China and the People's Liberation Army: Great Power or Struggling Developing State? Review

China and the People's Liberation Army: Great Power or Struggling Developing State
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China and the People's Liberation Army: Great Power or Struggling Developing State ReviewTaken from PARAMETERS, US Army War College Quarterly, Winter 2000-01, Vol. XXX, No. 4
Three New Looks at China © by Larry M. Wortzel
In China and the People's Liberation Army, Solomon M. Karmel expands the thesis of an earlier writer from the United Kingdom, Gerald Segal, arguing that China is a weak power, not a superpower or great power. Karmel starts out by quoting a Chinese text, The Chinese People's Liberation Army (Deng Liqun, et al., Beijing, 1994), which argues that to be a superpower, a nation must possess four qualities: a large, diversified national economy; a major conventional military force; a nuclear weapons capability (and the means to deliver the weapons); and a strategic geographical location. He then systematically argues throughout the book that "in China's case, the dilemmas of development are simply too great for the state to exert the type of great power influence over East Asia that the Soviet Union exerted over Eastern Europe and its many satellite states throughout the world." He believes that "China's security and freedom from occupation threats in the postwar period have done little to enhance its power over other states." It is Karmel's thesis that those who argue that China is a great power are misinformed, and those who believe China is a military threat are crying wolf. Having defined his terms carefully in the initial chapter of the book, Karmel goes on to justify his thesis in subsequent chapters relying on extensive primary-source research in Chinese-language publications and Western secondary sources.
In six well-argued chapters, Karmel systematically dismantles China's military force structure, which he views as weak and poorly integrated; its military-industrial complex, which he characterizes as anemic and plagued by inefficiencies and corruption; the defense budget, which he believes is wasting a lot of money on the wrong priorities; and the role of China in Asia, which he defines as increasing in power but still inadequate to qualify China for great-power status. This is a readable book. Its weakness is that it is supported by research that is full of glaring inaccuracies which seem to reflect a lack of familiarity with the military in general and with the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) in particular.
The author is simply wrong when he explains the force structure of the PLA, saying that the seven regional military commands, analogous to the unified commands of the United States, are subordinate to the army. They are not. The military regional commands of the PLA are subordinate to the General Staff Department and the Central Military Commission. They are joint, and although the ground forces dominate them, they are jointly commanded and structured. The author is also wrong in his characterization of the development of the General Armaments Department from the Commission of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND). Karmel argues that COSTIND turned into a structure of state-owned military-civilian defense industries under a State Science and Technology Commission. In fact, when the General Armaments Department was created, it took over much of the military production, research, and development. However, some production did stay under the old COSTIND, but was more centrally controlled by the state. Harlan Jencks, whom Karmel quotes extensively, has called the new organization SCOSTIND, for "State COSTIND."
In other areas, Karmel's careful culling of sources to prove his thesis has missed such PLA authors as Li Qingshan and Li Jijun, who have published extensively on joint warfare, military production, and strategy. Karmel also fails to credit the PLA for its earlier successes in doctrinal and force structure modernization based on the PLA's study of US Army Field Manual 100-5, on warfighting doctrine, and a thorough review of the US lessons learned from the 1991 Gulf War.
To respond to some of Karmel's arguments suggesting China is a weak power, one needs only to remember that at the mere suggestion that "relations with China would be difficult," the Clinton Administration refused to approve badly needed air and cruise missile defenses for Taiwan. When China suggested that "it would not be good for relations," the Republic of Korea opted not to participate in research on theater missile defenses in Asia with the United States. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional forum (ARF) was formed primarily to respond to China. Vietnam is seeking a new form of security relationship as a balance against China. With regard to Karmel's claim that China's military industry is poor in general, although it does have its problems it managed to supply Pakistan with a nuclear and ballistic missile capability, it managed to build a force of approximately 400 ballistic missiles for use against Taiwan in a relatively short period, and it has managed to produce a strategic nuclear force capable of hitting the United States. The threat of force from China has deterred elected leaders of Taiwan from scheduling a referendum on national sovereignty and self-determination. And in the United Nations, China has a veto in the Security Council as a permanent member. This reviewer has not accomplished the extensive literature search of Solomon Karmel to define "great power status" versus "superpower status," but all of this evidence suggests that China's power seems great.
If one is going to read Karmel's work, it should at least be read in conjunction with other texts by authors far more familiar with militaries in general and the PLA in particular.China and the People's Liberation Army: Great Power or Struggling Developing State Overview

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