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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Xi and China’s Fourth May Revolution: Can State Control and People’s Empowerment be Reconciled?

By

Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in the author’s column, “The Strategist” on the IPCS Web journal, and may be accessed at: http://ipcs.org/comselect.php?articleNo=5590

Since 1919, the Fourth of May movement has been evoked by Chinese scholars and the Party as a beacon for independence and enlightenment. How the array of critical thoughts that the Movement represented would translate into policies that debunk authoritarianism  remains unresolved.

World War I ran its grisly course and all the while theorists argued whether dynamics for cessation could be found in the very causes that triggered it. Were answers in the crisis that erupted on the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand? Was it in the nature of the alliance system existent? Or conditions of aggressive militarism that drove countries to the brink? Or could it have been in the structure of imperial polity?

While none of these considerations contained a tenable rationale for reconciliation, what did bring about cessation was strategic exhaustion coupled with the collapse of motivation on both sides that stalemate and the horrors of trench war-fare generated. The US’ weighing-in on the side of the Allies decided the victor. Devastation caused by the war fashioned a perception that it was a ‘self-inflicted’ mortal wound to the ‘eminence’ of imperial boom. And so the peace settlement of Versailles in 1919, under the lofty canopy of the doomed “League of Nations”, was essentially an instrument to make good territorial, colonial, economic gains and indeed salvage some pride for the victors through the imposition of punitive, geographic, military, and financial terms on the vanquished. What the Treaty fatally failed to perceive was the emergence of a cluster of unsettled precarious nation states in West Asia and East Europe; and a disdain for the dormant appetite for expansion in Russia, the down-but-, not-out Germany and (important to our study) China.

The Treaty amongst its many contentious terms awarded Japan (a member of the entente’) control over German colonies and territories in the Pacific: the Marianas, the Carolinas, Marshall Islands and in addition, to China’s anguish, German concessions in Shandong. This led to a major uprising that over the next decade saw the coming of warlords, fragmenting of the Qing Empire, and colonial avarice; all against the backdrop of a nationalist revolution. China, it will be recalled, had sided with the Allies, and many Chinese expected Shandong back. Instead, the Allies awarded it to Japan. That decision ignited fury among Chinese students, who saw it as a betrayal by Western countries and by Chinese leadership. Anger spread in universities and colleges across Beijing, and on 4 May 1919, students from 13 campuses in the capital came together in protest. The upsurge spread to other cities in China, inspiring strikes and boycotts. The unrest forced the government in Beijing to refuse to ratify the Peace Treaty.

This day entered history as a watershed for Chinese philosophical thought. Chinese intellectuals linked the protests with the ‘New Culture Movement’, the name they gave to a flux of ideas that had spread in universities, newspapers, and literary circles. Ideas included anarchism, socialism, feminism, artistic experimentation, and reforming written Chinese. Summed up as the tempestuous advent of “Mr Science and Mr Democracy”; science “stood for ‘modernity’, the ‘West’ and a general distaste for and an iconoclastic approach to Chinese tradition.”

“Remember the 40th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, the youth has to become vanguards of establishing socialism!, 1959” Source: https://chineseposters.net/themes/may-fourth-movement.php

Shandong has been China’s political, economic, and cultural centre since ancient times. The founder of Confucianism lived here. Chinese culture, beliefs, and folklore were rooted in Confucius’ teachings and philosophy. He broke from convention in which culture and education were controlled by aristocrats. He publicly put forth a slogan “just education, no discrimination.” The students’ protests of 1919 sought to reinstate and expand on these very traditions.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has cast itself as the rightful heir to the legacy of the ‘New Cultural Movement’ as its strongest suite for legitimacy. However, what is of substance is that the challenge of empowering the people is unfulfilled. How the array of critical thoughts that the Movement represented would translate into policies that debunk authoritarianism and its accompanying dogmatisms remains unresolved. In this circumstance, the Fourth of May can neither be buried nor ignored. So notwithstanding how unpalatable the disclosure and debilitating the impact of restructuring, it is an innate process that looms over China’s future.

Having graduated from Deng’s grand strategy of “Hide the light, bide the time,” Xi’s vision of ushering a ‘new era’ is founded on two critical milestones spread over three decades starting with 2020, by which time China should become an all-round prosperous society, and then by 2035, complete a basic socialist modernisation project. The next 15 years was to be devoted to attaining the status as a “leading world power,” and a wealthy socialist state; restoring to China its “lost glory.”  Whether Xi has accounted for the needs of democracy on the path to socialist modernisation in the first 15 years or whether it is even tenable is the moot point; after all his whole scheme appears to be a hail back to Soekarno’s failed “Guided Democracy,” conceptually, a democratic government that functions as an autocracy. While legitimised by controlled elections, the people are not empowered to bring about changes in national policies, motives, and goals. Undeterred by this foundational contradiction, Xi commemorated the Fourth of May by exhorting Chinese youth to “obey and follow the party.” A strange way for renewal of “Mr Democracy” oblivious to the fact that successive generations of students and dissenters also claim inspiration from the Fourth of May!

The most important change that a century has wrought is the shift in global power structures. The collapse of the British empire in the wake of World War II ushered in ‘Pax’ Americana (ironically a period marred by over 50 years of warfare!) The prediction of the Asian Century is now coming true, with the emergence of China, Japan, India, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore as global economic pivots. China’s economic growth has been incredible; a phenomenon that is only 40 years old. Yet, the century-old conundrum that Xi faces remains unchanged: having taken ownership of the Fourth of May, how indeed was science-technology-wealth to be divorced from the increasing urge for ‘Mr’ Democracy? Will the despot’s ‘socialist modernisation project’ ever reconcile this imbalance between the CCP’s iron hold and empowerment of the people with a little more finesse than it did with the uprising of Tiananmen Square of three decades ago?

Xi’s Disquieting Dream of National Rejuvenation

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

In the run up to the First World War, Germany pursued a combination of overbearing diplomacy and brinkmanship to achieve policy goals, despite the risk of war. Demanding a review of international order that would confer on it a dominant political position in keeping with its self-perceived economic and military prevalence, Germany saw little issue in war being a natural corollary to its creating crises and then manoeuvring through them. In the event security tolerance of rival powers was persistently stretched. And, when war did break out, it was fought with colossal military ineptitude and a bizarre inability to match military design with political purpose (sadly, a recurring malaise to this day). An observer of contemporary geopolitics cannot fail to notice the remarkable similarities in the circumstances of China’s dazzling economic growth, military build-up and its twenty first century realpolitik instincts.

The world, from an era of unipolarity and then multipolar uncertainty, that dominated the three decades between the breakdown of the Soviet Union and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has moved to what may be termed as “penumbric competition”—conflicts that lack definition the nature of which is rivalry between major powers over mercantile domination. China has made palpably clear that the instruments of influence are financial inveiglement, military coercion, and exploiting instabilities.

Mearsheimer’s “offensive realism,” the realist international-relations theory, holds that in “an anarchic world with no sovereign to provide law and order, states will tend to amass as much relative power as they can and will never find security other than in accretion of power at the expense of competitors…the best defence (in this milieu) is good offense.” Revisionist China is today an avowed devotee of just such strategic logic. And therefore, to China a global economic order governed, largely, by a single set of rules not of its bidding, is repugnant.

China has announced sweeping claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea and sought to ratify them by creating and fortifying artificial islands in flagrant defiance of existing international laws and conventions. A network of Chinese naval bases, port infrastructural developments and atypical shipping control centres has been secured from the South China Sea to the East African Coast. This includes ports of Sittwe in Myanmar, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, the port of Gwadar in Pakistan, Port Sudan, port Lamu in Kenya and port Bagamoyo in Tanzania. Historically and in terms of contemporary significance to the existing maritime flow of trade, these harbours are of no weighty consequence; however from a geo-strategic standpoint they suggest springboards for sea control and envelopment of India rather than mercantile ascendancy or commercial profitability.

Chinese Military outposts in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and Gwadar have mushroomed to challenge unwelcome maritime control presence and safeguard their extensive investments in Africa. These investments have thus far resulted in either generating equities or enmeshing the victim states in a debt trap that force them to surrender sovereignty over assets being created. Learning from “colonial experience” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, China has put in place a strategy that emphasizes relatively superior organization, technological interventions, and unscrupulous financial mobilization to exploit and divide the weaknesses of the political and military systems in the host state. And if China’s growth seeks new markets and primary resources in Africa, then exclusive control of these is at its core, regardless of friction that may erupt.

Both India and China in their quest for growth with security must find ways and means to avoid threatening each other’s interests (as is happening) and advance the nous for security even if that implies establishing a ‘restraining balance.’ In the past, leadership coped with the coming challenge more by knee jerk rather than policy responses. In changed circumstances of India’s ‘Act East’ and ‘Neighbourhood First’ policies, the impact that the military will have on the developing correlation is the moot question. A scrutiny of the problem from these two distinct levels of strategic policy and military force will also precipitate several questions, answers to which hold the key to the future. First, from the strategic viewpoint, is India focussing on what comprises the strategic centre of gravity of China’s power and mercantile ‘putsch’?  Second, from the military perspective, would our forces, either singularly or in alliance, be able to balance Chinese military activities prejudicial to our interests? Clearly the answer to the first is: China’s compulsion for unremitting growth while to the second the answer lies in developing a ‘China restraining strategy’ best tempered by an appropriate alliance.

Given the slowdown of China’s hitherto stunning economic growth (a recent BBC estimate puts China’s annual growth rate as low as 5.6%), the trade and tariff war with the USA which has begun to bite, and the countries of the ASEAN eyeing markets and resources elsewhere as demand in China falters, would suggest an adverse impact on China’s current military modernization and strategic infrastructural plans (such as the Belt and Road Initiative). The other problem which may hobble China’s ambitions is the amount of debt in the economy – by some estimates close to 300% of GDP.

Two options present themselves to China’s planners as they attempt to manage these predicaments: retard pace of projects, cut back on military modernization, strategic infrastructure building and accept moderation of Xi’s “Dream of national rejuvenation, securing expanding interests overseas and developing capabilities to degrade core operational and technological advantage that influence the region ” (China defence White Paper 2015 , recalling that leadership have for long characterized the initial two decades of the 21st century as a period of strategic opportunity). Or, perceiving the window of “strategic opportunity” rapidly closing, continue to run down their strategic objectives with far greater vigour even at cost of international friction and disruption of their internal circumstances.

In either of the two options the development of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad); a security organisation which includes the USA, Japan, India and Australia must be viewed as a timely ‘China restraining alliance’ to counter China’s unrelenting power surge for an exceptionable proprietary mercantile empire stretching across the Indo-Pacific. The Charter of the Quad is yet to be fleshed out; but conceivably, it will have three objectives. The first, to reinforce a rule-based regional order that rejects nationalistic militarism. Second, to promote a liberal trading regime and freedom of navigation essential to secure passage of close to 60% of global trade through the Indo-Pacific. Third, to provide security assurances.

However, just as behind the scenes machinations from Beijing splintered the Quad at inception, the entente faces similar fragmenting stresses that threaten the whole. India is locked in a long standing border dispute with China. Similarly, Japan has maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas while China’s new Air Defence Identification Zone provides the recipe for mutual interference in the air. In the meantime the US is engaged in a self-destructive move to renege on its larger strategic responsibilities; Australia on the other hand depends on China for approximately 22 % of trade. And there are China’s assignees, the maverick nuclear armed states of North Korea and Pakistan whose disruptive influence cannot be set aside. And yet the opportunity that the current state of China’s economy presents must be grasped if the Quad is to have ready impact.

The question is, does leadership recognize that Chinese realpolitik is at play and that only a determined system based on pragmatic rather than ideological considerations can confront it? The current moves by Japan, USA and India to develop Trincomalee in Sri Lanka to stave off China’s aggressive push in Hambantota will suggest that the entente has not been altogether unsighted to events in the region.