Steady as She Goes: China’s New Defense White Paper

August 12, 2019

The Chinese government released its 10th defense white paper, China’s National Defense in the New Era, on July 24. Since the government published its latest white paper in 2015, the Chinese armed forces have undertaken the most far-reaching reforms since the 1950s. Unfortunately, this new document adds little to previous official reports on the details of recent reforms.

Despite an increasingly dangerous international environment, the paper indicates that China’s basic principles of national defense, military strategy, and modernization have not changed substantially. In addition, the paper’s rosy description of a world of “peace, development and win-win cooperation” seems stuck in time. It ignores the consensus in Washington that China is a “revisionist power,” “not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat,” and “probably poses the greatest [military] threat to [the U.S.] by about 2025;” the impact of the escalating trade war; and suspicions concerning China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

All Chinese white papers are a mix of policy, propaganda, and description. As two U.S. defense analysts have observed, “different chapters are drafted by different organizations,” and “the final product is carefully vetted to address security and policy issues, probably via an interagency process.” This process can delay production and result in mistakes, omissions, and internal inconsistencies in the paper and sometimes in its English translation. Ultimately, the final result is what the Chinese Communist Party wants the world to know. Many foreign readers will not be convinced by Beijing’s effort.

Nonetheless, white papers deserve to be read and assessed for their completeness and reliability. Taken as a whole, the entire body of defense white papers provides useful insights into China’s perceptions of the international security environment and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the People’s Armed Police (PAP), and the Chinese militia. However, these insights should be augmented with other sources of information to provide context. At over 40 pages of text, plus another 15 of appendices and charts, exploring this year’s paper is an exhausting task.

China Joins the Great-Power Competition

Many China watchers waited for the new paper anticipating a more expansive description of the recent reforms than previously reported in the official Chinese media. However, such details did not appear, except as a repackaging of information already available.

The paper begins with a litany of “diverse and complex security threats and challenges” facing China and describes competition in multiple forms: “International strategic competition is on the rise”; “the [Asia-Pacific] region has become a focus of major country competition”; “global military competition is intensifying”; and “outer space is a critical domain in international strategic competition.” In that regard, the Chinese government agrees with the 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy that “great power competition” or “long-term strategic competition” has returned. These concepts are not exclusive to this year’s report as the 2010 white paper first mentioned “international strategic competition,” and the 2008 paper mentioned “global [or international] military competition.”

In a key passage, the white paper argues that the “international security system and order are undermined by growing hegemonism, power politics, unilateralism and constant regional conflicts and wars.” This sentence is an indirect, but obvious, criticism of the American policy.

The next paragraph calls out Washington directly:

The US has adjusted its national security and defense strategies, and adopted unilateral policies. It has provoked and intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defense expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defense, and undermined global strategic stability.

Later, the text enumerates additional specific offending policies:

The US is strengthening its Asia-Pacific military alliances and reinforcing military deployment and intervention, adding complexity to regional security. The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in the Republic of Korea (ROK) by the US has severely undermined the regional strategic balance and the strategic security interests of regional countries…The US is engaging in technological and institutional innovation in pursuit of absolute military superiority.

In a subsequent section, the paper identifies “arms sales to Taiwan, sanctions on the CMC [Central Military Commission] Equipment Development Department and its leadership, illegal entry into China’s territorial waters and maritime and air spaces near relevant islands and reefs, and wide-range and frequent close-in reconnaissance” as actions Beijing finds objectionable.

The paper also criticizes American allies, including NATO, Japan, and Australia, for the rise of strategic competition, in addition to Russia, which “is strengthening its nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities for strategic containment, and striving to safeguard its strategic security space and interests…. [and] is advancing its New Look military reform.” However, the paper later describes the China-Russia relationship as a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era.”

Notwithstanding China’s complex relationship with the United States, the paper does not label America as an enemy. Nevertheless, the PLA trains to defeat adversaries with the capabilities of the U.S. military and vice versa.

Regional and Non-Traditional Threats

The white paper identifies regional instability as a threat to Chinese interests. Unsurprisingly, it argues that the actions of Taiwan independence separatist forces “remain the gravest immediate threat to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” Later, the authors state that Chinese policy does not target Taiwan “compatriots” but that Beijing directs its wrath at “the interference of external forces (i.e., the United States) and the very small number of separatists and their activities.” Additionally, “separatist forces for ‘Tibet independence’ and the creation of ‘East Turkistan’” also threaten China’s national security and social stability, as well as “non-traditional security threats involving cyber security, bio-security and piracy.”

Along China’s periphery, “Disputes still exist over the territorial sovereignty of some islands and reefs, as well as maritime demarcation. Countries from outside the region conduct frequent close-in reconnaissance on China by air and sea, and illegally enter China’s territorial waters and the waters and airspace near China’s islands and reefs, undermining China’s national security.” The main country “from outside the region,” of course, is the United States.

“Major country competition” brings “uncertainties to regional security,” which require China to “actively adapt to the new landscape of strategic competition, the new demands of national security, and new developments in modern warfare.” Though China must adapt, the white paper’s description of Chinese military strategy indicates no fundamental change.

“Peace, Development, and Win-Win Cooperation” are Irreversible Trends

Despite these threats to Chinese security, the paper maintains that “peace, development and win-win cooperation remain the irreversible trends of the times.” Moreover, “China is still in an important period of strategic opportunity for development.” Positive conclusions about “peace and development” go back to the 1998 white paper, the 2004 paper for the “period of strategic opportunity,” and 2006 for “win-win.” For many outsiders, the paper’s optimistic outlook contrasts with actual conditions in the region, where political, economic, and military tensions are rising, not just between the United States and China, but also between China and many of its neighbors.

The paper asserts “the Asia-Pacific security situation remains generally stable,” and “the South China Sea is generally stable.” Recent events belie this sanguine assessment. For example, the day before the government published the white paper, South Korean fighters fired warning shots in front of a Russian command and control aircraft conducting flight operations with Chinese aircraft near a disputed island in the Sea of Japan. The day of the paper’s release, the Chinese Foreign Ministry “raised concerns” to the United States about the transit of a U.S. Navy cruiser through the Taiwan Strait, and the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty “another negative move of the US that ignores its international commitment and pursues unilateralism.” China also has announced the suspension of individual tourist permits for travel to Taiwan.

Regarding Sino-American relations, the authors write, “The military-to-military relationship remains the generally stable one,” and a “stabilizer for the relations between the two countries.” The statement that “China actively and properly handles its military relationship with the US in accordance with the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” probably would come as a surprise to most within American military and security circles.

PLA operational commanders who are responsible for monitoring and often intercepting U.S. naval and air operations in the Western Pacific may not agree with the cheerful assessments outlined in the white paper. Rather, it seems likely that the political apparatus and propaganda system overruled the commanders, if they were even consulted, about this portrayal of the security environment.

When balanced against the challenges the United States poses to Chinese policy, some of the paper’s positive assertions may reflect more the propaganda system’s aspirations of how the Chinese government would like the world to be than reality. But by understating or misrepresenting international tensions that outsiders can observe and judge for themselves, the political apparatus and propaganda system undermine the paper’s attempt at transparency. As a result of the differences in Chinese and foreign perceptions of the same evidence, this year’s effort is unlikely to persuade the doubters of Beijing’s intentions or reduce the level of mutual strategic distrust, which is at its highest level since normalization of relations in 1979.

No Major Change to China’s Military Strategy

The paper describes China’s defense policy mostly using the terminology of previous years, but with some minor variations. The following long-standing general principles are found throughout the paper:

  • “China will pursue a national defense policy that is defensive in nature.”
  • “China adheres to the principles of ‘peaceful reunification’ [with Taiwan], and ‘one country, two systems’…[but] we make no promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures.”
  • “China advocates partnerships rather than alliances and does not join any military bloc.”
  • “China will never follow the beaten track of big powers in seeking hegemony. No matter how it might develop, China will never threaten any other country or seek any sphere of influence.”
  • “The military strategic guideline for a new era adheres to the principles of defense, self-defense and post-strike response, and adopts active defense…[It] places emphasis on both containing and winning wars, and underscores the unity of strategic defense and offense at operational and tactical levels…[and] the overall power of the people’s war by innovating in its strategies, tactics and measures.”
  • “China is always committed to a nuclear policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones unconditionally.”
  • The Chinese armed forces “provide strategic support for consolidating the leadership of the [Communist Party of China] and the socialist system.”
  • China strives “for the coordinated development of national defense and the economy. Following the principle of building the armed forces through diligence and thrift.”

Interspersed among these principles, however, statements appear that seem to conflict with Beijing’s actions. Claims that China “is opposed to interference in the internal affairs of others” and “firmly upholds freedom of navigation and overflight” ring hollow in many foreign capitals. The white paper could have been a vehicle to better explain these contentious statements, but the writers, editors, or both, did not take that option.

The paper lists specific goals for China’s national defense. Compared to 2015, this year’s list is more extensive and specific, and includes the following:

  • to deter and resist aggression;
  • to safeguard national political security, the people’s security and social stability;
  • to oppose and contain “Taiwan independence”;
  • to crack down on proponents of separatist movements such as “Tibet independence” and the creation of “East Turkistan”;
  • to safeguard national sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity and security;
  • to safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests;
  • to safeguard China’s security interests in outer space, electromagnetic space and cyberspace;
  • to safeguard China’s overseas interests; and
  • to support the sustainable development of the country.

These goals are close to, but not exactly like, a shorter list in the Department of Defense’s 2019 China Military Power Report. The major difference is the Department’s last bullet, which asserts China “ultimately, [seeks to] emerge as the preeminent power in the Indo-Pacific region.” As this and all white papers demonstrate, the Chinese government officially does not use the term “Indo-Pacific,” and asserts it does not seek hegemony. “Regional preeminence,” however, roughly is synonymous with “hegemony,” and could be a de facto result of PLA modernization, if the U.S. military and its allies retreat from the region.

The Department of Defense’s statement of objectives is much closer to stated Chinese goals than the 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy assertion that China pursues “a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future” [Italics added]. That declaration may be the author of the report’s analytical judgment but is inconsistent with official, public Chinese policy as well as the abovementioned report on Chinese military power and the intelligence community’s 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment, both with respect to China’s ultimate objectives and future timeline.

China’s new defense white paper then, similar to the 2013 version, repeats the objective to build “a strong military commensurate with the country’s international standing” and the precise goals for 2020, 2035, and mid-century as Xi Jinping ordered in 2017. The ultimate goal of transforming the armed forces into “world-class forces by the mid-21st century” implies that the PLA will be one of the world’s most advanced powers by 2049 but does not specify any geographic parameters, though the PLA certainly is working to expand its global capabilities.

The paper then addresses many missions the Chinese armed forces undertake; the current priority on combat readiness; large unit training; and the issues of nuclear, space, cyber, counterterrorism, domestic stability, overseas protection, and disaster relief operations. In previous years, the paper classified the last four issues as “military operations other than war” (MOOTW), a term Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, introduced but that this paper does not use.

The discussion of reforms underway since 2015 may be useful to readers who have not followed Chinese reporting or foreign analysis of the issue. The paper devotes single paragraphs to reforms in the Central Military Commission, theater commands, army, navy, air force, rocket force, strategic support force, joint logistic support force, and People’s Armed Police. Many other subjects, including the Djibouti Support Base, also receive brief attention. These remarks serve as a one-stop introduction, but they are only a small sample of the information available in the official Chinese media.

It is noteworthy that the paper includes several evaluations of the PLA’s warfighting capabilities, relative to advanced militaries, and its level of funding and technology. No prior white paper specifically identified the relative gap between the PLA and “the world’s leading militaries”:

  • “Great progress has been made in the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) with Chinese characteristics. However, the [PLA] has yet to complete the task of mechanization, and is in urgent need of improving its informationization. China’s military security is confronted by risks from technology surprise and growing technological generation gap. Greater efforts have to be invested in military modernization to meet national security demands. The PLA still lags far behind the world’s leading militaries.”
  • “China is striving to narrow the gap between its military and the world’s leading militaries, and make up the deficiencies in the military’s capabilities in modern warfare.”
  • “There is still a wide gap between China’s defense expenditure and the requirements for safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests, for fulfilling China’s international responsibilities and obligations as a major country, and for China’s development.”

These assessments contrast with many foreign analyses of rapidly growing PLA capabilities that focus mainly on new missiles, ships, aircraft, and new technologies entering the inventory and less on military leadership, doctrine, training, and logistics. The white paper’s words are consistent with, but not as harsh as, appraisals of PLA shortcomings the Chinese-language media frequently publishes. A paragraph on corruption touches on different kinds of internal problems. It provides the numbers of units and officers that the government has audited, but, except for four well-known generals, does not cite the total number of personnel that the state found guilty of crimes, many related to the handling of money.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in this year’s paper is a return to a more detailed treatment of the defense budget included in the 2010 and prior editions, but absent from the 2013 and 2015 versions. The 2010 paper stated, “China’s defense expenditure mainly comprises expenses for personnel, training and maintenance, and equipment, with each accounting for roughly one third of the total” [Italics added]. The subcomponents of the three categories of expenses are updated slightly, but “Table 2 Breakdown of China’s Defense Expenditure (2010-2017)” shows a significant change in the distribution of funds. Since 2015, as the PLA has reduced personnel, retired old equipment, and purchased new weapons, “equipment expenses” amount to over 40 percent (approximately $62 billion) of the total $151 billion budget in 2017 while personnel expenses have fallen to about 31 percent ($47 billion), and training and maintenance to 28 percent ($42 billion).

The reasons authors cite for budget increases are to raise salaries and improve troop living conditions; modernize equipment; support reforms (which included costly personnel and unit transfers); improve training; and conduct peacekeeping, naval escort, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. This order is consistent with the distribution of funding described above, as the PLA has reduced personnel numbers by roughly 13 percent, yet personnel funding has dropped only a few percentage points below prior averages. The PLA leadership understands it should increase salaries and living conditions if it wants to attract and retain greater numbers of college-educated personnel to serve. The funding available for training suggests that the PLA reduced large-unit training as units concentrated on developing personnel skills and small-unit proficiencies as they reorganized.

Final Thoughts

Anyone who interacts with the Chinese military should read the new white paper. Like previous editions, it sets the parameters for Chinese interlocutors to follow during exchanges. Foreigners likely will hear the content of the white paper repeated and not much information added.

Many basic questions remain unanswered. For example, the paper does not address the number of personnel in each service, force, or the reserves; it does not provide a breakdown of the number of officers, NCOs, conscripts, and civilians working for the PLA; nor does it discuss the distribution of funds among the services and forces, various headquarters, and military academies. Though it refers to new regulations, the paper does not explain the details of the contract civilian personnel system. (This reform expands a system of civilian workers that the Chinese government instituted in 2005-6 and roughly parallels the U.S. Department of Defense civilian personnel system.) The paper does not mention the responsibilities of the provincial military district headquarters and only identifies one type of weapon for each service.

Finally, the authors append the term “with Chinese characteristics” to many phrases in the document, such as “Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) with Chinese characteristics,” “a modernized military force structure,” “the system of socialist military policies and institutions,” and a “military legal system.” This suggests that while the PLA has learned from the United States and other militaries and has adapted many lessons in reforms, it does not intend to replicate the structure and doctrine of any other military because of factors unique to China. Outsiders might see many developments that look like parts of the American system, but analysts must resist the temptation to mirror-image U.S. capabilities and intentions onto China.

Dennis J. Blasko, lieutenant colonel, U.S. Army (retired), was an army attaché in Beijing and in Hong Kong from 1992-1996 and is the author of The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, now in its second edition (Routledge, 2012).

Image: Defense Department, Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro