China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, is currently engulfed in the worst corruption scandal in its history. Two of its top officials have been detained and accused of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power, including a cash-for-promotion racket that benefited hundreds of officers. More heads will roll as dozens of senior personnel must have offered bribes — or had been bribed — to get ahead in the ranks, calling into question the very leadership of the 2.3 million-strong army.
It's easy to look across the Pacific and feel a twinge of schadenfreude. But if Beijing can't get this metastasizing scandal under control, it's bad for America’s strategic interests for three basic reasons.
First, corruption within the Chinese army makes our interactions with China even more byzantine and unpredictable than they already are. The U.S. won’t know who exactly is in charge of the Chinese military, since systemic corruption continues to muddy the leadership waters.
Along these lines, corruption further weakens the bonds of trust between American and Chinese military officials since there will be lingering doubts of whether the officer in charge today will be clamped in chains tomorrow.
Internally, the troops might not support its leadership. As one top anti-corruption crusader in China’s military recently asked his colleagues, “If there really was a war, who would listen to your commands or risk their life for you?” Surely current Chinese officers realize their predecessors won Mao Zedong’s civil war against Chiang Kai-shek in part because their Nationalist adversaries were hopelessly corrupt.
Second, a corrupted Chinese military might not be competent enough to handle a full-blown international crisis in Asia. Since a large number of Chinese officers must have advanced their careers by bribing the right people, the People’s Liberation Army leadership might be a lot less sturdy and competent than it seems from the outside. As one recently retired Chinese major general wrote, “Combat effectiveness is more undermined by corruption than anything. … It is hard to imagine that a corrupt army can vanquish the enemy and win victory.” The fact that China has been unbloodied by warfare in a generation only compounds this challenge.
While this might be provide some relief for U.S. military planners — a corrupt force is not as competent as it could be — it ultimately means if a crisis in Asia intensifies into violence, we might not have the connections to keep an isolated incident from escalating into a larger conflagration. And even a corrupted Chinese army can still be dangerous and lethal.
Third, even if a shooting war isn’t on the horizon, the U.S. still needs to work with a competent Chinese military to handle important international challenges. From handling nuclear-related challenges on the Korean peninsula to providing disaster relief to combatting piracy, the Sino-U.S. relationship is one that will define the fate of millions of people worldwide. A major military force hobbled by corruption won’t be an effective partner in these important national security endeavors.
There’s a sly Chinese aphorism that says pure waters cannot harbor fish — suggesting a certain bending or twisting of the rules and regulations allows life to keep going. And of course, the U.S. military is certainly no stranger to corruption. But these scandals have the possibility of seriously damaging one of the pillars of stability in an oft-unstable country. This in turn could cause a political earthquake that could have global repercussions.
China must root out this rot in its military — for the sake of its society, and for ours.