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China: Latest Defence White Paper – What Is New?

How the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC), a rapidly rising global power, perceives the prevailing internal and external security environment and what measures it proposes to take in response are questions, which have always received international focus. It is natural that the latest bi-annual Defence White Paper (Beijing, 30 March 2011) captioned ‘China’s National Defence in 2010’, seventh in the series since 1998, has attracted worldwide attention.

Taking international security situation first, the White Paper elaborates China’s concerns already expressed through the corresponding document released in 2008. Most striking is its assessment that the international power balance is changing as a result of ‘growing influence of emerging powers and developing countries’, along with recognition of the important role being played by the G-20 mechanism. The Paper at the same time views that international strategic competition and contradiction are intensifying with major powers ‘re-aligning’ their security and military strategies. It also notes the existence of ‘hegemonism and power politics’, local conflicts and regional flash points, as well as the linkage between traditional and non-traditional threats. Interestingly, it contains no criticism of any outside power by name. In a nutshell, the document makes it clear that China expects a multi- polar world order to emerge fast. Beijing is sure to further intensify its drive to modify its foreign and security policies accordingly.

The paper justifies the applicability of the ‘Harmonious World’ concept to foreign policy making in China. In international security matters, it lays stress on China maintaining the present course based on the ‘new security concept’ providing for ‘mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and co-ordination’. It especially calls for setting up a ‘just and effective collective security and military confidence building mechanisms’ on the plea that the existing traditional mechanisms may be ineffective to cope-up with the developing scenario.

The previous 2008 Defence White Paper had asserted that ‘the world cannot enjoy prosperity and stability without China’; many saw in this a reflection of China’s over- confidence and even arrogance. The latest paper makes no use of such terms, signalling China’s intentions to project a friendlier image to the outside world.

This Year’s document, while analysing the Asia-Pacific security situation, finds that conditions in that region are generally ‘stable’. The 2008 paper more or less said the same. But, the latest publication contains articulations more realistic than before on regional security, apparently in response to the changes that have occurred in the regional geo-politics. It describes Asia-Pacific security as ‘volatile’ and notes that regional powers are increasing their strategic investment. The US is ‘reinforcing’ its regional military alliances and increasing its involvement in regional security affairs and by selling weapons to Taiwan, it is ‘damaging’ cross- straits relations. The paper also expresses China’s opposition to the deployment of overseas missile defence systems ‘by any state’; no power is named in this regard.  Most significant is that this year’s document is without criticism of any power for attempting to ‘contain’ the PRC, a theme which otherwise remains constant in China. In contrast, the 2008 publication had paid attention to ‘strategic manoeuvres and containment from outside’. Chinese President Hu Jintao has paid a visit to the USA in January 2011, which has led to restoration of some kind of normalcy in bi-lateral relations, though military to military ties still face serious problems. The US had also stated that it does not want to ‘contain’ China. The total absence in the current paper of criticism against the US ‘containment’ policy may perhaps signify Beijing’s intentions not to create complications in the existing delicate ties with Washington.

The White Paper’s characterisation of the US role interestingly follows a strong indictment of Washington in the “Asia-Pacific Blue Paper” (12 January 2011) of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). The CASS study has noted US ‘return’ to Asia and criticised its shoring up of alliances with both South Korea and Japan and exhortation to some nations in Southeast Asia to ‘hedge’ against China’s rise. It has questioned the motives of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in taking anti-China positions on the issue of sovereignty over South China Sea Islands. Notable is that the CASS study too makes no mention of US ‘containment’ of China.

On Taiwan, the latest defence document highlights the emerging ‘positive’ cross-straits relations ‘in the new situation’. Significant are its opinions, perhaps being noticed for the first time in a Chinese official document, that the Mainland and Taiwan can now talk about setting up of ‘military and security mechanisms of mutual trust at an appropriate time’. President Hu Jintao himself had individually expressed similar views some time back. They appear to be indicators to the developing   strategic thinking in the Mainland on the Taiwan question, particularly after the good bilateral atmosphere generated by the signing of Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) between the two sides. The moot question is how Taipei is going to react to this. Also, any prospect in Mainland-Taiwan security ties will have implications for the US policy making with respect to Taiwan.

Also to be noted is the White Paper’s description that ‘Taiwan independence separatist forces’ are ‘still biggest obstacle’ to Mainland’s development of ties with Taiwan. This seems to be intriguing as the PRC had been categorical in declaring through its 2008 Defence document that ‘attempts for Taiwan independence’ had been ‘thwarted’. Questions arise as to why pessimism again in China and has there been any new development making China less confident in tackling Taiwan’s independence problem?

Like in the past, the current defence paper also pays attention to the activities of the ‘East Turkestan Independence’ and ‘Tibet Independence’ separatist forces, with an acknowledgement that these forces have inflicted a ‘serious damage’ to national security. Overall, there seems to be no end to the Chinese nervousness over the prevailing conditions with respect to separatism in Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet; this is bound to have implications for China’s future internal security strategies.

For the first time, the term “regional pressure points” figures in a Chinese defence paper.  Korean Peninsula is described as first such point, on which the existing Chinese dilemma needs to be noticed. While on one hand, the PRC wants to support the six-party negotiation mechanism to curtail North Korean nuclear ambitions; on the other it considers North Korean stability as crucial for China’s security. As such, it is not enthusiastic about sanctions against Pyongyang on the nuclear issue. It even refuses to accept that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) may be responsible to the sinking of the South Korean vessel ‘Cheonan’. The paper lists Afghanistan as second point. It can be said that the PRC has come under compulsions to react to Washington’s review of its Af-Pak strategy. China also appears to be keen to enter Afghanistan’s reconstruction process as part of it’s, what seems to be, design aimed at expanding its strategic space to the resources-rich Central Asia and the Middle East ultimately. But Beijing may have to face competition in this regard from the US, Russia and India. This may explain why Afghanistan is now a pressure point for China.

The paper also talks about the disputes over territorial and maritime rights ‘flaring up occasionally’, but avoids naming any side involved. We can foresee that the strategic pressures on the PRC as a result of such disputes may persist for a long time. In particular, the chances of maritime clashes occurring again in future between China and regional littoral powers cannot be ruled out.

Also new are remarks in the latest paper that ‘suspicions about China, as well as interference and countering moves against China from outside are on increase’. Do they mark an indirect Chinese criticism of the Western attitude towards issues like democracy, human rights etc.? Perhaps, the answer can be affirmative.

In the defence policy tasks defined in the latest White Paper, there appear to be some advances from the earlier positions. ‘Building a prosperous country under a strong military’ (Fu Guo Jun qiang) now stands upgraded as a ‘unified goal in a new era’. The tasks listed in the paper to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) comprise- safeguarding of national sovereignty and security; defending security of land, inland waters, territorial waters, maritime interest, electromagnetic space, air space and cyber space; containing Taiwan, East Turkistan and Tibet independence separatist forces; maintaining social harmony and stability and accelerating of modernisation of national defence with ‘mechanisation as the foundation and informatisation as the driving force’. The allotment of internal security role for the PLA marks a significant trend.  Also, as the paper sees, the list is in conformity with the prescriptions of President Hu Jintao (Beijing, December 2004) with respect to ‘Historical Missions’ of the armed forces for the ‘new stage in the new century’.  But why the latest document fails to include one of Hu’s formulations, i.e   Military’s responsibility to consolidate the ruling status of the Chinese Communist Party? This is a question relating to Party-Army equation, which may need careful scrutiny.

This Year’s White Paper re-iterates the already publicised stand that mechanisation (as a foundation) and major progress in informatisation (as a driving force), are to be accomplished by 2020. It however does not mention the goal of completing the military modernisation by middle 21st century, spelled out in the earlier 2008 document. Does this amount to a rethinking on 2050 deadline?  No clear reason is available yet on this. Another omission relates to ‘People’s War Concept’ in defence building, given importance in the 2008 paper. Has the concept been given up now? This may need further analysis.

The paper’s stress on ‘building new type military combat capabilities’

(Appears new, no elaboration on what type),  ‘winning local wars in conditions of informatisation’, ‘conducting joint operations under informatisation conditions’ and ‘developing hi-tech weapons’ could be important from the point of view of understanding the contours of developing Chinese defence strategies.

For countries having territorial disputes with China, the reference in the latest paper to the functioning of ‘State Commission of Border and Coastal Defence under the dual leadership of the PRC State Council and the Central Military Commission’ could be of special interest. In the Chinese foreign ministry also, a separate office called ‘Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs’ has been established. These go to show that the PRC is approaching its territorial problems with other nations in the region in terms of both defence and diplomacy.

Mutual respect for ‘Core Interests’ and recognition of major security concerns by all countries , will be a part of foreign exchanges policy of the PLA, says this year’s paper. China’s declared ‘core interests’ are with respect to Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan, along with South China Sea. Under the concept, China is expected to respect ‘core interests’ of other nations, but the reality is different. A prominent instance is Beijing’s refusal to ‘respect’ India’s position on Kashmir, a ‘core interest’ to New Delhi. The PRC should avoid such dichotomy in theory and practice.

China through its latest paper takes pains to assure rest of the world that its defence policy is ‘defensive’, that it will ‘not attack unless attacked’ and that it will never seek hegemony. “Deterring conflicts and wars” found a mention in the 2008 paper, but not now. This being so, statements being made at high party and government levels, do not match the sentiments for peace contained in the latest paper. The PRC’s Defence Minister Liang Guanglie (December 2010, Interview to state organs) has observed that his country is getting prepared for ‘military conflicts in every strategic directions’. A comment in the party organ Qiushi (10 December 2010) has viewed that war, not negotiations, can serve the purpose of safeguarding the nation’s interests. Recent period has witnessed China’s naval activism in South and East China seas and adoption of hard positions on contentious territorial issues with Japan, South China Sea littorals and India. Also, there are strong voices emanating from Chinese military specialists in favour of their country establishing overseas naval bases ostensibly to ensure energy security. Southeast Asian nations in particular are getting worried about such signs of China’s new assertiveness. The Indian Prime Minister has also expressed concerns about them. Seen against the PRC’s reported plan to acquire an aircraft carrier in 2011, development of “carrier-killing” ballistic missiles that could target US carriers as well as anti-satellite weapons, construction of Type 093 nuclear attack submarines and testing of a J-20 fifth generation combat prototype jets, the claim in the white paper about the ‘defensive’ nature of China’s military modernisation programme, appears hollow. According to the US official document on the “Military Power of the PRC in 2008”, the PLA may seek to achieve capabilities facilitating an extended range power projection, in particular for use in contingencies other than Taiwan.

China’s Defence White Paper for 2010 shows some transparency in the country’s defence matters, but one remains uncertain after going through it, about the real purpose of its fast progressing military modernisation programme. It provides no specific data on building of arms and weapons, including purchases from abroad. Is propaganda on China’s ‘peaceful rise’ one of the aims of the paper? It definitely looks so.

(The writer, Mr D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India.

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