Yesterday was the 80th anniversary of the founding of the world’s largest private army: China’s. The biggest misconception about China’s military is that it belongs to China. Yes, the Chinese state pays for the People’s Liberation Army, but the PLA reports to—and pledges to defend—the Communist Party. On this Army Day, Beijing’s propaganda saluted (as it always does) the army’s 2.3 million members in their capacity as employees and defenders of China’s leading political organization.
This year’s ritualistic expressions of mutual party-army appreciation seem more numerous and passionate than on past anniversaries. President Hu Jintao mentioned the party’s total control over the military at least 15 times in his Army Day speech. Some foreign observers speculate that the excessive declarations are meant to cover up rifts in the military’s leadership or the failure of Hu—who is also the party’s general secretary—to consolidate control over his generals and admirals. (Others say that he is already in charge.)
Here’s a shortcut for those who do not want to devote their lives to studying this impenetrable issue: Beijing operates an abnormal political system and maintains an abnormal relationship with its armed forces. And here’s something else: because the party controls the army (or at least tries to do so), our attempts to establish military-to-military ties are bound to end in failure. It is not just that the Chinese generally believe in secrecy as a powerful military tool (though they do): secrecy lies at the heart of China’s political system, and of its peculiar government-military relationship.
The Bush White House should know this by now. It has done all it can to try to build functional military-to-military relations with China, but has not succeeded. The Chinese continue to ask for assistance—their more recent requests included the arresting gear of aircraft carriers and the training of carrier crews—but they are not willing to reciprocate. We let them tour our navy’s most important base—in Norfolk, VA—in April of this year, but they were not willing to let our Chief of Naval Operations, Mike Mullen, make a visit to a comparable Chinese naval facility. (In response, Mullen, departing from the Bush administration’s renewed emphasis on military ties with China, canceled his planned trip to Beijing.)
On this anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army let’s send the Chinese our birthday greetings—but let’s stop making gifts of our know-how and technology.