Window on China’s defense policy

Last month, China released its white paper on national defense, the eighth since Beijing began releasing the document in 1998. The white paper is invariably an exercise in frustration: China’s detractors are always disappointed by the document, unsatisfied with its contents and the many questions it leaves unanswered.

The Chinese government adopts an aggrieved tone in responses to questions that highlight its flaws rather than acknowledging the distance Beijing has traveled since it began the white paper process.

Defense white papers are intended to offer insight into a government’s security and defense policies. They provide transparency about planning and purposes by facilitating the understanding of the mind-set that guides national defense policy and identifying threats and challenges, and the specific measures taken to address them.

Thus, this white paper, “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces,” outlines what it calls “a new security concept” (which China has in fact articulated for years). This concept rests on pillars of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination, and links China’s national security to that of its partners by embracing comprehensive security, common security and cooperative security.

Of course, China is not prepared to entrust its security to the benevolence of other nations. The white paper confirms that China will build a strong national defense and armed forces that are “commensurate with China’s international standing and meet the needs of its security and development interests.”

In a world characterized by multiple and complicated security threats and challenges — and the “arduous task to safeguard its national unification, territorial integrity and development interests” — that means the modernization of China’s military will continue.

To allay concerns about the expansion of those capabilities, the white paper insists that China’s foreign and defense policies are “defensive in nature.”

It reiterates the claim that China “does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries” and pledges, in echoes of previous documents and countless government officials, that “China will never seek hegemony or behave in a hegemonic manner, nor will it engage in military expansion.”

In a departure from previous editions, this year’s white paper provides actual numbers of military personnel, designations of the force organization and structure, and details of China’s missile forces.

According to the white paper, there are some 850,000 men and women in the People’s Liberation Army, organized in 18 corps and brigades under seven military area commands.

The PLA Navy has 235,000 officers and men, and commands three fleets. There are 398,000 officers and personnel in the PLA Air Force, with an air command in each of the seven military area commands. The report also devotes attention to the Second Artillery Force, which commands and controls China’s strategic forces — its nuclear and conventional missile forces.

Little in the white paper is surprising. The details of forces and structure are appreciated, but the government has in many respects merely confirmed the work of independent research institutes.

More interesting, while also somewhat conventional, is the description of the external security environment. The white paper condemns “some country” that has strengthened its military alliances in the Asia Pacific region, “expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser.”

The United States is not identified by name, but it is the only country that fits the bill. It is not clear which is more revealing of Chinese thinking: the description of U.S. policy or the reluctance to name Washington.

It is noteworthy that while many countries complain about questions surrounding the U.S. “rebalance” to Asia, China seems certain about its intentions and purposes.

A second important element of the external security environment is territorial disputes that China has with its neighbors, and curious by contrast with the previous discussion is the characterization of Japan as “making trouble over the issue of the Diaoyu Islands.” Beijing has on occasion linked the two developments, arguing that the U.S. rebalance has emboldened governments in Asia to challenge Chinese claims.

Whatever the cause, these disputes provide a rationale for the relentless modernization of China’s maritime and marine capabilities, and underscore the importance given to the PLA Navy’s ability to project power and protect China’s national interests farther from home.

The launch of the aircraft carrier Liaoning in September 2012 is part of this effort; Chinese officials now talk about building a second, more powerful carrier.

White papers are intended to provide context for defense thinking and spending, and answer the question “how much is enough?” This white paper does the first, but not the second.

One issue that has surfaced in discussion of the document is the absence of China’s pledge of “no first use” (NFU) of nuclear weapons, the mainstay of the country’s strategic policies.

Foreign security specialists ask whether this omission signals a shift in Chinese policy; officialdom in Beijing adamantly denied any change, noting that the white paper is written thematically and the NFU policy did not fit this structure.

But there is a debate in China about nuclear doctrine. The white paper could do a long way toward its intended purpose by acknowledging that fact and identifying the contours of that discussion. That would shed light onto Chinese strategic thinking and provide the transparency that can then provide a foundation for discussions with other nations and build the mutual trust that China professes to cherish.