WASHINGTON, D.C.—In December 2008, China deployed three of its most sophisticated ships to the Gulf of Aden to escort its merchant ships and support international global security in stopping the piracy in those waters. China’s navy has been coordinating with the navies of the other countries fighting piracy off the Horn of Africa, including the U.S. Navy. The meaning of this deployment and the general direction of China’s military activities abroad was the topic of discussion at a Congressional hearing held on Capitol Hill March 4.
“This is the first long-term deployment for [People’s Liberation Army] PLA naval forces outside of China’s territorial waters,” said Carolyn Bartholomew, Chairman of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (henceforth called the ‘China Commission’).
“China’s naval deployment to the North Arabian Sea marks a milestone in the exercise of that country’s maritime power and is the first foreign employment of naval forces since the early 15th century. The presence of Chinese combatants patrolling the waters of distant seas is evidence of the navy’s maturing capabilities and competence,” testified Dr. Bernard Cole, Professor at the National War College and an Officer in the Navy for 30 years.
Learning how to carry out operations like this deployment also bolsters the communist regime’s capability for dealing with the many natural crises at home and reinforces the Communist Party’s legitimacy. Plagued by droughts, earthquakes, and massive snowstorms last year, “any experience the PLA can gain in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief pays huge dividends at home,” said Susan Craig, currently at the United States Pacific Command (USPACOM), but speaking only for herself. The Party’s legitimacy will be challenged and social stability threatened if the nation cannot respond effectively to frequent crises at home, she said.
There was widespread agreement by all who testified that the China’s participation in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden was a departure from past combat operations of the PLA Navy (PLAN). Previously, long-range cruises were done for symbolic reasons: “to show the flag.” Previously, too, Chinese warships never conducted combat operations outside Chinese territorial waters. Dr. Cole points out that the three ships dispatched to the Gulf of Aden, which are based at Hainan Island, are more than 3,000 nautical miles away (i.e., exceeds 2,609 miles).
What the PRC Military Gains from Non-Combat Missions
How should China’s military forays, like this deployment, into non-combat missions or, as the Chinese military call them, military operations other than war (MOOTWA) be viewed vis-à-vis U.S. interests? The China Commission’s charge includes analyzing the effects of the expansion and intentions of Chinese military abroad on U.S. security interests in Asia and elsewhere around the world.
On the one hand, the China Commission heard much testimony like that of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asian Affairs, David S. Sedney, who said: “…it is only natural that a country as large as China with such a wide range of economic and political interest around the world will also become involved in global military and security affairs.”
On the other hand, others suggested that Beijing’s intentions may not be as altruistic as it first appears. “While on this deployment, the PLAN’s mission is primarily to escort Chinese owned ships—including those of Hong Kong and Taiwan—transiting this region. Should the PLAN vessels receive a distress call from other non-Chinese ships in the area, they are then expected to go to their aid,” said Daniel Hartnett, a China analyst in CNA’s China Studies division. Somali pirates had attacked seven Chinese ships in 2008 alone, according to Mr. Hartnett.
Moreover, China needs to have a PLA that can perform rescues when earthquakes or other catastrophes occur. Dr. Cole pointed out that China’s former “relative inability to participate in the post-tsunami relief efforts in Southeast Asia due to the lack of suitable vessels” as a limitation that needed to be corrected.
Retired Rear Admiral Eric McVadon (U.S. Navy) testified that a PRC naval attaché in Washington once told him that the PLA Navy was too inexperienced and ill-equipped to carry out humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. However, McVadon doubted that now, with the recent acquiring of a large amphibious warfare ship, and a hospital ship, both capable of helicopter operations.
The benefits of this humanitarian gesture of Beijing are that this deployment will enhance the PLA Navy capabilities in “operations, logistics, command and control, and interagency cooperation,” said Dr. Cole. “…these deployments [to the Gulf of Aden] are contributing to the transformation of the PLAN from a coastal defense force to one capable of operating effectively at long ranges from home base,” said Dr. Cole.
China’s participation in UN peacekeeping activities abroad—over past 20 years, more than 11,000 Chinese have been deployed to 18 UN operations—provide military experience and lessons, according to a 2008 Chinese Defense White Paper, cited by Chin-Hao Huang, from the China and Global Security Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The repeated deployments of engineering battalions and police units “have helped improve their responsiveness, riot-control capabilities, coordination of military emergency command systems and ability to conduct MOOTW at home”
New Missions to Perpetuate Communist Party Control
Most of the persons who testified at this hearing referred to a speech that Hu Jintao, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, gave in October 2004, when he called for the PLA to perform four “new historic missions.” This speech provided a rationale for non-traditional military missions like the current anti-pirate deployment.
The aim of the new missions is to defend China’s sovereignty and expanding national interests, such as trade routes and sea lanes. The first objective, however, is to “ensure military support for continued Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule in Beijing,” said Hartnett, who quoted from Hu’s speech.
“So long as our Party controls the military, there will be no disturbances in China, and we will be able to face with confidence any dangers that might arise,” said Hu Jintao.
The dangers that worry Hu Jintao are pressures to democratize, depoliticize the military, and the fear that some within the PLA will be won over to these tendencies and overthrow the CCP, according to Hartnett.
“By ensuring the military’s unwavering support, the CCP hopes to avoid the … fate of East European Communist Parties, which relinquished control over their militaries at the end of the 1980s,” said Hartnett.
Because of the value differences between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, a great amount of distrust has grown between the two, with resulting tensions.
Retired Rear Admiral McVadon advocated the strongest among those invited to testify for a policy of the U.S. to “build habits of cooperation,” because he says China will be “a winner” and we should be on the winning side, and, “absent large-scale domestic upheaval,” their rise is “inexorable” regardless of what we do. His Pollyannaish attitude was not subscribed to by the other experts testifying or any the commissioners, who didn’t see the PRC’s military expansion as all that benign.
Dr. Cole, for example, noted that while the PLA is primarily an instrument to defend China’s borders and, as a last resort, quell domestic unrest, the improved deployment capabilities of PLA forces can also be directed against the United States or those of its allies.
As an example of how the Chinese communist regime can be difficult, Dr. Cole cited the hard line taken by China in its disputes with Japan “over the sovereignty of the Senkaku/Daoyu Islands in the East China Sea and over the ownership of seabed resources in the area.”
Mr. Sedney had just returned the night before the hearing from Beijing talks, where the PRC agreed to resume military-to-military exchanges. Beijing had suspended these military contacts in October 2008, when Washington announced arms sales to Taiwan. The fundamental differences between the U.S. and the PRC were often mentioned at the hearing.
“We have differences with some key elements if China’s security policy, including arms trade with irresponsible regimes, as well as a lack of transparency about its military modernization. We meanwhile will continue to make available arms for Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability,” said John J. Norris, Deputy Assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
Leading Chinese Dissident Says the CCP Cannot Count On the Military to Crush Rebellion
The large-scale domestic violence that the retired admiral dismisses is a burgeoning reality for Wei Jingsheng, who was not invited to testify, but as China’s leading dissident, may have a better sense of the pulse of the nation than those who did testify. The regime is facing an economic crisis unlike anything it experienced before and if it doesn’t begin to take “a New Deal approach, it risks the Chinese people revolting and overthrowing those in power,” he writes Jan. 14 for The Times (see: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article5512157.ece)
Wei sees across the country, mounting evidence of a tidal wave of discontent turning to violence. In 2006, there were more than 80,000 “sudden incidents,” according to the regime’s own statistics, which are really riots. Wei’s sources are telling him that the figure rose to 100,000 riots last year.
“Military suppression cannot work. Soldiers are the relatives of the peasant workers who have lost their jobs; the families of the military officers will also suffer through the economic crisis,” says Wei. In a democracy, the government may be replaced, and that is normal business, Wei says, but a crisis in the dictatorship of China becomes a matter of life and death for the CCP.