No secret to finding out about Chinese military

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 May, 2012, 12:00am


Ever since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, US leaders and top military officers have lamented what they contend has been a lack of Chinese transparency in its military capabilities and intentions.

That alleged lack of transparency was a subtext underlying the meeting of Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie and US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta last week in Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also called for 'greater military transparency to avoid misunderstandings'.

A US official briefing the press in the Pentagon said: 'We would like to have a better understanding of the purposes, objectives and desired end states of China's military modernisation. We'd like to be able to understand a little bit more about why the Chinese are investing in this very robust and rapid military modernisation programme.' The official acknowledged that the Chinese have become more open than in the past but concluded there's 'a lot more that can be said'.

That lament, however, borders on nonsense. Anyone who wants to know what the Chinese are up to need only pay attention. Books by historians point out the continuities in 5,000 years of Chinese history. 'China hands' and scholars have written realistic assessments of contemporary China. Research centres have published a steady stream of reports on China's military power that are based on open Chinese sources. So have private think tanks. Those works and many others merit close attention.

Recently, the PLA Daily had articles on offensive drills, psychological war games, assaults in the South China Sea, a medical rescue team, border drills with Kazakhstan troops, naval escorts, and a paratrooper's live fire drill. The language was a bit puffy, not unlike that from the Pentagon, but facts could be gleaned.

From those US and Chinese sources, at least half a dozen objectives for the People's Liberation Army could be distilled: keep the Communist Party in power; subdue dissent; defend borders; conquer Taiwan; project power into the South China Sea; and protect maritime and land routes.

To show Liang a version of US transparency during his visit, he was taken to various military camps and bases, including the military academy at West Point.

There, the general had lunch with cadets and spoke in Chinese to 30 cadets who are studying Chinese. Xinhua reported that he presented the academy library with more than 200 books on Chinese military history and strategy. What General Liang had to say about transparency, if anything, was not disclosed.

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington