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Analyzing China’s Military Strategy

Apr 01 , 2011

China released its 2010 National Defense White Paper on March 31, 2011, its seventh biennial Defense White Paper since 1998.  Eagerly anticipated by observers, the new White Paper contains much content to digest.  A first-blush analysis of the White Paper indicates that it provides new and more detail in some areas, but fails to shed new light in many others.  In general, the White Paper is quite clear about China’s strategic assessment, but on more purely military matters, the White Paper does not meet expectations.  The following assessment seeks to illuminate these points by first showing those sections which represent continuity in content and tone with previous years.  Next, the assessment points out those areas that represent a departure from previous White Papers.  The assessment closes with some questions raised by this newest White Paper.
Areas of continuity:

A first area of continuity is that the White Paper strongly argues for China’s continuing commitment to peaceful development as a national strategy, the accomplishment of which relies on a strong and capable military which itself adheres to a military strategy of active defense.  The White Paper argues that in its current stage of development to most effectively fulfill a strategy of active defense, informationization (or information-centered operations) remains a developmental priority.  It is through informationization that the PLA can conduct more effective joint operations.
A second area of continuity is the degree of structural consistency with the format of previous editions.  For instance, the White Paper continues to discuss at great length PLA contributions to national development in terms such as the number of kilometers of fiber optic cable laid by soldiers and so on.  Although each Service no longer has its own chapter – the Army, Navy, Air Force, Second Artillery and People’s Armed Police Force are now included in the chapter on “Modernization” – each is still treated individually. However, the level of detail on troop units remains at an elementary level.  For instance, the listing of facts such as the PLA Army has 18 corps units or that there are PLA Air Force units in all seven of China’s Military Area Command border on the trivial and diminish the overall effectiveness of the White Paper.  Meanwhile, the White Paper fails to disclose even basic information on issues like overall active duty or reserve personnel end strength.
A final area of consistency is that the White Paper continues a decade-long trend toward greater disclosure about the PLA, even if once again only incrementally so. Perhaps indicative of this increased transparency were the bilingual means employed to “launch” the White Paper’s release, including full texts, press conferences, TV interviews, and so on.  
Points of Variation:
The report also contains important differences as compared with previous years.
First, in his press conference elaborating on the new White Paper, Director-General of China’s Ministry of National Defense Foreign Affairs Office, Major General Qian Lihua, enumerates six “firsts” that the White Paper contains, including new details on cross-Strait military relations and a call for confidence building measures with Taiwan (if not a first overall, this call appears for the first time in a defense white paper), military structure, among others. In particular, the White Paper for the first time includes an entire section on Legal Affairs that documents important strides that the PLA has made in this regard.  This section of the White Paper notes several news Laws passed to govern military activities, including 2010 laws on diverse topics such as defense mobilization and the management of reserve officers suggesting that the PLA seeks to make "the rule of law" a more important priority.
Second, the section on the PLA Navy alludes to the internal debate on whether to seek logistical support arrangements in foreign countries to support the long-term deployments of the Navy, such as during missions like the Gulf of Aden anti-piracy operation.  This internal debate hinges on the answer to the question of whether military necessity trumps previous policy assertions that China will never have overseas bases and raises important questions as to how China might seek to project military, especially naval, power far from its shores.
Perhaps most importantly, the White Paper emphasizes cooperation and collaboration and avoids the sort of triumphal tone that China’s rapid recovery from the Global Economic Crisis and rising overall importance in the international system might warrant.  Moreover, what has been termed a more assertive Chinese foreign policy in 2010 on issues related to territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, in particular, does not find language in the White Paper that escalates these confrontations.  The White Paper speaks with a confidence that firmly places China among the world’s major powers, but avoids excessive statements about the importance of China to the international system.  The White Paper does see a diminishment of U.S. power in an international system that exhibits “irreversible moves toward multi-polar world” and a changing international balance of power, and this U.S. decline grants China and Russia – and to a certain extent the EU – positions of growing consequence.

A first question centers on the White Paper's timing.  Clues internal to the White Paper itself, such as the citation of December 2010 cut-off dates when referring to various issues as well as the use of 2010 defense spending numbers despite the fact that the 2011 defense budget came out several weeks before the White Paper’s release, together suggest that the White Paper was embargoed for some time and for unknown reasons, but probably not by the PLA. 

To be sure, the White Paper (issued by the Information Office of the State Council as in years past and not by the now three-year-old Information Office of China's Ministry of National Defense) underwent a Chinese-style interagency review process.   It may be that the White Paper had not yet completed this internal review in time for its release in association with the US-China Defense Consultative Talks in December 2010, a timing that was employed in previous years.  Similarly, the visit of U.S. Secretary of Defense Gates to Beijing in early January 2011 afforded another opportunity to time the release with an important bilateral China-U.S. event, but that visit occurred just a week prior to the visit of President Hu Jintao to Washington – and the inclusion in that visit’s Joint Statement about goals for a more effective military-military relationship – may have been other good reasons to delay the White Paper’s release. 

Alternatively, in keeping with the overall confident tone of the White Paper, the timing may have intentionally had nothing to do with bilateral U.S.-China events; the White Paper's assertion of China’s status as a major power seems to diminish the importance of the U.S. and its release may have been timed to reinforce that notion.  Even so, the White Paper’s release to coincide with DoD’s unmet deadline for its own report to Congress is curious and begs clarification.
Second, despite making important strides in transparency about defense budget, the White Paper’s discussion of military spending still seriously lags international standards.  Comments that personnel, training and maintenance, and equipment each take up about a third of the overall budget fail to be persuasive and raise expectations that future reports will elucidate China’s military spending in more detail.
Finally, the White Paper's clarity on strategic intent notwithstanding, it fails to offer views on how to understand the various contemporary developments in the PLA within China’s overall strategic intent.  For instance, the very public debate on the utility of aircraft carriers appears to have been concluded on the side of pursuing a carrier capability, but the White paper makes no mention of such a momentous decision.   Similarly, China’s new J-20 stealth fighter, which conducted some sort of test flight during Secretary of Defense Gates’ visit, received no discussion.  Finally, China’s new anti-ship ballistic missile and how it might be employed was not mentioned at all.

All in all, the White Paper offers some new details, but still leaves the informed reader wanting to hear more so as to better understand the trajectory of PLA development.

Roy Kamphausen is Senior Associate for Political and Security Affairs of the National Bureau of Asian Research  

tags: block: featured article(peace & security)

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