Forging China's Military Might

  • Published

Forging China's Military Might edited by Tai Ming Cheung. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

In Forging China's Military Might, the authors aspire to provide "an analytical framework to evaluate the nature, dimensions, and spectrum of Chinese innovation" by exploring the degree to which Chinese science, technology, and the industrial base are transforming from imitators into innovators. The edited volume is a compilation of selected presentations from a 2011 conference on the Chinese defense economy. A key difference between this work and so many that have preceded it, according to the editor, is that this one addresses " critical weakness in the examination of Chinese defense issues," attempting to apply a variety of frameworks to the analysis versus the numerous "descriptive, non-theoretical, narrowly focused on China, and without much comparative perspective" works out there. To that end, the book is a mix of theoretical approaches and case studies. Despite contributions by several recognized scholars in the field, the functionality of the chapters varies considerably in terms of the book's overall objective. Often, the frameworks fall flat, struggling to illuminate anything beyond that derived by reliance on more traditional, descriptive methods, sprinkled with insights and informed speculation. While the individual efforts are, generally speaking, useful, especially for those less familiar with the evolving context, they are not eye-opening to those well-versed on the subject. While the goal of greater theoretical and analytical rigor is admirable, the "models" employed within offer, at best, a very modest advancement over the "descriptive, non-theoretical" approaches the editor seems to scorn in his introduction. As such, it incrementally adds to the body of work on the subject.  

A standout chapter--aside from a very useful Introduction--is Chapter 1, co-authored by the editor, Thomas Mahnken and Andrew Ross. Here, the authors, taking a broad approach to the subject of innovation--defining its facets, explaining the whys and hows of military innovation, and evaluating the outputs--imitation, adaptation, and genuine innovation (incremental, architectural, modular, and disruptive/radical), aim to deliver a balanced picture of both the scope and pace of Chinese developments. One of the book's chief purposes is to help policy makers avoid two dangers: overestimating and underestimating Chinese military modernization. Overestimation could increase the pressure felt by others states to engage in a competitive regional arms race. Conversely, underestimating China's capability to innovate sets the stage for surprise, should a conflict arise. To that purpose--defusing hyperbole and/or misinterpretation in either direction--the monograph is a welcome prescription. 

 Regrettably, the book lacks the analytic punch it is striving to deliver. Of course, within the disciplines of social science and strategic studies this is a persistent craving--the relentless appetite for predictive models that promise to inform decisions. Unfortunately, such an appetite often correlates with a less-than-discriminating palate concerning the efficacy of many such models. The case studies and, for that matter, several "theoretical" chapters are actually quite descriptive and the explanatory models they offer deliver no surprises. Glimpses into specific sectors of the defense economy, the governing structures, and methodical management changes the Chinese are making to foster innovation do make for interesting reading; they may also give one pause considering how far the Chinese have come in a relatively brief timespan. However, the essays are of marginal utility in terms of improved assessment capacity regarding Chinese innovation, the underlying rationale for the work.

Lt Col John H. Modinger, PhD, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."