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China Issues White Paper On National Defence: Picks Up The US Gauntlet – Analysis

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Not surprisingly, the new white paper emphasises the PLA’s defensive posture and the role of the military in internal stability and homeland defence.

By Manoj Joshi

In June 2013, the newly appointed Chinese President Xi Jinping met President Barack Obama at Sunnylands in California for a summit. He had then put forward the concept of a New Type of Great Power relations broken into three points —

1. No conflict or confrontation,

2. Mutual respect for each other’s core interests and concerns, and

3. Mutual beneficial cooperation and abandoning the zero-sum mentality.

Obama did not quite bite, even though the Chinese kept trying to push the notion, even while building their islands in the South China Sea.

A measure of the distance, that the two countries have since travelled is evident, the defence white paper issued on 24 July says. It is mentioned in the white paper that the US had not only adopted unilateral policies, but had “provoked and intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defence expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defence and undermined global strategic stability.”

In some ways this reflects the major response to the shift that was reflected in the US National Security Strategy of December 2017 and the National Defence Strategy of 2018 which described China as “revisionist” power and a great power competitor of the US. Andrew Erickson, an expert on China’s military, was cited by Washington Post saying that the new white paper has not outlined any new strategies, but sent a strong political message on the importance of domestic stability, as well as Chinese sovereignty concerns relating to Taiwan and the South China Sea.

The white paper has bluntly accused the US of creating instability, deepening its military presence in China’s periphery and expanding its alliances. Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang have always loomed large in Chinese calculations, and so, it would be pertinent to ask if they do so in this white paper too, which adds that the struggle against the separatists had actually grown “more acute” and charged that the US was “giving encouragement to independent forces” in all three regions. Recently, the US approved a deal for $2.2 billion arms sales to Taiwan, including M1A2 Abrams tanks and Stinger missiles.

The central overall theme of the white paper laid out in a commentary by Xinhua is that “the world is witnessing changes unseen in a century” and that even though peace “is an irresistible trend” the international security system and order were being “undermined by growing hegemony, power politics, unilateralism and constant regional conflicts and wars.” Common to all previous white papers, the latest white paper is also a reiteration of China’s opposition to the independence of Taiwan in any form and US arms sales to Taiwan. Even themes like hegemony separatism and extremism have actually been mentioned by earlier iterations of the document.

The title of the 2019 white paper “China’s National Defence in the New Era” can be contrasted with the title of the previous white paper of 2014 titled “China’s Military Strategy,” or the one issued in 2012: “The diversified employment of China’s armed forces.” It was only the 2012 and 2014 white papers that were theme based. Most of the previous 5 white papers were simply entitled “China’s National Defence,” so all that is significant about the 2019 white paper is that it says that it represents China’s defence in “the New Era,” a concept used to signify the Presidency of Xi Jinping.

Like the previous white papers, the 2019 document says that “active defence” continues to be “the strategic guidance for China’s national defence in the new era.” This implies a posture which is defensive, but which does not preclude pre-emptive counter offensives. What has been common to all white papers is the expression of Chinese strategy as being defensive in nature. Not surprisingly, the new white paper, the first since Xi Jinping began a major overhaul of the armed forces, emphasises the PLA’s defensive posture and the role of the military in internal stability and homeland defence. It notes that even though China’s power has grown, “homeland security still faces threats. Land territorial disputes are yet to be completely resolved. Disputes still exist over the territorial sovereignty of some islands and reefs, as well as maritime demarcation.”

Internationally, Chinese interests are endangered by international and regional turmoil, terrorism and piracy. Various countries like India, UK, Japan and Russia were undertaking defence reforms. But the US was “engaging in technological and institutional innovation in pursuit of absolute military superiority.”

The changes were being driven by technology such as AI, quantum information, big data, cloud computing and internet of things. Despite great progress, the PLA was “yet to complete the task of mechanisation and is in urgent need of improving its information system.” China was therefore confronted “by risks from technology surprise and growing technological generation gap.”

Like all earlier documents, except the one of 2012, the white paper reiterates that “China is always committed to a nuclear policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states or nuclear weapons free zones unconditionally.”

The white paper gave greater clarity to Chinese views on the South China Sea where the Chinese said that the islands were an inalienable part of China. Presumably, Beijing has desisted from claiming all the seas that are included in its Nine Dash Line. Ostensibly China has a dialogue with other claimants to work out a Code of Conduct, but that has not prevented moves by either China or countries like the US from displaying their military presence in the region. Overall its assessment is that the situation in the Asia-Pacific region was “generally stable.” But this week itself, China and Russia flew bombers in a joint patrol into air space claimed by Japan and South Korea, compelling them to scramble fighter aircraft.

The previous defence white paper in 2015  signaled a more outward orientation for the PLA and presaged the reforms that are trying to reshape the PLA into a global military. It spoke importantly of a larger role for the PLA Navy and its responsibilities of shifting its focus from “offshore waters defence” to a combination of offshore waters defence along with “open seas protection.” As for the Air Force the 2015 document wanted it to move from territorial air defence to both ‘defence and offence’ and for the need of an aerospace force that meets the needs of information based operations.

Not surprisingly, the principal task of the PLA is to safeguard national territory and maritime rights and interests. The white paper notes the effort put into the prevention of encroachment, infiltration, and sabotage. It notes the CBMS with its land neighbours. With regard to India, its forces seek to “promote stability and security” and adopt measures “to create favourable conditions for the peaceful resolution of the Donglang (Doklam) standoff.”

The white paper provides an overview of the reforms that have been carried out to restructure the Chinese defence system under Xi Jinping so as to create a “modern and specialised” military capable of fighting and winning wars” in the information age. This included the flattening the higher command at the Central Military Commission level, as well as the creation of theatre commands, instituting a joint operations command system, reducing the number of Group Armies from 18 to 13, reducing the numbers in the Army, keeping those in the Air Force stable and moderately increasing those of the Navy.

A section of the white paper takes up an analysis of China’s defence expenditure which is described as “reasonable and appropriate.” The growth of its defence expenditure has been in tune with its economic growth, but had fallen as a proportion of the GDP. As a per centage of its GDP between 2012-2017, the average expenditure was just about 1.3 per cent as compared to 3.5 for US, 4.4 for Russia and 2.5 for India and 2.3 for France.However, as Anthony Cordesman has noted, the white paper “does not address the actual rates of spending by each country, or the fact that China only reports a limited part of its true military expenditures.”


The full English translation of the 2019 China’s Defence White Paper is available here.

Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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