Asia Defense

China to Embrace New ‘Active Defense’ Strategy

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Asia Defense

China to Embrace New ‘Active Defense’ Strategy

A new defense white paper outlines Beijing’s growing military capabilities and strategic outlook.

Today, China released its first defense white paper outlining a new military strategy  that emphasizes a more “active defense posture” and a greater Chinese naval presence farther from the People’s Republic’s shores. Issued by the State Council Information Office, it is the ninth defense paper published since 1998, but the first to focus exclusively on strategy.

While the document contains various new observations, the principal doctrine of the Chinese military appears to be unaltered: winning local wars under conditions of informationization. Thus, network-centric warfare and the growing informatization of the battlefield are seen as particularly important for the PLA’s “preparation for military struggle (PMS).”

“The world revolution in military affairs (RMA) is proceeding to a new stage. Long-range, precise, smart, stealthy and unmanned weapons and equipment are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Outer space and cyber space have become new commanding heights in strategic competition among all parties,” the paper notes.

Given recent tensions over Chinese maritime claims (“…some of its offshore neighbors take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied”) and “external countries (…) busy meddling in South China Sea affairs”, the paper places a premium on maritime combat readiness:

In line with the evolving form of war and national security situation, the basic point for PMS will be placed on winning informationized local wars, highlighting maritime military struggle and maritime PMS. 

Additionally, the paper elaborates on Chinese aspirations towards a blue-water navy and an increased Chinese naval presence outside territorial waters:

In line with the strategic requirement of offshore waters defense and open seas protection, the PLA Navy (PLAN) will gradually shift its focus from “offshore waters defense” to the combination of “offshore waters defense” with “open seas protection,” and build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure. The PLAN will enhance its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counterattack, maritime maneuvers, joint operations at sea, comprehensive defense and comprehensive support.

However, despite this grand rhetoric, many Chinese and Western military analysts (see: “Is the Chinese Military Weaker Than We Think?”) have in the last few years pointed out that the Chinese military appears incapable of conducting information-centric, integrated joint operations, which are required to fight and win future  “local wars under informatized conditions” whether on shore or in the maritime domain.

Also, at least for now, the major focus of the PLAN will remain on anti-surface warfare instead of abruptly progressing into new uncharted territories. However, the paper does hint at the growing Chinese desire to further develop its expeditionary capabilities in the light of the military’s new more active defense posture:

In line with the strategic requirement of mobile operations and multi-dimensional offense and defense, the PLA Army (PLAA) will continue to reorient from theater defense to trans-theater mobility. In the process of building small, multi-functional and modular units, the PLAA will adapt itself to tasks in different regions, develop the capacity of its combat forces for different purposes, and construct a combat force structure for joint operations. The PLAA will elevate its capabilities for precise, multi-dimensional, trans-theater, multi-functional and sustainable operations.

The defense white paper also emphasized that China will accelerate developing its cyberwar capabilities given that the “international strategic competition in cyberspace has been turning increasingly fiercer.” It also plans to further expand its space program, strengthen its nuclear forces refine the military’s medium- and long-range strike capabilities, and refocus the PLA Air Forces’ (PLAAF) mission from “from territorial air defense to both defense and offense, and build an air-space defense force structure that can meet the requirements of informationized operations.”

The paper attests China a “generally favorable external environment”, however it also singles out a few regional actors that could spell trouble for Beijing.

For example, with regard to Taiwan, the paper notes that “’Taiwan independence’ separatist forces and their activities are still the biggest threat to the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations.” It also singles out Japan as one of China’s biggest current security threats noting that Tokyo is “sparing no effort to dodge the post-war mechanism, overhauling its military and security policies.”

When it comes to China’s allies, Russia is first and most prominently mentioned in the report, which emphasizes the strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow and the need to “foster a comprehensive, diverse and sustainable framework to promote military relations in more fields and at more levels.”

While attacking the United States’ “meddling” in the Asia-Pacific region on multiple occasions in the paper, the report closes with a more conciliatory tone towards Washington pointing out that:

China’s armed forces will continue to foster a new model of military relationship with the U.S. armed forces that conforms to the new model of major-country relations between the two countries, strengthen defense dialogues, exchanges and cooperation, and improve the CBM mechanism for the notification of major military activities as well as the rules of behavior for safety of air and maritime encounters, so as to strengthen mutual trust, prevent risks and manage crises.