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China’s New Defense White Paper: Reading Between the Lines

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China’s New Defense White Paper: Reading Between the Lines

Beijing walks a tightrope between peace and its conception of great power status.

China’s New Defense White Paper: Reading Between the Lines

Soldiers of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) demonstrate their skill during an open day of Stonecutter Island naval base, in Hong Kong, Sunday, June 30, 2019 to mark the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong handover to China.

Credit: AP Photo/Kin Cheung

As forecasted in these pages, China on Wednesday released the latest version of its Defense White Paper. At 27,000 characters (about 50 pages in English), it is not overly long. But it is predictably heavy on the Chinese Communist Party’s lofty jargon and slogans. These sayings will adorn Party speeches and signage for years to come, but what is the white paper really trying to tell the world?

On the one hand, Beijing seeks to mollify Western opponents, chief among them the United States, with an emphasis on peaceful intentions. Its topline points are that its national defense policy is purely “defensive,” not offensive; its defense expenditures are “reasonable and appropriate”; and above all it “actively serves to establish a Community of Shared Human Destiny.”

On the other hand, Xi must assure his domestic audiences, including the Party itself, that he is fulfilling his grand vision of the China Dream. Thus references to China as a “great power” have multiplied in this edition. Xinhua’s announcement of the document lauded it as the “first broad exposition of the historic success achieved by the current deepening of Chinese national defense and military reform.”

The operative word here is “success.” Leaders must have achievements and the white paper’s strong affirmation of Chinese sovereignty and record of defense goals achieved provide that for Xi. To be sure, walking the tightrope between peaceful intentions and great power aspirations isn’t new, but it has intensified in this iteration of the Defense White Paper.

China Comes Ready for War

China is building up its military in line with Xi Jinping’s Thought on Military Strengthening, according to the report. It lauds the People’s Liberation Army’s reform of its leadership command system, beginning in 2016, meaning the Central Military Commission reorganization of services and arms (including establishing the PLA Strategic Support Force) and new and improved systems for joint command and military law and oversight. Also noted are reform of the forces, in particular a reduction of 300,000 troops.

Xinhua points out the first “establishment of a Chinese national defense policy system” (see RAND’s Systems Confrontation and System Destruction Warfare). The white paper itself proclaims a “military policy system of systems,” encompassing everything from solidifying Party control and discipline to military force building and military management. The watchword here is Party control of the military.

On that point, the report hails Xi’s anti-corruption campaign as a victory, specifically calling out Generals Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou, Fang Fenghui, and Zhang Yang for their “grave violations of CPC discipline and state laws.” Xi is clearly committed to showing progress toward clean governance. However, in an environment where everyone is assumed to be corrupt at some level and outside verification is forbidden, it is hard to judge whether these generals were purged more for corruption or for falling afoul of Xi. What is clear is that Xi can now point to his own version of the high-level purges that Chinese paramount leaders have carried out since the PRC’s founding.

The final pronouncement on the purges comes with this singular statement: “The anti-corruption struggle has won an overwhelming victory, basically establishing a positive environment of political and moral correctness.” Does this mean Xi’s purges are over? One presumes not. The statement itself makes this clear with its condition that the “positive environment” has only been “basically” established. It hardly seems like an “overwhelming victory,” which is perhaps why this result was relegated to the document’s nether reaches. Moreover, the official English translation seems to avoid much of the drama present in the Chinese: “… notable achievements have been made in the fight against corruption in China’s armed forces, and a healthy political atmosphere of integrity has formed.”

But arguably, the most important evidence of China’s readiness for war comes with its stance toward Taiwan. Following in the numbering traditions of past Chinese leaders — for example Hua Guofeng’s Two Whatevers, Jiang Zeming’s Three Represents, and Mao Zedong’s Four Olds — the white paper offers its most strident language with what we might call Xi Jinping’s Many Anys: “China has unshakeable resolve and great ability to protect national sovereignty and territorial integrity and will not allow any person, any organization or any political party at any time or in any form to separate any part of Chinese territory from China.” The extended string of “anys” do not appear in the 2013 or 2015 white papers, and although these are not Xi’s direct words, they reflect the sort of overblown language that the desire to impress him can inspire.

China Comes in Peace

Although the above accomplishments are clear in the white paper, it is China’s pursuit of peace that gets pride of place. The report points to Beijing’s growing security integration through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other joint cooperative military events around the world, as well as its commitment to UN peacekeeping efforts. Moreover, it insists that “New China [the PRC] has never provoked a single battle or conflict.” China upholds its nuclear “No First Use Policy,” although significant questions remain. And grandest of all, the paper codifies China’s vision for a “Community of Shared Human Destiny” as a defense goal. To that point, a tweet from Sinologist Elizabeth Economy hints that this new community is intended as a replacement for the U.S.-supported world order.

According to the report, it is the United States that is disturbing international harmony: the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment to South Korea “seriously damages regional strategic balance,” and its shift in policy from cooperation to competition is a unilateral “provocation and intensification of competition between great powers,” among a long list of other offenses.

A key proof of China’s peaceful intentions comes in the chapter explaining how little China spends on defense. This would appear to harmonize with memes concerning U.S. defense spending exceeding that of the next X countries combined (the number varies by year and source). Although this makes for a bold headline, it is helpful to remember that such figures do not account for the United States’ global commitments or the potentially greater costs of military weakness. Indeed, as challengers to the fair and prosperous international system like China and Russia grow stronger, the need for a supporting pillar becomes clearer.

As for the white paper’s statistics, monetary figures within China must be taken with a grain of salt. Without evidence of the accuracy of the accounting and that non-defense resources aren’t being diverted to defense uses (e.g. through China’s military-civil fusion program) — in short, without any independent source to verify the PRC government’s account — such comparisons are effectively meaningless.

In one paragraph, China even uses per capita defense spending as the measure of its peaceful intent, calculating its outlay at one-twentieth that of the United States’. By that measure, China would have to spend four times as much as the United States on defense to reach parity. Of course, it is not only or even primarily population size that determines the need for military expenditure. Most nations would point to external threats and the difficulty of defending against them as the primary sizing factors. Use of a per capita measure tempts one to conclude that China’s own populace constitutes its gravest security threat.

Just Because You’re Paranoid Doesn’t Mean They Aren’t Out to Get You

This thinking might not be far from the truth. The paper clearly expresses China’s fears of “separatism” in the form of independence for Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Notable are Beijing’s unsupported claims that this separatism comes in part or in whole from overseas. Actual “Taiwan separatists” are “exceedingly few,” the report insists. Rather, it is the “interference of outside powers” causing the problem. This is also reflected in Xinhua’s recent insistence that the ongoing Hong Kong protests are spurred on by “black hands” and supported from America and Britain, among other places.

Notably absent from the white paper is any explanation of Beijing’s systematic ethnic cleansing of Turkic Muslim populations within its borders. Surely a program imprisoning millions and garrisoning the entire provincial area as a police state bears mention as part of a defense strategy. Another small detail is also worth examining: between its 2015 white paper and this one, Beijing reversed the list order of its two most prominent separatist movements. Listing Xinjiang separatists behind Tibet’s despite Beijing’s obviously greater focus on the former suggests Beijing is attempting to soft pedal its deepening concern.

China’s Fear Factor

Apart from Beijing’s generally more combative stance since the end of the Hu era, this acute crescendo of concern and action surrounding what are supposedly domestic issues suggests Xi is scared. What he does not realize is that these mounting ills are traceable to his own attempts to crush their less serious antecedents. Thus, unless he is willing to turn China into a totalitarian state — one incapable of global competition — his continued tightening is only likely to exacerbate these problems.

Lord Salisbury’s famous saying of 1902 applies here: “It is very sad, but I am afraid America is bound to forge ahead and nothing can restore the equality between us. If we had interfered in the Confederate Wars it was then possible for us to reduce the power of the United States to manageable proportions. But two such chances are not given to a nation in the course of its career.”

Today, China is the rising power and America the established. The United States is beginning to perceive a threat from China and acting to stop it. Although China has made significant strides since its “Reform and Opening,” it is still closer to America in 1861 than 1902. It might do better to bide its time a while longer. Whatever heaviness it finds under the yoke of the international order cannot be any worse than reversion to totalitarianism.

Ben Lowsen is a China strategist for the U.S. Air Force Checkmate strategic studies office. He tweets at @lowsen88The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.