The PLA raises its voice
By Peter J Brown

A growing number of senior officers in the different branches of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) are becoming outspoken. But why they have chosen now to raise their voices is subject to debate.

Following the recent decision by the United States to sell arms to Taiwan, three senior PLA officers from China's National Defense University and Academy of Military Sciences - Major General Zhu Chenghu, Major General Luo Yuan and Senior Colonel Ke Chunqiao - told Xinhua News Agency that China should be selling off US debt, and that China needed to increase defense spending and expand its deployments of military forces. [1]

Then the retired PLA Navy (PLAN) Rear Admiral Yin Zhou said that the growing number of submarines operated by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could pose a threat to China.

"If this continues at the current rate, in several years the ASEAN countries will create powerful naval forces," said Yin Zhou in February. "This is naturally becoming a challenge to neighboring countries, including China." [2]

Yin Zhou has also called for China to build a naval base in the Middle East, which prompted China's Ministry of Defense to respond that, "China has no plans for an overseas naval base." [3]
A new book by PLA Air Force (PLAAF) Colonel Dai Xu also paints a very dark picture of the future. "China cannot escape the calamity of war, and this calamity may come in the not-too-distant future, at most in 10 to 20 years," writes Dai Xu, according to Reuters. "If the US can light a fire in China's backyard, we can also light a fire in their backyard." [4]

Dai Xu is a widely quoted military analyst who comments frequently about Chinese defense-related matters.

"In recent years, some parts of the Chinese media have become more commercialized. This has led some publishers to focus on publishing sensationalist and nationalistic views that can attract a mass audience," said Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

"Academics and PLA officers have seized this opportunity to write books advocating controversial positions in order to make money. Several PLA officers appear as pundits on Chinese TV programs and write for newspapers, viewing this as a means to promote their hardline views, but also to supplement their salaries."

Glaser said that Luo Yuan and Rear-Admiral Yang Yi, an expert with the Institute of Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, were excellent examples of outspoken senior Chinese officers.

Abraham Denmark, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC, added China's former chief of military intelligence, General Xiong Guangkai, to this list. After his retirement in 2005, Xiong took charge of China's Institute for International Strategic Studies.

"He was very outspoken and rose to the rank of deputy chief of the general staff," said Denmark.

Xiong made huge headlines 15 years ago. At the end of a meeting in 1995 with former US ambassador Chas Freeman - news of the meeting would not be made public until early 1996 and even then Xiong's identity was not revealed - he reportedly said, "And finally, you do not have the strategic leverage that you had in the 1950s when you threatened nuclear strikes on us. You were able to do that because we could not hit back. But if you hit us now, we can hit back. So you will not make those threats. In the end you care more about Los Angeles than you do about Taipei."

Freeman would admit years later that he did not interpret these words as a threat. [6]

However, Xiong's comments in 1995 were not spontaneous or off-script, according to Bhaskar Roy, a strategic analyst and consultant with New Delhi-based South Asia Analysis Group.

"This was a message to the US from China's Central Military Commission [CMC], headed then by Jiang Zemin," said Roy. "On many military and strategic issues, the top echelon use military officials to float proposals either openly or in print, or surreptitiously to pry out reactions."

China does not rely on the PLA exclusively to get the word out. China threatened a military response to the perceived separatist statements of former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui - "If the Taiwan authorities think the mainland can only launch a propaganda or psychological war, they are mistaken" - in an August 1999 editorial in China's Global Times magazine.

In that article, Global Times even took aim directly at US aircraft carriers by declaring that China's neutron bombs were more than enough to handle them.

This appeared just as China was preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Communist Party rule, and just a few months after the US had bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese civilians in the process. So it is safe to say that the sense of Chinese national pride as well as the sense of collective outrage was running at fever pitch that year, and that the tone of these comments in Global Times probably reflected Chinese sentiments at the time.

"Over the past 10 years a clear pattern has emerged whereby Chinese military officers are allowed to be more outspoken - especially in response to US actions and decisions - whenever tensions over Taiwan are mounting. However, what we are seeing today is much milder than what we saw in 1999, for example," said Rodger Baker, director of East Asia analysis at Stratfor, a Texas-based global intelligence firm.

"Yang Yi and Luo Yuan have both been outspoken in reaction to the Taiwan arms sale. Note that both are now retired. PLA officers caution that those individuals do not speak for the PLA," said Glaser. "The Chinese government does not encourage any such outspoken rhetoric, but they also do not discourage it."

"It is likely that allowing such views to be aired in the media serves their interests. It is a way of letting those frustrated with the US vent their anger. It may stimulate others to echo those views, but it also causes others to challenge those views," said Glaser. "And allowing such a debate in the media is increasingly tolerated by the government/party/military. Debates over North Korea's nuclear test and how China should respond is another example in which this has occurred."

Rather than being outspoken, Roy described these PLA officers as merely reflecting China's growing military and economic power - which is "leading to arrogant statements".

"Military exercises such as 'Strike - 09' and the military parade commemorating the 60th anniversary of the PRC [People's Republic of China] last year were meant to demonstrate that China had arrived at the global table. All statements of national importance made by military officers are cleared by the CMC, if not also by a member of the politburo standing committee. Articles written by [military officials] also have clearance from the appropriate higher authorities," said Roy, who described Yang Yi as "one of the leading spokesmen for the CMC".

"[At the time of the 60th anniversary celebration], Yang Yi described this show as China's strategy of a 'rich nation and strong military' and 'active defense embodying the power to control a crisis situation in the neighborhood for a favorable security environment'. The Active Defense doctrine is China's right to intervene beyond its borders [land, sea and air]," said Roy.

Because the PLA is engaging in debates on its long-term direction and future roles and missions, PLA officers may have a bit more leeway to express opinions openly, according to Denmark. However, the range of views they are allowed to express is still very much constrained.

"I would disagree that PLA officers are becoming more outspoken," said Denmark. 

Denmark, however, agrees that while floating trial balloons is a fairly routine PLA practice, there are other reasons why the PLA finds itself raising its voice in 2010. "A more salient motivation is internal debates within the PLA on its future roles and missions and justifying budget requests. The recent drop in the announced rate of the growth of the PLA's budget highlights the reality that, as within any bureaucracy, the PLA and the services and departments within it are all fighting for a finite amount of resources."

"These articles are coming out in the run-up to the annual National People's Congress and the next Five-Year Program, which will cover 2011-2015, is not a coincidence," said Denmark.

Since the PLA is now the protector of supply lines and is responsible for maintaining an uninterrupted inbound flow of raw materials and energy supplies, the Chinese military "has more of a seat at the table", said Baker.

This must be seen and accepted as a natural outgrowth of growing Chinese military power.

"An important theme in China today is 'Why not act strong?' This is something that plays well in China, and with the average Chinese on the street in particular," said Baker. "However, as Chinese capabilities increase, they are going to great lengths to ensure that China not be seen as a growing threat or as pursuing hegemonic power' [which helps to explain why] China has put a stop to any mentioning of 'a rising China' or 'China rises' in general."

As China increases its economic activity substantially in Southeast Asia and its military interaction as well - with the exception perhaps of Vietnam - all comments about ASEAN must be carefully measured.

And there are boundaries which PLA officers are not allowed to cross.

"Luo Yuan crossed a boundary when he labeled Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou's 'Three No's' policy as 'peaceful separation' in a speech he delivered that was published by the Chinese media," said Glaser. "Nothing had been said by any official or analyst prior to that time that was critical of Ma's position, even though privately many Chinese expressed their disappointment that Ma had included 'no unification' as part of his policy. Luo was criticized for his remarks. To be fair, however, Luo claims that he was misquoted."

China's plans for space - deemed by many as an entirely military-dominated - warrant close attention in this regard. Reducing the advantage enjoyed by the US, and not just in terms of the edge enjoyed by the US in terms of high tech weaponry, remains one of the PLA's top priorities.

"The most recent quote regarding space cited as either being more outspoken, off-message, quoted out of context, loosely or mis-translated is General Xu Qiliang's comment that 'military competition has shifted toward space'. There are lots of ways that can be interpreted, language issues aside, and most in the US seem to have inferred nefarious intent," said Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of the National Security Decision Making Department at the US Naval War College. "One can only wonder how statements from US generals are quoted and interpreted in China though. Lots of work needs to be done on both sides regarding strategic communication."

Xu heads the PLAAF and was promoted to his current position in 2007. He was identified as one of a group of at least four senior Chinese military officers "with experience in planning for war over Taiwan" who were all promoted that year. [6]

Johnson-Freese makes an important point. Close scrutiny of all reporting of Chinese statements in English is necessary and prudent. Those statements are becoming more frequent because the foreign media have more opportunities than ever before to interview Chinese military officials.

According to Baker, the PLA's emphasis on modernization including training and military education at defense universities involves not just evolving PLA policies and strategies, but also broader global concerns. For senior PLA officers, opportunities to attend various international conferences on a wide array of topics beyond arms limitation and nuclear weapons are increasing.

"Senior PLA officers are 'out there' more often today. That makes a big difference. Over coffee - and especially over a few beers - you never know what they might say," said Baker. "Still, books and commentaries are always vetted in advance."

Yes, China is much more media-savvy today. And the deliberate use by the English-language Chinese media in particular of Chinese civilian experts who serve as voices of moderation happens routinely.

"The use of civilians in the English-language press as voices of moderation helps to convey this message - "Look we really want to be friends as long as you do not push these particular buttons," said Baker.

When Yin Zhou spoke of building a new Chinese naval supply base overseas, for example, Jin Canrong, an expert in international relations at Renmin University's School of International Studies said that it is "unnecessary to play up the personal view of Yin, a retired admiral".

Still, Jin did not reject this overseas base concept entirely.

"China's national interests have extended beyond its border, so it's necessary to have strong ability to protect them," Jin said. (7)

When ABC News - a US TV network news organization - reviewed the new book entitled China's Dream by PLA Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu, who is on the staff of China's National Defense University, Jin's expert opinion was also included.

While the book attempts to outline the historical forces that will propel China past the US in the 21st century so that China can "become the world's Number 1 power", it also focuses on Taiwan. Liu is a proponent of a Chinese military that is strong enough to compel the US to weigh its options carefully and ultimately back away entirely from any armed conflict with China over Taiwan.

Liu told ABC News that the views expressed in his book "are his own and do not necessarily represent official policy". Jin made sure that the US audience understood this and added, "The book simply represents the personal views of the author, and though it is interesting that the writer is a soldier in this case it should not be viewed as reflecting the intentions of the Chinese military or even the top leadership." [8]

1. Chinese see US debt as weapon in Taiwan dispute, Washington Times, Feb 10, 2010
2. China concerned by ASEAN subs: admiral, RIA Novosti, Feb 27, 2010
3. China has no plans for overseas naval base: Defense Ministry, CCTV, Jan 1, 2010
4. China Army Officer Urges Challenging US Dominance, Reuters, March 1, 2010
5. Is There a Civil-Military Gap in China's Peaceful Rise?
6. China Promotes Taiwan-Focused Military Officers, New York Times, Oct 10, 2007
7. China rules out overseas naval base now, China Daily, Jan 1, 2010
8. New Book by Chinese Colonel Says China's Goal Is to Replace the US as World's Leader, ABC news,

Peter J Brown is a freelance writer from Maine USA.