The emergence of modern China on the world stage brings both worry and hope: worry about how the world will welcome a great emerging power and hope that a great civilization will enrich all aspects of world trade. The world views the United States as the cornerstone of the existing international leadership system as it negotiates its relationship with an independent-minded China. In this context, it is now more important than ever that the United States and China understand each other better, especially in the area of security and military affairs around key regional issues.
Unless the two countries appreciate the similarities and differences in their cultures, traditions and military norms, the ongoing dialogues between them will never realize their full potential.
Institutional Military Culture
Perhaps the most obvious difference between the American and Chinese armies is the use of conscripts by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) versus the use of volunteers by the United States. This can be misleading, as there are in fact many more potential conscripts than entry-level positions in the PLA. Thus the “conscripts” are the most qualified among those who volunteered. Indeed, the PLA offers interesting jobs to young people from agrarian communities whose prospects would otherwise be quite limited.
A key difference between PLA volunteer conscripts and true American volunteers are the conditions and expectations of enlistment. In the PLA, conscripts serve for two years, after which the best are invited to continue their service as non-commissioned officers (non-commissioned officers). In the US military, two-year enlistments are the exception, most of which are at least three years. In addition, nothing prevents capable, educated and motivated American troops from attaining the rank of non-commissioned officer upon initial enlistment. Additionally, outside of a withdrawal, the US military attempts to retain as many good enlisted members as possible for subsequent enlistments. Thus, there is less separation between first-time enrollees and veterans in the US military than in the PLA.
In some ways, Chinese and American military culture bear a striking resemblance; for example, professional military education and military academic institutions attended by troops at specific points in their careers. It starts with the military academy, an important source of commissioned officers. For the United States, this includes the US Military Academy at West Point, the US Naval Academy, and the US Air Force Academy. Beyond these federally mandated institutions, there are a few senior military colleges and a large number of Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs at regular civilian universities, all of which produce military officers.
In contrast, China is full of national-level military academies, each organized around a military specialty such as armor or engineering (the Nanjing Army Command Academy, the University of Sciences and technologies of the PLA or PLAUST and the National University of Defense Technology or NUDT are among the best). This means that most officers will graduate without having worked much with their comrades from other arms, branches or regions. This may require a period of adaptation as newly commissioned officers learn to apply the formulas they studied in academy to the needs of a multi-weapon and increasingly joint force. The APL also builds on the National Defense Student Program, its response to the ROTC.
Beyond academies, both armies have a system of specialized academic institutions for members at other times in their careers that roughly mirror each other. This includes academies to train non-commissioned officers as well as more academic cadres providing continuing education for mid-level officers, senior officers (US Service War Colleges and the PLA “Tigers” course) and executive level officers. (US National Defense University and PLA course “Dragons”).
A final note specific to the US military: all soldiers, regardless of their specialty or assigned unit, are eligible for training in military parachuting, helicopter assault rappelling and intensive patrol (ranger). Beyond the badges obtained, this system allows the acquisition of a certain transversality and solidarity within a large organization. I suspect that most forces, including the PLA, would see personnel training with skills that they will not directly use as a wasted effort.
Interpersonal military culture
The most striking difference in interpersonal culture is the willingness of subordinates to speak their minds to their superiors. Free expression within the PLA is limited by the hope that, barring a catastrophic event, the units will operate essentially without error. The troops are working very hard to make sure that is the case. On the other hand, PLA leaders see at one level the need for honest evaluations. So when it comes time to assess one’s own performance, there is a relatively narrow band of comments one makes to show the improvements needed while maintaining the appearance of excellence.
While there is a corresponding quest for perfection in the U.S. military, the ideal is to fight hard: make a solid plan but not overdo it, expect things to turn out badly, and deal with it effectively. . There is no penalty for things going wrong as long as you manage them well. This tolerance for unexpected events allows for a more candid and thorough after-action review.
Socially, the PLA stands out for certain formalities in its entertainment, notably its emphasis on protocol. Of course, both armies recognize their rank in a formal setting, but the PLA deploys it in a wider range of social situations. US servicemen who interact with their Chinese counterparts should be aware of and show deference to their elders, both Americans and Chinese. It means allowing and encouraging them to walk ahead and be aware of what they are doing. Failure to do so can create confusion and embarrassment – not overwhelming obstacles, but certainly an unnecessary distraction.
PLA officials should also be aware that the United States is generally less strict on protocol and understand that any failure in this regard (e.g., involving visa processing, table seating, etc.) It is not considered an insult, but only that the American system has not yet found a way to accommodate this aspect of the protocol.
As contacts between China and the United States continue to grow in frequency and importance, each side should strive to understand and adapt to the customs of the other while maintaining its own traditions. Just as we can only realize our best hopes through a realistic assessment of each other’s interests, American and Chinese officers must combine flexibility and strength as they represent their own national and military culture while learning to appreciate their views. counterparts. It creates the kind of understanding and camaraderie that can keep simple misunderstandings from escalating into sticky disagreements or worse.
Ben Lowsen, writer for The Diplomat, is a former US Army officer and military attaché in Beijing. A specialist in China, he writes frequently on American and Chinese military culture, including how each serviceman trains, basic unit leadership, PLA fundamental knowledge and the history of the PLA. . This article originally appeared on EastWest.ngo.