalculate military power. Leaders of the U.S. Pacific Command have, one after the other, cautioned their Chinese opposite numbers against misjudging - and underestimating - American capabilities and intentions.

“Above all, the Chinese are interested in the strategic and military thinking of the United States,” JOE asserted. “In the year 2000, the PLA [People’s Liberation Army, which includes all of China’s military forces] had more students in America’s graduate schools than the U.S. military, giving the Chinese a growing understanding of America and its military.”

“As a potential future military competitor,” JOE concluded, “China would represent a most serious threat to the United States, because the Chinese could understand America and its strengths and weaknesses far better than Americans understand the Chinese.” Maybe that’s the reason American political leaders have repeatedly urged the Chinese to be more transparent, while the Chinese have said they have gone as far as they will go.

Richard Halloran is a freelance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.

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