China’s Defence White Paper

White papers are major instruments of transparency which comprehensively lay down the policies of governments on various issues. When published on defence these become foremost confidence building documents. However in the case of China such reports are always viewed with suspicion. Thus when China produced a White Paper at the end of 2006 a number of caustic comments were heard from analysts across the board and particularly in the United States which increasingly views China as a future antagonist power. The fifth in the series since 1998, this is a biennial review which covers amongst other issues the state of the People’s Liberation Army which at 2.3 million troops continues to be numerically potent. A holistic review of China’s Defence White Paper is essential. A snippet analysis of select issues covered in the White Paper is as per succeeding paragraphs. Snippet analysis format is used to focus on the key determining facets of the White Paper as they affect the projected Chinese security inclinations and force development paradigm. (Based on White Paper downloaded from Downloaded from People Daily on 29 January 2007).

The White paper reiterates China’s commitment to, “peace, development and cooperation, China pursues a road of peaceful development, and endeavors to build, together with other countries, a harmonious world of enduring peace and common prosperity.” “The world is at a critical stage, moving toward multi-polarity. But, they also maintain coordination and practical cooperation in their mutual relationships, and draw on each other’s strengths. Some major developing countries and regional groupings have grown in power, and the developing world as a whole is becoming stronger.” This explains China’s current over drive of engagement of a wide range of countries including past and potential rivals India and Japan, ASEAN, nations beyond the immediate geographical periphery in Africa and traditional friends Pakistan and Russia.

The trend is further amplified by an increased focus in China on creating and preferably heading regional alliances thus, “The international community is increasingly facing comprehensive, diverse and complex security threats. The world is not yet peaceful. Political, economic and security problems and geographical, ethnic and religious contradictions are interconnected and complex. – The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has entered a new stage of substantive growth, contributing to the establishment of a new mode of state-to-state relations. ASEAN has made steady progress in community-building and in talks on establishing free trade areas with other countries. East Asian cooperation, which is conducted mainly through the ASEAN plus China, Japan and the ROK (10+3) channel, has expanded in scope and its institutional building is improving constantly, continuing to play a major role in promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. The East Asia Summit has provided a new platform for East Asian cooperation. Moreover, significant progress has been made in South Asian regional cooperation. There is improvement in the relations between India and Pakistan.” This also possibly denotes China’s area of influence and interest to include the SCO, ASEAN, East Asia and SAARC regions.

The emphasis on technology as the keystone for modernization of the armed forces is indicated by the statement, “At the new stage in the new century, we will take the scientific development outlook as an important guiding principle for the building of national defense and military affairs, vigorously advance the revolution in military affairs with Chinese features, and strive to realize an all-round, coordinated and sustainable development.”

Chinese Armed Forces are likely to modernize rapidly and by 2020 will pose a credible advanced information rich force. This is evident from the plan indicated in the White Paper thus, “China pursues a three-step development strategy in modernizing its national defense and armed forces, in accordance with the state’s overall plan to realize modernization. The first step is to lay a solid foundation by 2010, the second is to make major progress around 2020, and the third is to basically reach the strategic goal of building informationized armed forces and being capable of winning informationized wars by the mid-21st century.”

There is no change to China’s nuclear policy as indicated thus, “China remains firmly committed to the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances. It unconditionally undertakes not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones, and stands for the comprehensive prohibition and complete elimination of nuclear weapons.”

The hold of the Communist Party on the PLA was reiterated thus, “China’s armed forces are under the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC).”

The trend in modernization is denoted by the statement, “The Army is speeding up the upgrading and informationization of its active main battle equipment to build a new type of ground combat force which is lean, combined, agile and multi-functional. Priority is given to building Army aviation, light mechanized and information countermeasures units.” China is already known to have information warfare units. The belief is to develop asymmetrical capabilities. This would provide the PLA the ability to defeat technologically superior forces. 2010 and 2020 are years to benchmark PLA’s progress.

China is extremely sensitive to an intrusive survey of the defence budget. Thus elaborate details have been pictorially portrayed in the White Paper. The sum of it is, “From 1979 to 1989, the average annual increase of defense expenditure was 1.23 percent. However, the defense expenditure actually registered an average annual decrease of 5.83 percent, given the 7.49 percent average annual increase of the consumer price index in the same period. From 1990 to 2005, the average annual increase in defense expenditure was 15.36 percent. As the average annual increase of the consumer price index during the same period was 5.22 percent, the actual average increase in defense expenditure was 9.64 percent.” Not many believe that this is the full story of China’s defence spending. Perhaps rightly so, for to modernize a defence force which is twice the strength of the Indian Army and yet transform it into an information centric, RMA based power cannot be achieved in a budget which is just one and a half times more than India’s defence budget. While strategic systems are not part of this budget, even nominal accretion in capabilities will need a much larger outlay.

The above point is amplified by the next quote which states that, “Both the total amount and per-serviceman share of China’s defense expenditure is low compared with those of some other countries, particularly major powers. In 2005, China’s defense expenditure equaled 6.19 percent of that of the United States, 52.95 percent of that of the United Kingdom, 71.45 percent of that of France and 67.52 percent of that of Japan. China’s defense expenses per serviceman averaged RMB107,607, amounting to 3.74 percent of that of the United States and 7.07 percent of that of Japan.” So how does China get a modern armed force at such a low budgetary outlay per soldier. Either these figures are not telling the full story or PLA modernization will not be sustained to develop across the board capabilities. A more detailed review will reveal that the latter may be the actual story. Thus what we may see in 2020 is Chinese armed forces which has niche capabilities, strategic space and missiles, information and cyber warfare and at the same time flaunt a PLA soldier who can launch human wave attacks.

Rahul K Bhonsle
Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.