Executive Summary: During March 28-30, 2000, the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) held a conference entitled “Evolving Roles of the Military in the Asia-Pacific.”  The purpose of the meeting was to assess the current and future role of regional military forces in the post-Cold War environment.   The conference was organized around four panels: (1) Trends in Asia and their Implications for the Military; (2) Evolving Transnational Roles for the Military; (3) Dynamics of the Military Role in Civil-Military Relations; and (4) New Directions for Asian Militaries.  The following is a brief overview of some key findings:

Asian Military Modernization Is Adjusting to Effects of Economic Crisis: The 1997 Asian economic crisis was devastating for many countries in the region and had a profoundly negative impact on defense modernization efforts.  Countries in the region are responding to the crisis by re-evaluating their defense modernization needs. 

The Asia-Pacific Region Is Caught Between Two Competing Visions of the Future: The Asian economic crisis also undermined some of the region’s economic and political confidence.  Two competing visions of the future have consequently emerged.  On one hand there is the optimistic view that focuses on globalization and its attendant positive effects. On the other hand, there is the much darker view that sees a world rife with anarchy and chaos.  Despite these competing views, however, most presenters tended to agree that Asia’s future is relatively bright, except for lurking problems in the background: rich-poor gap, environmental degradation, etc.

Asian Militaries Are More Supportive of Democratization:  Civil-military relations in many Asian nations are improving.  Military forces are often more willing to support democratization.  Military forces in Indonesia and Taiwan have exercised restraint as those countries or governments have undergone democratic transitions.  In Russia, fears of a military coup d’etat have subsided.   In Japan and China, military forces are trying to define their role in light of a changing regional security environment.

Military Forces Are Being Drawn into “Transnational” Missions:  Problems that were peripheral during the Cold War (such as drug smuggling, illegal migration, or environmental degradation) are now center stage.   Governments are responding by utilizing military forces to address them, but this has a number of inherent dangers, including the possibility of corruption.  Military forces that are given limited resources to fight narcotics trafficking, for example, might be tempted by the millions of dollars in annual drug profits.

Military Involvement in Humanitarian and Disaster Relief Missions Will Grow: Military forces are also playing a major role in humanitarian and disaster relief operations.  The world is experiencing an increase in “complex” and “non-complex” humanitarian emergencies.  Military forces are ideally suited for these types of emergencies, especially as they bring an “instantaneous infrastructure” to a disaster location because of their ability to repair structures, provide communication and health services, conduct food distribution, among other roles.

Peacekeeping and “Peacemaking” Operations Require Regional Cooperation: As the case of East Timor demonstrates, peacekeeping and “peacemaking” operations are important to the region and may grow in the future.   Such operations are politically sensitive and require regional cooperation.  The East Timor model may provide a blueprint for future operations of this type.

Military Forces are Grappling with Rapid Technological Change: Although technology provides many advantages to military forces, it also poses a severe complicating factor by increasing the costs of defense modernization.  It also poses a challenge for “inter-operability” between forces.  Technological challenges will likely grow as Theatre Missile Defense (TMD) and other advances become realities.


In the post Cold War era, military forces around the globe are adjusting to new strategic realities.  In many Asian countries, civil-military relations are undergoing various forms of stress due to a changing political and economic environment.   Political systems have evolved significantly in the Asia-Pacific region during the past few decades and, in most cases, states have made a steady transition to more representative forms of government.  Despite this positive evolution, it is also clear that the transition to mature democracies does not necessarily negate the possibility of interstate war and conflict.   Politicians, in their bid for power through populist support, may exacerbate religious, ethnic, or social inequities and thus cause instability and insecurity in their own country, as well as throughout the region. 

Additionally, since the end of the Cold War, there has been a search for new military missions, not only to justify budgets, but also to find a replacement for the lack of external threats.  Some of these new missions include combating transnational security threats, such as narcotics trafficking, illegal migration, or environmental degradation.  Others include humanitarian and peacekeeping operations.  What these missions have in common is the fact that they are extremely costly—not only in terms of financial resources but also in terms of the degradation to training for traditional war-fighting missions.  Troops engaged in humanitarian or law enforcement tasks may be less prepared for traditional military conflict.  Moreover, these missions blur the lines between law enforcement and other civilian agencies and the military; consequently, they can have a significant impact on civil-military relations both in positive as well as negative respects.  One example of a negative impact can occur when military forces use their vast intelligence gathering expertise—developed with an external military threat in mind—on their own civilian populations.

To explore the various evolving roles of the military in Asia, the Asia-Pacific Center invited a group of distinguished government officials and scholars for three days of intensive discussions.   Although the future role of military forces is still evolving, the meeting served to clarify a number of possibilities.  The meeting was divided into four major thematic sessions: (1) Trends in Asia and their Implications for the Military; (2) Military Responses to Transnational and Humanitarian Challenges; (3) Dynamics of the Military in Civil-Military Relations; and (4) New Directions for Asian Militaries.  This report constitutes a summary of the major ideas that were presented at the conference.

II.  Trends in Asia and their Implications for the Military

The purpose of the first session was to provide an overview of basic defense trends in the Asia-Pacific region.   One presenter noted that the Asian economic crisis of 1997 has significantly delayed—and perhaps even undermined—military modernization throughout the region.   On a more optimistic note, however, another presenter commented that the possibility of multilateral defense cooperation may be growing.   Japan, for instance, has proposed dispatching its Coast Guard to Southeast Asia to join Malaysia and other countries in a collective fight against maritime piracy.  Thus far, no major power has objected to this plan and this suggests that the fight against piracy might have a salutary by-product of promoting collective defense arrangements.

A second theme that emerged in this session centered on the type of political evolution occurring in the region.  One participant asserted that the world is teetering between two stark visions of the world: an optimistic scenario, as represented by globalization advocates such as Thomas Friedman, author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree, or a more darker vision as represented by authors such as Robert Kaplan who wrote the apocalyptic 1994 Atlantic Monthly essay entitled “The Coming Anarchy.”   In Asia, the question as to which vision has more validity is still an open one.  To be sure, the Asian economic crisis that began in July 1997 has demonstrated that either vision could prevail, even in the face of evidence that the region’s economies are recovering.

Another concern for the panel focused on the dramatic political and economic change around the world that is influencing how military forces function within states.  In Asia, military roles in governments are changing and in some cases their power in the government bureaucracy is growing.   In China, for example, recent events, especially regarding the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) policies toward Taiwan, would suggest that military influence on the party is increasing.   As this military influence grows, the CCP is increasingly constrained in its potential policy choices—a sharp contrast to the era in which the army was simply a “stick” to be wielded by the party.    Another example of political-military evolution is occurring in Taiwan.  The Taiwanese military has traditionally been committed to the goal of reunification with mainland China and yet Taiwan recently elected a president whose party explicitly opposes reunification with the People’s Republic.   Although no one seriously questions the loyalty of Taiwanese military officers toward their new president, few can ignore the irony of this situation, especially as Taiwan was, until recently, constrained by decades of martial law imposed by the ruling political party, the Kuomintang (KMT).  

In the Philippines, the military’s role in politics has also changed.  Former president Fidel Ramos institutionalized the notion that the military should stay out of politics.  Although the political environment in the Philippines arguably borders on instability, there is no detectable threat of a military coup.   A similar evolution has also taken place in Indonesia, where the military faces substantial criticism because of its role in East Timor and its other questionable activities.  Despite the military’s various alleged failures and misdeeds, the presenter noted that the Indonesian military still deserves some credit for its role in Indonesia’s transition to democracy.   It is useful to consider, for example, that although the Indonesian military probably could not have completely impeded the transition to democracy, it could have slowed it down or made it much more costly or bloody.

Another factor influencing the role of military power in Asia is technological change.  As one of the presenters noted, global technological advancements are substantially influencing military forces in the region, evidenced by growing concern about the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) and the rise of Theatre Missile Defense (TMD), among other factors.  Although technology can provide many positive benefits for military forces, it also has drawbacks.  First, technology is expensive and in an age of shrinking defense budgets in Asia, this presents a major challenge for modernization.  Reliance on technology often involves a dependable system that allows technology transfers from countries with more advanced military technology.   It was noted that some countries, such as the United States, are often unwilling to provide such transfers for a variety of domestic political reasons.   The presenter also noted that in the contemporary phase of military modernization, information is power.  The information age often helps to bridge the vast divides that exist between small and large countries.   Information also allows smaller countries to acquire technology (especially “off the shelf” technology cheaply and efficiently).   Information can also have a major leveling effect between weaker and stronger countries; consequently, for this reason information — and all of its related technology — can be a threat to larger, more powerful countries.

III.  Military Reponses to Growing Transnational and Humanitarian Problems

The second session focused on the emerging transnational and humanitarian challenges that military forces are increasingly being deployed to address.   It was noted that only a decade ago, transnational issues such as crime, disease, or environmental degradation, would have been considered peripheral concerns to a country’s security.  Such perceptions have now changed, especially as many transnational threats are now seen as protracted and insidious threats that “undercut the fabric of society.”   One presenter noted that transnational security issues are especially prevalent in countries which have weak central governments and which also have significant socio-economic distribution problems.  Consequently, as transnational threats grow, states are more inclined to deploy their military forces against them.

The presenter also noted that military forces, despite their unquestioned ability to handle such tasks, are often uncomfortable with (and in some cases quite reluctant about)  these new roles.  And often this discomfort is justified.   On one hand, there is the very real risk that as militaries become involved in countering activities that inherently involve large profits—such as trafficking in narcotics—they may find themselves susceptible to corruption.   The presenter noted that several examples around the world demonstrate that under-funded military forces have great difficulty resisting the temptation to take drug money.  This risk is especially realistic for military forces that are asked to take on long-term missions against transnational security issues, where the goals and targets are nebulous and difficult to quantify.  Such missions are viewed as being extremely costly as they tend to drain critical resources away from traditional war-fighting capabilities.

In addition to resource and corruption concerns, deployment of military troops on transnational security missions poses a number of challenges to civil-military relations.   The presenter noted that transnational problems often result from core problems within societies, such as discrepancies between the “haves” and “have nots.”  Military leaders tend to be wary about deployments to address these types of missions because the sources of the problems are often vague or diffused.  Such deployments also run the risk of politicizing the military, especially as military troops co-opt law enforcement or other civilian personnel who would otherwise manage such problems.  The use of military intelligence assets in such missions poses yet another dilemma.  Military units may be tempted to use their vast and experienced intelligence capabilities to target certain segments of the civilian population.

The second presenter was less troubled with the notion of military deployments against transnational problems.   As a representative from Thailand, which faces major narcotics and illegal migration challenges, this presenter noted that military forces play an active role in providing intelligence and law enforcement services in that nation.  In northern Thailand, the government has appointed the northern area commander to be director of the country’s counter-narcotics center.   The Thai military also plays a major role in promoting environmental security.  It engages in two major projects: campaigns for environmental protection and engagement in conservation projects.

Both presenters echoed a similar theme: transnational security issues are a “growth industry” for the new century and it is inevitable that military forces will be involved to a greater or lesser degree.  The issue that must be addressed is how to incorporate the capabilities of military forces in these missions without jeopardizing civil-military relations.

The panel then turned to another type of transnational role for the military: humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.    Once again, it was noted that many military leaders around the world are wary of taking on such complicated and expensive missions.   Nevertheless, several presenters noted that the military is particularly well-suited for these types of missions because it brings an “instantaneous infrastructure” to a disaster location.  In other words, military forces have the ability to construct and repair structures, provide communication and health services, and conduct food distribution, among many other functions.

Another presenter described two basic categories of disasters: complex and non-complex humanitarian emergencies.  A non-complex humanitarian emergency is “a natural, man-made or technological disaster in which the host nation government is the primary responder and acts as the overall coordinator of relief activities.”  In Asia, non-complex humanitarian emergencies are common.  Since 1990, the region has sustained more than 215 such disasters, including floods, storms, earthquakes and volcano eruptions.  

In general, foreign military forces do not intervene in non-complex humanitarian emergencies, but there are notable exceptions where a host government has requested foreign military intervention.  On July 17, 1998, Papua New Guinea suffered the effects of a massive tsunami that killed more than 3,000 people.  Following a request for assistance, the Australian Defense Forces deployed a light surgical team as part of “Operation Shaddock.”  Another similar non-complex humanitarian emergency occurred seven years earlier in Bangladesh when that nation suffered the effects of a massive cyclone that killed 140,000 residents.  The U.S. military established a joint task force (which was later known as Operation Sea Angel) and provided assistance to the Bangladeshi government.  This effort was highly praised because U.S. military leaders “showed deference to the government, and a clear chain of command that reinforced the host nation’s central status as opposed to threatening it.”

In contrast with non-complex humanitarian emergencies where the host nation government is the primary responder, complex humanitarian emergencies (CHEs) often result where the “national response system is ineffective or non-existent.”  In the absence of an effective national response, leadership must be exercised by a coalition military force or by UN humanitarian agencies.  Complex humanitarian emergencies affect large populations and typically involve war, civil strife, food shortages, population displacement, and significant mortality.  Examples of complex humanitarian emergencies include Somalia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia and, in the Asia-Pacific region, East Timor.

The East Timor example—which was representative of both a classic humanitarian operation as well as a peacekeeping operation—is particularly instructive in terms of how an operation in the Asia-Pacific region might be conducted in the future.  With the fall of Indonesian President Suharto in June 1998, there were renewed calls for East Timor to achieve its independence.  Clashes between advocates and opponents of independence ensued, resulting in significant violence and loss of life.  Many thousands fled to West Timor in terror.  Responding to the crisis, the United Nations sanctioned a Multinational International Force, East Timor (INTERFET) to be led by Australia. 

The operation involved more than 5,000 military troops from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France, Thailand, and the Philippines.  Eventually, personnel also came from Canada, Italy, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and the United States.  The primary mission of INTERFET was to provide security so that international relief organizations could provide humanitarian aid.  Moreover, the longer-term goal was to provide stability so that the displaced East Timorese population could return home. 

A Canadian presenter described his nation’s involvement in the INTERFET mission.   The Canadian government deployed sea, air and land forces.  Support and Command elements were established in Darin and Dili respectively.  Overall more than 600 Canadian military personnel were involved in the mission.  Among the major challenges were the climate, the distance, and new roles that Canadian troops were expected to play.   This was Canada’s first fully joint peacekeeping mission and, as the presenter noted, it made a significant difference in aiding the mission of restoring peace and stability to East Timor.

The panel noted that although military forces are well-adapted to handle humanitarian missions, a number of challenges remain.  Many military leaders are hesitant about becoming involved in such operations, not only because they are costly, but also because they detract from—or are perceived to detract from—military readiness.   The primary mission of the military is to fight and win the nation’s wars; humanitarian missions require a set of skills and organizational ability that is not necessarily consistent with war-fighting.  Notwithstanding these concerns, military involvement in humanitarian activities does have a number of collateral benefits.  Apart from providing instant relief to distressed populations, it can also foster a sense of mutual trust.  Foreign military forces that arrive in a troubled nation for the purpose of delivering aid and succor tend to cultivate trust and goodwill.  Similarly, military forces that respond to emergency needs in another nation also “reap professional benefits from the planning, conduct, monitoring, and practice of vocational skills that would otherwise be reserved for war.” 

As noted earlier, East Timor was both a humanitarian operation and an international peacekeeping operation.   Prior to military intervention, East Timor resembled the chaotic and anarchic visions that are sometimes described in apocalyptic essays about the future.  Indeed, if the world is headed toward a darker era of chaos and civil disorder on a grand scale, then peacekeeping and “peacemaking” operations are likely to become a much more common mission for military forces in the 21st century.  The presenter for this theme noted that the post Cold War era is dramatically different from the previous one.  Traditionally, nation-states have been the primary referent in international political discourse.  States can be pressured and held accountable by international norms and conventions.  Today, however, “parties” and gangs have replaced states, particularly in so-called collapsed or failed states.  Instead of governments, negotiators must contend with “groups of fighting men” who are not susceptible to international pressure—or at least not as susceptible.

As the world contends with greater pockets of disorder, it looks toward the United Nations for leadership.  But, as the presenter noted, the United Nations is a constrained and limited institution.  It is constrained partly because the conduct of military operations is often a continuation of politics by other means and political objectives are rarely common in such a diverse organization as the UN.  Political objectives must be compatible with military capabilities, and often in large operations they are not.  The Security Council, moreover, is hamstrung by major-power rivalry that effectively undercuts the effectiveness of the United Nations.  If the United Nations is unable or unwilling to act, then other institutions—such as NATO—must step in and fill the vacuum.  The United Nations is also constrained by military command and control problems.  In order for troops to be deployed in a particular location, long and arduous negotiations must be conducted and such negotiations can cause delays and other complications that can undermine the mission.

The bottom line for the Asia-Pacific region is this: a constrained United Nations requires a regional approach to “collective security.”  The presenter noted that the key security question for the region is how to deal with China when it finally emerges as a major economic and military player.  In an attempt to address regional security concerns, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) launched the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) as a consultative process in order to stimulate countries in the region to discuss mutual security concerns.   What this means for peacekeeping is that Asian nations will need to look within the region to solve their collective security concerns.   Reliance on outside powers and institutions, while useful and effective in the past, will no longer suffice.

IV.  Dynamics of the Military Role in Civil-Military Relations

As political transitions continue in the Asia-Pacific region, a lingering question concerns the role of military forces in civil governance.    In some countries, military forces play a stabilizing role that allows transition to new forms of political leadership.  In other countries, however, the military plays a more “interventionist” role in domestic politics and often in these countries, the line separating the civilian and military world is blurred.   To explore this concept—and the overall role of militaries in domestic politics—in detail, the conference turned to five case studies: Pakistan, Russia, Indonesia, Japan and China.


The presenter from Pakistan noted that traditionally military forces have the primary role of providing defense to nation-states.  However, an important secondary function, particularly in Pakistan, is to “support civil administration in the maintenance of internal law and order.”  In a number of Asian countries during the past fifty years, military forces have stepped in to restore civil society.  In Pakistan, the presenter noted, the military has intervened on four occasions: in 1958, 1969, 1977, and most recently in 1999.

The basic cause of military intervention in 1999 was the institutional weakening of the central government.  As the presenter noted, “parliamentary membership has largely been a vehicle to gain access to a spoils system to distribute patronage.”  Additionally, the country, prior to military intervention, had suffered from serious erosion of the judicial system and administrative decline.  Underlying all of these problems is a protracted economic crisis that has magnified the failures of Pakistan’s government.  As the presenter noted, “…the most monumental economic failure of the many decades has been the…inability [of governments] to translate statistically high growth rates into better living standards for [Pakistan’s] people.”

Ultimately, however, according to the presenter, Pakistani military leaders are eager to restore civilian rule when conditions warrant.  The Pakistan Army inherited the British conception of civil-military relations which posits that governance must remain in the hands of elected civilian officials.   For this reason, military leaders are keen on guiding the country toward a more stable path that would allow a resumption of civilian control.


The presenter on Russia described recent changes in Russian civil-military relations.  The end of the Cold War and the decline of Russia’s great power status has caused some degree of disarray in Russian civil-military relations.   Military leaders have been frustrated by what they perceive as a failure of national leaders to clearly define Russia’s national security and foreign policy interests.   Moreover, political leaders have allowed an element of ambiguity in civil-military relations to persist, and this in turn has influenced domestic politics.   Since the early 1990s, for example, former President Boris Yeltsin was “challenged with a dilemma between the need to win the military support for his regime by exercising subjective control, and [the] necessity to set up a mechanism of objective civil/military control.”  Although the emergence of Russian democracy required the establishment of civilian control over the military, senior leaders, such as President Yeltsin, continued to feel the need to win support from senior military leaders throughout his presidency.

Civilian control over the military in Russia was advanced in January 2000 when Vladimir Putin signed the revised version of the National Security Concept of Russia.  The document clearly delineated the powers and functions of particular branches of government and specifically gave the President “control of all bodies and force structures related to national security and defense.”  Although the document’s principles and definitions were rather loose, it did give the President legal and political tools that would solidify civilian control over the military.

Another dimension of civil-military relations in Russia centers on fears of a military coup.   According to the presenter, this is a fear that is being cultivated by certain media and political analysts.  The presenter noted that three conditions would need to exist before a coup was possible: first, there would need to be the rise of a charismatic military leader who had no ties to the ruling regime.  Second, military leaders would need to have the support of key civilian leaders who would assist in the coup.  Third, military interests would need to be protected by a new deal between the civilian and military elite.  According to the presenter, none of these conditions have existed since the early 1990s and, moreover, given historic and political reasons (such as the Russian military tradition of political loyalty) a coup by the Russian military is not likely.


Indonesia is another example of the powerful role that military forces can have in shaping domestic politics.  Since Indonesia achieved independence, the Indonesian military has consistently served as the backbone of the country’s political leadership.  The presenter on Indonesia noted, however, that since 1997 Indonesia has undergone dramatic social and economic change, and this change has been particularly disruptive for Indonesian military leaders.  Indonesia’s defense forces, known as Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI),  have the role of defending the nation from all threats, internal and external.  The majority of Indonesia’s security challenges emanate from within.  Indonesian leaders have identified internal instability as one of the country’s top security problems.  The major internal security problems include ethnic, religious, racial, and inter-group violence (known in Indonesia by the acronym SARA).

In addition, Indonesia must contend with certain regions clamoring for autonomy, including Aceh, Papua (formerly called Irian Jaya) and other dissatisfied regions.  East Timor is another example of regional separatism that was once described by an Indonesian official as “a pebble in Indonesia’s shoe.”  Although East Timor’s relationship with Indonesia has been addressed through elections, the entire matter has tarnished the reputation of the TNI.  Violence perpetrated by a small minority of its forces has sparked international condemnation of the Indonesian military.   Indonesian military leaders are in a state of depression, comparable to the psyche experienced by U.S. military officers after the downfall of Vietnam in 1975.  Many Indonesian officers are dismayed by the “loss” of East Timor and consider the territory to be “strategically, politically, and morally a part of Indonesia.”

Indonesia represents a very different model from the British-derived model of civil-military relations.  In Indonesia, the military has practiced a unique doctrine called dwi-fungsi (dual function).  This means that the military plays a dual function in both the military and civilian spheres.  As the presenter on Indonesia noted, the army has traditionally been an “all-inclusive, intrusive, and the dominant force in the country’s social and political life.”   However, since the Indonesian military’s reputation was so badly tarnished by the East Timor experience, public opinion now demands accountability for human rights abuses committed by the military.  In fact the TNI’s reputation has been so damaged that it “has plunged the military to its lowest level in public esteem since independence.”  Moreover, in light of recent events, Indonesians are reassessing the usefulness of the dwi-fungsi system.  Military reform is now the order of the day.  A large number of reform-advocates within the Indonesian military have been promoted recently, suggesting that the reform agenda still has impetus.   However, many officers in the military would prefer to maintain the status quo.


 The presenter on Japan described a very different scenario for Japanese military forces and their role in civil society and governance.  For 40 years after World War II, the Japanese government generally abstained from any serious debate about national security and the role of the armed forces.  Additionally, there were few discussions about what sort of capability Japan should have and how that capability should be used.  Ironically, such avoidance occurred during the heightened tensions of the Cold War.  Now that the Cold War has ended, Japan is waking up to a new regional order that may require a much more active military policy.

Japan’s military awakening has been sparked by a number of “surprises” within the past decade.  These included the unexpected threat from North Korea to withdraw from the NPT,  the Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway, the threats by China against Taiwan in 1995 and 1996, the dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands (1997), the firing of a missile by North Korea over Japanese territory (1998), among many others.  These incidents have fostered a sense of insecurity among many Japanese.  At the very least, they prove that the post Cold War era is anything but tranquil.

Japan’s response to growing instability in the region is to rely further on the United States.  As the presenter noted, the United States still remains the region’s “honest broker” since Asia still does not have a sound regional security framework.  Moreover, most countries in the region would oppose unilateral projection of power by either China or Japan.   If an emergency occurs, Japanese military forces will most likely join with their American counterparts to counter the threat.  


Like many countries in the region, China is assessing the new security environment of Asia in the post Cold War era.  Not surprisingly, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is taking on a wide spectrum of tasks, including traditional military ones as well as non-traditional roles.  While assuming these new roles, the PLA is also transforming itself from a large-scale force into one that is smaller, more efficient and technically-proficient.

The presenter on China noted that the Chinese military has four major tasks: (1) Defend the nation and reunify lost territories.  The ‘One China’ principle is recognized throughout the world and the People’s Liberation Army is keen on transforming that principle into reality; (2) Defend China’s sovereignty (for example, defending maritime rights and islands that historically belong to China, such as the Spratlys); (3) Preparing for instability resulting from the global surge in religious and national antagonisms; (4) Countering cross-border crimes (for example, fighting drug trafficking along porous borders, such as those in China’s southwest region).

The challenge for Chinese leaders, it was noted, was to reform the military at the same time the country was undergoing economic reforms.  Former leader Deng Xiaoping noted that “reform of the army must be synchronistic with the general reform of the country.”  One way that reform should occur, according to the presenter, is to keep the military’s mission focused on security threats.  In the past, the Chinese Communist Party has relied extensively on the military for many non-military tasks (such as promoting economic activity in rural areas, etc.).  Now that the military has been reduced in size, it is important that the government focus on traditional national defense missions.

V.  Conclusion

In Asia and elsewhere in the world, military forces are discovering that they must either adapt or become less effective.  Every nation faces its own unique threats and thus the role for military forces will vary from country to country; there is no single model.  Nevertheless, there must be a demarcation between political and military roles.  The political role should be to outline grand strategy and political objectives, while the military role should be to determine if these objectives are achievable and then to create plans to achieve them.  Problems will arise when either side tries to do the other’s job, as many historical examples have demonstrated.

At present, many Asia-Pacific states are grappling with the challenge of determining the appropriate role for military forces in the post Cold War era.   The international security environment is changing, but its direction and outcome are not clear.  As a result, there is a greater requirement for military and political leaders to work together so that this transition, wherever it may lead, will be smooth.    Such understanding would also, in the event of a crisis in civil-military relations, provide the basis for peaceful resolution of any conflict.  Additionally, during this period of relative stability in the Asia-Pacific region, there is an opportunity for military and political leaders from different countries to work together to fight emerging transnational challenges.

This report was authored by Paul J. Smith, Research Fellow, and Tom Peterman, Professor of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. For more information, please contact them at 808-971-8976 and 808-971-8969.


The Asia-Pacific Center (APC) is a regional study, conference and research center funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. The Center’s mission is to foster understanding, cooperation, and study of security-related issues among civilian and military representatives of the United States and other Asia-Pacific nations. The Center provides a focal point where national officials, decision makers, and policy experts can gather to exchange ideas, explore pressing issues and achieve a greater understanding of the challenges that that shape the security environment of the Asia-Pacific region. APC occasionally publishes articles on Asia policy issues written by APC research, staff, and fellows. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Asia-Pacific Center, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.