Chinese Defence White Paper is full of self-praise
The Defence White Paper that China’s leaders released on July 24, the country’s first such document in four years, spent much of its time justifying Beijing’s military buildup and regurgitating frayed arguments about why it is a force for good in a troubled and complex world.
The White Paper insisted its purpose is to help “the international community better understand China’s national defence”, although the 51-page document titled “China’s National Defence in the New Era” deviated from the level of information that most other countries include in their papers.
Instead, China’s 2019 version was more like a school report card self-written by a smug student, with occasional whiffs of self-humility just to lend the report an air of credence.
Nonetheless, this is perhaps the most transparent Defence White Paper ever to emerge from an opaque China. Overall, though, the document was something of a disappointment with little new detail added to what analysts already know about the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Although it was the first White Paper to be published since the PLA kicked off the most serious restructuring in its history, it merely reaffirmed what has already been said and rationalised the need to pour huge sums of money into China’s military.
Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, identified six key themes in this year’s strategic paper.
“One is the uncertainty and complexity of the international security environment that China is in. The White Paper talked about how there are a lot of threats that China faces, whether that be because of unsettled maritime borders or because of terrorism, technology and geopolitical change that Beijing has to be on guard against,” Ni said.
Unsurprisingly, the document asserted, “The South China Sea Islands and Diaoyu Islands are inalienable parts of the Chinese territory…China exercises its national sovereignty to build infrastructure and deploy necessary defensive capabilities on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea.”
Of course, the authors omitted the fact that Chinese territorial claims are completely at odds with international jurisprudence and have no legal basis whatsoever.
There is an acknowledged strong outward focus for China and the PLA now. “Overseas interests are a crucial part of China’s national interests…To address deficiencies in overseas operations and support, it builds far-seas forces, develops overseas logistical facilities and enhances capabilities in accomplishing diversified military tasks,” the white paper said.
While it names China’s Djibouti military base, it does not mention any other hoped-for foreign bases.
The second overarching theme for Ni contained in the 2019 paper is “antagonism towards the United States”. He pointed out that the White Paper “really gives a sense that China is seeing the United States adding a lot of risk and uncertainty into the regional and global security environment”.
Such a thought was echoed by Dennis Blasko, a veteran American analyst of the PLA, who told ANI: “My main takeaway from the paper is that the Chinese leadership has got the message loud and clear from the US National Security Strategy and National Defence Strategy that international strategic competition is on the rise.”
“The US has adjusted its national security and defence strategies and adopted unilateral policies. It has provoked and intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defence expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defence, and undermined global strategic stability,” he said.
Blasko added, quoting from the Chinese paper: “As a result, the Chinese armed forces ‘must actively adapt to the new landscape of strategic competition’. While the paper criticises the US and others directly, it still does not designate the US as ‘the enemy’.”
As well as the troublesome US, other culpable nations in upsetting the regional security equation are Australia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. For instance, “In an attempt to circumvent the post-war mechanisms, Japan has adjusted its military and security policies…becoming more outwards-looking in its military endeavour.”
Blasko highlighted that “previous White Papers only mentioned Australia in the context of cooperation and visits”, but the 2019 paper has specifically collared the country by saying, “Australia continues to strengthen its military alliance with the US and its military engagement in the Asia-Pacific, seeking a bigger role in security affairs.”
Incidentally, India received little attention at all. The document merely stated, “South Asia is generally stable while conflicts between India and Pakistan flare up from time to time.”
Nonetheless, the PLA has to protect a 22,000 km-long land border, amounting to “a daunting task for China to safeguard its territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests and national unity”.
The White Paper said that Chinese security forces “strive to promote stability and security along the border with India and take effective measures to create favourable conditions for the peaceful resolution of the Donglang (Doklam) standoff”. Given the intensity of feeling towards the US and Taiwan, the document seems to treat India as something of an afterthought.
Returning to Ni’s assessment, the Australian academic highlighted China’s internal security dynamic. “So, internal security, stability, political stability is paramount to China’s security. When we think about security, we think about state to state and military forces, but in this case, the White Paper makes it crystal clear that it’s the internal aspects that are key,” he said. Therefore, separatist forces, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang or just general social stability are called out as threats.
Indeed, China talked tough against Taiwan, which “is the gravest immediate threat to peace and stability”. That somehow explains why the PLA must militarily threaten the island nation, as the paper admits: “By sailing ships and flying aircraft around Taiwan, the armed forces send a stern warning to the Taiwan independence separatist forces.”
For good measure, Beijing reiterated: “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures. This is by no means targetted at our compatriots in Taiwan, but at the interference of external forces and the very small number of ‘Taiwan independence’ separatists and their activities. The PLA will resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China and safeguard national unity at all costs.”
Ni continued, “The fourth thing that I detect is that political loyalty has again become the top priority for the armed forces…Xi Jinping has concentrated military power under him as chairman of the Central Military Commission using a whole variety of means including a series of purges, ideological indoctrination, propaganda, supervision, etc.”
“But the whole White Paper gives you this sense and really clear evidence that political loyalty and political correctness and orthodoxy has become the top priority for the armed forces. Instead of simply being effective militarily, it’s more important to be ideologically reliable,” he said.
While political loyalty is essential, the PLA continues to grapple with professionalism so as to “promote the integrated development of mechanisation and informatisation and accelerate the development of military intelligentisation”. However, of these three buzzwords, China has still not yet fully achieved the first thrust of mechanisation, let alone the other two.
The fifth thing for Ni? “I think a more confident, transparent way of dealing with defence strategies and policies is exemplified by this paper. Traditionally, China has been what I would consider to be not transparent in a lot of strategic matters, military expenditure and military developments, but this White Paper is a really beefy one and it goes into details about a whole range of different aspects, whether it be PLA training or military outreach, the internal workings of supervision and inspection, military reform, changing force posture and why they are doing it.”
Ni elaborated, “So it’s really showing more confidence in China’s national power, but also an acknowledgement that it needs to be transparent. The lack of transparency in its strategic intentions is creating anxiety around the world.”
Blasko agreed somewhat, telling ANI, “It does not explain too much on recent reforms beyond what we already know. There is some good data on the defence budget that deserves scrutiny and can be compared to similar descriptions a decade ago. Now the paper shows a marked increase in equipment funding at the expense of personnel and especially training.”
Indeed, the White Paper gave a functional breakdown of defence spending and the percentages allocated to the three categories of personnel, training/sustainment and equipment. Thus, in 2017 a total of RMB 3210.5 billion (30.8 per cent) was spent on personnel, RMB 2933.5 billion (28.1 per cent) on training/sustainment, and RMB 4288.4 billion (41.1 per cent) on equipment.
This information is useful, but even more interesting is comparing it with figures from nine years ago, when 34.9 per cent, 31.9 per cent and 33.3 per cent were spent on these three categories respectively. Since 2011, the PLA has enjoyed a serious uptick in equipment expenditure, rising from 33 per cent to 41 per cent.
We know that the PLA spent USD 62 billion on equipment in 2017, excluding secret or unofficial funding. Significantly, this figure is more than what Russia or India spends in their entire defence budgets.
The White Paper explained: “The PLA has significantly downsized the active force of the PLA Army, maintained that of the PLA Air Force at a steady number, moderately increased that of the PLA Navy and PLA Rocket Force, and optimised the force structures of all services and arms.”
The cutting of 300,000 personnel – mostly from the ground force – resulted in personnel numbers at and above regiment levels being cut by about 25 per cent, and that of non-combat units by almost 50 per cent.
The final takeaway for Ni is that “China wants to achieve peace through arms… (but) …it will retaliate if its interests are infringed upon…The rhetoric is that China is a peaceful country and its military development is for peaceful purposes and that it is responsible and proportional to its needs and national stature.”
“But if you infringe on China’s bottom line, then China is sure to retaliate…At least rhetorically that is what the White Paper tries to put forward, but whether we agree with it or not is another matter,” he added.
This explains the content such as this: “It keeps to the stance that ‘we will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked’, places emphasis on both containing and winning wars, and underscores the unity of strategic defence and offence at operational and tactical levels.”
Paradoxes were rife throughout the White Paper, at least for those who are not Chinese and who do not hold unswervingly to Xi Jinping’s pursuit and fulfilment of the Chinese dream. One such example is seen here: “Though a country may become strong, bellicosity will lead to its ruin. The Chinese nation has always loved peace.” Many would accuse China of being the most bellicose party in places such as the South China Sea.
The clarion message of “China’s National Defence in the New Era” is that Beijing’s military rise is inexorable, necessary and desirable. Readers must decide for themselves whether they agree, or whether this is just another piece of propaganda furthering the communist nation’s narrative. (ANI)