China’s Emerging Debate on Military Transparency

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 18

A reconsideration of traditionally skeptical attitudes about military transparency appears to be underway in China. Whereas Beijing formerly rejected Western calls for greater military transparency—arguing that transparency benefits the strong at the expense of the weak—a new calculus seems to be emerging that reflects China’s greater confidence in its own strength. As Chinese military capabilities have improved in both relative and absolute terms, the same logic that justified wariness of military transparency now recommends it as a useful tactic. Recent comments by Chinese officials and experts, along with some adjustments to military practice, suggest that greater transparency is now seen as an instrument capable of serving useful political and deterrent functions.

China’s interpretation of transparency nonetheless remains conditional and selective, elevating optics and public relations above substantive disclosures. Indeed, the Chinese practice of military transparency is marked by its omissions. Rather than embracing transparency as an end in itself, the PLA selectively addresses foreign demands for greater transparency without necessarily “providing information about military capabilities and policies that allow other countries to assess the compatibility of those capabilities with a country’s stated security goals” [1]. The subsequent analysis of some recent statements and behaviors provides insight into how the risks and rewards of increased military transparency are portrayed within China, offering some indication of likely PLA practices in the future.

Chinese Military Transparency in Context
Beijing has traditionally viewed Western calls for greater military transparency as an indirect way to disadvantage a less capable Chinese military. Weaker states, they reason, have little incentive to publicize capabilities insufficient to protect “core interests [2]”; in fact, for weaker states, “low military transparency is a way to protect themselves, by being ambiguous rather than specific” (China Daily, October 25, 2007). This stance precluded much transparency about tactical or operational capabilities. Instead, Chinese officials maintained that “transparency about strategic intentions is the most basic and important” sort of transparency (Zhongguo Xinwen She, October 23, 2009). (That distinction between intentions and capabilities is drawn most pointedly on nuclear issues, where Beijing deflects inquiries about types and numbers of nuclear weapons by citing a transparent Chinese nuclear doctrine.)

China also holds that “military transparency is relative and not absolute” (China Daily, October 25, 2007). This implies only a dim view of the value of transparency for a relatively weak power, leaving room for different practices under different circumstances. The authoritative Science of Military Strategy condones transparency, albeit conditionally: “foreign policies and military strategy and strength may be publicized according to the country’s conditions and on the premise that national military secrets will not be leaked” [3]. Academy of Military Sciences senior researcher Major General Luo Yuan elaborated on those conditions by stating, “the degree and scope of military transparency must be adjusted according to…the international situation in a particular period of time” (China Daily, October 25, 2007).

The “country’s conditions” on the domestic front and an “international situation” of increasing Chinese relative power may now provide favorable context for China’s evolving brand of military transparency.  
Domestic Dividends

Officials and popular press now argue that greater military transparency can help generate grassroots support from Chinese citizens, facilitate PLA institutional development and justify military budgets. This newly public discussion indicates changing calculations of transparency’s political utility in the domestic arena.

MND spokesman Hu Changmin asserted that “the main goal in our armed forces’ openness and transparency is to enhance the masses’ understanding of national defense and army building…” [4], while Major General Luo Yuan cited the Chinese people’s “right to know” how their government spends on the military and argued that awareness of military achievements will “nurture patriotism” (Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], September 8, 2009). Such populist themes are not uncommon, but are used here to define useful domestic political functions for military transparency.

A July 1 opinion piece is the richest example of this line of argument, calling on the PLA to “improve military transparency for the Chinese people” (Global Times, July 1; People’s Daily Online, July 4). While nominally countering foreign demands for greater transparency, the argument that the PLA can and should be more transparent toward the Chinese public is framed in ways likely to resonate with popular audiences and PRC leadership.

The author, Liu Xiao [5], praises numerous foreign examples of military transparency, notes precedents from the PLA’s history as a people’s army and cites existing military regulations that prescribe transparent behavior. He goes on to sound a familiar, populist trope about the need for equitable treatment for the “common people” of China, who enjoy less access to their own military than foreign officials, journalists, Hong Kong and Macau residents, or the Party-state elite. By pointedly referencing the demands of Chinese citizens for more access to the Chinese military, he plays on Beijing’s sensitivity to public opinion and social stability.

The author’s implicit message is the need to build popular support for defense spending. This is especially salient given slower growth in the 2011 defense budget and the sense that the Taiwan issue no longer warrants automatic budget increases. Liu suggests that common people should be afforded an opportunity to kick the tires (both figuratively and literally) of the military enterprise they are being asked to support.

His message parallels broader public demands for greater responsiveness and accountability in spheres of government and Party activity beyond fiscal matters. Opening military facilities or events, however scripted the exercise, could conceivably bolster the Party’s claims to legitimacy and generate grassroots support for the nation’s armed forces.

These new arguments about the domestic efficacy of transparency are couched in distinctly Chinese terms and pitched to an entirely Chinese audience, suggesting a new instrumental view of military transparency that is at least nominally independent from foreign pressure.

Military Transparency as Deterrence

Recent public comments and military exercises suggest that Beijing aims to employ transparency not only as a domestic tool, but as an instrument of deterrence. Numerous expert comments confirm the long-standing Chinese view that military transparency is advantageous for the strong at the expense of the weak. They also indicate China’s shift towards the strong end of the power spectrum, where transparency may serve a deterrent role.

The Science of Military Strategy is explicit about how transparency can function as a deterrent: “showing a disposition of strength to the enemy is to display clearly one’s deterrent force… [with] such deterrent forms as large-scale military review, joint military exercise, and military visit, etc”  [6]. China’s own forays into this mode of transparency were not acknowledged as deterrent signals—such behavior being understood as the exclusive province of coercive or hegemonic actors. As PLA National Defense University (NDU) researcher Lu Yin noted, ”obviously, transparency is in favor of the strong, as deterrence. Consequently, the stronger countries tend to make full use of military transparency as an instrument to exert pressure on or even bully weak countries” (China Daily Online, October 29, 2009).

Especially since the Cheonan incident, Chinese actions and comments have been less oblique about the potential deterrent function of military transparency. Most explicitly, a recent editorial bore the headline, “Transparent drills add edge to deterrence” (Global Times, July 1). The editorial points to the July Chinese naval exercises in the East China Sea as an example of how military transparency can “extend the reach of conventional deterrence” and serve a “crucial role in maintaining effective deterrence.” Naval experts were also explicit in that these and other drills were effective in a “deterrent role” (Qilu Zhoukan Online, August 6).

Such “transparent” practices are also evident in the more frequent and better publicized demonstrations of modern weapons systems (including ballistic missile defenses, advanced indigenous combat fighters and nuclear submarines, and the anticipated test of an anti-ship ballistic missile). The January 2010 mid-course anti-ballistic missile (ABM) intercept test is a straightforward example of this phenomenon, combining the demonstration of strategically significant military equipment—a clear deterrent signal—with a concerted attempt to publicize the event as an illustration of Chinese transparency.

Transparency as Pageantry

Closer observation suggests that China’s receptive noises about military transparency may be less meaningful than they sound. The PLA prefers a brand of military transparency mostly consisting of style and pageantry (especially in parades, carefully scripted exercises, and stage-managed demonstrations) rather than substantial disclosures or demonstrations of operational capability. This selective approach reflects concerns that excessive transparency will reveal weakness or lack of combat capabilities, and is reinforced by Chinese and Communist traditions of tightly scripted public messaging. Such rehearsed displays do not provide credible demonstrations of combat capabilities, and are therefore less effective as deterrent signals (See “Military Parades Demonstrate Chinese Concept of Deterrence, China Brief, April 16, 2009).

The 60th anniversary parade on October 1, 2009 provides a case in point. Beijing publicized the event as a clear demonstration of transparency and showcased 52 new weapons systems. The MND was explicit about the purpose of this disclosure: “the military review is in itself an important move by which China increases its military transparency” [7]. Yet despite impressing domestic audiences, the review did not persuade critical, informed foreign observers of the PLA’s ability to deploy this equipment effectively in combat [8]. Similarly, tests of systems like the ABM are unconvincing when critical C4ISR capabilities necessary for effective use are not demonstrated.

Some Chinese experts acknowledge the limitations of this superficial approach to transparency. “Parades are not actual war,” said NDU military expert Li Daguang, “and the war-fighting capabilities of many of those weapons and equipment have not been demonstrated yet. We should not blindly exaggerate our military strength” (Global Times Online, January 4). Major General Luo Yuan reinforced this judgment, pointing out that "We [China] practice transparency through military exercises and military parades. The U.S. does not hold many parades. Rather, it practices transparency through wars" (Guoji Xianqu Daobao Online, December 15, 2009). Though many of the weapons systems in question are public knowledge, certain key Chinese capabilities remain deliberately unconfirmed.

If more realistic military exercises or tests of military systems announced in advance were to fail or otherwise demonstrate serious deficiencies, this would undermine deterrence—and tarnish Beijing’s carefully cultivated public image. It may be that papering over opaqueness with pageantry remains a more effective deterrent than revealing underwhelming capabilities with transparency. Lingering uncertainty about the true extent and functionality of its capabilities may therefore account for some of China’s cheap talk—and chronic foot-dragging—on transparency.

These diverse comments and actions suggest that military transparency is a subject of real debate within China. The PRC’s shift from “weak” to “strong” appears to be a primary driver for this change. Yet transparency’s utility—whether to aid deterrence or reduce conflict and miscalculation—ultimately relies on the credibility of the “transparent” gestures. Showmanship and rhetoric are no substitute for systematic transparency about capabilities, and tend to distort deterrent signals. While employing a narrow form of transparency has some utility for the Chinese—especially on the domestic front—the capabilities themselves may not yet be sufficiently evolved to justify more meaningful transparent measures.
Meanwhile, military transparency is now viewed not only as a sop for foreign criticism and a deterrent signal, but as a potent domestic political tool to advance PLA institutional development and fiscal needs. These plural uses raise questions about intended audiences for Beijing’s military displays. Pressures to satisfy a nationalistic domestic audience eager for assertiveness may run at cross-purposes to China’s aims to reassure and pacify its Asian neighbors of its benign intent. Pageantry is one temporary solution for this, by entertaining the domestic audience and nominally meeting some foreign demands without unduly alarming others with demonstrations of real capabilities. Yet, superficial displays are not sufficient to deter strong powers like America—and may even lead to miscalculations of China’s actual capabilities. Sending tailored signals of deterrence for specific actors and situations (in response to U.S.-ROK drills, for example) will require significantly more evidence of the operational effectiveness of Chinese weapons, communicated in a more sophisticated fashion.

China’s logic still suggests that improvements in PLA capabilities are likely to produce greater transparency over time. The conditional, instrumental and domestically-geared nature of Chinese views of military transparency, however, demands further scrutiny. The practice of military transparency in China will not necessarily evolve in accord with Western norms or expectations.

Finally, China’s use of the military to send deterrent signals will raise questions about how a stronger China intends to use its increased military capabilities. Even as China addresses foreign calls for increased transparency about its military capabilities, it will face persistent questions about what these capabilities signal about future intentions. Only real military transparency will reveal the extent to which those capabilities cohere with its stated intentions.


1. Michael Kiselycznyk and Phillip C. Saunders, “Assessing Chinese Military Transparency,” China Strategic Perspectives I, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University (June 2010).
2. See Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi (eds), The Science of Military Strategy (Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2005): 203-204, 223-224.
3. Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi (eds), The Science of Military Strategy (Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2005): 203-204.
4.  “Exclusive interview with Ministry of Defense spokesman Hu Changming: “The Peaceful Foundation of the Grand Military Parade,” Liaowang, no. 40-41 (October 9, 2009): 30-32. The Director of the MND’s Foreign Affairs Office, Major General Qian Lihua, repeated that formulation (Zhongguo Xinwen She, October 23, 2009).
5. He is described in the newspaper as a “Beijing military scholar.” The author’s grasp of military affairs suggests that he may be a well-informed civilian analyst, but could also be a PLA officer writing under a pseudonym (a not uncommon practice when treating sensitive subjects).
6. Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi (eds), The Science of Military Strategy, Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2005: 223; as cited in Dennis Blasko, “The PRC 60th Anniversary Parade: Equipment on Display, Not Military Capabilities,” China Brief, volume 9, issue 19, (September 24, 2009),[tt_news]=35535&tx_ttnews[backPid]=7&cHash=e904e85030.
7. Interview with Hu Changming, Liaowang no. 40-41.
8. See Blasko, “The PRC 60th Anniversary Parade.”