China’s new military reform measures, intended to “give more power to lower-level authorities,” are likely to increase the threat of conflict with its neighbors and with the United States – in ways both obvious and more subtle.
First, to the extent the reforms succeed in making the People’s Liberation Army more effective and “capable of real combat” as Xi Jinping has advocated, that is bad news for the region, the United States, and its allies. Given the territorial gains China’s aggressive posture has already made, any enhanced military power, real or perceived, can only whet the PRC’s appetite for further advances.
Second, the devolution of authority to local commands portends a rise in incidents like the 2001 EP-3 collision and multiple ship-to-ship confrontations in the South and East China Seas. Beijing attributed each of those dangerous encounters to the unauthorized actions of individual captains or pilots or local commanders, not to higher-level military or Communist Party direction. (This from a government that has controlled the communications and family planning practices of its 1.3 billion citizens.)
The ostensible expansion of lower-level military decision-making has set the stage for additional air or maritime confrontations and provided Beijing with further plausible deniability if its aggressive top-level policies happen to trigger incidents potentially involving material destruction and loss of life.
It will now be easier for Beijing to explain away such occurrences – as it does for everything from cyber-attacks, intellectual property theft, trade violations, even threats of nuclear war from active or retired generals. It has effectively given itself a get-out-of-jail-free card for any unfortunate future development at sea, in the air, in space, or in cyber-space.
That organizational setting will minimize the ability of Washington and other capitals to pinpoint blame on China’s leaders for any untoward events – but only if U.S. leaders are foolish enough to let Beijing get away with such legerdemain.
The Obama administration should respond to Beijing’s preemptive self-whitewash by making clear that, while China is free to organize its military establishment in any manner it wishes, it cannot escape its national command-and-control responsibilities. (After World War II, Germany and Japan were held liable for the crimes of low-level commanders who acted within the system and under the national philosophy those governments had established.)