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China’s Defence White Paper – 2008 — An Indian Perspective.

Sharing a 4000 kilometre-long disputed border with China and having suffered a military attack from China in 1962, India cannot but be highly concerned about the aggressive military development in its immediate environment. China Defence White Paper – 2008 (hereafter referred to as Paper – 08) have some grave messages for its Asian neighbours which this paper intends to discuss.

China started publishing Defence White Papers from 1995 in response to Western demands for transparency in its military developments. Since then it has come a long way. The Paper-08 allows a much deeper look to the outsider into China’s thinking. What one sees does not inspire hope for an Asian age according to the “five principles of peaceful co-existence” and region of equality and stability.

It would be interesting to go back ten years and have a brief look at the Defence White Paper-1998. The approach was less aggressive than in 2008. It was the time that China’s top leader Jiang Zemin had just shifted the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to top gear in Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). The PLA had entered the informalization age and was striving for much greater mechanization.

In 1998, China was behaving under late Deng Xiapoing’s dictum of “hide your strength, and bide your time” while developing allround strength and capability to emerge as a nation capable of standing upto the United States. Deng, the architect of modern China, concluded after the 1989 students’ uprising that the US would not allow the Chinese nation to challenge America’s sway. Following the “July 4” 1989 incident which confused the country Deng told a visiting African leader that the turmoil was instigated by America’s “peaceful evolution” operation i.e. promoting democracy peacefully by overt and covert means of propaganda and agent provocateurs.

Although the 1998 White Paper castigated India for its nuclear tests and squarely blamed it for lifting the nuclear lid in South Asia, it also noted the 1996, Confidence Building Measures (CBH) agreement in the military field along the LAC between the two countries positively. Positive developments with the United States that year were also noted, especially in the military and strategic bilateral issues.

Going by Deng Xiaoping’s advice, the then pre-eminent Chinese leader, President Jiang Zemin, who was also the Chairman of the powerful Central Military Commissioner (CMC), subordinated military development to economic development and made a case for a peaceful environment to focus on economic construction. China, of course, had graduated to the doctrine of “active defence” or “forward defence” to protect the “motherland”, took note of “hot spots” without specifically naming any, and declared that “local wars” were within the realm of China’s security threat perspective.

The 2008 Paper makes some adjustment from its 2006 edition, claiming to have become more transparent. It must be noted that it was only for the second time that this annual White Paper was delayed by about three weeks from the usual time of publication during the third or early fourth week of December. The reason is not far to see. The message was to the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, who was confirmed on January 20. The basic message: China was now a great power though still behind the USA in military might, but its economic clout gave it the strength to work with Washington to stabilize the global economic melt down. In spite of policy short comings and other drawbacks it cannot be denied that China has emerged as an economic power house with an important say in World economy.

It would be important, especially for China’s neighbours, to try and interpret its military doctrine. Its military doctrine is not a single postulate but several doctrines with “Chinese characteristics” i.e. how exactly they suit China’s conditions at that particular period of time. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the basic doctrine was one of purely defence. Following international outrage over the brutal suppression of the student revolution demanding transparency from the government, an end to corruption and rights for the people to criticize wrong doings by the Communist Party and government bureaucrats and leaders, Deng Xiaoping came out with the theory/policy of “hide your strength and bide your time”. Deng was of the view that the US was sabotaging China’s development through “peaceful evolution”, i.e. surreptitiously encouraging democracy in a Communist country. China will be alert about “peaceful evolution” for a long time, but as recent reports from the Chinese media indicate, demands for freedom to express one’s opinion is increasing from the Chinese people and, even, the officially controlled media.

In the phase above, China had a high threat perception. It was in self-conflict whether the US in the Asia Pacific region was good for them or a threat. The late Deng Xiaoping laid down that the US was the most important country for China and hence it was in China’s interest to avoid confrontation with Washington as far as possible. It was decided the US would be a balancing force in the region, despite its East Asian alliance and special relations with Taiwan. Deng’s chosen top leader of China, Jiang Zemin, read the American mind very well. He advised that the Chinese leaders should ignore whatever US Presidents say during their electoral campaigns.

Jiang was right. Bill Clinton called the Chinese leaders “butchers of Beijing” during his election campaign, but was with them in bed during his Presidency. George W. Bush turned Clinton’s description of China as “strategic partner” to “strategic competitor”, but it was business as usual. Not much change is expected during Barack Obama’s term because it simply cannot be done. In fact, Obama’s foreign policy discarding “regime change” operations and inclination to avoid military backed policy initiatives like in Iran may get two countries together. But there are also major strategic issues between the two countries, especially given the fact China may be signaling a kind of a Monroe doctrine, stretching to parts of Middle East, Africa and Central Asia.

The mid-1990s and 2003-2004 period was one of consolidation of relations with neighbours and more mature dealings with the US with, of course, doses of nationalism. The 1998 White Paper noted India’s nuclear test in May that year with severe disapproval while viewing Pakistan’s tests as only a reaction to India’s. But it also recorded, as stated earlier, the 1996 Sino-Indian CBM agreement on the borders. A 1996 event hardly has a place in a 1998 annual report, but was brought in for a message. During this period, relations with Russia was recast, even going to the extent of renegotiating the border demarcation treaty on the eastern part of the Sino-Russian boundary on Russian insistence. Jiang also settled relations with Japan to a great extent, disturbed temporarily by his successor Hu Jintao’s visit in 2008 before the Olympic games. The Beijing leaders, at that time, were on an aphrodisiac high.

Under President Hu Jintao, who is also the Communist Party head and Chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) which makes defence policies, the Chinese leaders began to feel power. An officially sponsored debate questioned the relevance of Deng Xiaoping’s policy of continuing to hide China’s strength any longer since they were the third most powerful economic power in the world getting closer to the second position, and a military power with a nuclear strike force which could deter a US strike. Hu Jintao’s political and strategic advisor Zheng Binyan proposed the “Rise of China” theory, which had to be pruned down to “peaceful rise of China’ because of alarm mainly from South East Asian neighbours. The damage, however, was done. Questions over China’s growing might is an issue among its South East Asian neighbours.

The Defence White Paper of 1996, 1997 and 1998 have incrementally projected China’s growing capabilities. A commentary published in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) publication, the ‘Military Digest’ (2008) titled “Phase of Exercising Restraint in National Defence is over” explained that CCP General Secretary (Sept. 2007) declared China will strike to “occupy a well matched military position in the world while striving to become the third economic power in the world. Recent Chinese reports claim it may have become the second economic power.

The Military Digest comment indicated that soon after taking over the leadership of China in 2002, Hu directed that military power must grow in tandem with economic power. This was a major doctrinal shift, rearranging Deng’s “four modernization” (agriculture, industry, science and technology) order of priority to an over all two modernization “economy and national defence”. Hu late made it clear that economy and defence (national security) could not be delinked – without economic power there would be no military power, and without the military providing security there could be no economic development.

Hu Jintao’s strategic vision was simple: if you do not have military power no one will respect you. He demolished the theory of soft power working alone. Some Indian experts have been bandying the theory that soft power succeeds by itself, giving the examples of Germany and Japan. They clearly avoid mentioning that both Germany and Japan are under NATO and US military and nuclear umbrella, and both the countries have quietly built formidable military capabilities.

“Active defence” remains the basic doctrine of China’s conventional military strategy, with its ambit increasing as the country’s Comprehensive National Power (CNP) increases and interests abroad expand. National security is no longer limited to defence of the borders but also screening political, diplomatic and economic interests overseas. China is short of hydro carbon energy and basic raw materials to keep its economic growing at an average of 8% to 9% at least.

Active defence, also referred to as ‘forward defence’, means holding on to territories gained. In plain terms it would mean control of land or maritime territories. In a political sense it could also reflect in winning over governments and people. While the USA has used military power for regime change abroad, Beijing seems to be using its military and economic power in favour of regimes/governments to keep them in its fold.

A review of China’s military development would, however, suggest that active defence is a much larger and integrated concept. Scientific and technological development work closely with military development. Informationization warfare has replaced “high technology warfare under modern conditions” to win local wars. Mao Zedong’s people’s war concept has undergone sophistication to dovetail civilian structures and activities mainly for logistic support to the military. Tackling terrorism, separation and splitism, and non-lethal challenges like national disasters such as floods and earthquakes have been added to the active defence concept, too.

The PLA expects informationalization of a high degree by 2020, and claims it will have basic mechanization of its special units by 2010. Information warfare and mechanization have implications for China’s neighbourhood especially those considered “hot spots”. The Sino-Indian boundary is one “hot spot” along which China has upgraded roads and other infrastructure in recent years. It also plans to extend the Tibet railway from Lhasa to the Sino-Indian border.

The 2008 Papers gives a lot of emphasis on the navy or PLAN. It says that “in line with the off-shore defence strategy, the navy takes informationlization as the orientation and strategic priority of its modernization drive, and is endeavouring to build a strong navy”. The navy embarked on its blue water task sooner than expected, deploying its advanced destroyers to the Somali coast last month for anti-piracy operation. Expectedly, its ships came face to face an Indian navy submarine which was photographing and recording the signals and other characteristics of the Chinese warships. This is not abnormal. In December 2006, a Chinese submarine spooked the US aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk near Japan. One can expect more Chinese naval vessels plying the Indian Ocean and using Pakistan’s Gwadar deep sea port, built by the Chinese. A port or berthing facilities in Myanmar could be a reality in the near future.

China’s nuclear doctrine of no first use, and not using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states and nuclear free zones, still remain opaque. The 2008 Paper says its nuclear forces will go into a state of alert and get ready for a counter attack if China comes under a nuclear threat. Further, it will launch a major counter attack if it comes under a nuclear attack. This is questionable, however, and has to be read with various statements made by Chinese military leaders. Chai Yujiu, Vice Principal of the Nanjing Army Command College had told a Hong Kong newspaper that the “policy of not to use nuclear weapons first is not unlimited, without conditions, without premises”. Others have made it clear that no first use was not a passive concept. Hence, one cannot assume that in case of a conventional war, China’s no first use of nuclear weapons is an absolute principle.

A study (August 2008) by the China Institute of International and Strategic Studies (CIISS), the PLA’s prime think tank, argued that in the new situation of the “no first use’ doctrine, maintaining a small number of nuclear weapons as deterrent had become obsolete. It also suggested a large nuclear arsenal of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) espoused by the USA and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Chinese experts have also been studying the recent nuclear up-gradation plans of both the USA and Russia.

These observations from Chinese officials and think tanks are not idle, and not taken lightly by most of China’s neighbours like Japan and disputed Taiwan. Japan has a huge repository of plutonium, and technology to fabricate nuclear weapons very quickly. Its front line aircraft can be wired to carry nuclear weapons, and its missile capability has been demonstrated. It is said Japan is one screw driver turn away from making the bomb. When it does so will depend upon what China does. The huge trade relations between the two countries is not a deterrent for Japan to prepare itself against a military eventuality.

Testifying before the Senate Arms Services Committee (Jan. 27, 2009) US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, identified the threats of Chinese military modernization by stating that “the area of greater concern are Chinese investments and growing capabilities in cyber and anti-satellite warfare, anti-air and anti-ship weaponry, submarines and ballistic missiles”.

The Chinese claim they have the right to build their military for self-defence and this sophistication should be commensurate with their threat perception. At the same time it has to be responsible enough to take into consideration the threats other countries feel from its military modernization especially those who have territorial disputes with China. The major ones would include Japan, the five south East Asian countries which have claims on the Spartly group of Islands in the South China sea, and India.

Cyber and space war capabilities are two other areas of concern. When China shot down one of its defunct satellites with a ground based missile in January 2007, the international community went into frenzied calculations. It was not a secret that China was working on space warfare including satellite based weapons and orbiting bombs using micro and nano-satellites against enemy satellites. The scope of such warfare is huge and can debilitate enemy communication and civilian cyber work.

It is established that Chinese hackers have attacked and defaced cyber network and websites in many countries including India, Japan, South Korea and the USA among others. The Indian Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has not been spared either. If these are practice sessions during peace time, it can be imagined what China could do to the network of fledgling cyber powers during confrontations-local wars under informationalization.

It is evident from the 2008 Paper and its activities and role in the international stage that China is not shy of demonstrating its capabilities and confidence against threats. Justifiably, therefore, it has focussed only on the United States as a partner and competitor. China’s concerns over USA’s increased “strategic attention to and input in the Asia Pacific region, further consolidating military alliances” and other activities were recorded carefully. Although relations with Taiwan have opened under the KMT Ma Ying-Jeo government, the suspicion still remains in Beijing that Washington will continue to arm Taiwan so that it remains a de-facto independent nation. US decision to sell 6.5 billion dollars advanced weaponary to Taiwan is a case in point, along with the US Congress Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) which calls on the US government to protect Taipei if attacked.

Taiwan is an issue of sovereignty for China as are Tibet and Xinjiang (which the Uighur separatists call East Turkistan). China sees the root of international support to the Dalai Lama coming from the USA, and suspects India is also supporting a restive Tibet for independence. They also suspect some US led support to the Uighur separatists. But with its new confidence, Beijing has declared a virtual war on anything that is even slightly perceived as separatism.

The 2008 Paper does not mention India in any form. It does not need to. China has elevated itself as a Great Power and sees India in alliance with the US to encircle and restrict China. This is actually a deceptive strategic propaganda. China’s problems is that a strong India in Asia would be competition along with Japan, especially with a new and growing India-Japan friendship. To Beijing’s dismay, Japan side stepped the nuclear issue deftly and avoided opposing India at the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG) at Vienna last year. China reads this not only as a US brokered India-Japan deal, but Japan’s own policy on possession of nuclear weapons.

Some of India’s neighbours look to China as a support against this so-called “big brother” India. Pakistan is a special case. But recent statements by visiting Chinese dignitaries to Nepal assuring Kathmandu of securing its sovereignty and territorial integrity is a serious unfriendly act. Such statements encouraged Maoist hardliners in their anti-India tirade, and has created a crisis among political parties in Nepal.

There is no doubt that the People’s Republic of China has emerged as a major power. But it still has a long way to go. Perhaps prematurely, it is trying to force a unipolar Asia regime down the throats of other Asian countries. With its new capabilities China may be overstretching itself. It is becoming, if it has not already become, the single most destabilizing factor in Asia. Ask the South East Asian countries except, perhaps, Thailand whose leaders are now increasingly of Chinese origin.

(The author, Mr.Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience of study on the developments in China. He can be reached at

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