My mother said it. Your mother said it. All of our mothers said it at some point (hopefully): “Honesty is the best policy.” And for the most part, that pithy phrase calling for candor has guided us well throughout life. As with people, governments worldwide have also found that honesty regarding their defense budgets and military doctrines serves them well. There’s even an international organization dedicated to collecting this information. Since 1991, the UN Register of Conventional Arms has received and published reports from more than 170 countries with information on their domestic arms purchases, international arms transfers, and national defense policies.
Unfortunately, the Chinese government has operated against this international consensus by jealously guarding their information. The uncertainty that Beijing’s policy creates is fueling a regional arms race and generating a self-fulfilling prophecy of regional antagonism toward China. This situation is detrimental for China in many ways, but mostly because it jeopardizes the very “harmonious world” it seeks for continued economic development. More transparency would reverse the downward spiral in the regional security environment. In recent years, Beijing has rightfully used the dividends from the country’s impressive economic growth to modernize and professionalize its armed forces. However, it has kept mum on the details and not publicly clarified what it plans to do with those forces.
This is partly a product of China’s long history of foreign military interventions and concomitant developments in Chinese strategic thinking. Indeed, as early as the 2nd century B.C., Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote that “[a]ll warfare is based on deception” and that “when able to attack, we must seem unable.” More recently, Chinese military writings have developed a working definition of strategic deception. However, while Sun Tzu’s advice remains useful for managing an ongoing campaign against enemy forces (or businesses), it is not as useful to guide strategic interactions among nations at peace. The calls of alarm from China’s neighbors are both increasing and increasingly more strident. The continued uncertainty and mounting fear, in turn, have driven those same countries to begin hedging against unknown Chinese weaponry acquired for unknown reasons. This is easy to see given that, unlike China, its neighbors do systematically make public their defense budgets and military doctrines.
In 2009, Taiwan published its Quadrennial Defense Review. Last year, South Korea published its Defense White Paper. In early August of this year, Japan released its own annual white paper. And just a few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Defense published its annual report to the U.S. Congress on “Military and Security Developments” involving China. All of these reports evince concern with China’s lack of transparency and call for arms buildups, redeployments, and the strengthening of anti-China alliances. Following through, on September 14th, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta met with their Australian counterparts to seal agreements deepening military cooperation. And then, a few weeks ago, the Beijing-based Global Times published an op-ed declaring that the South China Sea was the “ideal battlefield” for China to intervene military to defend its claims. Welcome to the downward spiral.
This spiral is harmful to China in a number of ways. First, Beijing must reallocate precious money and resources away from economic growth to an unending arms buildup. Beijing’s secrecy is also pushing erstwhile allies, or at least neutral countries, into stronger security relationships designed to contain and hedge against China. Third, concern about China in the military field may be spilling over into other policy fields and raising roadblocks to cooperation. Finally, the potential for miscalculation and misinterpretation is slowly growing. Even a little skirmish, let alone a regional conflagration, would send markets tumbling and freeze international investment in China and the region. Given the global economic context, this would be disastrous for China, the region, and the whole world.
Beijing needs to be more honest with its neighbors about its domestic arms purchases, international arms transfers, and defense doctrine. It could start by submitting specific and verifiable reports to the UN Register of Conventional Arms, publishing detailed and authentic annual defense white papers, and releasing other periodic reports on areas of particular concern to the international community, such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. Such information would include a detailed breakdown of national defense spending, procurement goals, the organization and locations of major units, and records of military exercises. In addition, deeper and more frequent military exchanges and multilateral training exercises would go a long way toward reassuring China’s neighbors both near and far.
The answer is simple, intuitive, and effective: “Honesty is the best policy.” That’s why our mothers liked repeating the phrase so much. What held true for the playground holds true for the Pacific, except the stakes are much higher.