General Chen Bingde, China’s PLA Chief of General Staff, has been in Washington, D.C., this week on what the National Journal describes as a “charm offensive.” These sorts of visits are useful and necessary—it’s a good thing when two rivals’ top military officers get to know one another. As Admiral Mullen explained, “It has always been my view that we cannot wait until we are in a crisis to understand each other.”
During his visit, Chen has been attempting to (misleadingly) reassure his American counterparts and the American people about Chinese intentions in Asia. To that end, I really hope that U.S. audiences aren’t buying the schlock that Chen’s been selling. Some highlights from his speech Tuesday at NDU:
“We do not want to use our money to buy equipment or advanced weapons to challenge the United States.” (Wall Street Journal)
The reality is that much of China’s PLA modernization has been specifically (and in some cases explicitly) designed to counter the U.S. military. These capabilities include, but are not limited to, anti-satellite weapons; anti-ship ballistic missiles; over-the-horizon radars; cyber warfare (which the Chinese are already waging against the United States). While these capabilities can be used against other military forces as well, it is U.S. capabilities that are driving the perceived need for these assets. Chinese military thinkers write explicitly about countering the United States. Ashley Tellis, for example, quotes PLA analyst Wang Hucheng on China’s need for anti-satellite weapons:
The enduring American dependence on space constitutes “the U.S. military’s ‘soft ribs’ and strategic weaknesses”; consequently, “for countries that can never win a war with the United States by using the method of tanks and planes, attacking the U.S. space system may be an irresistible and most tempting choice. Part of the reason is that the Pentagon is greatly dependent on space for [the success] of its military action.”
In other words, China is, in fact, using its money to buy equipment and advanced weapons to challenge the United States.
Instead, Chen focused on what he saw as his own military’s many weaknesses and shortcomings. He told the crowd that there was at least a 20-year gap between the Chinese and Western militaries, particularly when it came to the strengths of their perspective navies. “We are not that strong yet,” he said. “And to be honest, I feel very sad after visiting [the United States] because I feel and I know how poor our equipments are and how underdeveloped our forces are.” (National Journal)
Oh, boo-hoo. Yes, China’s navy is not as technologically nor tactically advanced as America’s. China is not about to openly challenge the United States on the high seas, but it is working towards that point. The PLAN has been fielding new subs, destroyers, and frigates at a rapid rate. It is about to set to sea its first aircraft carrier. Growing numbers of its destroyers are finally capable of air defense. Its submarines are increasingly stealthy, and they now outnumber U.S. boats in the Pacific by a two-to-one margin. American boats are technically superior, but at some point, numbers do matter.
The general tried to equate Beijing’s insistence on one day reclaiming Taiwan with the U.S. Civil War to prevent southern states from seceding. The PowerPoint presentation that ran as Chen spoke showed a picture of President Lincoln and quoted the former president as saying “the Union is unbroken.” (National Journal)
Come on, really? The United States fought a war to end slavery. China would fight a war to institute it. Yes, the former is an oversimplification and the latter an overstatement, but you get the point. Chen’s remarks would have been carefully crafted; if he had valid reason to believe that this would resonate—well, that’s just scary.
We should learn as much as we can about Chen the man and about the PLA during his visit here this week. But his comments on Chinese intentions and capabilities must be taken with a grain of salt.