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Insight: China’s Defence White Paper is full of greyness

26th July 2019 - 09:00 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Hong Kong


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On 24 July, China’s State Council released the first Defence White Paper in four years. Entitled ‘China’s National Defense in the New Era’, the 51-page document divided into six chapters is replete with popular catchphrases of the communist party and of President Xi Jinping.

Nonetheless, this is a significant document since it is the first White Paper since China kicked off its restructuring reforms in 2015. It is also perhaps the most transparent Defence White Paper ever to emerge from the opaque corridors of China’s bureaucracy, perhaps emanating from its greater confidence and, yet also, its belated recognition that its rise as a nation does terrify others.

The White Paper insists its purpose is to help ‘the international community better understand China’s national defence’. But while the world looks on with the frantic whites of their eyes visible it seems China is intent on serenely continuing its march of ‘peace, development and win-win cooperation’.

Dennis Blasko, an independent analyst of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and author of the book ‘The Chinese Army Today’, told Shephard: ‘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 Defense 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”.’

Blasko continued, ‘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”.’

Nevertheless, there is a high degree of antagonism towards the US in its pages. The US is guilty of a series of ‘wrong practices and provocative activities’, even if Sino-US military relations are ‘generally stable’.

Other guilty parties are Australia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan as ‘the region has become a focus of major country competition, bringing uncertainties to regional security’.

The deployment of an American THAAD battery in South Korea, for instance, ‘severely undermined the regional strategic balance and the strategic security interests of regional countries’ (namely China). Japan is errant as well: ‘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.’ In other words, it is simply copying China.

Blasko, who was formerly an American army attaché in Beijing and Hong Kong, added that ‘previous White Papers only mentioned Australia in the context of cooperation and visits’, but now the 2019 paper has specifically fingered the Antipodean nation: ‘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.’

To the Communist Party of China (CPC), the severest ‘political security’ threats are ‘separatists’. This explicit mention of ‘political security’ exposes the vulnerability the CPC feels as it competes for legitimacy at home. Taiwan ‘remain[s] the gravest immediate threat to peace and stability’. Next in importance are Tibet independence and East Turkistan separatists, which are labelled as ‘external separatist forces’.

China continued its tough-talking rhetoric against Taiwan. ‘The Taiwan authorities, led by the Democratic Progressive Party, stubbornly stick to Taiwan independence…They have gone further down the path of separatism by stepping up efforts to sever the connection with the mainland in favour of gradual independence, pushing for de jure independence, intensifying hostility and confrontation, and borrowing the strength of foreign influence.’

Therefore, the following logic is irrefutable, to China at least: ‘By sailing ships and flying aircraft around Taiwan, the armed forces send a stern warning to the Taiwan independence separatist forces.’

The vitriol against Taiwan showed no let-up. ‘We make no promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures. This is by no means targeted 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.’

China acknowledges that the ‘international security system and order are undermined by growing hegemonism, power politics, unilateralism and constant regional conflicts and wars’. Naturally, an innocent China bears no responsibility for this kind of behaviour.

Unsurprisingly, then, Beijing asserts, ‘The South China Sea islands and Diaoyu Islands are inalienable parts of the Chinese territory.’ This presumably explains why Beijing issues such dire warnings whenever foreign warships pass through or near these international areas, including the Taiwan Strait now.

‘China exercises its national sovereignty to build infrastructure and deploy necessary defensive capabilities on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea,' the report said. There is nothing new there, other than underscoring China’s obduracy in the face of international law.

Yet the paper insists, ‘The situation of the South China Sea is generally stable and improving as regional countries are properly managing risks and differences…A balanced, stable, open and inclusive Asian security architecture continues to develop.’ It only says this because it has moulded countries like the Philippines into accepting a fait accompli of a Chinese-enforced security architecture.

PLA leaders need to ‘promote the integrated development of mechanisation and informatisation and accelerate the development of military intelligentisation’. The latter is the newest thrust by China’s military and embraces technologies such as artificial intelligence. Nevertheless, China has not even achieved the first of these thrusts as mechanisation has not reached fruition, and much is left to be done in terms of informationisation.

China continues its strategic policy of ‘active defence’, although it needs to ‘actively adapt to the new landscape of strategic competition, the new demands of national security and new developments in modern warfare’.

There is a strong outward focus. ‘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.’ It names the Djibouti military base, but alludes to no others for the time being.

What about the tasks of the PLA? ‘In the new era, to meet the strategic demands of national security and development, China’s armed forces firmly implement the missions and tasks entrusted by the CPC and the people. They endeavour to provide strategic support for consolidating the leadership of the CPC and the socialist system, safeguarding national sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, protecting China’s overseas interests, and promoting world peace and development.’

Within the PLA Ground Force, the restructured theatre commands and group armies improve ‘the capabilities for precise, multi-dimensional, trans-theatre, multifunctional and sustained operations, so as to build a new type of strong and modernised land force’.

As for the PLA Navy (PLAN), ‘defence of the near seas’ and ‘protection missions on the far seas’ receive a special focus. The paper reports on the importance of ‘missions on the far seas, and improving its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counterattack, maritime manoeuvre operations, maritime joint operations, comprehensive defence and integrated support, so as to build a strong and modernised naval force’.

The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) is transitioning from territorial air defence to the ability to conduct both defensive and offensive operations. Thus, it is developing ‘its capabilities for strategic early warning, airstrikes, air and missile defence, information countermeasures, airborne operations, strategic projection and integrated support, so as to build a strong and modernised air force’.

There is a focus on developing weaponry and equipment that is ‘long-range precision, intelligent, stealthy and unmanned’. Because ‘the US is engaging in technological and institutional innovation in pursuit of absolute military superiority’ and there is a risk of ‘technology surprise’, there has been a strong response from China in regards to defence innovation.

Looking elsewhere in the 2019 White Paper, Blasko also told Shephard, ‘It doesn’t 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 provided some useful graphs that shed additional light. One such example was a functional breakdown of defence spending, with percentages allocated to the three categories of personnel, training/sustainment and equipment.

One table showed that in 2017, the most recent figure listed, RMB3210.5 billion (30.8%) was spent on personnel, RMB2933.5 billion (28.1%) on training and sustainment, and RMB4288.4 billion (41.1%) was invested in equipment.

This is useful information, but perhaps most remarkable is the comparison with past information in the table. For example, nine years ago, 34.9%, 31.9% and 33.3% respectively were spent on these three categories. Indeed, since 2011 there has been a serious uptick in equipment expenditure, rising from 33% to 41%. By comparison, the US spends about 45% of its annual budget on equipment.

In monetary terms, the PLA spent $62 billion on equipment in 2017. This figure alone is more than what Russia or India spends in their entire defence budgets.

In the past couple of years, the divestiture of 300,000 personnel from the ranks of the PLA will have allowed lower spending on personnel salaries. Indeed, the document said the number of personnel ‘at and above regiment level has been cut by about 25%, and that of non-combat units by almost 50%,’ to reduce bloating at senior levels.

It also highlighted, ‘The PLA has significantly downsized the active force of the PLA Army, maintained that of the PLAAF at a steady number, moderately increased that of the PLAN and PLARF, and optimised the force structures of all services and arms.’

A graph in the 2019 White Paper suggests that running costs (i.e. personnel and sustainment categories) for the PLA are rising at about 7% annually. To keep on top of these cost increases, the overall defence budget needs to rise about 4% each year.

The document explains that all this investment and prioritisation of the PLA is perfectly ‘reasonable and appropriate’. After all, ‘The PLA still lags far behind the world’s leading militaries.’

Furthermore, ‘Defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP has fallen from a peak of 5.43% in 1979 to 1.26% in 2017.’ The document listed a whole range of figures showing that China’s defence spending as a percentage of GDP is lower than that of most peers, and that per capita defence spending was just 5% of that of the US or 13% of the UK.

Such figures may be true enough, but China is obviously trying to swing the argument without acknowledging that, in total terms, it is pouring more money into its military than anyone else, and that it is modernising the PLA at a pace that vastly eclipses others.

All in all, in this White Paper there is not a lot of new grist for the mill for those who have been studying the growing might of the PLA. Nevertheless, a few years into the PLA’s reforms, the document provides a helpful gauge as to Chinese thinking as the country prepares to ‘fight and win’ future wars.

‘Though a country may become strong, bellicosity will lead to its ruin. The Chinese nation has always loved peace.’ Many might wonder at this odd juxtaposition, albeit typical of the document throughout, for none have been more bellicose or bullying in places like the South China Sea than Beijing.

The message throughout this Defence White Paper, guided by the loving hands and all-wise mind of Xi as he fulfils the Chinese Dream, is that China is the new emperor on the Indo-Pacific block. Of course it does not use the term ‘Indo-Pacific’, because that is an American construct.

The objective of the PLA is to transform into ‘world-class forces’ by the middle of the century. Nothing will stop that. People just need to get used to it. That is the purpose of ‘China’s National Defense in the New Era’.

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