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China's defence white paper sees threats in local wars, not major powers

A couple of days ago, China released its latest Defence White Paper in which it outlined the direction and scope of its military modernisation efforts.

As with the release of every such document, the immediate question is: 'What's new?' The honest answer is, 'Not much.' The White Paper has never been the vehicle through which Beijing announces its policy changes; usually, these documents, about nine of them since 1998, reiterate already announced policies and tweak old policies a little to factor in the Communist Party of China's (CPC's) latest threat perception. This means that the White Papers are fairly useless to strategists or Sinologists but may be of some use to political leaders who tend to have diverse demands on their attention.

The 2015 White Paper starts typically with a brief assessment of the security situation China faces and the changes it expects in the proximate future. It repeats the standard rhetoric from Beijing of seeking only cooperation and peaceful coexistence. Beijing perceives the international environment to be fairly peaceful and stable with little risk of a major war in the foreseeable future. However, the CPC is concerned about threats arising from hegemonism, power politics, and neo-interventionism which may encourage terrorist activities, ethnic, border, and territorial disputes; local wars, therefore, remain a threat.

 Chinas defence white paper sees threats in local wars, not major powers

Reuters image.

China's political and military confidence of recent years comes from its conviction that the world's economic centre of gravity is shifting rapidly back to Asia. Its primary concern is the US in the western Pacific but Japan's proposed gradual militarisation has alarmed Beijing. In perhaps a veiled reference to India, the White Paper also mentions foreign countries interfering in affairs involving the South China Sea. Vietnam and the Philippines get a similar mention for the Senkakus and China rounds off its list of potential threats with a mention of Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.

Interestingly, the last two did not merit a mention in the previous white paper two years ago. Several incidents involving Uighurs in recent months make the addition of Xinjiang an understandable addition, but Tibet is a little surprising. The paper mentions the United States and Japan by name less than in earlier years, indicating that China has become more confident of its anti-access/area denial tactics against these two potential rivals.

The CPC has not altered its views on the role of the military - defending Chinese interests, participating in relief operations, international security cooperation, and preserving the stability of the state. Beijing's paranoia about outside powers trying to foment a revolution, though much reduced since the days of Mao Zedong, has still not gone away completely.

But what can we expect to see in China's defence spending and its areas of interest? Unlike the 2013 white paper, there are no mentions of units, military districts, or the strength of various branches of the Chinese military. However, the general outlook appears similar - the Revolution in Military Affairs has an inherent and irresistible push, according to Beijing, towards the development of long-range weapons systems, stealth, unmanned platforms, precision weapons, and the use of cyber and outer spaces. The focus on cyber and space-based assets for communication, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and surveillance is clear from the mention - fear? - of the modern "informationised" battlefield 22 times in a short, 5,500-word document.

Operationally, the People's Liberation Army will reorient its mission from merely theatre defence to trans-theatre mobility. This sounds a little like India's much-vaunted Cold Start doctrine but something the Chinese might actually be able to pull off given their superior infrastructure. The PLA intends to develop specially-skilled units for different terrains and tasks and train them for closely coordinated operations. The multi-functional, modular units allow the PLA greater operational flexibility for small-scale operations in localised conflicts of the kind the CPC perceives China to be occupied with in the foreseeable future.

The PLA Navy's role has been expanded from offshore water defence to include open seas protection. This likely means the defence of new Chinese maritime claims and the assets Beijing might place in disputed waters. To this end, Beijing's interest in acquiring additional aircraft carriers makes perfect sense - the space around a carrier group will be able to create little mobile pockets of Chinese sovereignty. This expanded role is of great concern not just for China's immediate neighbours but also Indonesia and Australia. Fielding a blue-water navy has long been a Chinese ambition but open seas protection moves beyond that to some serious force projection.

Until now, China has relied on the international system to keep its sea lanes of communication safe; henceforth, the PLA will take a direct interest in ensuring their security.

The PLA Air Force will maintain its current role of early warning, air defence and offence, and force projection while modernising itself. A small but crucial addition to its role from 2013 will be "information counter-measures." In essence, China's military strategists have observed over the past quarter century how the United States fights its wars. Greater reliance on aerial assets for positioning, reconnaissance, communications, targeting, and electronic counter-measures is a huge force multiplier for ground forces and is something the Chinese are interested in replicating. To this end, the PLAAF's jurisdiction will extend into space as well.

Of particular concern to India is the profile of the PLA Second Artillery Force, the units in charge of China's nuclear arsenal. Beijing has always adhered to a no-first-use (NFU) nuclear policy ever since its first nuclear test in October 1964. But, in 2013, the manner in which this assurance was worded became ambiguous. That ambiguity remains in this latest edition of Beijing's white paper too - the document reads, "China has always pursued the policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons and adhered to a self-defensive nuclear strategy.... China will unconditionally not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states..." Again, it is not clear if Beijing's no-first-use posture applies to nuclear weapons states or not.

One might argue that Beijing does not view India as a nuclear weapons state (NWS) as per the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and, therefore, the policy applies to India. Yet China has shown the ability to be surprisingly pragmatic when it serves it and the possession of nuclear weapons might confer NWS status for military purposes. Beijing's no-first-use declaration, which critics, with some justification, have always considered empty words, in all likelihood does not apply to India. Delhi must take this into consideration when it next updates its own nuclear posture.

Besides this significant reorientation, the PLASAF will modernise its delivery systems and warheads and work on technologies to improve its deterrence, early warning, survivability, and counterattack capabilities as well as medium and long-range precision strikes.

The rest of the document lays out the PLA's goals to streamline and modernise logistics, augment its war reserves, improve rules and standards, and innovate on modes of support. Officers will be given more opportunities to study military strategy and operations so that they may be able to introduce more effective principles and methods in their units. Troops will be given more "realistic" combat training and will strive for a high degree of combat readiness and alertness. The reserve force will be expanded and given better training to integrate them better with the regular military.

The PLA has stepped back from participating in the construction of civilian infrastructure but retains a focus on better integration of civilian and military infrastructure, education, manufacturing, and logistics. These personnel goals are less glamorous than the development of space-based military assets or a reorientation of operational strategy but remain nonetheless vital to the PLA's well-being. As several US analysts have observed over the years, the PLA lacks the support of a professional non-commissioned officer corps or recent combat experience. The latter has led to China participating in UN peacekeeping missions, but these human and experiential factors hamper the process of modernisation.

It would be an interesting exercise for those with Mandarin language skills to compare the English and Mandarin versions of China's Defence White Paper. In any case, the white paper does not explain how the laundry list of goals will be achieved or make any assessments of the utility of developing certain capabilities; nor does it get into evaluations of present capabilities as a point of reference. This should be of no surprise as the primary goal of the document is to deter its foreign audience rather than provide an academic study of Chinese military thought processes.

On a concluding note, it is worrisome for countries invested in Pax Americana to see how anti-status quo states like Russia and China are rapidly catching up with the United States in force-on-force warfare, both in terms of material and technology. During this time, the United States has been occupied with learning to fight a different kind of war in the Middle East and Central Asia. It has had little time to dedicate to the strategic shifts in the western Pacific, and in space and other theatres. India has only a secondary role to play in this imminent clash between powers but how Delhi plays its part in this game over the next 20 years will be very interesting to watch

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Updated Date: Jun 05, 2015 13:27:52 IST