By Rukmani Gupta
China issued its latest biennial defence white paper on March 31, 2011. Titled “China’s National Defense in 2010,” the seventh such document published since 1998, it provides an overview of China’s understanding of its security environment and its national defence policy.
Assessing China’s domestic achievements and reviewing the international environment, Hu Jintao had declared at the Fifth Plenum of the 17th CPC Central Committee in October 2010 that China was still in a period of strategic opportunity. That China views the second decade of the 21st century a period of “strategic opportunity” is borne out by the assessments of the security situation made in the white paper. The focus on economics is apparent. Not only is “the international balance of power” believed to be changing through “economic strength”, but “reform in international systems” is identified as the prevailing trend, with steady progress in the establishment of “mechanisms for the management of the global economy.” A not-so-oblique criticism of American economic policies is apparent in the statement that “deep seated contradictions and structural problems behind the international financial crises have not been resolved.”
Despite the familiar lament over arms sales to Taiwan, the United States’ involvement in the Asia-Pacific and the reinforcement of American military alliances in the region, China’s assessment of its Comprehensive National Strength is very positive. The current white paper claims that China’s “comprehensive national strength has stepped up to a new stage.” Unlike the previous white paper, which simply states that “China would not seek hegemony or engage in military expansion…no matter how it develops,” the current document changes this almost banal proclamation to “China will never seek hegemony…, no matter how its economy develops.” The watch word then in assessing the international environment and China’s prospects is obviously ‘economy’, and China is well aware of the threat perceptions that its unprecedented economic growth have engendered. That China would be more confident after weathering the economic storms of recent years was expected. The surprise lies in the apparent self-assurance in the face of increasing “suspicion about China, interference and countering moves against China from the outside” and pressure in preserving China’s territorial integrity and the maritime rights and interests of its “vast territories and territorial seas.”
The white paper sets four tasks for national defence:
1. Safeguarding national sovereignty, security and interests of national development;
2. Maintaining social harmony and stability;
3. Accelerating the modernization of national defence and the armed forces;
4. Maintaining world peace and stability.
The defence of security interests in “cyber space” has been included in the tasks for national defence for the first time and is an indicator of its high priority. This is especially relevant given that the creation of a joint operation system has been declared as the focal point of PLA modernization. The document also states that a “step-change development has been achieved in information infrastructure” within the armed forces with the total length of “the national defense optical fiber communication network” being increased by a “large margin.” This forms a new generation information transmission network where optical fibre communication is the mainstay and satellite and short-wave communications are supplementary.
Tracing the history of PLA modernization to the series of reforms in military command, organization, training and regulation after 1949, rather than the 1970s and 80s as was the earlier practice, the current document presents the military modernization drive as a rational extension of a process already underway.
According to the white paper, the PLA has made great progress in its modernization and informationization objectives. As in previous years, the building of new combat capacity to win local wars in conditions of informationization and strengthening capabilities in fire power, mobility, protection and support is emphasised. The document states that the PLA Army has developed new types of combat forces, optimised organisation and structure, accelerated digitised upgrading and retrofitting of battle weaponry and deployed new weapon platforms. The transformation of the PLA Air Force is said to be focused on air and missile defence, and strategic projection for which training in complex electromagnetic environments and different tactical contexts is conducted. The document also reviews modernization of the PLA Navy which is seen to have evolved “in line with the requirements of offshore defense strategy.” However, an enunciation of this “offshore defense strategy” is not forthcoming. What is made clear is that the PLA Navy seeks new methods of logistics support for sustaining long-term maritime missions while continuing investment in a shore-based support system. With regard to the PLA Second Artillery Force, two more capability indices of ‘protection’ and ‘survivability’ are added to the four capabilities (‘rapid reaction,’ ‘penetration,’ ‘precision strike,’ and ‘damage infliction’) mentioned in earlier documents. In assessing the military modernization process, a “notable improvement in the PLA’s capabilities of equipment support in long-distance and trans-regional maneuvers, escort operations in distant waters and complex battlefield environments” is declared. Continuing with the model of integrated civilian-military development, the Chinese government is working to “integrate combat-readiness as an element in the national transportation grid” and aims at synchronized construction of military transportation facilities and urban development.
It is noted that the percentage increase in the defence budget for the year 2010 had been lower than previous years and the primary heads of expenditure are identified as: improved support conditions for the troops; diversified military tasks; Revolution in Military Affairs, including purchase and maintenance of equipment.
For the first time, the latest white paper includes a separate section titled “Military Confidence-Building”, highlighting China’s engagement in strategic consultations and dialogues, confidence-building measures undertaken in border regions (agreements signed with India in 1993, 1996 and 2005 are mentioned), cooperation on maritime security, participation in regional security mechanisms and China’s military exchanges. Although this information is not entirely absent from previous white papers, it is presented comprehensively in the latest document.
What does the white paper on China’s National Defense 2010 ultimately imply? First, it suggests that China is increasingly confident of its economic and military strength, and foresees an international environment conducive to the growth of its tangible and intangible assets. Second, the emphasis on force projection capabilities along with the focus on China’s involvement in UN-mandated missions, its constructive role in regional security, as well as the designation of “maintaining world peace and stability” as a task of national defence, seem to indicate a willingness to undertake a leadership position in global affairs. Third, the document underlines the absolute leadership of the Party over the armed forces, clarifying any ambiguity that may have been perceived over the control of the people’s army, and highlighting the improvement of ideological and political qualities as the foundation for high-calibre military personnel. Fourth, special mention is made of the “Military Legal System”, underscoring the observance of international treaties and relevant laws of the PRC by China’s armed forces. Far from mitigating conflict, strengthening adherence to the laws of the PRC could well mean a clash with customary international law and be part of “legal warfare” advocated in China’s policy of “active defense”.
To paraphrase from the previous white paper, one can say that the fear is that China would be attaching more importance to supporting diplomatic struggles with military as well as economic means. Aimed at strengthening confidence through greater transparency, the white paper does not quite succeed in mitigating this perception.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/WhitePaperonChinasNationalDefence2010_rgupta_010411