For the first time in four years, China’s Ministry of National Defense will release a white paper on the country’s overall national defense strategy. A short report published on the MND’s website on Monday said the report would be published on Wednesday.
“The white paper on national defense titled ‘China’s National Defense in the New Era’ will be released on Wednesday at 10 a.m,” the report said. “The Information Office of China’s State Council will hold a press conference at the same time.”
Beijing last released a defense white paper in 2015. As I discussed in The Diplomat at the time, the document was notable for what it represented in terms of change to the country’s overall defense posture and what remained consistent.
The headline from the 2015 white paper was a strategic shift toward embracing an increasingly global mission for the People’s Liberation Army. In particular, the 2015 white paper reserved its most drastic shifts for the role of the PLA Navy and the maritime domain, which was identified as one of four “critical security domains.”
“It is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security and development interests, safeguard its national sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, protect the security of strategic SLOCs and overseas interests, and participate in international maritime cooperation,” the 2015 document noted.
The 2015 document maintained the PLA’s overall primary warfighting focus on the Taiwan Strait and reaffirmed its commitment to the “active defense” doctrine, whereby China would pledge to not start a conflict, but retaliate in full if attacked.
As any reader of The Diplomat will be aware, the Chinese military has undergone a significant transformation in the four years that have elapsed since the 2015 white paper. At that time, the PLA Navy and Air Force were beginning to establish patterns of operations beyond the first island chain and into the Western Pacific. Today, strategic chokepoints along the first island chain are regularly the site of naval and aerial exercises.
Beyond changes in operation patterns, some four months after the 2015 white paper was released, China announced a major reorganization of the PLA. That reorganization — the most comprehensive since the Deng Xiaoping era — has now largely taken place and the 2019 white paper may consequently reflect a new concept of how the country’s armed forces will contribute to the overall project of “national rejuvenation.”
The new white paper will emerge in a profoundly different geostrategic environment as far as the U.S.-China relationship is concerned. The Trump administration’s recognition of China as a “revisionist” power and a “great power competitor” to the United States hasn’t been warmly embraced by Beijing. The last white paper swiped at U.S. “meddling” in the Asia-Pacific’s hot spots, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the 2019 updated sharpens its tone toward Washington.
A final area of interest in the upcoming white paper will be the prominence of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Over the last two years, China has grown wary about perceptions overseas that the BRI is an economic initiative with serious strategic and military underpinnings. The upcoming white paper release, for instance, comes just days after a Wall Street Journal report blew the lid off Beijing’s plans to establish a second overseas base in Cambodia — a major BRI beneficiary.
The U.S. Department of Defense’s most recent annual report on China’s military capabilities and strategy minced no words on BRI. The initiative will “probably drive military overseas basing through a perceived need to provide security for OBOR projects,” the report noted, using the acronym for One Belt, One Road, an earlier name for the initiative. At the 19th Party Congress, BRI was elevated into the Communist Party’s constitution. There’s a good chance the upcoming white paper may address this issue euphemistically, if at all.