On 24 July, the Chinese government issued a white paper entitled "China's National Defense in the New Era,” its first systematic and comprehensive national defense white paper in four years. The white paper details the new command and management system of the PLA as well as the military’s new strategic tasks and long-term development plan. The white paper is currently the most detailed and up-to-date report for the Chinese military.
The white paper was released in time to respond to new suspicions, such as the recent media reports that claim China and Cambodia signed a secret agreement allowing China to use a naval base in the country, and other reports that, in addition to Gwadar Port, China seeks to build a military base in Jiwani, Pakistan, to be closer to Iran.
These reports generally suggest that China's "Belt and Road" initiative is moving toward militarization. Some Western scholars even believe that the real purpose of China's "Belt and Road” initiative is military expansion, and that economic cooperation is only the "bait." Given the current tensions between China and the United States, the conspiracy theory has been easier to spread recently.
Such conspiracy theories stem from a misunderstanding of China's military strategy and intentions. To outsiders, China’s military growth and defensive posture pose a contradiction. The U.S. seems to believe that because China’s military rise appears an inevitable trend, this will inevitably lead China to seek goals beyond the mere maintenance of homeland security. The U.S. speculates that China will replicate the path of most powerful countries, that is, pursuing regional or global hegemony through military strength. The new defense white paper aims to clarify this misunderstanding.
The paper acknowledges the recent changes to China's international environment and military. The white paper's judgment on the international situation is more cautious than the 2010 version. An increasingly fierce international military competition has made it necessary for China to continue to catch up with the world's leading countries, implementing unprecedented military reforms and establishing a new management and operational command system. China's national defense now has a clearer strategic policy that focuses on improving combat readiness: "we will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked.”
This does not mean that China will fundamentally change its defensive posture. In fact, the new white paper demonstrates that China has found a solution to the contradiction between military expansion and defensiveness, namely, increasing transparency as China's military strength grows. This white paper not only details the new composition and scale of combat forces, but also demonstrates the strategic planning of China's military modernization. The overall plan is to compress non-combatants, significantly reduce the size of the army's active service, and moderately enhance strategy and combat forces in emerging areas. All these initiatives demonstrate that China's military strategy remains focused on homeland defense.
The second solution to the perceived contradiction is to clarify the limits of China's defense spending. The white paper uses data to show that China's defense spending growth is generally consistent with economic and fiscal conditions, and that there remains a large gap compared to developed countries. China has not increased the scope of defense spending because of changes in the international environment nor has it intended to use the military industry to boost its domestic economy.
The third solution is that the Chinese military will increase the supply of international public safety products. The white paper has announced the landmark initiative to build a community of human common futures as one of the long-term tasks of the Chinese military. The goal is to make the Chinese military a force for safeguarding world peace, one that actively supports UN peacekeeping, international disaster relief, provides humanitarian assistance and cooperates with international counter-terrorism measures. China believes that the unstable factors in the world are universally connected, and that controlling and reducing these factors would also benefit China's national security.
The fourth solution is to strengthen international military cooperation and actively integrate into the international security system. The white paper claims that Sino-U.S. military relations have maintained a generally positive trend, and China hopes to become a stabilizer for Sino-U.S. relations moving forward. China is also more actively participating in the regional security architecture to properly resolve disputes and differences with neighboring countries.
The solutions point to a common goal: that the PLA in the new era hopes to become a constructive force for maintaining global order and world peace. China has long believed that the purpose of the military and weapons should not be bullying，but rather the maintenance of peace. This philosophical concept has found a path of integration between China's rise and the global order.