The release on last Tuesday of China’s Military Strategy fleshes out for the first time the vision its leadership, newly installed only two and a half years ago, has for the development and use of the country’s military power.
Earlier glimpses were provided in the military sections of the 60-point reform manifesto of November 2013, the declaration in February last year that China would do everything necessary to become a cyber power, and the second-draft National Security Law released earlier this month.
The recent document is highly noteworthy on several levels.
In the very first sentence after the preface, the 2015 strategy puts the “information society” (cyber power) as the departure point of international security.
It paints a new and expansive view of China’s maritime power, while signalling a shake-up of some traditional combat structures for the armed forces. The document is unusually sharp in some of its formulations, especially on relations between the Communist Party and the armed forces. Above all, the strategy calls for a balancing between “rights protection” (in maritime disputes and elsewhere) and “stability maintenance.”
As the first official statement of China’s Military Strategy published under that title, the document fills in some of the strategic gaps that appeared in the 2013 precursor paper, “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces.” That paper also marked a departure in its coverage from earlier versions. The previous seven White Papers issued two years apart since 1998 were titled “China’s National Defense.”
The 2015 strategy has several new sections, including one on the “strategic guideline of active defense” and one on the “preparation for military struggle.” But these are couched in a setting that gives a new strategic direction: “China’s destiny is vitally interrelated with that of the world as a whole.”
The newest element in military strategy in the paper is the emphasis on cyber power: “Outer space and cyber space have become new commanding heights in strategic competition among all parties,” the white paper says, and the character of war is “accelerating its evolution to informatization.” It should be noted here that for China, as for the United States, it will be military assets in outer space that provide the main foundation of information dominance and therefore of cyber-enabled warfare.
There are later references in the paper to key military reforms that are directly related to the new imperatives of cyber warfare where the linkage is not made so explicitly but can be inferred. These include a new emphasis on joint operations, a shift towards “trans-theater” inter-operability, and a need for more highly skilled manpower.
It is the section on naval power that seems most expansive in terms of laying out a new doctrine of power projection.
China’s navy, the document says, will shift its focus from “offshore waters defense” to the combination of “offshore waters defense” with “open seas protection.”
In some respects, this is not so new, in that earlier documents list a wide range of functions for the People’s Liberation Army Navy in operations outside of China’s immediate vicinity. However, in the past these were billed almost as adjunct “peacetime” missions.
The concept of “open seas protection,” though undefined, seems to suggest something much more. It will fuel growing concerns in the region about China’s naval activities.
At the same time, this ambition, to be achieved gradually, the paper says, may prove to be difficult for the Chinese navy. Its projected growth in surface fleet numbers would allow small battle groups to form only if it had to simultaneously maintain naval readiness in “offshore waters,” particularly around Taiwan.
The references in the strategy to the Communist Party of China (CPC) are striking. The document says: The armed forces “will firmly follow the goal of the CPC”; “will unswervingly adhere to the principle of the CPC’s absolute leadership”; will “build themselves into a people’s military that follows the CPC’s commands”; will “remain a staunch force for upholding the CPC’s ruling position”; “resolutely uphold the leadership of the CPC” (twice mentioned), will follow the CPC’s military strategy of active defense; “must closely center around the CPC’s goal of building a strong military”; and will uphold “institutions of the CPC’s absolute leadership over the military.” There are no such references in the 2013 White Paper and only one rather limp reference in the White Paper released in 2011.
It is against this background of a very strong reassertion of CPC leadership that we can interpret statements in the 2015 strategy about the need for China to balance the need for stability and efforts at “rights protection.”
One Chinese commentator says the new strategy paper has signaled support for the dual-track strategy of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who China wants to partner with ASEAN to manage regional security, while working to resolve disputes between the two sides.
But the strategy has the stamp of President Xi Jinping all over it — the China dream, an appeal to revolutionary values, and mixed signals about the balance between making China militarily strong and keeping the peace.
This article was previously published in The Strait Times.