Friday, Jul 28, 2017, 8:54 PM CST – China


Defense White Paper

Reading the Signs

Upon review, China’s eight previous defense white papers reveal two decades of important developments in military strategy. NewsChina analyzes the realities behind the rubric

Joint millitary training exercises between Chinese and US sailors near the base of China’s South Sea Fleet, April 24, 2015

The Peace Mission – a 2014 military drill involving over 7,000 personnel from Shanghai Cooperation Organization member countries China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – was held in Zhurihe, Inner Mongolia, China, August 29, 2014

When China’s Ministry of National Defense published, via the State Council Information Office, its latest defense white paper on May 26, 2015, the international media were paying close attention, given rising tensions in the South China Sea between an increasingly assertive Beijing and a US now more determined than ever to maintain its dominance in the region.

Beginning in 1998, the Ministry of National Defense has published these white papers biannually. They are documents which have served to give the international community some idea of the direction of China’s military strategy. As articulations of Beijing’s assessment of its external environment and its intended response, the white papers not only attempt to assuage international concerns about transparency and to reduce the mistrust engendered by Beijing’s growing defense budget, but also act as a concrete manifestation of how China perceives conditions on the world stage, and how it intends to respond.

By reviewing and comparing China’s eight previous defense white papers, NewsChina aims to provide a brief history of the evolution of China’s strategic thinking and the development of its official defense policy.

1998: Beginnings

China’s first defense white paper was published in 1998. The decision to follow international practice and publicize defense policy marked the beginning of a gradual lifting of the veil of secrecy that had shrouded China’s military strategy for five decades.

 In accordance with late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s conclusion that major wars were very unlikely in the 1980s, the white paper highlighted that “peace and development” was the “underlying trend of our time,” a judgment which would be upheld, with adjustments, by all subsequent white papers.

The 1998 white paper set out China’s basic defense policies in a single document for the first time, declaring its commitment not to seek hegemony, military expansion or interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, tenets which would serve as the official core of China’s general military strategy in the coming two decades.

As China gradually integrated itself into the global economy in the 20 years after Deng Xiaoping commenced Reform and Opening-up in 1978, it also improved its relationship with the US. In 1997, both countries had announced the building of a “constructive strategic partnership.” Consequently, Beijing’s inaugural white paper was quite positive about China’s external security environment.

The major security threat identified in the 1998 white paper is the Taiwan issue, at the time considered the top priority in China’s defense policy. While reaffirming that “the Chinese government seeks to achieve the reunification of the country by peaceful means,” the white paper explicitly stated that China will not commit itself exclusively to a diplomatic resolution to the Taiwan issue, an assertion widely interpreted as a threat to use force if Taiwan, which Beijing continues to view as a breakaway province, were to declare independence.

1998 also marked the first occasion upon which China had clarified its official policy on cross-straits relations in a government document devoted to national defense. Tensions in the Taiwan Strait ran high in 1996, as China had announced high-profile military exercises in response to the island’s first democratic election which had elected Lee Tung-hui, a pro-independence politician, as the island’s leader. While the situation ultimately de-escalated without incident, the issue of Taiwan’s status would remain the overwhelming priority of Chinese defense policy in the following years.

As China announced a plan to reduce the number of military personnel by half a million in 1997, the white paper is today also considered evidence of grander military reforms designed to learn from the development of Western armed forces both in terms of technology and transparency, transitioning the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from a Soviet-style command structure designed around waging massive ground campaigns to a more specialized, modern strike force with a comprehensive range of capabilities.

2000: New Concepts

In contrast to the emphasis on “cooperation and development” in the 1998 document, the 2000 white paper raised concerns over the “serious security situation” faced by China, identifying American arms sales to Taiwan as part of Washington’s efforts to increase its military presence in Asia, and particularly highlighting the regional deployment of a US missile defense system.

Naming the US a half dozen times, the 2000 white paper reflected the souring of China-US relations in the wake of the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo War. Tensions across the Taiwan Strait were also running high after the Taiwanese leader Lee Tung-hui announced that Beijing and Taipei should engage in “state-to-state relations.” Consequently, the 2000 white paper devoted much of its content to the “Taiwan issue,” reiterating Beijing’s position that Taiwan’s independence would mean the end of peaceful relations across the strait.

Despite such heightened language, however, the 2000 defense white paper by and large followed the same essential principles as its predecessor. By announcing a military budget of $14.6 billion, 5 percent of that reported by the US at the time, and declaring that China had completed its 1997 plan to reduce the size of its standing army by 500,000 personnel, Beijing was reiterating the “defensive” nature of its defense policy, and reasserting that China’s fundamental interest lay in a peaceful international environment.

The 2000 white paper also coined a new security concept of “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and cooperation,” which China would go on to advocate in various government documents and diplomatic statements in the coming years.

2002: ‘Five National Interests’

China’s first white paper published in the new millennium articulated, for the first time, “five national interests” as the fundamental basis of China’s overall defensive strategy. These interests were described as: defending the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, securing economic growth to increase the country’s overall strength, maintaining the socialist system, ensuring social stability and securing a peaceful international environment.

Another major development in the 2002 defense white paper is that it devoted an independent chapter to introducing the composition of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – incorporating the army, navy, air force, the Second Artillery Force (SAF), the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force and the Chinese People’s Militia. Of particular note was the space devoted to describing the army, with the PLA for the first time publishing the number of its military aircraft and the country’s aircraft-pilot ratio, an unprecedented step towards greater transparency.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the US, the 2002 white paper also highlighted international cooperation in counterterrorism for the first time.

2004: Reform

Released after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the fall of Baghdad, China’s 2004 defense white paper highlighted the need for changes to the military command structure, allocating an independent chapter to “reform in military affairs with Chinese characteristics.”

In outlining its military reforms, the white paper unveiled a plan to further reduce the complement of active personnel in the PLA by 200,000 by 2005. Moreover, by pledging to “intensify the development of the Navy, Air Force and the SAF of the PLA,” China’s defense ministry was hinting at a change in strategy – focusing more on developing its air and seaborne capabilities and attaching less importance to its formerly paramount ground forces.

The 2004 white paper described a “favorable” security environment from China’s perspective, even identifying the first two decades of the 21st century as an “important period of strategic opportunities” in which China should strive to improve its “strategic capabilities” and to seek “comprehensive security” in terms of its political, economic, military and social spheres.

 These changes in tone are believed to be a reaction to the fallout from the US-led war on terror. On one hand, the show of US military supremacy during its invasion of Iraq prompted China to speed up the “informatization” of its military (allowing it to factor in the globalized nature of modern telecommunications and integrate advanced information technology into its strategic planning). On the other hand, as American forces became tied down in the Middle East and Afghanistan, China faced reduced strategic pressure from the US and was able to reap the rewards of its rapid economic development and, consequently, increase its influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

The concept of a “period of strategic opportunities” would play an important role in determining the domestic and international defense policy priorities of the Chinese leadership in the following years.

2006: ‘Three Steps’

Growing out of the military reforms highlighted in the 2004 paper, the Ministry of National Defense’s 2006 defense white paper outlined “three steps” to achieve the goal of military reform. These were: the establishment of a “solid military foundation” by 2010, the achievement of “major progress” by 2020, and the completion of multi-faceted military modernization reform to allow the PLA to win a war “under informatization conditions” by 2049. For the first time, the 2006 white paper also revealed the total number of China’s active service personnel – 2.3 million.

While publicizing ministers’ thoughts on the development of the PLA Ground Force, Navy, Air Force and the SAF, the 2006 white paper also provided information on border and coastal defense programs. After shifting its focus towards the navy, China announced that its maritime policy priority would be the “defense of offshore waters,” a priority which endures today.

Moreover, the 2006 white paper also offered an elaboration on China’s long-standing no-first-use nuclear doctrine, by promising that China would not fire first “in any scenario,” and “unconditionally” pledging that China would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear armed countries and regions.

2008: ‘Active Defense’

 When the Ministry of National Defense’s 2008 white paper was published, its more widespread use of an existing term – “active defense” – drew widespread attention. This military strategy includes four components: the ability to win local wars under informatization conditions, emphasis on prevention and deterrence of crises and wars, enhancement of China’s capability to counter various threats, and the establishment of a comprehensive logistical mechanism of military mobilization.

The 2008 white paper indicated that China had adopted a more “active” approach in that it focused on preventing not only wars, but “crises,” a concept first mentioned in the ministry’s 2006 white paper. The 2008 white paper also further articulated China’s no-first-use nuclear doctrine, elaborating on how China would use its nuclear arsenal in three different operational scenarios (in wartime, indeterminate crisis and under nuclear attack). Reiterating its pledge not to fire first, the white paper specified that China’s nuclear deterrent, which is under the jurisdiction of the SAF, would enter a state of alert if threatened by a nuclear strike, with the SAF authorized to launch China’s ICBM array if the country should come under nuclear attack.

 Taiwan remained a prominent issue, but the Ministry of National Defense downgraded its alert level in the wake of the Kuomintang defeat of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan’s general election, an event which lessened tensions across the Strait. However, the 2008 white paper lists other “separatist forces,” such as the “East Turkestan independence” movement (in Xinjiang)and the “Tibetan independence” movement as threats to China, a response to increasingly violent unrest in both regions.

The 2008 white paper also released data on China’s military expenditure in the past 30 years, an unprecedented move towards greater transparency, and confirmed that Beijing had, in 2007, begun reporting its annual military expenditure to the UN as well as giving the UN Register of Conventional Arms information on its imports and exports of military hardware.

2010: Adjustment

One of the major policy adjustments made regarding several key security concerns in the 2010 white paper are changes to China’s framing of the Taiwan issue. Beijing offered its vision for the future of the cross-strait relationship, conducted through “consultation on an equal footing” with a view to eventually “reach a peace agreement,” a further step towards Beijing’s ultimate goal – political reunification. This showed a major change from its earlier position which advocated a “one country, two systems” solution like that previously applied to Hong Kong and Macau. Beijing has not mentioned this latter approach in its defense white papers since 2004.

In 2010, Beijing also offered insight into its shifting perception of external threats and the growth of its own power. While still considering the international environment to be “favorable” to China’s development, the 2010 white paper warns that the situation is “undergoing profound and complex changes” as “contradictions continue to surface between developed and developing countries and between traditional and emerging powers.” The paper also acknowledges that “external suspicion about, interference with and countermeasures against China are on the increase,” based on which premise it argues that China is facing greater challenges in protecting its “maritime rights and interests.”

However, the 2010 paper also indicated China’s confidence in handling this complex situation, stressing that “progress toward economic globalization and a multi-polar world is irreversible,” and concluding that China was still enjoying “a period of strategic opportunity.”

Nevertheless, the paper showed desire to tweak the four stated defense goals first laid out in the 2002 white paper. Passages concerning defending national sovereignty and maintaining territorial integrity were enhanced to include safeguarding “national development interests.” Maintaining “social harmony and stability” remained a policy priority. The modernization of national defense and the armed forces was emphasized, as was “making use of the peaceful international environment for its own development which in return will contribute to world peace.”

In accordance with the new tasks China’s military had set itself, the 2010 white paper highlights the growing international role of the PLA, and devotes a new section to Chinese participation in military operations other than war, including UN peacekeeping operations, and the PLA Navy’s involvement in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.

Analysts believe that a transition to a more active defense policy with an increasingly global perspective came alongside China’s emergence as the world’s second largest economy in 2009.

2013: ‘New Ideas’

The Ministry for National Defense’s 2013 defense white paper distinguished itself from its predecessors as it was “a thematic white paper” which focused on “the diversified employment of China’s armed forces.”

Such a departure from the comprehensive focus of previous papers led to confusion among analysts. For example, the absence of any mention of China’s no-first-use nuclear doctrine or its customary protests over US arms sales to Taiwan fueled speculation that major policy changes were underway in these key areas. However, as China’s military experts pointed out at the time, the 2013 white paper focuses mainly on the activities of the Chinese military, and adds little in terms of information on the country’s broader military policy.

Despite this sudden shift in focus, however, the 2013 paper opens with the customary assessment of the international situation, an assessment of particular interest to military experts given the launch of the US “Pivot to Asia” policy the previous year.

In the view of some analysts, the tone of the 2013 white paper is unexpectedly mild, making only oblique references to the US “adjusting its Asia-Pacific security strategy,” and remarking that “some country has strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser [sic].” Pointing out increasing “hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism,” the 2013 white paper vows that China is willing “to build a strong national defense and powerful armed forces which are commensurate with China’s international standing” and will develop “new ideas for the strategies and tactics of people’s war.”

These goals are reiterations of those announced during the 18th Party Congress held in November 2012, when President Xi Jinping assumed power. It is under Xi’s leadership that the PLA has begun to formulate a “maritime strategy” and adopt more proactive foreign and defense policies.

The 2013 paper also announced for the first time individual personnel numbers for the PLA Army (850,000), Navy (235,000) and Air Force (398,000). It also released information pertaining to all of China’s 18 total army groups, which Chinese analysts claim to be yet another milestone in terms of transparency.

By reviewing China’s previous defense papers, it is clear that the Chinese government is increasingly confident in spelling out its defense policies and objectives with greater transparency. As China reemerged from economic and political isolation to become a modern global power, these white papers have also revealed a gradual shift from introspection towards a more outward-looking approach. Although the government's white papers are often criticized for falling short of expectations, they offer an important source for understanding China’s perception of external threats, and its strategic intentions when it comes to the ongoing development of its military and defensive capabilities. 


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