China has come out with its latest white paper on defence as part of its regular exercise to covey to the world that it has been exhibiting higher levels of military transparency. However, the paper is an exercise in strategic communication both to its internal and external audience. It shows adequate transparency to deter its regional competitors while putting a lid on many details which the international community would like to know about its ever expanding defence budgets and the direction its growing military power might take. For the internal audience the paper has attempted to highlight some of the roles and missions of the PLA that are meant to be in aid of the people so that it can be justified that it is people’s army and not the Party’s army.
In the preface the paper says “China will never seek hegemony or behave in a hegemonic manner, nor will it engage in military expansion”. However, can it be said that its military muscle flexing in South China Sea, East China Sea and along the borders with India and even Vietnam is nothing but hegemonic behaviour? Evidently, this is merely a slogan and such a pronouncement cannot be taken seriously by China’s neighbours who are at the receiving end of its assertive behaviour.
While surveying the security environment the eighth white paper on defence has chosen to nominate Japan as trouble-maker over the issue of the Diaoyu Islands. Without naming the US the paper adds that“some country has strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser”. Thus, the American pivot to Asia has been causing much concern to the Chinese. For China, the "Taiwan independence" separatist forces and their activities are still the biggest threat to the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations.
However, what is conspicuous by absence from the Chinese assessment is the current and past shenanigans of North Korea which are complicating the security situation in East Asia. In its 2006 White Paper China had commented on North Korean nuclear tests and had observed somewhat cryptically,"DPRK has launched missile tests and conducted a nuclear test. Thus, the situation on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia has become more complex and challenging”. This time around there is a complete silence on North Korea’s destabilising activities. Even in its 2008 White Paper China had lauded itself by stating that “The Six-Party Talks on the Korean nuclear issue have scored successive achievements, and the tension in Northeast Asia is much released.”
While concentrating on the US and Japan the White Paper has not included South China Sea and the littoral countries as area of concern thus for time being downplaying the issue and possibly setting priorities for settling/importance of the issues. Similarly, the border issue with India also does not find mention. This in contrast to articulations made in earlier papers. For instance, the white paper of 2006 talked of having settled border disputes with 11 out of 13 countries. This formulation implied that India and Bhutan were being unreasonable. In his ‘Five Point Proposal’ for improving Sino-Indian ties made in mid- March this year President Xi Jinping had observed that “The border question is a complex issue left from history and solving the issue won't be easy.” And just to prove this observation there are media reports that PLA troops have intruded 10 kilometres deep inside Indian territory at Daulat Beg Oldi in Ladakh. Thus it would be safer to assume that not much effort is going to be invested by the new Chinese leadership in the resolution of the border issue during its reign of next ten years.
Curiously the White Paper on Defence has been titled as ‘Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces’, possibly to underline variety of roles and missions of the armed forces. This is a distinct departure from the past where all the papers were titled as White Paper on Defence. In contrast to the past practice many other details like defence expenditure and the progress of the respective services have been either totally excluded or mentioned in the passing.
Explaining its policy of active defence the paper says China's armed forces unswervingly implement the military strategy of active defence, guard against and resist aggression, contain separatist forces, safeguard border, coastal and territorial air security, and protect national maritime rights and interests and national security interests in outer space and cyber space. "We will not attack unless we are attacked; but we will surely counterattack if attacked."
The paper briefly reiterates PLA’s doctrine as ‘to win local wars under the conditions of informationization --, intensify the joint employment of different services and arms, and enhance warfighting capabilities based on information systems. They constantly bring forward new ideas for the strategies and tactics of people's war, advance integrated civilian-military development, and enhance the quality of national defence mobilization and reserve force building’. The doctrine of winning local wars under informationised conditions was mentioned in detail in its 2004 White Paper and subsequent papers wherein considerable details had been given as to how PLA intends to proceed on the process of military modernisation in a step by step process.
For the first time the PLA has given out the structure of its armed forces. It is a different matter that much of it was already available in the open domain, however, what has been revealed by the PLA does not match some of the estimates made by analysts and researchers. The paper states that the PLAA mobile operational units include 18 combined corps, plus additional independent combined operational divisions, and have a total strength of 850,000. The combined corps, composed of divisions and brigades, are respectively under the seven military area commands (MACs): Shenyang (16th, 39th and 40th Combined Corps), Beijing (27th, 38th and 65th Combined Corps), Lanzhou (21st and 47th Combined Corps), Jinan (20th, 26th and 54th Combined Corps), Nanjing (1st, 12th and 31st Combined Corps), Guangzhou (41st and 42nd Combined Corps) and Chengdu (13th and 14th Combined Corps). Of particular interest to India are the corps based in Chengdu and Lanzhou which have operational role on Sino-Indian border. Apparently, the strength many logistic and other supporting elements has not been included. Indian Army with much lesser number of corps and other formations has a strength of 1.2 million. Thus, the PLAA is hiding its actual numbers.
Similarly, the paper gives out the strength of the PLA Navy as 235,000 officers and men with three fleets under it, namely, the Beihai Fleet, the Donghai Fleet and the Nanhai Fleet. For long China had stressed that it was not keen to acquire an aircraft carrier; now with commissioning of Liaoning in September 2012 the paper proudly notes that ‘China's development of an aircraft carrier has a profound impact on building a strong PLAN and safeguarding maritime security’.
So far as PLA Air Force is concerned the paper mentions that the PLAAF now has a total strength of 398,000 officers and men, and an air command in each of the seven Military Area Commands (MACs) of Shenyang, Beijing, Lanzhou, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Chengdu. In addition, it commands one airborne corps. The 15 Airborne Corps is an elite strategic formation and its capability also can be brought to bear against India in a very limited time frame. Some years back the formation had carried out a training exercise wherein a division is supposed to have been inducted in Tibet in 48 hours.
The strength of PLA Second Artillery Force has not been mentioned though it has been described as ‘a core force for China's strategic deterrence’. According to the paper Second Artillery Force (SAF) is ‘enhancing the safety, reliability and effectiveness of its missiles, improving its force structure of having both nuclear and conventional missiles, strengthening its rapid reaction, effective penetration, precision strike, damage infliction, protection and survivability capabilities’. The current political leadership has been paying particular attention to SAF. After having taken over as Chairman of the Central Military Commission in November 2012, Xi Jinping visited Second Artillery Force and observed that “the artillery force is the core strength of China's strategic deterrence, the strategic support for the country's status as a major power, and an important cornerstone safeguarding national security”. Many advanced versions of ballistic and cruise missiles are being fielded with appropriate integration with C4ISR assets which are both ground and space based. PLA has carried out another anti- ballistic missile test in January this year indicating that it is moving towards acquiring a ballistic missile defence capability which would impact the value and worth of India’s nuclear deterrent.
The paper also gives insights into China’s nuclear posture though to a very limited degree. It states “If China comes under a nuclear threat, the nuclear missile force will act upon the orders of the CMC, go into a higher level of readiness, and get ready for a nuclear counterattack to deter the enemy from using nuclear weapons against China. If China comes under a nuclear attack, the nuclear missile force of the PLASAF will use nuclear missiles to launch a resolute counterattack either independently or together with the nuclear forces of other services. The conventional missile force is able to shift instantly from peacetime to wartime readiness, and conduct conventional medium- and long-range precision strikes”. It is for the first time that there is no explicit reference to its No First Use Policy. Though, by inference from the formulation mentioned in the paper one may conclude that China may not be the first to launch a nuclear strike yet this needs further elucidation. There could be some message in the new wording and China is needs to elaborate further on this aspect. It is also safer to assume that this principle will not apply to the conventional tactical or strategic strike. However, China’s ‘ No First Use’ nuclear doctrine remains an enigma for India as China’s NFU does not apply to its own territories or territories claimed by it i.e. Arunachal Pradesh. Further, China possesses tactical nukes and it is yet to clarify as to how the SAF intends to use such capabilities.
What is also cause of concern to India is increase in frequency of joint training exercises in Tibet region. Not only the Chinese army and air force have carried out India centred exercises it has also conducted live missile firing exercises in Chengdu and Lanzhou Military Area Commands which have their operational areas opposite Indian border. Trans-MAC troops movement exercises and simulation exercises have also been carried out raising the level of military preparedness along Sino-Indian border. The paper notes that“Since 2010, a series of campaign-level exercises and drills code-named "Mission Action" for trans-MAC manoeuvres have been carried out. Specifically, in 2010 the Beijing, Lanzhou and Chengdu MACs each sent one division led by corps headquarters, together with some PLAAF units, to participate in the exercise. In 2011, relevant troops from the Chengdu and Jinan MACs were organized and carried out the exercise in plateau areas. In 2012, the Chengdu, Jinan and Lanzhou MACs and relevant PLAAF troops were organized and carried out the exercise in south-western China”. Thus, India can ill afford to neglect its border infrastructure and military preparedness which leaves much to be desired.
The paper also describes the role of People’s Armed Police Force(PAPF) which is a para military force meant for internal security duties and to assist the PLA in war time. However, its strength has not been mentioned. Some of its main tasks include performing guard duties, dealing with emergencies, combating terrorism and participating in and supporting national economic development. It is also employed for national development tasks and is composed of some special forces assigned for various miscellaneous civil and military tasks. Possibly, the Chinese troops which have been sent to POK for so called development activities are from this force.
For instance the paper states that ‘Since 2011, the PLA and PAPF have contributed more than 15 million work days and over 1.2 million motor vehicles and machines, and have been involved in more than 350 major province-level (and above) projects of building airports, highways, railways and water conservancy facilities. The PAPF hydroelectric units have partaken in the construction of 115 projects concerning water conservancy, hydropower, railways and gas pipelines in Nuozhadu (Yunnan), Jinping (Sichuan) and Pangduo (Tibet)’. The three new hydro-power dams built on Brahmaputra in Tibet are possibly the handiwork such a force.
What has been expanded upon this time in the paper is PLA’s role in aid of the people and national development so that PLA can be truly seen as peoples’ army. This aspect was completely missing from China’s White Paper on Defence of 2002. Since 2004 this role of PLA is being stressed upon more and more. The paper says that “The Constitution and relevant laws entrust China's armed forces with the important tasks of safeguarding the peaceful labour of the Chinese people, taking part in national development and serving the people wholeheartedly”. During the CPC’s 18th Congress conclave in November, 2012 the party leadership had emphasised that “We must unwaveringly adhere to the principle of the Party's absolute leadership over the armed forces and continue to educate them in the system of theories of socialism with Chinese characteristics”. In the paper the PLA is being portrayed as peoples and not the Party’s army.
What is all together missing in the paper is any mention of the defence expenditure of the PLA which has been invariably mentioned in all the white papers issued so far. China’s defence expenditure according to its 2006 paper was US dollars 36 billion; this year the budget according to figures released in 12th National People’s Conference in early March this year the defence budget was estimated to be between US dollars 115 to 117 billion, more than three times the size of 2006 figures. Last year the defence budget was around 107 billion dollars. However, according to a US Defence Intelligence Agency Report of 17 April 2013 China has spent as much as 215 billion dollars on military related services and goods in contrast to the last year’s official budget of 107 billion dollars. One of the major factors contributing to rise in the defence expenditure in Asia-Pacific is the double digit growth in PRC’s defence budget from 1990 to 2013 as China’s neighbours remain wary of its growing military might and enlargement of its ‘core interests’.
Overall the White Paper hides more than it reveals and there is more of opacity rather than military transparency.
So far as India is concerned it is quite evident that India has to accelerate its military modernisation which has been stymied due to politico-bureaucratic system and processes. Though inadequacies and gaps in our military capabilities are well known yet sufficient effort has not been put in to fill the voids and gaps in our military capabilities. We need to improve our ground holding capabilities, C4ISR capabilities, accretion of space assets, missile warfare capabilities, long range precision capabilities besides infrastructure development in border regions. Further, China through its various manoeuvres has been aspiring to dominate Indian Ocean region which is critical to Indian security; this challenge needs to be met both through diplomacy and modernisation of our maritime capabilities.