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
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.
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