Who's in command and control?

Chinese policymaking no longer seems deeply troubled by hidden rivalries between 'two centres'. President Hu Jintao has clearly ascended and former president Jiang Zemin is slipping ever further into the background.

This does not mean that divisions at the top have disappeared; China's self-selected leaders always differ over resolving the day's most pressing problems. But there seems to be no dispute about accelerating one key programme that Mr Hu has inherited: that of turning the ponderous People's Liberation Army into a nimble strike force. And its key goal remains to acquire whatever is needed to overwhelm Taiwan if and when Beijing issues the combat order.

Mainland China has special historical reasons for wanting to reclaim Taiwan. But this urge - presumably shared across the leadership - contains special risks, compounded by some security issues that are not being addressed.

Foremost is the continued lack of a modern command and control system designed to keep military and civilian leaders fully informed and involved as decisions are made. Instead, China still relies on ad hoc methods complete with faulty information flows, and is not, as far as American experts can determine, trying to fix them. Thus in any future crisis, senior leaders might not really know what is going on and have no set procedures for making policy. One result could bring dangerous moves based on misinformation.

That nearly happened three years ago when a US EP-3A reconnaissance plane was forced to land on Hainan Island after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet. It seems clear that the American plane was flying a legal course, however annoying to Chinese authorities, and was brushed by an aggressive Chinese pilot who used bad judgment. He crashed to his death and the damaged US plane and crew became captives on a military air base. A diplomatic row ensued.

The row was prolonged by Beijing's inability to act quickly, leaving Washington uncertain whether it wanted a mini war or peaceful talks. When Admiral Denis Blair, then commander of US Pacific forces, tried to calm things by calling his PLA counterparts - whom he had met before - they refused to pick up the phone. Meanwhile, Chinese diplomats were stuck with a PLA account that (falsely) blamed the Americans for everything, and had no independent information. Many days passed before Beijing was able to help close the incident. Since then, both sides have worked hard to prevent a repeat.

Yet, as the PLA modernises, Beijing has not done anything similar about the decision-making process. There has been talk of creating a kind of national security council, roughly like the American office that co-ordinates policy options at the presidential level. But it has not happened. In the meantime, key intelligence is still funnelled from top to bottom without advising other officials. The military and civilians often do not consult. Instead, ad hoc gatherings of senior leaders take over, with personalities sometimes counting more than clear policy choices.

'We have no confidence, based on the past, to believe any new crisis would be managed with skill,' says James Mulvenon, of Washington's Centre for Intelligence Research and Analysis.

This is not just China's problem. As the PLA gains new ability to invade or blockade Taiwan, the chances of a military showdown increase. Beijing has threatened to attack, for example, if Taiwan makes certain constitutional changes in 2006, while America has promised military help if an attack is unprovoked. Exactly what kind of support remains undefined. Yet politics would make it hard for US President George W. Bush to sit idly by, even if he wanted to. Any conflict could be disastrous for China's economy and for East Asia.

Thus, as the PLA adds the ability to do ever more violent things, other nations can only hope that Beijing also adds new controls to ensure that nothing terrible happens by accident.

Robert Keatley, now based in Washington, was the Post's editor from 1999 to 2001