Dr. Andrew Wilson delivered a lecture entitled “Civil-Military Relations in China and Implications for Foreign Policy” to the Tower Center Student Forum on September 17th, 2015. Dr. Wilson, an expert on the Chinese military and political systems, is the Phillip A Crowl Professor of Comparative Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He has taught at Harvard University and Wellesley College. Dr. Wilson has written numerous books and articles related to topics in Chinese history, including the country’s imperial and colonial periods, sea power, strategic theory, and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
After outlining the basic organization of the Chinese military, Dr. Wilson highlighted two structures within the Chinese military which warrant special attention: their coast guard and cyber-warfare divisions. Then, Wilson examined the expansion of these two components in recent history, with a particular emphasis on their increased use of espionage and modernization of communication methods. Furthermore, he established that the Chinese military is an “institution unto itself,” meaning that its lack of substantial civilian oversight makes it an unpredictable player on the Chinese political scene with enormous potential as an international player, both positive and negative.
By noting the independent nature of the military’s top leaders, Wilson defined the current status of the perennial power struggle between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the civil leaders of the national government. Many scholars have noted this dynamic, including Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell in China’s Search for Security. They note, for example, that Chinese President and CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao said in a major 2004 speech that the military’s function is most importantly to provide “‘… an important guarantee of strength for the party to consolidate its ruling position’” (282). Evidently, the Chinese military’s role has primarily been a means to an end for the CCP since its creation.
Wilson noted the swift rise of the Chinese Coast Guard to international prominence due to its prevalent role in recent conflagrations over disputed islands. He addressed the relatively new phenomenon of the Chinese Coast Guard dredging reefs to create artificial islands containing airstrips and port facilities. This is the latest development within the lengthy history of Chinese quarrels over small, uninhabited islands in their periphery waters. These include disputed islands in the East China Sea also claimed by Japan and other territories in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam. While typically spun by China’s leaders as a purely economic action to improve the sea-lanes with navigational aids, these island-building activities are seen by many of China’s neighbors as an attempt by the military to expand its physical footprint and, by extension, its combative capabilities should confrontation arise over said islands. Dr. Wilson clarified that although he does not expect any significant escalation of this disagreement in the near future, the Chinese game plan is obviously to preemptively bolster its military capabilities in the region, both as a ploy to intimidate its neighbors and as a contingency plan.
Alongside the Chinese Coast Guard, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Cyber-Warfare division is increasingly visible in current events. According to Dr. Wilson, cyber-warfare operatives are particularly threatening to U.S. interests because their position in the hierarchy of the PLA is unclear. When, for example, these groups recently hacked the websites of the Dalai Lama and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, American analysts could not immediately ascertain who had direct oversight of these actions. Confounding their attempts to do so is the inherent divide between the CCP, which runs the military in practice, and the Chinese government, which nominally claims to do so. Moreover, the PLA is not overseen by civilians and has no functionary equivalent to the U.S. Secretary of Defense, meaning that the PLA’s cadre of leaders is a stand-alone entity that is separate from President Xi Jinping’s inner circle. After establishing the contrasts of the hierarchy of power of Chinese and U.S. military forces, Dr. Wilson concluded that Chinese cyber-warfare activities will continue to be carried out in a sporadic and disorganized fashion, owing to the messiness inherent in the division of power of the CCP and the conventional government.
In summation, Dr. Wilson’s lecture focused on the growth of two noteworthy components of the Chinese military: its coast guard and cyber-warfare functions. Though other divisions are similarly important, such as the PLA Navy (PLAN), scrutinizing these two divisions helps to illuminate the changing nature of the Chinese military. As such, Wilson drew on his expertise of maritime power and military development to compose a prediction for the future of U.S. – China relations. With the “pivot” of American foreign policy from the Middle East to Asia, China’s stature in international relations will undoubtedly increase. Wilson explained his misgivings about the practical capabilities of the Chinese military because the divide of power between the CCP and the government means that dual and conflicting messages concerning the direction of China’s forces are constantly being promoted. For China to cement its role as a world power, he contends, it must overcome this barrier by unifying its agenda and message across power structures.
Ryan is a sophomore from Westport, Connecticut and is majoring in political science and international studies with minors in Spanish and history. At SMU, he is a member of the University Honors Program, the Hilltop New Century Scholars Program, the Career Development Ambassadors, and the Kappa Sigma Fraternity. Ryan plans to pursue a career with the U.S. government after graduation.