The importance of Defence White Papers lies in providing a broad understanding of politico military direction together with the plans for modernization of the armed forces. The aspects include an understanding of Chinese political leadership’s thinking on emerging security environment, political and security challenges that emanate with anticipated areas of conflict; and above all envisaged role of the armed forces in dealing with them.
Regular production of Defence White Papers is an exercise in strategic communication aimed at internal and external audience. At one level it is to exhibit high levels of military transparency but more importantly convince the world about the strides China is taking in transformation and modernization of its armed forces, by highlighting, the growing capacity, credibility and technological prowess of the Chinese Armed Forces. It is also an exercise to internally reassure both the Party organs and people on the credibility of its armed forces in ensuring territorial integrity, national sovereignty and protection of its core national interests.
This year’s Defence White Paper is interestingly titled as “Diversified Employment of Chinese Armed Forces”, highlighting the multiple role Chinese armed forces play in overall national development and security. The paper does not fight shy of conveying propensities of power projection through enhanced military capabilities. For the first time China provides insights into the shape and size of its armed forces in particular the role of the second artillery forces. Importantly it highlights the role of hard power in terms of “military prowess” in providing security guarantees and strategic support for national development?
This commentary looks upon the underlying nuances of Chinese military capability covered in this year’s White Paper being the first since the changes in the Chinese political leadership. Second and importantly the commentary also analyses implications of these developments for India.
Paper acknowledges profound implications of US rebalancing strategy in Asia – Pacific that is resulting in complex security environment particularly as the US expands its military presence and rebuilds its alliance system. This is outlined in the comment that ‘some countries have strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser.”While the Chinese appear to be sanguine about these developments there is an underlying concern about these impacting Chinese ambitions and interests?
While concentrating on the US and Japan the White Paper has not included South China Sea and the littoral countries as area of concern thus for time being downplaying the issue and possibly setting priorities for settling/importance of these issues. The “Taiwan independence” issue however remains a core issue in particular concerns about the threat of the separatist forces and their activities on the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations. The paper singles out Japan for vitiating the maritime environment with its stand on Senkaku Island issue.
Interestingly, the border issue with India does not find mention. This is in contrast to articulations made in earlier papers. For instance White Paper of 2006 talked of having settled border disputes with 11 out of 13 countries. This formulation implied that India and Bhutan were being unreasonable. In his ‘Five Point Proposal’ for improving Sino-Indian ties made in mid- March this year President Xi Jinping observed that “The border question is a complex issue left from history and solving the issue won’t be easy.” There should be no doubt that the “Boundary Issue” remains central to the future of India – China relations and central concern for India. The fragility of the boundary issue is highlighted by the ongoing PLA intrusion into sensitive at Daulat Beg Oldi in Ladakh, exacerbating tensions and continuing faceoff.
Above developments need to be seen in the context of building tensions in South China Sea where China has recently used force and its standoff with Japan continues. China backed by its growing military power is attempting to coerce its neighbours and could escalate tensions leading to dangerous standoff. It is in above construct remark that “We will not attack unless we are attacked; but we will surely counterattack if attacked” is significant.
Another glaring omission is the current shenanigans of North Korea which are complicating the security situation in East Asia. In its 2006 White Paper China had commented on North Korean nuclear tests and had observed somewhat cryptically, “DPRK has launched missile tests and conducted a nuclear test. Thus, the situation on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia has become more complex and challenging. Even in its 2008 White Paper China had lauded itself by stating that “The Six-Party Talks on the Korean nuclear issue have scored successive achievements, and the tension in Northeast Asia is much released.”
Development of Chinese Armed forces
Paper outlines the military strategy of active defence to guard against and resist aggression, contain separatist forces, safeguard border, coastal and territorial air security, and protect national maritime rights and interests and national security interests in outer space and cyber space. It reiterates PLA’s doctrine of ‘local wars under the conditions of informationization , intensify integration and joint employment of different services and arms, and enhance war fighting capabilities based on information systems.
Reading in between the lines it appears that there is an attempt to strengthen the role of Chinese Central Military Commission in shaping the politico – military discourse. Creation of the Department of Strategic Planning is significant, implying harmonizing political and military objectives in shaping national security objectives. Chinese White Papers routinely highlight cliché’s related to strategies and tactics of people’s war, advance integrated civilian-military development, and enhance the quality of national defence mobilization and reserve force building’, this practice continues.
The doctrine of winning local wars under informationised conditions was mentioned in detail in its 2004 White Paper and subsequent papers wherein considerable details had been given as to how PLA intends to proceed with the process of military modernisation. It appears that a local war under informationised conditions has been adopted as central doctrine by the Chinese armed forces together with the concept of ‘active defence’. It needs to be noted that while China purports active defence as a “defensive military strategy”, it is in effect pro active in nature. Essentially implying China can initiate hostilities on mere perception of the intent of the adversary which Chinese leadership may perceives as detrimental to its interests.
For the first time the PLA has provided an outline structure of its armed forces. It is a different matter that much of it was already available in the open domain, however, what has been revealed by the PLA varies only in a limited sense from the estimates made by analysts and researchers. Structurally PLAA (PLA(Army) is aiming to create small, modular and multi functional organizations with conceptual shift from “Theatre Defence” to “Trans Theatre Mobility”. Implying thereby on growing focus on rapid mobilization, rapid deployment and quick launch in what in Indian parlance can be referred to as ‘cold start’ doctrinal thinking. Infrastructural development, enhanced C4ISR and space based systems are seen to enhance these capabilities.
The paper states that the PLAA mobile operational units include 18 combined corps, plus additional independent combined operational divisions (brigades), often referred to as rapid reaction forces or task oriented ‘battle groups’. Combined strength of PLAA has been placed as 850,000. The combined corps, composed of divisions and brigades, are respectively under the seven military area commands (MACs): Shenyang (16th, 39th and 40th Combined Corps), Beijing (27th, 38th and 65th Combined Corps), Lanzhou (21st and 47th Combined Corps), Jinan (20th, 26th and 54th Combined Corps), Nanjing (1st, 12th and 31st Combined Corps), Guangzhou (41st and 42nd Combined Corps) and Chengdu (13th and 14th Combined Corps). Creation of four “strategic zones” (northern, eastern, western and southern), supplanted upon seven MAC, as part of overall rationalization of armed forces (as some reports in Chinese media suggested) however does not find mention? Notably of the 18 combined corps only four are deployed in MAC’s opposite India; Chengdu and Lanzhou. Thus for any India specific contingencies China will be forced to undertake large scale trans-theatre force mobilization together with build up of logistic capabilities. Such moves will no doubt leave large footprints making enhanced ISR capability by India a strategic necessity.
The modernization and growing role of PLAN is of particular interest. Paper highlights the efforts being made to develop naval capabilities. It mentions PLAN training for as combined task forces composed of new types of destroyers, frigates, ocean-going replenishment ships and shipborne helicopters” in what it terms as complex battlefield environments. Paper also highlights training for “remote early warning (space based systems), comprehensive control, open sea interception, long-range raid, anti-submarine warfare and vessel protection at distant sea”. It is obvious that PLAN is preparing itself for what it calls “Distant Sea Operations”, highlighting that since 2007, the PLAN has conducted training in the distant sea waters of the Western Pacific involving over 90 ships.
Given the above focus China could be expected to be more assertive in safeguarding its perceived maritime interests and incrementally enhance its influence in the Indian Ocean with growing focus on security of sea lines of communication, and force projection. This by implication means China will seek and develop Rand R facilities which could overtime be upgraded into bases in the IOR littoral. India cannot remain impervious to these developments and would need to take steps to keep Chinese activities under surveillance and continually weigh its own strategic options.
The paper alluding to tensions in South China Sea highlights organization of coastal forces to carry out live force-on-force training for air defense, anti-submarine, anti-mine, anti-terrorism, anti-piracy, coastal defense, and island and reef sabotage raids, etc. The Chinese propensities at escalating tensions were at full display in March 2013. In a commentary noted China specialist Andrew Erickson highlighted “four foreign policy fumbles” in Mar 2013 that led to escalation of tensions in South China Sea, these include, two incidents of firing by Chinese Marine Surveillance vessels on Vietnamese fishing vessels, maneuvers by four vessel, PLAN flotilla, near Parcels at a place called “James Shoal”, 80 Km from Malaysia. Fourth pertained to loading up crude from China in violation of current embargoes on Iran1.
So far as PLA Air Force (PLAAF) is concerned the paper mentions that the PLAAF now has a total strength of 398,000 officers and men, and an air command in each of the seven Military Area Commands (MACs). The focus of PLAAF modernization is on developing and improving early warning command and communication networks, to raise strategic early warning, and for deterrence and long distance strike capabilities. It is also developing range of new generation fighters, ground to air missiles and radar systems. For strategic intervention role it poses a one airborne corps with adequate strategic lift capability. PLAAF appears to be developing strong operational capabilities underscored by upgradation of air defence networks, developing number of airfields in Tibet and adjoining Lanzhou and Chengdu MAC, and strengthening its air defence cover. It is obvious that based on its capability development programme PLAAF could in the next couple of years develop credible interventionist capabilities, with formation like the 15 Airborne Corps providing the desired strategic airlift capabilities.
White Paper bills “PLA’s Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) as the core force for China’s strategic deterrence”. It comprises both nuclear and conventional missile forces and operational support units, primarily responsible for ensuring functional efficacy of Chinese strategic deterrence and preventing coercion. According to the paper Second Artillery Force (SAF) is striving at ‘enhancing the safety, reliability and effectiveness of its missiles, improving its force structure of both nuclear and conventional missiles, strengthening its rapid reaction, effective penetration, precision strike, damage infliction, protection and survivability capabilities’. The Second Artillery is responsible for war planning and training based on the assumption that China will absorb first nuclear strikes and use its nuclear forces only to retaliate. Its strategic forces are complimented by large conventional missile force capable of precision attacks based on well developed space based ISR systems which further enhance the credibility of its no-first-use pledge. Science of Second artillery Campaign explicitly highlights the interface between nuclear and conventional missile forces by underscoring “during future joint combat operations Second Artillery will not merely act as the main force in providing nuclear deterrence and nuclear counter-strike power, but will also act as the backbone force in conventional firepower assaults”.
The current political leadership has been paying particular attention to SAF. After having taken over as Chairman of the Central Military Commission in November 2012, Xi Jinping visited Second Artillery Force and observed that “the artillery force is the core strength of China’s strategic deterrence, the strategic support for the country’s status as a major power, and an important cornerstone safeguarding national security”. Many advanced versions of ballistic and cruise missiles are being fielded with appropriate integration with C4ISR assets which are both ground and space based. PLA carried out second anti- ballistic missile test in January this year indicating that it is moving towards acquiring a ballistic missile defence capability. Although this is primarily aimed at degrading the American strategic capabilities it would no doubt also impact the value and worth of India’s nuclear deterrent.
The paper also gives insights into China’s nuclear posture though to a limited degree. It states “If China comes under a nuclear threat, the nuclear missile force will act upon the orders of the CMC, go into a higher level of readiness, and get ready for a nuclear counterattack to deter the enemy from using nuclear weapons against China. If China comes under a nuclear attack, the nuclear missile force of the PLASAF will use nuclear missiles to launch a resolute counterattack either independently or together with the nuclear forces of other services.
The Chinese government insists that modernization of its nuclear forces is only to maintain a reliable second-strike retaliatory capability. The focus therefore is to ensure that the “nuclear deterrent” is “safe, reliable, and credible” under “any” circumstance and China is capable of effective counter attack in self defence, an interesting perspective however is debate on the nature of response – proportional or massive.
The conventional missile force is able to shift instantly from peacetime to wartime readiness, and conduct conventional medium- and long-range precision strikes”. By inference it means that China will employ precision nuclear strikes as part of its conventional war fighting doctrine and is unlikely to resort to first use of nuclear weapons. If we were to take the NFU declaratory doctrine of China at face value as also that of India’s this would essentially mean nuclear weapons as tools of deterrence are outside the equation of any conventional conflict scenario. Given the growing state of conventional asymmetry, Chinese with their superior conventional and missile force will always be at an advantage and force decisions on their terms in a limited conflict scenario, putting India at a disadvantage. Following from above the manner in which Indian strategic deterrence in the scenario of growing conventional asymmetry would play require deeper analysis in India.
The paper also describes the role of People’s Armed Police Force(PAPF) which is a Para military force meant for internal security duties and to assist the PLA in war time. Some of its main tasks include performing guard duties, dealing with emergencies, combating terrorism and participating in and supporting national economic development. It is also employed for national development tasks and is composed of some special forces assigned for various miscellaneous civil and military tasks. Possibly, the Chinese troops which have been sent to POK for so called development activities are from PAPF.
An aspect that has been emphasised in 2013 Paper is PLA’s role in aid of the people and national development so that PLA can be truly seen as peoples’ army. Since 2004 this role of PLA is being stressed upon more and more. The paper says that “The Constitution and relevant laws entrust China’s armed forces with the important tasks of safeguarding the peaceful labour of the Chinese people, taking part in national development and serving the people wholeheartedly”. During the CPC’s 18th Congress conclave in November, 2012 the party leadership had emphasised that “We must unwaveringly adhere to the principle of the Party’s absolute leadership over the armed forces and continue to educate them in the system of theories of socialism with Chinese characteristics”. The paper goes to considerable length in portraying PLA as peoples and not the Party’s army.
Notably the most important thing missing in the paper is any mention of the defence expenditure which has been invariably mentioned in all the white papers issued so far. China’s defence expenditure according to its 2006 paper was US dollars 36 billion; this year the budget according to figures released in 12th National People’s Conference in early March was estimated to be between US dollars 115 to 117 billion, more than three times the size of 2006 figures. Last year the defence budget was around 107 billion dollars. However, according to a US Defence Intelligence Agency Report of 17 April 2013 China spent as much as 215 billion dollars on military related services and goods in contrast to the last year’s official budget of 107 billion dollars. One of the major factors contributing to rise in the defence expenditure in Asia-Pacific is the double digit growth in PRC’s defence budget from 1990 to 2013 as China’s neighbours remain wary of its growing military might and enlargement of its ‘core interests’.
Major conclusion that emerges is China is embarked on building all round comprehensive military capabilities to emerge as the dominant military power in Asia with ability to challenge even the US in its core areas of interest. The manner of its enegement in international peace keeping and anti piracy operations highlights its global ambitions as a responsible stake holder.
So far as India is concerned it is quite evident that military asymmetry with China will increase and if not addressed would become unbridgeable. India has to accelerate its military modernization which has been stymied due to politico-bureaucratic inertia, inadequate and outdated system and processes. India’s long term integrated perspective plans for its armed forces remain an amalgamation of individual respective perspective plans since there is no shared vision among the services in the absence of coherent national security policy and military strategy. Though inadequacies and gaps military capabilities are well known yet sufficient effort has not been put in filling the voids and gaps in military capabilities. India needs to improve its ground holding capabilities, C4ISR capabilities, accretion of space assets, missile warfare capabilities, long range precision capabilities besides infrastructure development in border regions. Further, China through its various manoeuvres has been aspiring to dominate Indian Ocean region which is critical to Indian security; this challenge needs to be met both through diplomacy and modernisation of our maritime capabilities.
1. Gabe Collins and Andrew Ericson, China Real Time Report, The Wall Street Journal, Apr 12, 2013, see http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2013/04/12/march-chinas-month-of-mistakes/