Monday, 29 April 2013

China issues national defence white paper

Beijing released its 2013 defence white paper April 16, but the shadow cast by the terrible events in Boston slipped this news past many media outlets.

The white paper makes it abundantly clear the Asia-Pacific region currently dominates Chinese military thinking. In this official release, more than previously, transparency is unusually high offering a rare insight into the strategic thinking of the Chinese elite.

In an era of globalisation and a growing Chinese economic power, Beijing’s challenge is in balancing its own economic needs and core interests with emerging security issues. The white paper addresses both by providing a framework and clear descriptions of those core interests from a military point of view. Two large groups are highlighted: maritime rights and interests, and overseas interests.

The document, the eighth of its kind released by the Chinese Government since 1998, is descriptively entitled “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces” focusing on what Beijing refers to as “historic missions” in the new century. These missions consist of four requirements to safeguard China’s national unification, territorial integrity, development interests and deploying armed forces in peaceful times.

Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers march
in Beijing on March 22, 2013. UPI/Stephen Shaver
The first requirement is to provide a security guarantee for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to consolidate its ruling position. Since China’s vast army resources are supremely capable of achieving this imperative, consisting of an enormous 850,000 servicemen, the CCP’s ruling position will be more or less consolidated for the foreseeable future, pending any large-scale internal unrest.

China’s strategic imperative for protecting its current period of national development also includes safeguarding “national interests”, a phrase which should catch the attention of Tokyo and New Delhi. Both India and Japan have almost come to blows with China recently over diametrically perceived “national interests”. Beijing is making it clear it will not yield its position in these disputes.

Three short appendices proudly outline a crucial part of China’s “historic missions”: namely China’s role in safeguarding world peace and “promoting common development". Included as examples is the participation of China’s armed forces in international disaster relief and rescue and in UN peacekeeping operations between 2011 and 2012.

Using a silky choice of words, the paper neatly assuages any worries that China is not seeking hegemony or engaging in military expansion, however it also includes reasons why China’s military will continue to modernise and grow in capability.

This growth will apparently be “commensurate with China's international standing and meet the needs of its security and development interests.” Beijing is being careful here. The waters around the Western Pacific are becoming increasingly crowded. And in the past it was easy for Beijing to talk of security concerns with lacings of hyperbole and ideology.

Today, surrounded by heavily armed and modern nations, it is unwise to engage in such talk. The language employed in this section of the paper gives China plenty of options for dealing with those tensions. Such as recent territorial spats between Japanese ships and Chinese craft.

Regarding this point, the paper specifically mentions Japan exacerbating “trouble over the issue of the Diaoyu islands” in the East China Sea. According to the paper, Chinese armed forces will continue to defend coastal borders and will readily respond to and resolutely deter any provocative action undermining China's sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity.

Exactly how Beijing plans to accomplish their strategic imperatives is more opaque however. Unlike Western defence papers, the Chinese prefer to avoid specifics of equipment purchases, manufacturing and expenditure. But this paper does broadly lay out China’s impressive military capabilities, which is an unexpected inclusion on its own.

Even with the added details, it still remains the case that China’s military is still not an expeditionary force on the same tier as the United States. It does not appear that this is Beijing’s ultimate goal for the near future.

Many of Beijing’s hardware purchases suggest a heavy focus on green-water (close to shoreline) ships, rather than developing of a true blue-water (deep water) fleet. There is also a push to develop greater troop air-lift capabilities, of which China is currently desperately lacking.

China's only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning - Photograph: AP/Xinhua
These hardware choices reflect Beijing’s immediate strategic concerns as a concentration on its near-abroad. Funding a blue water fleet is expensive, and usually a project better left to countries which have completely secured their internal social dynamics and borders from unrest. Few nations have been able to pour money into a blue water fleet, and China is a number of years, perhaps even decades, from being able to follow suit.

Towards this goal, China has been taking its newly refurbished Russian aircraft carrier through proving trials over the past year, but it is still a long way from being able to deploy the vessel into active operations. Having an aircraft carrier is one thing, but actually being able to integrate such a ship into the surrounding navy and introducing a culture of carrier warfare is quite another. This is not to mention the time it takes to train good commanders and crew, let alone aircraft pilots for the unique specificities of carrier operations.

Securing sea trade routes and creating a Sino-governed enclosure east and north of the so-called Nine-Dash Line will be the primary goal for Beijing long before China feels ready to extend into the busier waterway of the Pacific Ocean.

All this will become important in the future, because as the paper colourfully pronounces, security risks to China’s interests are on the rise. And some of these threats are not so far away.

According to the paper, the Chinese army boasts an enormous 850,000 soldiers. But without the ability to transport these troops, as China appreciably lacks, these soldiers are earmarked to contain “separatist forces” and “firmly safeguard China’s core national interests”. Tasking China’s large army with internal policing is understandable given the perpetually restless Chinese western and core provinces.

Beijing’s white paper ultimately shows unusually clearly just how anxious China is to bolster its security, reduce vulnerabilities, protect core interests, and fashion a suitable security environment from which it can sustain its focus on rapid, stable development.

But the balance China is attempting by securing its environment and promoting regional stability could present increased turmoil for Beijing before it brings tranquillity. Countries around China are feeling increasingly threatened as Chinese interests rapidly expand further into territorially ambiguous regions.

Appreciating China’s “historic missions” and core interests will help comprehend what Beijing sees when it looks towards its neighbourhood in the Asia-Pacific. 

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