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China: Paper On “National Defence, 2006” Reviewed

As appeared in www.saag.org

As an official document meant for, what Beijing calls, “the new stage in new century”, it was natural that the paper on “China’s National Defence in 2006”, published (Beijing, December 29,2006) by the Information Office of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) State Council, the fifth in the series since 1998, turned out to be very distinct from the past editions.

The paper has given firm signals that China has begun a process of suitably reorienting its security outlook to the extent required, in response to the perceived changes unfolding in the world, regional and domestic scenarios in the last two years. The main driving force for the process seems to be the realisation of China that development has become the paramount task and that in the interest of avoiding any clash between it and the security requirements, it has become necessary to carry out certain modifications to the existing security policy. Confirming such thinking, authoritative Chinese comments on the latest paper have of late been emphasising that now “unity has come to exist between security and development” and “the National Defence Policy has fallen under the country’s basic policies of peaceful development, harmonious socialist society at home and harmonious world externally” (People’s Daily, December 30, 2006).

National Defence Policy

As seen in the 2004 document (the one for 2005 covered only disarmament matters), this year’s paper has also asserted that China’s defence policy is purely ‘defensive’ in nature, adding that the PRC will not cause any arms race or be a threat to others. At the same time it has described ‘active defence’ as a ‘military strategic principle’. In an effort to remove impressions of an apparent contradiction between such ‘defensive’ defence and ‘active’ defence, the official media in China have come out with clarifications that any Chinese ‘counterattack in self-defence’ cannot remain passive since it also involved attacks (People’s Daily, December 30, 2006).

Further formulations in the 2006 document, not seen in earlier ones, included:

  1. ‘Fostering security environment conducive to China’s peaceful development’. This is a watered-down version of the corresponding positions in the past, stressing opposition to ‘aggression and expansion’ (2002) and the need for an independent foreign policy of peace for securing long term and favourable international and surrounding environment (2004).

  2. The Chinese perception on the security-development unity, already mentioned, explains the rationale behind the changed line.

  3. ‘The Scientific Development Concept will be the guiding principle for building national defence in the new period of 21st century. Under the concept, there will be coordinated development of defence construction and economic growth and a merger of defence modernisation with the socio-economic development system’. In the 2004 paper, however, there was no reference to the concept, understandably so as it was introduced only in 2005.Instead, Deng Xiaoping’s theory, the theory of ‘Three Represents’ and Jiang Zemin’s thought on National Defence and Army Building, were cited then as guiding principles. The change could be significant as the concept is the brainchild of the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Hu Jintao and the new prescription may mean positive implications for the leader’s further consolidation of his power at a crucial time of the scheduled 17th CCP Congress in the year end.

A common point in the 2004 and 2006 editions is the stress given to equipping the PLA to fight under ‘informatisation conditions’. Earlier papers did not have such an approach. Also, notably, on the objectives for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery, the 2006 paper has given out formulations, which are an advance from what the 2004 document said. It has revealed that:

  1. The Army is moving from regional defence to trans-regional mobility.

  2. The Navy’s objective is to gradually extend its strategic depth to offshore operations.

  3. The Air Force aims to speed up its transition from territorial air defence to both offensive and defensive operations and strategic projection.

  4. The Second Artillery, aims at raising its capabilities in strategic deterrence and conventional strikes. Clearly an expanded role for the PLA both at home and abroad, if necessary, is thus being envisaged. The line for strategic projection by the Air Force is new.

A three-stage development strategy for military modernisation has been spelled out- laying the groundwork by 2010, making relatively marked progress by 2020 and establishing an army with information infrastructure by mid 21st century with capacity to win wars through extensive use of information.

As the first of such an announcement in the series on military modernisation, the timetable set is of special interest.

Security Environment

International

The 2004 document talked about ‘elusive world peace’. On the other hand, the present paper has been more optimistic by saying that the world security situation now faces more opportunities than challenges and that no world wars or all-out confrontation between major countries are likely in the foreseeable future. In 2004, references were made to the influence of Iraq war on the world and also to ‘hegemonism and unilateralism’ as factors affecting international security, whereas the description in the latest paper has been to ‘geo-political factors, hegemonism and power politics’. Also new in the 2006 paper has been the inclusion of other factors impacting on international security – national disasters, serious communicable diseases, environmental degradation and issues relating to energy.

Dropping of references hitherto made to Iraq situation in and ‘unilateralism’ in the present paper may suggests a deliberate Chinese tactic to go soft on the global role of the US at the present juncture.

Regional

The 2004 paper commented that complicated security factors in the Asia-Pacific region had increased. The present paper has however sounded more positive by saying that the overall security environment in the region remains stable as a result of the regional economic growth and mutually beneficial cooperation between nations through organisations like ASEAN and the SCO. It has at the same time admitted that there are growing complexities in the Asia-Pacific environment and in this connection, as in 2004, singled out the US for ‘accelerating its realignment of military deployment to enhance its military capability in the region’. As new provisions, the 2006 paper has listed the following as:

  1. ‘Undermining’ the security and cooperation between nations in the region – military alliance between the US and Japan.

  2. Japan’s external oriented military posture.

  3. DPRK’s nuclear test, trouble in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  4. Iranian nuclear issue.

  5. Territorial disputes.

  6. Conflicting claims on maritime rights and ethnic as well as religious discords. Again a soft line towards the US is seen. It is interesting to note that though authoritative comments in China have been accusing US for trying to contain China through its alliance with Japan, the latest paper has been careful, avoiding use of terms like ‘containment’ while referring to the regional role of USA. Also, outside the regional context, the revised formulations seem to imply China’s continuing concerns over the likely impact on it in future of still unsolved issues like sovereignty over South China Sea islands and exploitation of oil resources in East China sea.

Security Situation-China

Giving a hopeful picture again, the 2006 paper has said that the over-all security situation is favourable to China, whereas the document for 2004 confined itself to referring only to ‘improvement’ in the situation. As per the present formulations, China at the same time faces challenges due to ‘growing inter- connections between domestic and international factors as well as between traditional and non-traditional ones’. In specific, ‘the struggle to oppose and contain the separatist forces for Taiwan independence and their activities remain a hard one’. The activities are a ‘grave threat’ to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as to the peace and stability across Taiwan Straits and Asia-Pacific as a whole. The present document has further remarked that the US still continues to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan authorities and that ‘a small number of countries’ follow a preventive strategy against China under ‘China threat’ theory and hold China’s progress in check. Complex and sensitive historical and current issues in China’s surrounding areas still affect security environment.

This has marked yet another example of the paper’s toning down of the rhetoric regarding the US. It has avoided a direct attack on the US on the issue of the latter’s military alliance with Japan, while levelling accusations against few countries for checking China’s progress. Pertinent to recall will be that in 2004, the US was directly criticised for selling arms to Taiwan and thus ‘sending wrong signals’ to the latter. A moderate approach on the issue of Taiwan independence has also been seen in the 2006 paper, despite the use of the term ‘grave threat’. This becomes evident when contrasted with the 2004 paper’s harsh approach, containing a warning that ‘any reckless major incident concerning Taiwan independence would be resolutely and thoroughly crushed at any cost’. Lastly, suspicion arises whether sensitive historical issues referred to in China’s neighbourhood, by implication, includes the Sino-Indian border dispute.

Conclusion:

To sum up, what mainly comes through the 2006 paper is that in Beijing’s revised perceptions, ‘Taiwan independence activities’ remain as the only ‘threat’ to China’s security, with other stated factors like the US-Japan military alliance remaining only ‘challenges’. Next, the current document has undoubtedly marked China’s endeavour to convince the outside world that its defence policy is transparent and that the country is not a threat to others. The addition of four chapters to it (defence management, the PLA, People’s Armed Police and nuclear strategy) can be seen as a symbol in this regard. But for careful observers, it looks transparent only by half. There is lack of information in the document on what weapons are being procured from abroad and at what cost, particularly from Russia. Considering the quantum of arms and fighter aircraft, being purchased by the PRC from abroad, the stated annual defence spending (US$ 30.646 billion in 2005) in the paper is widely seen as low. According to the 2006 Annual Report to US Congress on China’s military power, the actual figure should be two or three times more than the declared one. Last but not least has been the discerned tendency in the paper to downplay to a degree the China-US differences concerning key irritants. This appears understandable in light of the recent apparent shift in emphasis in China’s foreign policy formulations- from ‘an independent foreign policy of peace’ to that of ‘creating a harmonious world’. The shift in essence has reflected the PRC’s recognition of the importance of its growing dependence on the US and the West for the country’s modernisation as well as the arising compulsions on it to behave as a responsible stake holder in the international system.

(The writer, Mr.D.S.Rajan, is former Director, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, email:dsrajan@gmail.com)

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