Features | Security | East Asia

China’s Military Self-Assurance

The latest defence white paper suggests an increasing willingness to use a modernizing military to settle diplomatic disputes.

By Rukmani Gupta for

Assessing China’s domestic achievements and reviewing the international lay of the land last October, President Hu Jintao declared to the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee that the country was still in a period of ‘strategic opportunity.' Almost six months later, and it’s clear from the latest defence white paper that military planners agree.

The paper, released Thursday, places significant emphasis on the importance of China’s growing economic prowess. There is inevitably the familiar lament over US arms sales to Taiwan, the United States’ involvement in the Asia-Pacific and the reinforcement of US military alliances in the region. But the watchword in what is an extremely upbeat assessment of the country’s national strength is ‘economy.’ This isn’t to say that China isn’t fully aware of the perceived threat that its unprecedented economic growth has created – it’s clear from the paper and elsewhere that it is. But it’s also hardly surprising that China is feeling ever more confident after successfully weathering the turbulent economic waters that the global economy has faced in recent years.

The latest white paper argues that China’s ‘comprehensive national strength has stepped up to a new stage.’ However, unlike the previous paper, which simply stated that China ‘would not seek hegemony or engage in military expansion…no matter how it develops,’ last week’s document is much firmer, stating that ‘China will never seek hegemony…no matter how its economy develops.’

Still, despite such soothing remarks, there’s also an unmistakable self-assurance in the face of increasing suspicion about China, with the paper noting ‘interference and countering moves against China from the outside’ and pressures on China as it seeks to preserve the rights and the interests of its ‘vast territories and territorial seas.’

Looking ahead, the white paper sets out four key tasks for China’s national defence:

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– Safeguarding national sovereignty, security and the interests of national development.

– Maintaining social harmony and stability;

– Accelerating the modernization of national defence and the armed forces;

– Maintaining world peace and stability.

Although there’s little new in these broad strokes, there are some interesting differences between this latest document and its predecessors. For example, on the question of defending the country’s security interests, cyber space has been included as a key national defence consideration for the first time. With the creation of a joint operation system having been declared a key feature of the People’s Liberation Army modernization, this emphasis on information technology is set to grow. The document also states that China has achieved a step-change in development of information infrastructure within the armed forces, with the total length of ‘the national defence optical fibre communication network’ apparently having grown by a ‘large margin.’ All this is part of a next generation information transmission network under which optical fibre communication is the mainstay, while satellite and short-wave communications are supplementary. Such a modernization of the PLA is described by the paper as a rational extension of a process already underway.

According to the white paper, the PLA has made great progress in its modernization and what it describes as the ‘informationization’ of its forces. As in previous years, the building of new combat capacity to win local wars — and the strengthening of necessary firepower, mobility, protection and support — is emphasised. But the document also states that the PLA Army has developed new types of combat forces, optimised the organisation and structure of its forces, accelerated digitised upgrading and retrofitting of battle weaponry, and deployed new weapons platforms.

In terms of the specific forces, the transformation of the PLA Air Force is said to be focused on air and missile defences, with training in complex electromagnetic environments and numerous tactical contexts to be conducted. On the PLA Navy, the document notes that the modernization of the force is seen to have evolved in line with the requirements of ‘offshore defence strategy.’ Perhaps frustratingly for China’s rivals, though, there is no detailing of what exactly this ‘offshore’ defence strategy entails. One thing that is made clear, though, is that the PLA Navy is looking at new logistical options for sustaining extended maritime missions, while continuing investment in a shore-based support system.

On the issue of the PLA Second Artillery Force – which comes under the direct command and control of the Central Military Commission, and which is seen as the core force for strategic deterrence– ‘protection’ and ‘survivability’ have been added to the four capability indices that had already been outlined, namely rapid reaction, penetration, precision strike, and damage infliction.

So how does the report believe the modernization effort is going? Again, the assessment is upbeat — it states, for example, that there’s been a ‘notable improvement in the PLA’s capabilities of equipment support in long-distance and trans-regional manoeuvres, escort operations in distant waters and complex battlefield environments.’

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Lest this all sound alarming overseas, the white paper for the first time includes a separate section titled ‘Military Confidence-Building,’ that highlights China’s engagement in strategic consultations, confidence-building measures in border regions (agreements signed with India in 1993, 1996 and 2005 are mentioned), cooperation on maritime security, participation in regional security mechanisms and its military exchanges. This isn’t the first time that such information has been included in a white paper, but there’s an additional comprehensiveness with the way it has been presented this time around.

So what can be taken away from this latest white paper? Perhaps most importantly, it again underscores that China is increasingly confident of its economic and military strength, and foresees an international environment conducive to the growth of its tangible and intangible assets. Second, the emphasis on force projection capabilities, along with the focus on China’s involvement in UN-mandated missions, its ‘constructive’ role in regional security, and stated national defence goal of ‘maintaining world peace and stability,’ suggest a growing willingness to assume a leadership role in global affairs.

Third, the document appears to underscore the authority of the Communist Party over the armed forces, clarifying any ambiguity that may have been perceived over the control of the military while also highlighting ideological and political qualities as the foundation for high-calibre military personnel. Finally, special mention is made of the ‘Military Legal System’, underscoring the importance of international treaties and relevant domestic laws among China’s armed forces.

And it’s this last point that epitomizes one of the features of the report. Far from mitigating conflict, strengthening adherence to Chinese laws could actually lead to a clash with international law. Is this emphasis, then, part of the ‘legal warfare’ advocated in China’s policy of active defence? Regardless, despite the reassurances, the report leaves the impression that China will increasingly lean on its military and economic might to resolve diplomatic disputes.

Indeed, it’s ironic that in its efforts to strengthen confidence through greater transparency, China may ultimately have only ended up giving a clearer glimpse of a side of itself that worries other nations.

Rukmani Gupta is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) in New Delhi. This is an edited and abridged version of an article that was originally published by the organization here.