Civilian Control and the Chinese Military

By Edmund Downie:

On January 11th, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Beijing, the Chinese military conducted tests on a stealth fighter, that, according to media reports, occurred without knowledge of top Chinese civilian leaders, including President Hu Jintao.  Gates had come to China as part of an attempt to improve defense ties between the two nations, but the tests overshadowed his visit by directing attention towards the state of civilian-military relations within the Chinese government.

The J-20 stealth fighter jet that was tested (Creative Commons, Flickr)

This would hardly be the first case worldwide of strained relationships between civilian and military authorities.  In the case of China, however, such tensions are, historically speaking, highly unusual.  Despite the role of the People’s Liberation Army in the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, modern China has never come under the spell of a cult of the military.  Consider, for contrast, Turkey, who achieved independence in the aftermath of World War I on the back of its nationalist army, led by the founder of the modern Turkish state, Kemal Ataturk.  Ataturk venerated the army as the emancipators of Turkey, and so it’s no surprise that the Turkish military retained an outsize influence on civilian affairs for years after his death, staging coups on three separate occasions to install leaders favorable to its interests.  It’s only recently that Turkey has been able to bring this influence under control, through the rise of a moderate Islam as a countervailing force.

Mao provides a fascinating comparison to Ataturk.  While he also led a nationalist army in a revolution to restore a once-proud people to glory, once his revolution succeeded, Chairman Mao ensured that economic reconstruction, rather than veneration of the military, served as the primary outlet for nationalistic fervor.  He set this tone with his appointments for the highest positions in the military, such as the selection of Lin Biao as Defense Minister in 1960, who favored revolutionary purity over professionalism in the armed forces.

All of which brings us today, where the extent of civilian control over the military seems to be coming under fire.  After the stealth bomber tests, Gates admitted that this was not the first time he had sensed a rift between civilian and military authorities in China.  Chinese higher-ups seem also to have recognized this issue; the latest Five-Year Plan, released earlier this month by the Communist Party Politburo, calls for improvements in civil-military integration.

Gates also suggested the possibility that the stealth bomber incident simply represented a miscommunication, and, as diplomatic as he sounds, his approach makes some sense in the light of Chinese history.  China has committed an enormous amount of energy and resources to improving their military capabilities over the last decade so that their military, historically something of a weak point, might catch up with their rising geopolitical status in the world.  From that standpoint, one can’t help but expect a level of growing pains, as China gets used to its new status as a military power.  If nothing else, let’s hope it’s that way, for a growing and out-of-control Chinese military would be a substantial threat to world security.