Is the PLA Going Rouge?


I borrowed the headline from a Minxin Pei article at The National Interest, and never mind that the People’s Liberation Army is now called simply the Chinese Army. The worry goes like this:


This particular concern has been aroused by a series of disturbing incidents going back a decade—the collision between a Chinese jet fighter with an American naval surveillance plane near Hainan Island in April 2001, the surprise test of an anti-satellite weapon in January 2007, the rollout of a stealth fighter during the visit by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January 2011, and various others.

Most recently, as territorial disputes between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands escalated, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) actions triggered even louder alarms. One of its warships aimed its fire-control radar at a Japanese destroyer in February last year, an act that could have provoked an accidental conflict. In November 2013, the PLA suddenly announced the establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that overlaps with those of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

In early December last year, in another hair-raising encounter, a Chinese naval vessel intentionally cut in front of an American missile cruiser, which was monitoring a Chinese naval exercise in the international waters in the South China Sea. Only the quick reaction by the American crew averted a collision that could have resulted in a maritime disaster.

These incidents have raised serious questions about the degree of control exercised by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which the PLA is supposed to serve, over the actions of the Chinese military.


Would Beijing like to have more control over its military? I think given Pei’s list, they just might. Of course, it could be that the CCP prefers to maintain the appearance of a military which might be off its leash, to give us (and their neighbors) pause.

I’m also at a loss for a single time in modern history when an out-of-control military dragged its country into an unwanted war. Usually the generals — or at least the colonels — have a much better idea of the military’s true capabilities, and the true capabilities of their rivals. This tends to lend a caution which the less-in-touch civilian leadership doesn’t always enjoy.

So I’m not worried about the Chinese Army starting a war. But I’m less sanguine about the chances of the Party looking at all the wonderful things they think their expensive new military is capable of, and deciding to roll the dice.

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