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China Formulates Assertive Military Strategy; By D. S. Rajan

C3S Paper No. 0122/ 2015

The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) issued the government’s first white paper on “China’s Military Strategy” on 26 May 2015.  The 25-page document of about 9,000 Chinese characters, is the ninth one to be issued by China since 1998; unlike the last edition brought out in 2013 which among others revealed for the first time the military strength of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as 1.483 million personnel divided into 18 different corps,   the current one does not give any such fact or figure, and instead focuses exclusively on what should be China’s military strategy; this has happened for the first time.

  1. Secondly, the 2013 document had said that China will build a strong national defense and powerful armed forces which are commensurate with its international standing; such a remark caused doubts, if not fears, among China analysts on what global role, a politically powerful and militarily modernized China can play in future- as a responsible stake holder or as a power practicing hegemony. As against this, there is no such terminology used in the latest document which emphasizes only on ‘building a strong army under new situation’ and carries an assurance that the PLA’s role would be for ‘maintaining world peace’. Such omission may signify China’s intention at this juncture to remove any misgivings abroad which could have resulted from the 2013 characterization of the PLA’s growth.

  2. The 2015 Defence White Paper has a Preface, followed by six chapters under the heads –National Security Situation, Missions and Strategic Tasks of China’s Armed Forces, Strategic Guideline of Active Defense, Building and Development of China’s Armed Forces, Preparation for Military Struggle and Military and Security Cooperation. As done in previous years, it identifies major strategic tasks for the armed forces of the PRC; most prominent among them is the one asking the military to “resolutely safeguard the country’s sovereignty, security and development interests”. The use of the term ‘development interests’ is notable as it firmly establishes the role to be played by the military in the country’s development process.  Confirming the military-development nexus, is the declaration in the paper that China’s military strategy should be subordinated to and serve the two national development objectives of the Xi Jinping era- “two centenaries” and “national rejuvenation”.

  3. The White Paper  focuses   on the military strategy acting as guide to the building of a ‘strong military’ in the “new situation”.  A question arises – what is the ‘new situation’?  The term appeared for the first time in the paper’s 2013 edition captioned “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces”; it discussed “New Situation, New Challenges, and New Missions”.  To understand the term, what the 2011, 2013 and 2015 papers have said on strategic opportunities of China, appear important. The 2011 document had said that “China is still in the period of important strategic opportunities for its development.” The 2013 edition, declared among other things that “China has seized and made the most of this important period of strategic opportunities for its development.”  The current document displays similar sentiment. It observes that China will remain in an important period of strategic opportunities for its development and expresses confidence that in this period much can be achieved. It notes that China’s comprehensive national strength, core competitiveness and risk-resistance capacity are increasing and that the PRC enjoys growing international standing and influence. What clearly emerges therefore is that in both 2013 and 2015 editions of the defence white papers, unlike what was seen in 2011, there is an increase in the level of confidence with regard to China’s ability to make use of strategic opportunities.  The ‘new situation’ can therefore be described as one generated by such confidence. The bold and innovative formulations of the country’s national security and foreign policies, now being made by a confident Xi Jinping leadership with aim to increase China’s influence over the world, reflect such confidence.   These formulations indeed mark  a departure from   Beijing’s past approach  in international relations  based on ‘hiding one’s capacities and biding one’s time’ (veteran leader Deng Xiaoping’s famous 24-character maxim of tao guang yang hui). It may be correct to say that the leadership’s confidence came through China’s ability to achieve a sustained growth and the growth in the country’s   ‘comprehensive national strength’ has grown. This being so, at the same time, the Xi administration  seems aware that in the ‘new situation’, the international environment may still not be entirely favorable to China’s protection of its expanding interests; in response, it is therefore laying stress to   developing a   “strong military” and taking some vigorous   diplomatic efforts, for e.g that aimed at promoting “ new type of great power relations” and “one belt-one road” initiative  (A ‘New Situation’: China’s Evolving Assessment of its Security Environment, China Brief, James Town Foundation, Volume: 14 Issue: 15, July 31, 2014).

  4. Taking into account that threat perceptions contained in China’s defence white papers have always given a clue to the likely directions of China’s security and foreign policies at different times, what has been said in the chapter on National security situation in the 2015 paper, appear meaningful. The paper mentions that in the foreseeable future, a world war is unlikely, and the international situation is expected to remain generally peaceful. However, China faces multiple and complex security threats. It lists new threats coming from “hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism”; these are Chinese jargons meaning intervention of the US and allies in other countries. It also finds the growing terrorist activities worrisome and views issues, such as ethnic, religious, border and territorial disputes, as complex and volatile. Small-scale wars, conflicts and crises are recurrent in some regions. Therefore, the world still faces both immediate and potential threats of local wars.

  5. Country wise, the 2015 document names the US and Japan as sources of security challenges to China. It tends to question the rationale behind US “rebalancing” strategy and its military alliances in this region and Japan’s ‘overhauling’ of its military and security policies. For the first time in China’s defence white papers, “some of China’s offshore neighbors”, have come under charges of taking provocative actions and reinforcing their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have ‘illegally occupied’. It looks obvious that this regard, China has countries like Vietnam and the Philippines in its mind. Also, the document, with the US as a clear target, charges “some external countries” as being busy meddling in South China Sea affairs and attacks “a tiny few” for maintaining constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China.

  6. The document also points to other sources of challenge to China’s national security like ‘smoldering land territory disputes (an indirect reference to border with India?); the uncertain situation in the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia and regional terrorism, separatism and extremism’. On Taiwan issue, it acknowledges that in recent years, cross- Straits relations have sustained a sound momentum of peaceful development, but says that the root cause of instability has not yet been removed, with the “Taiwan independence” separatist forces and their activities still being the biggest threat. It then finds separatist forces for “East Turkistan independence” and “Tibet independence” as security challenges, besides accusing “anti-China forces” of attempting to instigate a “color revolution” in China. It also highlights the challenges to the security of China’s overseas interests concerning energy and resources, strategic sea lines of communication (SLOCs), as well as institutions, personnel and assets abroad. Another notable challenge identified in the document concerns the “new stage in Revolutionary changes in military technologies and the form of war”.

  7. The chapter on Strategic Guideline of Active Defense, explains the three ways which China’s armed forces should function – adherence to the unity of strategic defense and operational and tactical offense; adherence to the principles of defense, self-defense and post-emptive strike; and adherence to the stance that “We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked”. It also mentions that the Active Defence guideline began in 1993 with winning local wars in conditions of modern technology, particularly high technology, as the basic point in making Preparation for Military Struggle (PMS). In 2004, the guideline was further substantiated, and the basic point for PMS was modified to winning local wars under conditions of informationization. The document adds that the basic point for PMS will now be placed on winning informationized local wars and carrying out maritime PMS.

  8. In the chapter on building and development of China’s armed forces, it has been mentioned that the PLA army (PLAA) will elevate its capabilities for precise, multi-dimensional, trans-theater, multi-functional and sustainable operations. Also, in line with the strategic requirement of offshore waters defense and open seas protection, the PLA Navy (PLAN) will gradually shift its focus from “offshore waters defense” to the combination of “offshore waters defense” with “open seas protection.” It has also been said that China’s previous approach of giving precedence to land forces over naval power would be abandoned, and it would give higher priority to preparation for maritime conflicts. The current white paper discusses more about China’s overseas interests than any other documents published previously.  It says that “it is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security and development interests, safeguard its national sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, protect the security of strategic sea lines of communication and overseas interests, and participate in international maritime cooperation.”

  9. Mention is also made in the chapter about the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) development. In line with the strategic requirement of building air-space capabilities and conducting offensive and defensive operations, the PLAAF will endeavor to shift its focus from territorial air defense to both defense and offense, and build an air-space defense force structure that can meet the requirements of informationized operations. On the PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF), it has been said that the Force will strive to transform itself in the direction of informationization. The paper adds that China will keep abreast of the dynamics of outer space, deal with security threats and challenges in that domain, and secure its space assets to serve its national economic and social development, and maintain outer space security. As cyberspace weighs more in military security, China will expedite the development of a cyber force. On China’s nuclear force, the paper says that the PRC has always pursued the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons and will optimize its nuclear force structure, improve strategic early warning, command and control, missile penetration, rapid reaction, and survivability and protection, and deter other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China.

  10. It is beyond doubt that China’s military strategy will lead to an increase in tensions in South China Sea; this assessment comes from the   envisaged ‘gradual’ shift of China’s naval focus from “offshore waters defense” to the combination of “offshore waters defense” with “open seas protection” as well as   the  stress  on building a ‘modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security and development interests’ and preparing for Maritime Military Struggle (Maritime PMS) .

  11. Worth noting is that the issue of the white paper has coincided with rising tensions  due to China’s   land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea intended to bolster its territorial claims in the disputed area. Such efforts include China’s construction work at four sites including building of a runway on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Island chain.  China is defending the work as taking place within its own territory and intended to help with maritime search and rescue, navigation and research. The US, on its part, is concerned with the military dimension of reclamation work that could undermine its naval and economic power in the Pacific. A recent report of US Department of Defence has said that at the four reclamation sites, China has moved from dredging operations to “infrastructure development” that could include harbors, communications and surveillance systems, logistics support and at least one airfield.   China has also outlined plans to build two lighthouses ‘for navigation safety’, each in Huayang Reef (Cuarteron Reef) and Chigua Reef (Johnson south Reef) in the Spratly islands (called Nansha by the Chinese) in South China Sea. There are speculations that China may declare an Air Defence Identification Zone in South China Sea, similar to what it did in East China Sea. In such circumstances, relations between the PRC and key regional nations like Vietnam and the Philippines are likely to suffer if the Chinese military strategy is put into operation. China’s ties with the US would also definitely be affected despite the former’s preference now on building a “new model of military relationships” among them. The only silver lining seems to be the reported efforts from China and Japan to sign a bilateral a Memorandum of Understanding leading to setting up of a maritime and aerial crisis liaison mechanism. If this happens, the situation in East China Sea may become quieter than before.

  12. Neighboring countries like Japan, ASEAN nations and India, which have unsolved territorial disputes with China, have reasons to worry about Beijing’s intentions behind the envisaged shift of focus in the operations of the PLA Army, Naval, Air Force and Second Artillery; the shift respectively concerns “multi-dimensional fighting”,  “open sea protection”, “ defence and offence” and “informationization”. These nations may feel the necessity to match the Chinese strategy now formulated and may accordingly feel the need to review their   military plans.  Also, the world at large may think that it has to suitably respond to the projected pro-active role for the Chinese military in the fields of cyber security and outer space. What is therefore possible is a chain reaction to China’s directions under its latest military strategy which may not be conducive to world and regional peace.

  13. India should become aware of negative implications for its Act East policy arising from the likely rise in tensions in South China Sea (SCS) as a result of the PLA Navy’s “open seas protection” role. India has economic interests in South China Sea region and SCS tensions may affect them. How India should respond? It has only a limited capacity to directly influence events in SCS; moreover, Beijing is wary of any pro-active role by India in the SCS.  New Delhi may therefore have to rely on its diplomatic options to bring down tensions in the SCS.

  14. It would be very much essential for India to note and act on China’s plans to involve its Navy in “open seas protection”. The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is certain to emerge as one of the key areas for China’s securing of its ‘overseas interests’; the IOR  already figures prominently in the China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR)initiative ; this is forcing it  to  actively woo nations in India’s neighborhood   through extending economic and military aid. Examples are China’s infrastructure projects in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and the proposal for China-Pakistan Economic corridor, passing through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. As China copes up with demands with respect to energy security and regional integration under the MSR initiative, its attention is going to be increasingly towards securing of the Indian Ocean sea lanes. It may thus view operation of its naval vessels including submarines in that region legitimate and desirable. The debate on the subject of having overseas naval bases has not died down in China, in spite of official denials. Potentials for an India-China competition in the IOR look therefore high.

  15. Additional points of concern for India could be the white paper’s references to ‘smoldering land border disputes’ and placing of Preparations for Military Struggle (PMS) on winning informationized local wars. As long as the boundary problem with China remains unsolved, New Delhi will continue to experience strategic pressure from Beijing, irrespective of improvement in bilateral economic relations. On the Chinese concept of local wars, a widely prevalent view is that such wars can happen in China’s periphery. India has to be prepared for China’s waging ‘local wars’ in the Sino-Indian border.

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India.

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