Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Dissecting China’s White Papers on Defence: An Indian Perspective

Brig Vinod Anand, 
Senior Fellow, VIF

Since 1998 China has been taking out white papers on defence regularly as part of its exercise in military transparency. While such an exercise does have inherent limitations in terms of what it can reveal and what it should conceal yet it serves as a good instrument of public diplomacy. The paper not only informs the domestic audience it also has relevance for major powers and China’s neighbours as well irrespective of the fact that their names may or may not be mentioned in the paper. While Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang related security threats, situation in Asia-Pacific, South China Sea are the recurring theme in the papers yet some issues e.g. Sino-Indian border dispute or other security concerns that drive China’s military strategy and modernization may not be given their due place in the White Papers.

This is the second white paper to come out after President Xi Jinping took over as the Chairman of CMC. Instead of following the well trodden format of the previous white papers the last one and the present paper are thematic dealing largely with limited aspects of defence issues. The paper of 2015 revolves around explanation of its military strategy that includes a survey of national security situation, missions and tasks of PLA, policy of active defence, building and development of the armed forces, preparation for military struggle and military and security cooperation. While it would be easy to dismiss the paper by saying that there is nothing substantially new and whatever is stated in the paper has already been articulated earlier in many pronouncements and writings yet one could say that paper puts an official stamp on what is known. Thus the paper represents a consolidation of China’s outlook on matters military especially in terms of military strategy.

Security Environment

While the Chinese White Papers might keep on repeating that their “national defense policy is defensive in nature... and will never seek hegemony or expansion” yet countries that have been at the receiving end of China’s assertive policies in South China or East China Sea would tend to think otherwise. China remains critical of the US rebalance strategy and its post World War II military alliance mechanism. The paper does not foresee a major war but says local wars are possible. On the other hand the recently released America’s National Military Strategy 2015 document, Pentagon says “Today, the probability of U.S. involvement in interstate war with a major power is assessed to be low but growing.” The US NMS goes on to add that “China’s actions are adding tension to the Asia-Pacific region. For example, its claims to nearly the entire South China Sea are inconsistent with international law. China has responded with aggressive land reclamation efforts that will allow it to position military forces astride vital international sea lanes”. These contradictions only indicate that the security environment in Asia Pacific would continue to remain complex as the competition between a rising and the other a declining power intensifies. India would have to be very prudent in charting out its own course in order to pursue its national interests in the evolving strategic dynamics.

Party and the PLA Relationship

One facet of the civil-military relationship which the new leadership has been very keen to reinforce is the ‘absolute leadership of the party over the military’. The Paper avows that “China's armed forces will effectively perform their missions in the new historical period, resolutely uphold the leadership of the CPC and the socialist system with Chinese characteristics, safeguard China's sovereignty, security and development interests, safeguard the important period of strategic opportunities for China's development”. The fact that this was reported in many Chinese papers next day and covered on Chinese TV extensively denotes the importance and stress which is paid by the Chinese leadership in keeping the PLA under the command of the Party.

Earlier in January this year China had come out with an outline of its National Security Strategy which talked of threats and dangers facing China and the imperative that “national security must be under the absolute leadership of the CPC’s efficient and unified command.”

Off and on there has always been a lurking suspicion that PLA is becoming more assertive or nationalistic and therefore departing from its historical role of being the Party’s army. A fully professional force is expected to be loyal to state or a constitution rather than a particular political party. Further, three decades of modernization with double digit annual increases in the defence budgets has added to the power and clout of PLA thereby increasing its ability to have a say in the national decision making. Additionally, missions of PLA are becoming more externally focused compared with emphasis on internally focussed issues of the earlier years; this also gives leverage to the PLA to influence the external policies that deal with power projection and protection of interest overseas which again is in the realm of foreign policy formulation.

Some analysts also see President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive as one of the tools to establish the primacy of the party over the military. Sacking of General Xu Caihu, formerly Vice Chairman of CMC as also of Lt. Gen. Gu Junshan, Deputy Head of PLA Logistics Department and with 16 Major Generals under investigation for corruption charges the PLA’s standing in public’s eyes has indeed received a drubbing. Evidently, doubts are being raised about the credibility, discipline and fighting prowess of a military that has not seen a war for long. Thus the need for reforms in the military also gives a handle to the political leaders to reinforce their authority. In fact some feel that that border transgressions by the PLA across Sino-Indian border that had become a regular feature especially at the times of summits between heads of the two states were as a result of weakening of political control. Such incidents occurred when President Xi was in India in September 2014 and when PM Manmohan Singh met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in May 2013. This was seen as seen as assertiveness by PLA and reflected a possible politico-military disconnect. However, this aberration seems to have been corrected during PM Modi’s visit to China in May this year as no such incident occurred indicating that PLA had been especially instructed to desist from such practice. Further, ground reports from LAC indicate a discernible shift in the behavior of Chinese troops as they have become now more amicable and are less inclined to change the status quo.

Active Defence: Offensive Defence

Overall concept of ‘active defence’ is given in the paper as being fundamental to Chinese military thought. ‘Preparation for military struggle’ (PMS) is to be carried out based on the construct of ‘winning informationised local wars highlighting maritime military struggle and maritime preparations for military struggle’. Apparently this is different from ‘winning local wars under conditions of informationization’ that has been in force since 2004. Having observed how the American forces operated in the Iraq war of 2003 this precept was promulgated in White paper of 2004. This was an improvement on the earlier doctrine of ‘winning local wars in high-tech conditions’ in force till 1993. However, the current change to the guideline of ‘winning informationised local wars’ seems to suggest that there is a distinct change from the previous doctrine. As is evident over the last ten years the militaries all over the world and especially the American and western militaries have been acquiring information age capabilities as part of the ongoing RMA. Information dominance is increasingly becoming the most essential factor in winning a war. Therefore, one cannot say that it is merely a play of words as the new formulation reflects a response to existing battlefield conditions as also likely changes in the coming years.

However, the guideline of ‘active defence’ does not rule out preemption. In case the adversary is seen as making preparations for any hostile action then an offensive action against him is not precluded. Timings of an offensive, prevalence of conditions conducive for successful conduct of operations, exploiting enemy’s vulnerabilities, gaining and retaining of initiative remain germane to such a concept. For instance, if an adversary was seen as making preparations for an offensive action then attacking his logistics or other communication networks or for that matter carrying out of cyber-attacks on his critical infrastructure would fall within the concept of active defence. Further, in areas where China claims sovereignty, for instance in South or East China Seas or along the Sino-Indian border any offensive action ab initio by the PLA would be termed as part of its active defence formulation.

In Chinese military thought the conception of peoples’ war still finds an important place; the White Paper advocates giving ‘full play to the overall power of the concept of people's war, persist in employing it as an ace weapon to triumph over the enemy’. This concept is, however, no empty slogan as it has found reflection in the Chinese concept and practice of people’s war in information domain where a million of Chinese people armed with computers would take part in people’s information warfare. Recent cyber-attacks said to be originating from China wherein India has also been a target country amongst others, give substance to the practice of such a concept.

Enhancing Power Projection Capabilities

Adding to its power projection capabilities has been the driver of China’s military modernization for over three decades. PLA Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery Force have received special attention since the turn of the century and especially after their Commanders were made members of the CMC. The current White Paper has highlighted the need for ‘maritime military struggle’ and therefore the requirement of preparing for such a struggle. According to the paper the PLA Navy (PLAN) will gradually shift its focus from "offshore waters defense" to the combination of "offshore waters defense" with "open seas protection". Protection of the strategic SLOCs and overseas interests and building of maritime power for such a task have been underscored.

PLA Navy has not only expanded its presence in the Indian Ocean Region it has also acquired an aircraft carrier and is working on increasing its inventory. The submarine activity of Chinese navy has increased exponentially in IOR since 2013.

PLA’s ambitions in Indian Ocean can be gauged from the fact that some of the Chinese think tanks and analysts have suggested the need for PLA Navy to acquire bases. Huanqiu Shibao writing in Global Times on May 25, 2011 had observed that if the world really wants China to take more responsibilities in Asia-Pacific region and around the world, it should allow China to participate in international military co-operations and understand the need of China to set up overseas military bases. Recently, Senior Captain Zhao Yi of China’s National Defense University stated that Indian Ocean should not be viewed as India’s backyard. He also mentioned that possibility of clashes could not be ‘eliminated’ if Indian Ocean were to be continued to be viewed as India’s backyard.

A report submitted by the HQ IDS in May 2013 had said that submarines of PLA Navy have become increasingly active in the IOR which could pose grave threat to Indian interests. Hitherto before only the US and Indian navies had been operating in the region. According to the report the “implicit focus” of the Chinese navy appears to be undermining the Indian Navy’s edge “to control highly-sensitive sea lines of communication”. In September last year the Chinese submarines docked at Colombo and this year in April the submarines harboured at Karachi port. Evidently, submarines are not needed for anti-piracy missions; such forays by PLA Navy only reflect their power projections capabilities and strategic ambitions.

Another significant feature of China’s ongoing military modernization has been the Civil-Military Integration of capabilities and resources. All along the Sino-Indian borders it has created infrastructure that has dual use for both military and civilian purposes. Similarly, based on the logic that naval warfare requires mobilization and deployment of large number of ships, China's government has passed new guidelines last month requiring civilian shipbuilders to ensure their vessels can be used by the military in the event of conflict. The regulations require five categories of vessels including container ships to be modified to "serve national defence needs". Costs of conversions are to be borne by the government. One wonders whether such preparations point towards an increased likelihood of a naval conflagration.

China has been pushing its Maritime Silk Road (MSR) and One Belt One Road strategy since fall of 2013. This strategy is believed to be China’s answer to the American ‘rebalance to Asia Pacific’ strategy. With the expansion of China’s interests overseas it is yet to be seen how PLA would operate to protect its burgeoning interests abroad. Would it follow the American example of procuring military bases abroad or will it devise some new methods with Chinese characteristics? Building of dual purpose ports as part of its MSR initiative seems to be one such alternative which China seems to have adopted to suit the current strategic environment. Favourable geopolitical conditions would help PLA navy to enhance its presence and holding capacity in the IOR in an incremental manner in the coming years.

Outer space, cyber space, long range precision strikes, nuclear assets and supporting infrastructure are the other aspects of China’s military modernization that have found their due place in the current White Paper. China has again repeated its No First Use nuclear doctrine but it still comes with certain caveats and from all accounts it does not apply to India.

In China’s military and strategic writings, the first two decades of the 21St century are termed as period of ‘strategic opportunity’ when the environment would be conducive for development in both military and non-military spheres. And ‘two centenaries goals’ refer to “building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects by 2021 when the CPC celebrates its centenary; and the building of a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious by 2049 when the People's Republic of China (PRC) marks its centenary”. Modernisation of military is also being done that is in consonance with these two centenaries’ goals. By 2020 PLA plans to make major progress in its efforts in RMA and by 2049 it expects to achieve the strategic goal of building informationized armed forces that would be capable of winning information age wars. These twin objectives are expected to contribute to achievement of ‘Chinese dream’ and great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.


While for China the peer competitor is the US and its long term objective is to achieve a degree of parity in its deterrence capabilities vis a vis the US, China’s neighbours and other regional powers remain apprehensive of rising prowess of PLA. Profession of peaceful development or peaceful rise cannot allay the concerns of such neighbours. Defence budgets of ASEAN countries and those in East Asia have been rising and they have been finding ways and means to balance Beijing’s rising military power and assertiveness.

In so far as India is concerned some of the problems of development of defence capabilities and defence planning are well known. Whether it is the question of lack of a unified thought on national security or absence of its derivative that is, a common national military strategy is common knowledge. Though the present Defence Minister seems to be well disposed to install the institution of Chief of Defence Staff yet, the Nehruvian legacy weighs heavily with politico-bureaucratic establishment. That we need to shore up our deterrence capabilities to fight a two front war has also been well articulated. But are our armed forces ready for such an eventuality?

Published Date: 10th July 2015, Image Source: http://english.cntv.cn
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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