Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 00:43 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 00:43 | SYDNEY

Transparency: seeing right through it


Raoul Heinrichs

9 November 2010 22:22

In 2005 Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, addressed the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. 'Since no nation threatens China', he said, 'one must wonder: why this growing investment' Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases''

It was a pithy formulation of one of the Pentagon's favourite catch-cries. Yet even today, after all these years, calls for greater transparency in China's defence modernisation still manage to push Beijing's buttons.

Of course, these kinds of statements are pure rhetoric. There's nothing especially mysterious about Chinese military modernisation, either in terms of the systems being acquired or the intentions they betray. The accumulation of advanced war–fighting capabilities in the hands of the PLA reflects a judgement that US primacy, however benignly conveyed, constitutes a serious liability that could eventually be used to circumscribe China's rise.

As the Pentagon details annually in its report to Congress (also to Beijing's chagrin), Chinese strategy aims to dissolve US military dominance to the greatest possible extent, albeit gradually and incrementally so as to avoid confrontation along the way.

Deep down Americans do get it. In the late 19th century the United States found itself in a similar position. Newly wealthy, Washington was no longer content to live in the shadows of British primacy, nor willing to outsource its security to the Royal Navy. Like China today, it hedged its bets by building a powerful blue–water navy, which it put to use — with great effect —  in very short order.

Why, then, this insistence on transparency'

One reason is that it paints China into an unwinnable situation. Imagine a PLA general explaining the truthful rationale behind China's high–end defence acquisitions:

Well, in a crisis over Taiwan, for example, we intend to hold US aircraft carrier groups far enough back, for long enough, to establish a level of superiority across the Straits that allows us to terrorise Taiwan into accepting our terms.

Truthful, for sure, though not particularly reassuring, hardly likely to ameliorate the security dilemma, and not really what the US or anyone else wants to hear.

Since transparency only works as a source of reassurance if it reveals benign intentions, the general's only other option is to prevaricate. Whether he talks about the military's contribution to regional peace and stability or China's commitment to doctrines such as 'peaceful rise' and 'Harmonious World', no one is likely to believe him, and the net effect is to reinforce suspicions of Chinese duplicity. For China, in other words, it's lose–lose.

Another reason why the United States plays the transparency card is because it pits American strengths against Chinese weakness. In strategic affairs, there's a threshold of capacity beneath which it makes eminent sense to conceal your capabilities, as China and many others do, and beyond which it makes equally good sense to display them, like the US.

In this sense, transparency reflects power — and relates inversely to perceptions of vulnerability. To paraphrase a retired PLA general I met recently (who was discussing these issues in the strategic nuclear context):

We could be much more open about our capabilities, but the trade-off would have to be a much bigger, more diverse Chinese arsenal, like Russia's or America's – so is greater transparency really worth it'

All of this suggests that concerns about Chinese opacity have far less to do with what China divulges about its capabilities, than about the fact that it is acquiring them at all. As such, demands for greater transparency should be seen as a proxy, a means of rejecting the legitimacy of a more independent and prominent regional role for China and, by extension, of reasserting US primacy.

Photo by Flickr user xiaming, used under a Creative Commons licence.