China’s ambitious defense plan

China has made public a white paper titled “China’s National Defense in 2008.” For the first time, China has acknowledged its policy of improving the operational capabilities of its navy on the open seas, although its move in this direction has been obvious in recent years. Recent examples of this move include China’s deployment of naval ships off Somalia to counter piracy and its reported plan to build two medium-size aircraft carriers by 2015.

In response to an international call for transparency in China’s basic concept of security and military policy and posture, China published its first defense white paper in 1998. Since then Beijing has published a white paper roughly every two years. And, in an apparent move to publicize China’s efforts to bring transparency to its military policy and posture, the Chinese Defense Ministry held a news conference for the first time in conjunction with the issuing of the white paper.

In an attempt to help increase China’s political influence abroad and make the international community aware of its growing military power, the white paper says that “since the beginning of the new century, the Navy has been striving to improve in an all-around way its capabilities of integrated offshore operations, strategic deterrence and strategic counterattacks, and to gradually develop its capabilities of conducting cooperation in distant waters and countering non-traditional security threats.”

In general terms, the white paper is rather optimistic about the relations between major powers, citing economic interdependence and inter-connectivity and “interactivity” brought about by economic globalization and “informationization.” It points out that “factors conducive to maintaining peace and containing war are on the rise, and the common interests of countries in the security field have increased.”

In a noteworthy statement, it says that major powers’ “willingness to cooperate is enhanced, thereby keeping low the risk of worldwide, all-out and large-scale wars for a relatively long period of time.” It is likely that China has in mind the United States, with which it shares strong economic interdependence. The fact that China does not have an antagonistic view concerning the overall relations between major powers is welcome.

While characterizing the Asia-Pacific security situation as “stable on the whole,” the white paper does not forget to mention the U.S.’ presence in the region. It says that “the U.S. has increased its strategic attention to and input in the Asia-Pacific region, further consolidating its military alliances, adjusting its military deployment and enhancing its military capabilities.”

In its previous white paper, China expressed strong concern over moves in Japan toward amending its war-renouncing Constitution and also toward changing its interpretation of the Constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective defense. The latest white paper, however, conspicuously omits expressions of concern toward Japan. Citing mutual visits by Chinese and Japanese naval ships, it says that the bilateral defense relations have made progress.

The change in the tone appears to reflect the Chinese government’s basic policy of pursuing “mutually beneficial strategic relations” with Japan under the leadership of President Hu Jintao. But Japan, which has East China Sea-based disputes with China concerning the development of gas fields and sovereignty of the Senkaku islands, should pay attention to the following sentence in the white paper: “Conflicting claims over territorial and maritime rights and interests remain serious.”

While the white paper insists that China’s security situation has steadily improved, it argues that separatist forces working for “Taiwan’s independence,” “East Turkistan independence” (sought by some Uighurs in Xinjiang) and “Tibetan independence” pose a threat to China’s “unity and security.” But referring to the election of Ma Ying-jeou, a member of the Nationalist Party, as Taiwan president last year, the white paper says that the situation across the Taiwan Straits has taken a “significantly positive turn.”

To help dispel a fear that China is a military threat, the white paper stresses that “China pursues a national defense policy that is purely defensive in nature.” Despite this reassuring statement, Chinese defense spending has risen sharply — from about 16.7 billion yuan (equivalent to about ¥220 billion at the current exchange rate) in 1978 to about 417.7 billion yuan (about ¥5.849 trillion) in fiscal 2008, roughly a 25-fold increase. There is a view that if research and development and other spending is included, China’s real defense spending is two to three times the amount made public.

China states in the white paper that “it will persist in pursuing a new security concept featuring mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination, and advocating the settlement of international disputes and hot spots by peaceful means.” We hope that Beijing’s actions match its words.