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Book Reviews

modernizing china’s military: progress, problems and prospects

by David Shambaugh
Los Angeles: University of California Press. 374 pages, $34.95 US
Reviewed by Richard Desjardins

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The opening of China to the world since the late 1970s has given rise to an explosion of research on its economy, politics, and society, but, for a variety of reasons, a similar development in the area of military studies began much later. Recently, the number and quality of publications dealing with China’s military forces have grown significantly. And, because of this increased openness, external studies of the Chinese military are now showing enhanced insight and precision, proof that China is indeed interested in greater integration with the world. In this context, Professor David Shambaugh’s new book provides the most up-to-date and all-encompassing study of the Chinese military currently available.

Shambaugh, a professor at George Washington University, is well-placed to write on this subject. Fluent in Chinese, he had extensive access to modern Chinese military literature and documentation, some with restricted access even in China, and he conducted interviews with over 50 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers during the course of his research for this book. Divided into eight chapters, the book covers doctrine and training, budget and finance, defence industries and weapons procurement, threat perceptions, civil-military relations (Chinese Communist Party, state, and military), and command, control, and force structure.

We learn that the first Gulf War in 1991 – and subsequent US interventions in the Taiwan Strait in 1996, Kosovo in 1999, and Afghanistan in 2001-2002 – acted as wake-up calls for the Chinese military. While reforms aimed at modernization and greater professionalization of the military had already begun in the mid-1980s, the Gulf War in 1991 revealed how backward Chinese forces really were. Specifically, the use of high technology and precision weaponry, along with the highly effective integration of land and air units in combined operations, forced the Chinese to review their reform plans. However, Shambaugh’s assessment is that the dilapidated state of their equipment, the lack of training, and their antiquated structures will remain major impediments to the development of a Chinese power-projection capability for years to come.

The move toward increased professionalization was a reaction to the Chinese Communist Party’s reliance on the PLA for maintaining domestic order. The involvement of the military in domestic politics during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) had indeed reduced the level of military preparedness against outside threats. When Deng Xiaoping assumed power in 1978, the military were instructed to disengage from politics and search for greater professionalization through technical training. This trend could be seen progressing until the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident forced the Communist Party once again to call on the military to restore domestic order. The refusal of some military commanders to obey orders to disperse protesters worried the government, so ideological indoctrination was brought back in. Then, in the 1990s, responsibility for domestic order was passed to the newly created People’s Armed Police, made up of transferred PLA soldiers. At present, efforts aimed at modernization and greater professionalization appear to have resumed. Shambaugh concludes that the military chain of command appears to be gradually moving away from loyalty to the Party, and toward the government.

Shambaugh provides a thorough description of the several components of the Chinese military – their structure, military preparedness, future direction, and prospects, revealing his depth of understanding of the issues – based on years of study of the PLA and his previous work on Chinese politics and their foreign policy-making apparatus. In the debate on the ‘threat’ posed by China, Shambaugh comes across as slightly dovish, but his credentials and publication record should nonetheless gain him a respectful reception. Highly recommended.

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Richard Desjardins is a federal civil servant with the Canada Border Services Agency. He holds an MA in Chinese politics.