Assessing Chinese Military Transparency

By Michael Kiselycznyk and Phillip C. Saunders China Strategic Perspectives 1


Executive Summary

The United States and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region have expressed concerns about China’s expanding military capabilities and called on Beijing to increase transparency on military issues. Chinese officials and military officers argue that Chinese transparency has increased over time and that weaker countries should not be expected to meet U.S. standards of transparency. Lack of an objective method for assessing military transparency has made it difficult to assess these Chinese claims and has inhibited productive dialogues about transparency.

This paper presents a methodology for assessing military transparency that aims to confront the question of China’s military transparency from a comparative perspective. Drawing upon research done by Korean defense expert Dr. Choi Kang as part of a Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific working group, it focuses on defense white papers as a readily available and comparable source of official defense information. The paper develops an objective methodology for comparing the relative transparency of defense white papers by employing standardized definitions and a four-tiered set of criteria to evaluate transparency across 19 categories. This approach can be used to evaluate changes in transparency over time and to compare China’s transparency with that of other Asia-Pacific countries.

We use this methodology to evaluate changes in transparency in China’s six defense white papers (from 1998 through 2008) and to compare its 2008 white paper with 13 other recent Asia-Pacific defense white papers. We find that there has been a gradual but modest increase in the transparency of China’s defense white papers over time. China’s degree of transparency is roughly comparable to that of most Southeast Asian countries and to India, but significantly less than Asia-Pacific democracies such as Japan and South Korea. We argue that China’s growing economic and military power makes major countries such as Japan, South Korea, India, and Australia a more appropriate basis of comparison.

Despite some limitations in the methodology (most notably omitting information published in other government documents when assessing transparency), we believe that it provides a reasonably objective and comparable way to evaluate relative military transparency. Although a full assessment would require considering a country’s unique context and using all available information, the methodology employed in this study provides a useful starting point to compare how different countries within the Asia-Pacific region approach military transparency. We argue that this methodology could be used as the basis for broader comparative studies of transparency and as a way to support regional dialogues about military transparency.