China is widely recognized as the next superpower. Over the past decade, it experienced tremendous economic growth and embarked on a major defense buildup. China now has the second largest defense budget in the world, with expenditures to boost its intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal and acquire nuclear submarines and destroyers. Yet the Chinese air force remains very weak, with capabilities dramatically inferior to the U.S.’s. The arsenals of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (plaaf) and Naval Air Force (planaf) consist mostly of fighter planes (used primarily for defensive purposes) imported from Russia. The scarcity of bombers (used for offensive purposes) and China’s continued reliance on foreign planes pose a puzzle to U.S. defense planners. Apparently content to rely on missiles to project power, China’s doctrine contrasts sharply with American ideas about the importance of air superiority.
Following the successful air campaigns of the 1991 Gulf War, Chinese defense analysts tuned in to the American debate over the possibility of relying on air power alone and the connection between the use of air power and avoiding friendly military and foreign civilian casualties. In recent publications, generals from China’s military academies have treated air power-related themes — including what America’s strategic air advantage consists in and how it might be mitigated or neutralized — at length.1 Chinese observers also noted how the wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan confirmed American faith in the increasing efficacy of air power in light of dramatic technological advances.
A lengthy May 2000 article in the pla’s daily newspaper emphasizes the importance of improving China’s air power capabilities. “In the 1990s, air warfare . . . reached a zenith,” states author Dong Wenxian. “And no sooner had the Gulf War ended than the us President declared, ‘The most important lesson learned from the Gulf War is the value of air power.’” Characterizing U.S. air power in Bosnia and Kosovo as the new standard mode of warfare, the writer concludes, “The primary threat faced by peace-loving third-world countries comes from the air, and regardless of whether they are willing or have the capabilities . . . the contest in the air will be the decisive one.”2 Similarly, in a 1998 article called “The Military Revolution and Air Power,” Major General Zheng Shenxia, president of China’s Air Force Command College, and Colonel Zhang Changzhi argue: “Future information [high-tech] war will rely more and more on air superiority. The air force will no longer be an important independent strategic force but an effective conventional campaign force that all services will depend upon.”3 Their discussions indicate that China’s defense establishment recognizes the centrality of air power to U.S. operations. But the commentary, considered together with China’s capabilities, suggests that in a military confrontation, China would adopt a different approach from the United States.
China’s leaders from Mao and Deng to Jiang Zemin have scanted domestic aircraft production, preferring to invest in ballistic missiles, antiaircraft artillery (aaa), and surveillance and reconnaissance equipment. China now has about 200 conventional ballistic missiles pointed at Taiwan and is adding 50 more each year. In total, the Chinese arsenal boasts 800-1,000 fighter aircraft, many of which are in some state of disrepair. With air power proving ever more important in the post-Cold War world, China’s relative neglect of this force branch constitutes a conundrum.
The divergence of Chinese air power doctrine from the U.S.’s presents another conundrum. Where the American literature stresses the goal of gaining and maintaining air superiority, Chinese doctrine emphasizes preemption and deception. Against a technologically superior foe like the U.S., China’s strategists recommend disabling the enemy to prevent his exercising command of the air.4 This approach could entail preemptive strikes on local enemy airfields or, less dramatically, the use of diplomacy to alienate the enemy from regional allies.
The preeminence of this strategy implies that the only kind of enemy on China’s strategic radar screen is one like the United States. China’s defense statements, however, suggest otherwise, as they analyze potential threats from Taiwan, Japan, and internal insurgents, among others. So it is especially puzzling that air power figures into Chinese military calculations only in the context of countering control of the skies by a better-equipped foe. The U.S., if faced with an inferior or equally well-armed enemy at home or abroad, would at least consider deploying bombers and would likely decide upon their use. But Chinese doctrine appears to exclude this sort of response. Discussions of air power in China are confined to neutralizing an attacking air force through the use of aaa, missiles, and forms of information warfare — for instance, jamming enemy targeting systems.
To what should we attribute the modesty of China’s accomplishments in the fields of aircraft manufacture and flying? And why, in the age of air power, do China’s leaders privilege ground-launched missiles over planes and pilots? Answering these questions requires an examination of civilizational factors — cultural, political, and historical influences — whose effects have been understudied and remain little understood. When features of its culture and regime are taken into account, the internal logic of China’s approach to air power becomes clear.
To begin at the beginning — with the religious and philosophical beliefs evinced in the earliest artifacts of Chinese civilization — is to explore the enduring intellectual framework that underlies Chinese military thought today. And foremost among these beliefs is the Chinese teaching of immanence, which contrasts sharply with Western notions of transcendence.
This fundamental difference in perspectives on the world may be traced to antiquity. In the West, the universal human question, “What is man’s relationship to the rest of the world in which he finds himself?” inspired belief in creation by a supreme, holy, and anthropomorphic deity. The Bible’s description of human beings as having been created in God’s image implies that there is something holy and worthy of respect in each individual. And God’s commands in Genesis i to be fruitful, multiply, and exercise dominion emphasize man’s role as a cultivator and transformer of the world. The biblical premise of a transcendent deity thus gives rise to the idea that man rules the earth — in accordance with God’s precepts, improving it and making laws that respect His will.
In ancient China, by contrast, fundamental questions about the world and man’s place in it yielded a view of the divine as immanent. In this view, all of nature is sacred, and man occupies no special place in the cosmos.5 Human beings, therefore, must strive not to disturb the world. Men should instead adapt and blend into their surroundings.
The doctrine of immanence first arises in a 3,000-year-old Chinese classic, I Ching, which teaches that opposites like fellowship and enmity, life and death, and masculine and feminine contend with each other throughout time. These opposites can be understood only with reference to each other. In response to the human impulse to question and seek resolution, the I Ching refers man back to the source of his concerns. Because the world is sacred, the problem for man is not to reconcile apparently conflicting phenomena but to fathom their underlying connectedness within an extant cosmic order. Instead of trying to resolve the tensions he perceives around him, man ought to adapt himself to the way of the world. Rather than conquer, he should submit and retire from active probing.
The Confucian tradition clarifies the implications of the I Ching for man in society. From the I Ching’s dialectical premise, Confucius develops his notion of naming (assigning titles to people that denote familial and social roles) and propriety. In Confucianism, the relational nature of man’s position –– his definition by reference to the people around him –– dictates that he should not assume a fixed attitude and try to maintain it across all circumstances, but rather should adjust his conduct in light of ever-changing circumstances. Despite the appearance of flexibility in this doctrine, man’s status as a relationally defined creature imposes a certain rigidity: His position determines the ways in which he may behave, ruling out deviation or individuality.
China’s Taoist tradition adapts the I Ching into philosophical principles. Recognizing the fertile relationship between opposites in nature, Taoism teaches that life’s mysteries, contrasts, and seeming contradictions are reconciled by the Tao (“the Way”). Sages are able to achieve proximity to the Tao by subjugating all desires, including the desire for objective knowledge. The value of cultivating acceptance of the world while stripping oneself of the urge to know it emerges in the Taoist proverb: “In pursuit of learning, / One daily expands his sphere of activity, / But in pursuit of the tao, / One must daily reduce it, / Reduce it, and reduce it again / Until one attains a state of nonactivity.” The ideal of doing nothing provides a form of insulation from the vicissitudes of existence. Far from encouraging mastery of nature as the Bible does, Chinese tradition extols submission and radiates disdain for knowledge of, and the ability to manipulate, material things.
Though it mitigates against conquest of nature, in an important sense, the Taoist teaching of quiescence or submission glorifies power. Imperceptibly, the weak triumphs over the strong. Water, for instance, is cast in Taoist literature as the ultimate way-like element: “The meekest in the world / Penetrates the strongest in the world, / As nothingness enters into that-which-has-no-opening. / Hence, I am aware of the value of non-action / And of the value of teaching with no-words. / As for the value of non-action, / Nothing in the world can match it.” The insistence in Chinese strategic sources on patience and indirection harmonizes with this portrayal of water. From meek appearances come striking results.
The idea that it is the way of the world for the weak to defeat the strong appears in a body of Chinese stories that has been passed on for centuries. Of course, the weak vs. strong trope is not absent from the Western tradition — surfacing, for instance, in the biblical story of David and Goliath — but it receives less emphasis in the West than it does in China’s cultural heritage. The ancient Chinese tales of dynastic foundings highlight the ability of inferior challengers to conquer haughty potentates. In these stories crafty advisers, spies, and double agents figure prominently. What is emphasized is the artfulness of the conquest. Wise princes, their deputies, and their operatives display resolve, patience, consciousness of the impressions inspired by their actions, sensitivity to disguise, a knack for devising ruses, and the ability to recognize and exploit opportunities.
Western readers of the Chinese stories might be surprised by the absence of talk about justice and the relatively modest attention paid to individual merit, but again, this is consistent with the Chinese teaching of immanence. Calling the dynastic founders “heroes,” in fact, may be misleading insofar as they are not illuminated by Homeric character portraits or subjected to biographical treatment. Unlike the heroes of Western epics, Chinese protagonists are not depicted as facing tragic choices, since, after all, what could appear to be a conflict is reconciled by the Tao. All that is conveyed about these figures is what is necessary to understand their actions in battle — with special emphasis on the strategies and tactics they adopt. No discussion of morals and very little of motives appears in the tales. In a cosmos in which humans do not occupy a special place, they are not expected to redress wrongs; moreover, the height of craftiness is to recognize that because everyone else is inculcated with the idea of going with the flow, deception is a particularly powerful weapon.
Practical political wisdom and Taoist sensitivity to harmony with nature commingle in another contemporarily relevant compendium, the ancient military classics, which are still used in Chinese military academies. The most famous, Sun Tzu’s Art of War (Sun tzu bingfa –– “bing” means “war,” and “fa” means “habits” or “rules”), belongs to a collection of military manuals dating back to the 200-year Warring States period before China’s unification under the Qin Dynasty (221-206 bc). Two thousand years later, Mao adopted Sun Tzu in his struggle against the Nationalist forces, and references to the ancient classics recur in contemporary statements of strategy, including air power doctrine.
In these military classics, generals are counseled to ensure that their troops share a uniform outlook and are positioned to act in perfect concert. The soldier’s individuality is erased. At the same time, the manuals emphasize the role of environmental factors, urging commanders to harness gravity. The attention to impersonal, natural forces separates the Chinese strategic tradition from Western sources of strategy.
China’s political system reflects civilizational tendencies or cultural norms –– particularly, the de-emphasis of individual will –– that have conduced to authoritarian rule for more than two millennia, from the ancient emperors to today’s communists. The tradition of Chinese authoritarianism also constitutes a response to the problem of unifying an enormous and diverse polity. Chinese rulers from the imperial era to the present have faced a common security dilemma: how to protect China’s borders and prevent or quell domestic insurgency without deploying an army so large as to be uncontrollable and thus threaten the regime. Their recurring answer to this challenge, in light of the cultural strains discouraging special regard for human beings as such or for the human potential to master the world, has been to impose top-down rule via whatever means necessary. This political solution, in turn, reinforces the cultural norm against individualism.
While the dynasties — from the ancient Qin to the modern Qing (1644-1912) — showed some variation in their approach to the unification challenge, all ultimately relied on military or economic might as a bulwark for rule from the center, in which the emperor’s will preceded all others. Once the power of a dynasty to fight foreign threats or internal rivals declined, the dynasty was seen to have lost its claim to the “Mandate of Heaven” and was ousted. Historians Arthur Waldron and Pamela Kyle Crossley have studied and classified the policies adopted by emperors to confront the challenge of warding off invaders while maintaining authority within China’s borders.
In The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth (Cambridge University Press, 1990), Waldron asserts that some emperors (call them the wall-builders) took a harsh, anti-accommodation line against neighboring powers, while others (call them the dealmakers) negotiated, traded, and honored agreements with them. Waldron goes on to argue that even those dynasties initially led by dealmakers ended up under wall-builders, whose refusal to pacify enemies through diplomacy ensured the dynasty’s demise. To explain the recurrence of this unviable hard-line posture over the whole imperial era, Waldron suggests that China’s emperors were subject to cultural and political pressures against conciliation. The lesson that emerges from his study of the dynasties’ foreign policy is of their essential belligerence, the foreign-policy expression of individual-crushing authoritarianism at home.
Pamela Kyle Crossley arrives at a similar conclusion by focusing on the dynastic approach to domestic affairs. In A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology (University of California Press, 2000), she distinguishes two distinct approaches to political culture. Some emperors established a horizontal political culture by spreading a single, rigid, regime-boosting ideology across their territory and forcing their subjects to identify with each other in a common state of submission. Others established a vertical culture by building ties to each of the populations under their jurisdiction and importing elements of these subject cultures into the central court culture. Neither approach was fail-safe. Emperors taking the horizontal tack were bound to maintain the appearance of strength at all times to stifle dissent, while emperors who pursued a vertical strategy had to buttress their tolerance with material benefits. Once a dynasty under the horizontal model showed weakness or one under the vertical model suffered a financial setback, its days in power were numbered. These two solutions to the problem of maintaining domestic order — forcibly indoctrinating or bribing subject populations — both reflect and reaffirm the lack of respect for individuals and their agency that flows from the Chinese immanence teaching.
The communist leaders of China today see themselves in part as heirs of the imperial epoch and have learned from the dynasties’ centralizing modes of government. The communists, however, face an especially difficult problem of administration, as they have only the Qing Dynasty as precedent in overseeing such an expansive territory. Out of the vacuum left by the Qing’s demise in 1912, Mao emerged as the victor in part because he wielded an ideology (Maoism) that justified the reassertion of central control over China’s far-flung inhabitants. In Crossley’s terms, to address the challenge of unification, Mao cultivated a horizontal political culture emanating from the Chinese Communist Party (ccp). Like previous dynasts who took that approach, Mao left his heirs susceptible: A well-timed domestic uprising or foreign incursion could undermine the ccp’s ideology-based, force-backed claim to rule. Thus, the massacre authorized by Deng Xiaoping in response to the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989 and other seemingly disproportionate crackdowns (against academics and other political dissidents, practitioners of Falun Gong, and religious Christians) are attributable to the precariousness of the regime’s position. The alacrity and harshness with which protests are suppressed reflects an ideology that accords no special dignity or worth to the individual. The same impulse to defend the regime at the expense of its subjects led the communist authorities to ignore the sars crisis for as long as they could.
In addition to reinforcing their power through domestic displays of brutality and inhumanity, Deng Xiaoping and his successor, Jiang Zemin, acted aggressively in foreign affairs. The continuing menace to Taiwan seems to have as much to do with shoring up the ccp’s internal authority as it does with repatriating the island’s residents. By their provocative actions, the communists intend not to cultivate popular approval but rather to persuade the populace of their authority and strength. Such displays fortify their position as rulers over a subject population whose meekness they encourage.
An appreciation of the communists’ insecurity provides a window onto Beijing’s handling of the U.S. spy plane that crash-landed after colliding with a Chinese naval aircraft in spring 2001. By delaying the return of the crew members, Jiang Zemin bolstered his domestic prestige. Americans saw the delay as unnecessarily hostile, even to the point of brinkmanship. The contrasting assessment from a pla strategist at the National Defense University is revelatory: “The Chinese government was very restrained over this incident. Its performance in relation to this issue has both preserved the national dignity and distinguished right from wrong.” He continues: “Compared with the Chinese embassy bombing incident [in Kosovo] in 1999, the performance of China in handling this incident has been more mature.”6 The conflicting Chinese and U.S. interpretations of the incident reflect the different perspectives of a regime that depends on its subjects’ fear of powerful central authority and one that derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed.
Chinese air power
Culture and politics in China have converged to create an environment hostile to the development of air power. The Chinese are weak in their domestic aircraft production capabilities; their arsenal lacks long-range, offensive bombers; and their doctrine indicates a perverse preference for ground-launched missiles in an era dominated by aircraft. Each of these weaknesses is in accord with longstanding Chinese cultural and political factors.
At its core, air power involves gaining access to a realm of nature — air and space — from which human beings were long excluded. Man in flight achieves dramatic conquest of the world around him. The tremendous technological achievement underlying the development of air power is thus in contradiction to the Taoist precept that man should honor and adjust to nature. Unlike the Western impulse toward mastery, China’s cultural inheritance discourages scientific inquiry and discovery.
The fate of technological advances in the imperial era is instructive. Late in the first millennium, the emperors of the Song Dynasty (920-1269) tolerated experimentation as long as it was confined to the world of magic — a world that was unknowable and therefore posed no threat. Sometime in the ninth century, Taoist alchemists mixing together various ingredients in search of an elixir that would grant longevity stumbled upon gunpowder. But the innovation was not then harnessed to the cause of waging war, as it was when it arrived in the West. Instead, imperial authorities, recognizing its destabilizing potential, stifled the innovation.
The exploitation of earlier, combat-ready inventions, such as crossbows (between 300 and 100 bc) and trebuchets (catapults, about 500 ad), was similarly delayed until the reign of the non-ethnically Chinese Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Where the ethnically Chinese Song Dynasty had feared that distributing crossbows would upset the class system by empowering ordinary soldiers, the Mongols were free of such reservations, or, at least, they refused to let domestic political considerations impinge on their program of conquest.7 China’s wariness of weapons development in the twentieth century bears traces of the suspicion surrounding technology in the imperial age. The same concerns about empowering individuals and disturbing the domestic status quo motivated the rulers of the Song Dynasty and Mao.
The potential of technology to empower soldiers is perhaps nowhere more stark than in the field of air power. The pilot is a virtuoso, commanding a machine that grants him surpassing mobility. From his position in the cockpit, he can not only defy nature but also, if sufficiently motivated, threaten his own regime. (9-11 provided a horrific demonstration of what can happen when control of an airplane falls into the wrong hands.) For this reason, modern air power poses a highly potent threat to authoritarian governments. An insubordinate air force pilot or two might wreak destruction on a grand scale.
While Western liberal democracies have elicited a high degree of loyalty, so that the threat of coup d’etat has been relatively insignificant, the situation of an empire, held together by force and not loyalty, is different. The emperor constantly faces the menace of mutiny. Service in the air force both encourages the independence of spirit that could lead to mutiny and equips would-be mutineers with the most dangerous weapons in the arsenal. Because rebellion has never been a serious fear in the U.S. military, air force (and submarine) officers not only wield these weapons but also possess great discretion over their use. In contrast, Chinese leaders have been reluctant to entrust quality planes to their air force, much less top-of-the-line precision-guided munitions. The alternative to the manned aircraft is a weapon that can be centrally controlled, such as a missile.
The use of planes for military purposes in China dates to the 1920s, when the country was engulfed by the civil war that followed the abdication of the last Qing emperor. All sides in the civil war — local warlords, the Nationalists, and eventually the communists — inherited from the Qing a legacy of technological backwardness. Thus, all were forced to buy foreign aircraft, setting a precedent for reliance on aviation imports. External assistance was admitted because it was deemed necessary.
Though the communist victors in the civil war accepted foreign aid and technology, their emphasis, from Mao through the present day, has been on limiting the influence of this assistance. The authoritarian priority of creating the appearance of unassailable might has dictated that the regime claim to have imbued imported weapons with Chinese characteristics — as a way of projecting strength in the face of domestic rivals. Nonetheless, the communists’ early forays into the world of air power were accomplished only with support from abroad, particularly from the Soviets.
In the 1960s, following the Sino-Soviet rift, Mao embarked on the Cultural Revolution — which involved purging the pla officer corps and stymied defense-related science and technology innovation. The Chinese fell further and further behind, remaining wedded to the low-tech People’s War doctrine, which substituted masses of men for materiel. Without Soviet aid, and in the face of domestic upheaval, the progress of Chinese air power was all but curtailed. Mao’s sense of the insecurity of his position led him to act aggressively in foreign affairs. In the 1962 Sino-Indian War, the Vietnam War, the 1969 clash with the Russians at Zhenbao (Damansky) Island, and China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam, undertaken by Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping, the regime succeeded in “teaching a lesson” to its rivals — all without using air power.
The 1979 showdown in Vietnam, the last major Chinese military operation, provides some useful lessons. Air power did not play a role in this foray because planes taking off from Chinese airfields situated far from the Vietnamese border lacked the fuel capacity to reach the combat zone. China was nonetheless able to humiliate a technologically superior foe, affirming the ancient theme of the dynastic foundings tales — the weak prevail against the strong.
The repercussions of the Vietnam experience are also instructive. The military deficiency exposed by the invasion prompted Deng to launch a plaaf reform program. In the post-World War ii period, Mao’s doctrine of People’s War had been centered on luring enemy forces deep into the mainland and thus downplayed the role of air defense. As Beijing’s perception of the security situation changed with the deterioration of Sino-Soviet ties, the People’s War doctrine was amended to account for the Soviet threat. The Chinese built air bases along the northern border, equipping them with aaa to repel Soviet planes. In light of the decline of the Soviet menace in the mid-1980s, Deng instituted measures to prepare the pla for small, limited engagements, which he judged more likely than nuclear confrontation. The result was an expansion of the plaaf’s mandate from a narrow air defense role to a close air support function. Finally, a third shift followed the Gulf War, which demonstrated the efficacy of U.S. high-tech air power deployed to remote battlefields. In the eyes of China’s defense planners, this display highlighted the need to develop means of countering advanced, precision weapons and illustrated the value of a capacity for joint operations and long-range strikes.
While recognition of its importance to modern warfare has led the Chinese to accord air power an increasingly prominent place, a record of plaaf radicalism has inclined leaders to restrain air force development. During the late Mao years, the dissenter Lin Biao, who was eventually purged from the regime and died in a mysterious plane crash over Mongolia, coopted the plaaf’s leadership. Lin’s 1971-72 attempted coup was based in part on support from the air force, a fact that led Deng to pay particular attention to the mood of this service branch.
The writings of party and military elites convey their fears about the insurrectionary potential of a modern air force. An article published in a pro-mainland Taiwanese daily after the downing of the U.S. spy plane sums up the concern: “Past examples show that whoever has possession of a plane has the power to do what they want with it . . . . In the 1980s, Sun Tianqin defected by flying a Mig-21 to South Korea, and in the face of protests by the Chinese Communists, American experts carefully ‘observed’ this aircraft.”8
In Beijing’s eyes, the tradition of plaaf dissent lives on. The Falun Gong religious sect, identified by China’s leaders as a threat to be eliminated, has won a significant air force following. In 2000, Yu Changxin, a septuagenarian retired plaaf general, was arrested and sentenced to 17 years in prison after being accused of masterminding a Falun Gong demonstration in Beijing. Yu’s incarceration, which made him the highest ranking official yet to be punished for affiliation with Falun Gong, provoked an outcry from his former colleagues. They were further aggrieved by the death in captivity of Wang Yu, a 49-year air force officer.
The plaaf’s weakness, then, reflects the combined effects of cultural predispositions and conscious political choices. While China’s political-military elites, like their former mentors the Soviets, have devised ways of developing the air force without putting too much power in the hands of untrustworthy pilots, their inability to rely on recruits has had far-reaching effects. For instance, the plaaf’s training regimen minimizes flight hours, which severely limits the skill of China’s pilots. (plaaf pilots spend only 80-100 hours flying annually; their American counterparts spend at least 280 hours in the air per year.) This economy is partly attributable to a desire to spare China’s aging and fragile fleet from undue wear, but it also stems from a concern about giving yahoo recruits too many opportunities to defect. The regime’s anxieties about maintaining power have depressed the air force’s performance level.
All the attention to patriotism in the plaaf crowds out the cultivation of the technical acumen necessary to maintain a high-tech air force and the skill to fly it. Communist party-building exercises play a central part in training at the academies, and citations of merit seem to be weighted heavily toward rewarding loyalty and discipline. Where U.S. exemplars stand to win the Medal of Honor for bravery and valor in the field, their Chinese counterparts are more likely to be promoted for solidarity with the party. Since the retirement of the generation that fought in Korea, the plaaf has been led primarily by men who have not seen combat. Many of these officers owe their positions to their merit as representatives of the regime.
Despite the influence of cultural and political factors that mitigate against its development, statements concerning air power in recent Chinese strategy documents reflect an appreciation of its critical role in modern combat. One recent article even emphasizes the importance of cultivating individual skill in the air force, citing a statistic from World War II that 80 percent of aircraft were shot down by 4 percent of the total pilot corps, the aces, and concluding, “The role of qualified personnel is more significant in the air as compared with that on the ground. Under conditions of high technology, the decisive role of qualified personnel is more significant than ever before.”9
Contrary to the logic of such statements, China’s leaders have been driven by the necessity of maintaining their hold on power to seek substitutes for pursuing Western-style air superiority and to direct technological development in ways that minimize the empowerment of potentially disloyal pilots. The advent of unmanned aerial vehicles augurs well for a regime that prefers central control.
Progress through adaptation
Although chinese defense intellectuals have kept abreast of U.S. debates over air power, Beijing has repeatedly expressed doubt at the efficacy of air power in the Gulf War, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.10 In light of Chinese cultural assumptions and the insecurity of the regime, this reluctance to recognize air power’s full potential should not be surprising. Very likely, the communist elites fail to understand the individualist principles that undergird American air power. They continue to greet instances of its politically troublesome success as a surprise. While it is true that many Americans failed to foresee the speed and low cost of the 1991 Gulf War, China might have used the knowledge gained from that experience to predict allied success in Kosovo. But given China’s relative lack of air power capabilities, an acknowledgment by Jiang or one of his subordinates of American mastery of the air would compromise the reputation of the regime. Beijing’s inability to fully appreciate American air power, then, betrays a weakness or inflexibility stemming from China’s cultural and political roots.
A distinctive flexibility, however, also emerges from China’s Taoist tradition insofar as it encourages receptivity and adaptation to the ways of the world, as water conforms to the shape of the channel through which it flows. For example, in addition to begrudgingly accepting the U.S. military’s virtuosity in the air, Chinese strategists have been developing means of countering this American strength. Recent strategy documents highlight as vulnerabilities to be exploited U.S. reliance on regional bases and America’s growing dependence on information technology.11 In soft power terms, too, China is benefiting from its tradition of accommodating the forces at play in the world. Having detected a global economic new way, Beijing is developing a free market system.
Whether economic reforms will engender liberalization in the political realm remains to be seen, but it is reasonable to expect that the introduction of market forces will promote a spirit of entrepreneurship and that this new spirit will have profound effects on the regime and perhaps on cultural norms. In the domain of air power, entrepreneurial values — competition, innovation, and excellence in performance — could foster a new regard for and tolerance of outstanding pilots. Unlike the ussr, which was crippled by the rigid manner in which its leaders pursued their self-interest, the Chinese may well benefit from their civilizational emphasis on adapting to the world. This adaptive tendency amplifies China’s already giant potential.
1 See, for example, Wang Hucheng, “The US Military’s ‘Soft Ribs’ and Strategic Weaknesses,” Beijing Liaowang (July 5, 2000) in FBIS CPP20000705000081; Liu Hsiao-hua, “Military Commission Deals Soberly with Military Cooperation — Sino-US Options as Viewed from Multilateral Tactics and Strategy,” Hong Kong Kuang Chiao Ching (November 16, 1997) in FBIS HK1012063597; Kong Lingtong, “Discussion of Topographical Advantages in the Wake of the Kosovo War,” Beijing Jiefangjun Bao (September 14, 1999) in FBIS OW2809121099.
2 Dong Wenxian, “Emergence of Modern Air War,” Beijing Jiefangjun Bao (May 9, 2000) in FBIS CPP20000509000073.
3 Zheng Shenxia and Zhang Changzhi, “The Military Revolution and Air Power,” in Michael Pillsbury, ed., Chinese Views of Future Warfare (National Defense University Press, 1998).
4 See, for example, Xu Sheng, “Accurate Attacks Will Dominate Future Battlefields,” Beijing Jiefangjun Bao (June 22, 1999) in FBIS OWL307234899; Tang Baodong, “Difficulties in Pursuing Hegemony — Weakness of the United States in Fighting a Local War as Viewed from the Kosovo War,” Shanghai Guoji Zhanwang (July 23, 1999) in FBIS FTS19990713001922; Cheng Bingwen, “Countermeasures and Thoughts for Fighting ‘No-Contact Warfare’ — On the Need to Refocus Our Preparations for Military Struggles,” Beijing Jiefangjun Bao (October 4, 1999) in FBIS OWL310110599.
5 The Confucian tradition does posit human specialness in the context of immanent divinity, but the focus on self-cultivation in Confucianism is holistic, centering on man’s connecting himself to the continuous chain of being around him.
6 “Mid-Air Collision and Future of Sino-US Relations,” Hong Kong Zhongguo Pinglun (June 1, 2001) in FBIS CPP20010621000113.
7 Alfred Crosby, Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology Through History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002): 96-97, 85-86.
8 Liu Ping, “When Military Aircraft Approach Each Other in the Air, Games Can Easily Lead to Serious Consequences,” Taipei Chung-Kuo Shih-Pao (April 3, 2001) in FBIS CPP20010403000091.
9Beijing Xinhua Newsletter (November 14, 1999) in FBIS OW3012085499.
10 Tang Baodong, “Difficulties in Pursuing Hegemony — Weakness of the United States in Fighting a Local War as Viewed from the Kosovo War,” Shanghai Guoji Zhanwang (July 23, 1999) in FBIS FTS19990713001922.
11 See, for example, Cai Wei, “Exclusive Report: us Carriers are Not Myths,” Beijing Huanqiu Shibao (June 22, 2001) in FBIS CPP20010625000107; Xu Xiaoyan, “Establishing an Information Resource Mobilization Mechanism with Chinese Characteristics,” Beijing Zhongguo Junshi Kexue (October 20, 2000) in FBIS CPP20001205000152; Nie Yun, “Why Does the us Military Bring Such a Great Force to the Asia-Pacific Region?” Beijing Zhongguo Qingnian Bao (August 31, 2000) in FBIS CPP20000906000069.