Meeting the Man behind the Missiles: Jing Zhiyuan’s Proposed U.S. Visit

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 18

On October 21, 2005, the Second Artillery Corps of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) opened its doors for the first time to foreign guests. Donald Rumsfeld, then-secretary of defense, and Peter Rodman, who at the time was serving as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, traveled to the not-so-secret secret Second Artillery headquarters in Qinghe, just north of Beijing, to meet with the commander of China’s strategic missile forces, General Jing Zhiyuan. The visit consisted of a PowerPoint presentation on the service arm’s command structure and missile forces training as well as a post-briefing discussion between Rumsfeld and Jing on nuclear doctrine [1].

During the exchange, General Jing reaffirmed the centrality of the “no first use” principle to China’s nuclear doctrine, which helped to offset some of the growing concern in U.S. circles over PLA General Zhu Chenghu’s comments in Hong Kong three months earlier. Zhu, a dean at the National Defense University, told reporters that “if the Americans draw their missiles and precision-guided ammunitions onto the target zone on China’s territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons” (Financial Times, July 14, 2005). Jing Zhiyuan’s constructive approach to talks with his U.S. guests, as well as his assertion that his seat on the Central Military Commission (CMC) put him “in a position to clarify the issue” of Chinese nuclear doctrine, left a favorable enough impression on Rumsfeld and Rodman for them to conclude that General Jing was the type of figure who could serve as a valuable conduit for military-to-military exchanges between China and the United States [2].

President Bush hoped to keep the momentum running in April 2006 by extending a formal invitation to President Hu for General Jing to visit the U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base. The idea was to continue the discussions on nuclear doctrine, strategy, and operations that had begun in Beijing six months earlier. Nearly a year and a half after Hu accepted the U.S. invitation, however, Jing has yet to meet with his counterpart, General James Cartwright, and no date had been set for a visit. As preparations intensify for the upcoming 17th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, General Jing will likely further postpone his visit.

General Jing’s Appeal

In light of U.S. efforts to foster transparency and avoid the kind of misperceptions that can, and have, exacerbated tensions in the bilateral security relationship, General Jing, a member of the CMC with long experience in the PLA’s strategic missile forces, is an important part of the senior military mix in Beijing. Jing also stands out among his general colleagues because the Second Artillery Corps is at the heart of current PLA modernization efforts. Continued direct contact would provide an important opportunity to build personal relationships between U.S. and Chinese military officers at the most senior level. It may also create a new information channel through which the Pentagon hopes to gain a better understanding of China’s strategic missile forces and perhaps even to influence the perceptions of the top Second Artillery Corps leadership.

While information on Jing Zhiyuan is sparse, the available facts regarding his training and professional experience indicate a background steeped in the missile-related issues that most concern the U.S. Department of Defense. Jing began his career in the PLA as an artillery soldier in 1963. Following a series of promotions, he was appointed to command the Second Artillery Base 56 in Xining, Qinghai Province [3]. His stint in Qinghai provided direct exposure to strategic missile systems and their associated operational procedures. Among other missile types, Base 56 is home to China’s primary regional missile system, the DF-3A, a medium-range ballistic missile with a range of 3000 to 4000 km [4]. Two of Base 56’s affiliated brigades—Delingha and Da Qaidam—are equipped with DF-4 missiles, the first Chinese ballistic missile type to possess limited intercontinental ability [5]. At 4,750 km, the range of the DF-4 allows China to target cities and military facilities throughout the Asia-Pacific and as far away as Alaska.

Jing gained additional experience when he took up the command of Base 52 in 1997 [6]. Headquartered at Huangshan, Anhui Province, Base 52 is thought to be a staging area for DF-15 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), which would be transported by road or rail to Fujian for launch in the event of a conflict with Taiwan. These solid-fueled SRBMS are the same missiles that were fired by the PLA into the waters surrounding Taiwan during the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. Moreover, Anhui Province lies within the Nanjing Military Region, which is the PLA’s launching point for a joint air/sea assault on Taiwan. The two years he spent commanding Base 52 placed Jing on the frontline of PLA preparation and contingency planning for conflict with the United States over Taiwan. In addition, the timing of Jing’s appointment to Base 52 is noteworthy. Following the 1995-1996 Crisis and the subsequent U.S. deployment of two carrier battle groups to international waters near Taiwan, PLA planners began to focus greater attention on targeting ships and submarines at long ranges as a means to deter U.S. intervention should future conflicts erupt. Jing’s arrival at Base 52 in 1997 thus puts him in command of a key Nanjing Military Region missile base during a critical juncture.

The upshot of this background is that Jing Zhiyuan makes for an interesting interlocutor not only because of his current position as the head of the Second Artillery, but also because his mode of thinking and analytical frameworks were forged during the years he spent serving in and commanding key PLA missile bases.

Missiles Matter

Hosting Jing Zhiyuan is an enticing prospect also because the Second Artillery’s missile forces will play an integral role in the event of any future conflict with the United States over Taiwan. According to Zhanyi Xue, an authoritative PLA text, conventional missile strikes are gaining in prominence and utility in the post-cold war security environment [7]. Joint campaigns, amphibious landings, and blockades—all directly relevant to potential Taiwan scenarios—demand that conventional missile attacks play a key role [8].

Fully aware of this PLA perspective, the U.S. Department of Defense is closely following improvements in the Second Artillery Corps’ capabilities, both nuclear and conventional. In its most recent report to the U.S. Congress on the modernization efforts of the PLA, the Pentagon took note of several critical developments. For example, the DF-31 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which achieved initial threat availability in 2006 and may have already achieved operational status, represents a significant improvement in the Second Artillery’s strategic strike capabilities [9]. The Department of Defense is also keeping an eye out for the attainment of initial operating capability status by the DF-31A, a three-stage, solid-propellant follow-on to the DF-31 that will be capable of striking all targets within the continental United States [10]. The addition of these new missiles to existing stores will provide China with a more survivable and flexible nuclear force, which, some analysts contend, may impact China’s long-standing “no first use” nuclear doctrine (Defense News, July 10, 2006).

On the side of conventional missiles, the anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test in January 2007 demonstrated the ability of the PLA to strike and destroy a satellite using a medium range ballistic missile, a development that appears to bring China’s capabilities more into line with its doctrinal writings on the merits of striking space-based communications systems. At the same time, the approximately 900 DF-15 and DF-11 short-range ballistic missiles deployed in Fujian Province, increasing at a rate of roughly 100 per year by Pentagon estimates, would certainly play a central role in any future Taiwan conflict [11]. As the quality and quantity of the PLA’s missile cache grows, Jing Zhiyuan will become an increasingly attractive partner for military-to-military talks between the United States and China.

Still Waiting at Offutt

Nearly a year and a half after President Hu accepted the invitation for Jing Zhiyuan to visit the U.S. Strategic Command, the general has yet to make the trip. The reason behind the delay is unclear. Jing’s tight schedule has been the stated obstacle, according to a January 2007 People’s Daily report. The paper pointed out that, at that time, the upcoming Spring Festival season—a time for Chinese to gather with their families—was inappropriate for a foreign excursion, even for a high-ranking PLA general. Following the festivities, Jing would be caught up in the preparations for the upcoming 17th Party Congress [12].

While scheduling issues remain the official excuse for Jing’s delayed visit, it is unclear why the general was unable to arrange a trip during the ten months in between the April 2006 Bush-Hu summit and the onset of the Chinese holiday season in February 2007. Stranger still, Jing found time for visits to Chile and Argentina in early December 2006 [13]. Pentagon officials reportedly view the delay as a sign that the PLA fears that discussions on its improving nuclear capabilities will assist the U.S. military in targeting Chinese nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict (The Washington Times, June 14).

Whatever the real reasons for the holdup, General Jing Zhiyuan will probably not be making the trip until late this fall at the earliest. For the Pentagon this is a disappointment, but the United States nonetheless has strong incentives to continue asking after him, with the hope of hosting the general sooner rather than later. General Jing’s position, experience, and the critical importance of missiles to China’s military modernization all make him too important a piece of the PLA puzzle for the Pentagon to ignore.

Notes

1. Peter W. Rodman, Keynote Speech, China and the Future of the World Conference, Chicago, Illinois, April 28, 2006, p. 2.

2. Ibid.

3. “Zhang Dingfa, Jing Zhiyuan Jin Sheng Shang Jiang,” [Zhang Dingfa, Jing Zhiyuan Promoted to Top Generalship], Chongqing Shibao, September 26, 2004, http://www.chongqingtimes.com.cn/gb/cqsb/2004-09/26/content_1305142.htm.

4. GlobalSecurity.org, “DF-3A/CSS-2, http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/china/df-3a.htm.

5. SinoDefence.com, “DF-4 Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile,” May 14, 2006, http://www.sinodefence.com/strategic/missile/df4.asp.

6. “Zhang Dingfa, Jing Zhiyuan Jin Sheng Shang Jiang,” Chongqing Shibao, September 26, 2004.

7. Wang Houqing and Zhang Xingye, Zhanyi Xue [Military Campaign Studies], Beijing: Guofang Daxue Chubanshe, 2000, p. 368.

8. Ibid, 375.

9. Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2007, p. 3.

10. Gill, Mulvenon, and Stokes, “The Chinese Second Artillery Corps,” p. 551.

11. Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2007, p. 3.

12. Zhang Zhuli and Qiu Yongzheng, “Mei Yao Shitan Zhongguo Hewu Shili, Bushi Pan Wo Er Pao Siling Fang Mei,” [U.S. Wants to Sound Out China’s Nuclear Power, Bush Hopes Second Artillery Commander Will Visit America], Renmin Ribao, January 25, 2007, http://military.people.com.cn/GB/42969/58519/5325087.html.

13. Zhao Kai, “Zhili Guofangbuzhang Huijian Jing Zhiyuan Shangjiang, Wang Liangjun Jiaqiang Hezuo,” [Chilean Defense Minister Meets General Jing Zhiyuan, Hopes Two Nation’s Militaries Will Strengthen Cooperation], Xinhua, December 9, 2006, http://news.xinhuanet.com/mil/2006-12/09/content_5459604.htm; Cao Yu, “Agenting Guofangbuzhang Huijian Erpao Silingyuan Jing Zhiyuan,” [Argentine Defense Minister Meets Commander of Second Artillery Forces Jing Zhiyuan], Renmin Ribao, December 6, 2006, http://military.people.com.cn/GB/5135782.html.