Bhartendu Kumar Singh
Indian Defence Accounts Service
When China started publishing its White Paper on defence in 1998, it was expected to help the international community understand better China’s national defence, specially issues related to defence expenditure, defence modernisation and strategic posture. However, these White Papers subsequently lost credibility and relevance due to Beijing’s refusal to move beyond symbolism, heavy reliance on rhetorical-propagandist language, and above all, preaching against its actual strategic behaviour. China’s recent White Paper on defence is another study in contradictions, a publicity exercise away from truth and of little policy significance!
The contradictions between Chinese statements in the White Paper and actual practice are plentiful. For instance, the White Paper talks of international strategic landscape going through profound changes, international strategic competition and rising global and regional security issues. China apprehends ‘diverse security threats and security challenges’ affecting its ‘important period of strategic opportunity for development’.
China blames hegemonism, power politics and unilateralism (read the US). In reality, China’s emergence as second-most powerful military country with aggressive intents is fuelling international strategic competition. China defines the Asian security situation as ‘generally stable’ (to suit its purposes and keep the US out), but it has single-handedly disturbed the regional peace, most notably in South China Sea. Though it spent quite some diplomatic energies in the last decade to douse the flame of ‘China-threat theories’ through the marketing of ‘peaceful rise’ and subsequently ‘peaceful development’ theories, China remains the disturbing chord in Asian security architecture.
Similarly, China boasts of never seeking hegemony, expansion or spheres of influence, calling its military strategy based on ‘active defence’, i.e. ‘strategically defensive but operationally offensive’. ‘Active defence’ has always been part of Chinese strategic lexicon since Deng Xiaoping used it in 1980. Hitherto, not much credence should be accorded to the term since China has changed its defence strategy as many as nine times on paper but all these followed coercive approach (resource permitting). Today, China has over ten thousand PLA troops in Pakistan to protect its projects under China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC); is running the local port of Gwadar apart from Hambantota in Sri Lanka; and has established its maiden military base in Djibouti (against promises in earlier White Papers of not establishing foreign military bases). This expansionist military outreach surely militates against preaching in the White Paper.
The White Paper also has significant statistical outpour on defence expenditure where we often get bamboozled by narrowing gap between Chinese figures and global estimations. A decade back, China’s actual defence expenditure was estimated to be three times of official figures. Today, global estimates overshoot Chinese figures by only $50 to 80 billion. And yet, the dilemma remains in situ since China is second largest spender with aggressive intents and posture, causing concern in Asia-Pacific. Many components of this aggressive strategic culture are not monetised and shown in formal defence expenditure. But one can make inferences when the White Paper says that “there is still a wide gap between China’s defence expenditure and the requirements for safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests, for fulfilling China’s international responsibilities and obligations as a major country.”
Most sinologists agree that White Papers were not helpful in understanding Chinese military modernisation in past and would not help in future as well. One has to supplement them with alternative perspectives to make sense of Chinese statements in White Papers, often loaded with deceptive and symbolic overtones.
Every year, the US Department of Defence publishes a report on ‘military developments in China’ that is highly reliable and fact-oriented. Similarly, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), established under the National Defence Authorisation Act (2001) of the US, publishes reports and testimonies highlighting the military developments of China. On June 20, 2019, for example, more than a dozen specialists on Chinese military testified before the USCC Commissioners on ‘Assessing China’s global ambitions for a world-class military’. China’s White Paper is simply a hogwash compared to these testimonials!
Chinese military modernisation is, in fact, going at a rapid pace. According to a special report prepared by Jane’s for the USCC (China’s advanced weapons system, May 2018), China is fast closing the gap with the US in many areas and the US, has at best, window of a decade. China’s present emphasis on counter-space programme could, over the next decade, degrade the effectiveness of the US space architecture. In the short term, China will focus on building power projection capabilities and enhancing its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities by developing unmanned systems, maneuverable re-entry vehicles and hypersonic glide vehicles, directed energy weapons and electromagnetic rail guns. In the long term, autonomous unmanned systems and artificial intelligence will become China’s main priority in advanced weapons’ development.
China does not want these whispers to come in open and deliberately portray weak areas in the White Paper. President Xi Jinping has repeatedly asked the PLA to improve its combat performance. China has a three-stage plan (up to 2020; 2020-2035; and 2035-2049) to convert itself into a world class military power and would like to keep significant aspects of the modernisation process under ‘veil of secrecy’. It would, instead, like the world community to take note of its weak military power projection and benign defence policies. Already, a couple of papers have appeared in the Journal of International Security where such weaknesses have been discussed. It makes China happy!
The present White Paper, like previous editions, fails to inform about China’s actual military modernisation, offensive and aggressive strategic policies/practices, and above all, its desire to emerge as the primary security provider in Asia and resolve regional conflict issues on its terms, i.e. Pax Sinica. We need to read it with a pinch of salt and supplement it with other sources to make sense of China’s actual defence policy.
Views are personal