January 15, 2011

Disconnect or ruse?

China's civilian leadership, says N.V.Subramanian, must be held to account for any "assertiveness" of the PLA.


New Delhi, 14 January 2011: Robert Gates, the US secretary of defence, made a puzzling observation about China soon after his recent visit there. In bits and pieces, that puzzle has been evident to strategists besides this writer. Unless that puzzle is understood and resolved, it would be difficult for democracies like India and the United States to deal with, let alone moderate, a growingly assertive China.

During Gates visit to China, its new stealth plane, J-20, made a flight test. The test got considerable publicity, including over China's tightly-controlled internet. But later in Japan, Gates said there were "pretty clear indications [that the civilian leadership was] unaware of the flight test". Gates went on to mention a disconnect between the civilian leadership and the PLA which extended to the anti-satellite test of January 2007 and to the more recent PLA-Navy aggressions. But he ended puzzlingly, saying that president Hu Jintao is "in command and in charge".

It is possible that Gates put out that throwaway line about Hu not to upset the Chinese leadership he had so recently met. It is equally probable that Gates believed what he was saying about Hu being "in command and in charge". But if that be the case, it sits oddly with the "disconnect" he found between the PLA and the civilian leadership on the three major issues that he chose to reveal. And he spoke of "signs" of the "disconnect" being evident "over the last several years".

Certainly, there are puzzling aspects to Gates' statement. But it does not take away from the inherently puzzling nature of the problem that someone as senior as Gates of any government in the world publicly has articulated for the first time. What needs to be resolved is this. Is there a real disconnect between the PLA and the civilian leadership? Or is this disconnect manufactured, with China employing a good cop (civilian leadership)/ bad cop (PLA) ploy to bamboozle the world to hasten its Middle-Kingdom peak?

This writer has been hearing about the "disconnect" at least since the (former) prime minister, A.B.Vajpayee's June-2003 visit to China. That visit will be remembered for Vajpayee's ill-judged recognition of the Tibetan Autonomous Region as Chinese. What the Indian government covered up was that during the visit, a PLA raiding party roughed up and disarmed an Indian patrol well within Arunachal Pradesh. When the raid got press-leaked and the government was forced to confront China, China retaliated with the by-now-familiar claim on Arunachal Pradesh.

The Indian government then put out the "disconnect" version. It suggested that the PLA provocatively was undercutting the civilian leadership's peace moves with India. It is conceivable that at least some of this "disconnect" theory was coming from the Taiwanese, who argued, not without logic, that the PLA was more extremely nationalistic than the civilian leadership. But the Taiwanese also made the point that at moments of perceived weakness, or during internal power struggles, civilian leaders took up the extremist drumbeat, with the PLA joining in.

This is not to argue entirely against a disconnect between the PLA and the civilian leadership. As much as the civilian leadership has been exposed to the outside world, so the PLA remains insulated. To be sure, the PLA's foreign-affairs department is worldly wise. But its leadership by and large still is at an everyday remove from worldwide engagement unlike the central political authority, and this is likely to make one remain largely conservative and the other a little more experimental and accommodative. Plus, institutions over a period of time are known to develop ruddy defining characteristics, and a strongly conservative and extra-nationalistic PLA would perfectly sit with its military and disciplinary traditions and with its foundations immersed in the Maoist revolution.

And yet, the PLA/ CMC are absolutely subordinate to the Chinese communist party (CPC). The officer corps owes its first allegiance to the CPC and then to China, although it doesn't make the PLA less patriotic. And, quite apart from PLA hawkishness, the civilian leadership has mastered the art of provoking its citizens to extremes of nationalism against manufactured foreign threats from the US, Japan, and to a lesser degree, India.

So it is a puzzle if the PLA is quite as disconnected from the civilian leadership as Gates makes it out, although he adds the rider of Hu Jintao being in "command and in charge". For example, just ahead of Gates visit to China, where he was expected to question the opacity and diabolic aims of the Chinese military build-up, pictures of the J-20 flashed on the internet, snapped by ecstatic citizens. Then the J-20 was flight-tested, again attended with masses of publicity, in the midst of the Gates visit. It is hard to believe that the civilian leadership was unaware of all this wild euphoria or its central cause.

It is still harder to accept that the Chinese assertiveness over the past year and more, which has nearly united East Asia against it, brought fresh favour to the US there, and turned up friendly invitations for India from that region, have been spearheaded by a manner of PLA activism which is disconnected from the civilian leadership. Robert Gates did not make that connection. But somebody could. And most recently, a Japanese news agency got hold of a secret PLA paper advocating a move away from no-first use. Quickly, the Chinese government denied a shift. But this writer was left puzzled.

The point is this. There may be a disconnect between the civilian leadership and the PLA. But the civilian leadership's past misconduct persuades this writer that it may be up to artful deception as well now, of which the "disconnect" could be a ploy to frighten the world into early submission to the Middle Kingdom, a more dangerous form of practice of the Nixon-is-crazy line. What makes it worse is China's opacity. Nobody on the outside really knows what is going on inside.

Therefore, for starters, the only way to make China accountable for its extremism is to hold the civilian leadership entirely responsible. Once China is convinced that its good cop/ bad cop ploy has no takers, it may see reason to return to an early phase of peaceful rise. If there, indeed, is a disconnect between the PLA and the military leadership, there will be new compulsions to remove it.

There is no reason to go easy on China now.

N.V.Subramanian is Editor, www.NewsInsight.net, and writes internationally on strategic affairs.


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