CRS Warning for America’s China Watchers

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TAIPEI, Taiwan — A new paper by the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) warns of misreading Chinese tea leaves, such as the tendency of US-based China-watchers to use mirror imaging, ignore China’s lack of transparency and use of subterfuge, and the fact that the Chinese military advocates no differentiation between peace-time and war-time use of cyberwarfare.

Written by Ian E. Rinehart, a CRS analyst in Asian affairs, the report was released on March 24 for members of the US Congress. Entitled: “The Chinese Military: Overview and Issues for Congress,” Rinehart argues the US Congress must begin to examine “a Chinese way of war.”

These include numerous factors that are largely ignored in the US China-watching community that will greatly determine the winner of a war.

  • Differing geographic scope of responsibilities: The US military has extensive global security responsibilities, including Europe and the Middle East. During a war with China, the US military would only be able to commit a limited amount of its resources for a war with China. The Chinese military, in contrast, will not face these constraints.
  • Differing missions: More meaning comes from measuring a military’s capability against its assigned missions than measuring against other metrics. This consideration is significant in assessing US and Chinese military capabilities, because the missions of the two are quite different.

  • Statements from Chinese leaders about their intentions may not always be reliable: China’s leaders make regular and often generalized statements about their intentions for their military through white papers and public statements. These statements might be propagandistic nature in an attempt to influence foreign audiences or for domestic consumption, and might not be an accurate guide to understanding the actual intentions that China’s leaders have for the military. On the other hand, not all statements should be dismissed as posturing. Chinese leaders have made statements about China’s “core interests” and their willingness to defend them by military force. These statements might be true, as in the South China Sea and Taiwan. “The challenge is to discern posturing from genuine expressions. Observing what kinds of military capabilities China is pursuing, and how these capabilities appear to align or not align with stated intentions, can help inform judgments on this question.”
  • Limited transparency: Assessing China’s military capabilities, as well as assessing the intentions of the leadership, is complicated by China’s limited transparency. The Pentagon has stated, “China’s lack of transparency surrounding its growing military capabilities and strategic decision-making has also increased concerns in the region about China’s intentions. Absent greater transparency, these concerns will likely intensify as the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] modernization progresses.”
  • Mirror imaging: Values and belief sets of Chinese leaders differ, perhaps substantially, from the US. “Mirror imaging—tacitly and perhaps unconsciously assuming that one’s values and belief sets are shared by the other party—can lead to less accurate assessments of the other party’s intentions.”

  • Active defense/preemptive first strike in space: Chinese military strategists place a high priority on seizing the initiative in a conflict. “Some observers believe that the PLA would pair this predilection with its assessment that the cyber and space domains are the ‘high ground’ of contemporary warfare and thus choose to strike its adversary’s information networks." The Chinese will use a variety of operations, including kinetic and electronic warfare methods, to disrupt the US military’s satellite networks. China’s developments of space and anti-satellite first strike systems are extensive and include the development of hypersonic near-space unmanned vehicles. For China, a preemptive first strike is preferable, as it sets the stage for the remainder of the conflict and puts the aggressor in a distinct position of advantage.

Rinehart has been with CRS since 2012. Before CRS, he worked for a variety of institutions and focused on Asia security analysis, including the East-West Center and the Washington CORE.

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