China: National Defence in a New Era

                                              Linking Dreams with Reality

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

This article is forthcoming in the September 2019 issue of Geopolitics http://www.geopolitics.in/

The Chinese news agency Xinhua announced on 24 July 2019 that China had issued a white paper to “expound on its defensive national defence policy in the new era and explain the practice, purposes and significance of China’s efforts to build a fortified national defence and a strong military.” Titled “China’s National Defence in the New Era,” the paper was released by the State Council Information Office with a view, as the Council suggested, to helping the international community better understand China’s national defence. It is the tenth white paper on national defence that the government has issued since 1998 and the first comprehensive one since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012.

At a macro-level the Paper responds to a perceived shift in global strategies, as major players retract from a focus on counter-terrorism and extremism to an acute slant on competition, rivalry, and friction. It flags the fact that China in its bid to revise the global order on its terms is now a contender for regional dominance. Its ascendancy is backed by military forces that are developed to the point where they will be able to challenge any adversary that may attempt to deny its interests. The document describes Taiwan, Tibet, and Turkistan as separatists that threaten national unity and underscores the dangers of territorial conflicts erupting should there be intervention of any nature on this account. It notes in cavalier fashion “countries from outside the region conduct frequent close-in surveillance by air and sea, enter China’s territorial waters and the airspace near China’s islands and reefs undermining China’s national security.” Through all this, China remains quite oblivious to the legality of their newly established but discordant Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) of 2013, the 9-Dash (10-Dash after 2013) line delineating their claim over most of the South China Sea, contravening major tenets of the United Nations Conventions on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) and breaching of international law.

Unlike Chinese White Papers of the past which focused blandly on China’s questionable “peaceful” intent and not very convincing views of ‘win-win’ cooperation, the 2019 edition highlights China’s military development as a national riposte to what it considers as the challenges that it is faced with. The main body of the white paper is divided into six thematic sections:

  • The international security situation
  • China’s defensive national defence policy in the new era
  • Fulfilling missions and tasks of China’s armed forces in the new era
  • Reform in China’s national defence and armed forces
  • Reasonable and appropriate defence expenditure
  • Actively contributing to building a community with a shared future for mankind.

Some statistics are featured in the 27,000-character document, 10 tables on topics such as a cursory breakdown of China’s defence expenditure have been attached and listing of international cooperation activities is included in the appendices.”

International Security & Visions of a New Global Order

The paper offers insights into how Chinese leadership conceives a world order characterized by greater multi-polarity and its aspirations to exercise control amongst what it perceives to be a “community of common destiny.” It also outlines its strategic objectives, in the quest for which Beijing will neither accommodate nor soften its position. The paper, significantly, re-emphasises China’s intentions to revise the current global order to create a future more favourable for its interests.

“National Defence in a New Era” is a continuum on the official narrative of China’s emergence as a great power with global influence. In discussing the security situation in the Asia-Pacific, China makes a grand assumption that countries in the region are “increasingly aware of being members of a community with shared destiny” and then deduces that they are therefore in harmony with Beijing’s ideological make-up. While the questionable nature of the ‘grand assumption’ throws up a flawed deduction; what comes next is disquieting. It is the illusory context of the document linking China’s defence directly to the notion of a “community of common destiny for humanity” that provides a dangerous strategic underpinning for that very community. The question being, is the new era envisaged by China an emerging reality? And is its model of governance acceptable and appropriate for this reality? For if not (as it seems most likely) the prospects of friction and disruption loom large.

China’s Defensive National Defence Policy

The Document links the creation of a new world order with Xi Jinping’s discourse on the “China Dream,” which urges the People’s Republic to push forward the “great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” and strive to achieve the  dream of “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation to the status of the world’s dominant power. The narrative is now expanded in the White Paper to argue that a more powerful Chinese military is essential to this global dream. The paper attempts to reframe the trajectory of Chinese military modernization by claiming: “A strong military of China is a staunch force for world peace, stability and the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.” This assertion is intended to reassure China’s neighbours about the rise of Chinese military power, which has progressed at a speed and scale that have often provoked concerns, arguing that this instead is a boon for the region. What is apparent is that the construct and its strategic linkages are short on specifics and niggardly on how to put the dream into practice.

Although  China’s aspiration to exercise a leading influence in global governance and contribute to reforms of that system are hardly surprising, this is for the first time that the military has been so directly and officially connected to the agenda of revisionism. However, declarations to “build  a security architecture  through partnerships rather than alliances”  become confusing when one attempts to situate the deepening  Sino-Russian defence linkages in the scheme of things. Nevertheless, this partnership is starting to take on certain features of a military alliance, involving “the development of exchange mechanisms at all levels, expanded cooperation, military training and technology transfers.” Military cooperation had notably extended to the People’s Liberation Army’s participation in Russia’s Vostok exercise in September 2018. It will be recalled that the war-game is Russia’s annual strategic exercise spread over two months and across vast regional spaces to develop the ability to conduct large-scale combined arms war that correlate doctrines and coordinate Command and Control. To fully appreciate the scale of operations the 2018 edition involved over 300,000 personnel.

Fulfilling New Missions, Signaling of Red Lines and Resolve

“China’s National Defense in a New Era” is clearly intended to send strong signals to a global audience. However, communication of redlines and resolve often stand in stark contradiction to the discourse on China’s commitment to “world peace,” and claims of its policies and strategic intentions being purely defensive. On Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and its territorial claims in the South China Sea the Paper states “We make no promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures that target adversarial alliances, interventions and  intimidating deployments”.  These threats are awkwardly juxtaposed with the assertion that China will “never seek hegemony, expansion, or spheres of influence.” From Beijing’s perspective, the notion of “reunification” and defending national sovereignty may be justified and described so, but such an objective is inherently offensive, unilateral and disruptive of the status quo.

Reforms and China’s Concept of National Security 

The Document notes that for this new era, concerns of political security remains critical to the Communist Party of China (CPC). It highlights the imperative for China’s national defence to “assure political security, people’s security and social stability” and in terms of national priority it is listed second only to “deter and resist aggression.” In this context, the introduction of the concept of “people’s security” which is seen as the “soul” and core purpose of national security, alludes to the factors required for improvement of the “people’s well-being,” reflecting underlying connections between national defence and continued development. Increasingly, there are also concerns about threats to social stability in new domains, especially cyberspace. The security and survival of the regime is an absolute imperative for the CPC, and China’s armed forces are required to pre-empt and neutralize such eventualities.

As far as nuclear forces are concerned, its form and content have largely been consistent over the years. China has reaffirmed its commitment to a 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-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones. China does not engage in any nuclear arms race with any other country and keeps its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security. It pursues a nuclear strategy of self-defence, the goal of which is to maintain national strategic security by deterring other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China.

Defence Expenditure: Reasonable or Unfathomable?

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the paper is a relatively more detailed treatment of the defence budget than the 2010 edition (statement on defence budget was absent from the 2013 and 2015 versions). The 2010 paper stated, China’s defence expenditure mainly comprises expenses for personnel, training and maintenance, and equipment; with each budget group accounting for roughly one third of the total”. In the 2019 Paper, subcomponents of the three groups of expenditure  are updated slightly, but significant changes in distribution is apparent. Since 2015, as the PLA has reduced personnel, retired old equipment, and purchased new weapon systems, “equipment expenses” amount to over 40 per cent (approximately $62 billion) of the total budget of $151 billion while personnel expenses have fallen to about 31 per cent ($47 billion), and training and maintenance to 28 per cent ($42 billion). The reasons cited for budget increases are five-fold: enhanced salaries and troop welfare; equipment modernisation; support reforms (which include personnel and unit transfers); improved training; and conduct of peacekeeping, constabulary, humanitarian and disaster relief operations. This order appears consistent with the budgetary allocation, as the PLA has downsized by roughly 13 per cent. The reduced allocation for training may suggest that the PLA has cut back on ‘mass’ manoeuvres, concentrating on developing specialised task oriented battle groups and small-unit proficiencies. However what remains opaque is a breakdown of the budget for Capital, Revenue and Strategic expenditure.

As China compares itself with the other major powers in terms of defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP; at 1.3% it likens rather well from a pacific stand-point. However, what remains obscured is the expenditure on military related infrastructure, defense production and strategic programmes.

Xi’s anti-corruption campaign in defence deals is hailed specifically as, “the struggle having won an overwhelming victory, establishing a positive environment of political and moral correctness.” Pointedly calling out and cracking down on Generals Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou, Fang Fenghui, and Zhang Yang for their “grave violations of Party discipline and state laws.” However, it is hard to judge whether these generals were purged for corruption or for being potential challengers to Xi’s authority.

Building a Community with a Shared Future

While the Paper attempts both to articulate a vision of global security in which China is a driving force for “world peace,” and to establish unambiguous red lines as to what threatens China’s sovereignty, security, and development; what is significant, nuanced or otherwise,  is the absence of any details of separatist activities as indeed the nature and condition of ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang. One wonders, what Xi’s “new era” holds in terms of the shared future for the over 11 million Muslim Uighurs in China’s restive western province of Xinjiang.  According to un-verified reports over two million Uighurs and other minorities, including Islamic Kazakhs and Uzbeks, have been detained since April 2017. Outside of the internment camps, the eleven million Uighurs living in Xinjiang have continued to suffer from a decade-long ethnic cleansing and re-culturing by Chinese authorities. While inside the camps, having no legal avenues to challenge their detention, there is no way of assessing the extent of brutality or brain washing that they are subjected to including behaviour modification in exchange for a dim and doltish rehabilitation . The reasons that may bring about incarceration, according to media reports, include traveling to or contacting people from any of the twenty-six countries China considers sensitive, such as Turkey and Afghanistan; attending services at mosques; sending texts containing Quranic verses and often the inmate’s only crime is being Muslim. One puzzles if this is the new era?

The Paper takes an aggressive no-compromise stand on the integration of Taiwan to the extent of the use of unequivocal military force with the ominous call that Taiwan “will and must merge and consolidate with the People’s Republic of China (PRC)”. Prominent is the strident nationalist bellow for the integrity of the country as a foundational interest of the Chinese nation essential to realizing national rejuvenation. Additionally the on-going disruption in the financial capital Hong Kong do not in any way inspire either success in assimilation or the idea of  “one-nation-two-systems”.

The White Paper makes much of China’s contribution to UN peacekeeping operations and even goes on to declare that it is the largest troop contributing country among the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). However it must be remembered that the other four permanent members have been rather artful in their choice of engagement and have hardly ever committed  their troops in UN sponsored peace keeping missions unless their interests were directly involved or threatened; the United Nations Command established in 1950 to prosecute the war in Korea was led and comprised almost entirely of US forces , the US and Canada supported forces in Eygpt in the 1956 Suez crisis, the 1992  NATO involvement in the wars in Croatia, Bosnia Serbia and Herzegovina , France in Senegal and the Ivory Coast in 2013 or Britain in Afghanistan and Cyprus. All these examples are suggestive of permanent members being selective about their involvement. And so it is with China and therefore no surprises that their focus is on Africa where it has invested heavily and the Middle East for its energy security.

Conclusion

This “new era” of China’s national defence is characterized by change and continuity in China’s global outlook and expanding interests. At a time when the lone super power strategizes for a new era of great power rivalry, the 2019 Chinese posture may in parts appear to present a conciliatory picture. However, intentions to reform global governance, persistence with its claims in the South China Sea, a cavalier approach to international conventions and an illusory security architecture predicated on a “community with a shared future” revealed in the document are nonetheless disconcerting. China may soon be confronted by a rude awakening as this vision for a revised order, self-promotion and security is met with intense internal and external stresses. And all the while since 1998 when the key theme of China’s defence policy was cooperation, Beijing’s military today is inexorably being drawn into, what appears to be, an inevitable clash with forces that uphold the status-quo.

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