Fresh muscle-flexing by China

Published: 08th May 2013 07:05 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th May 2013 07:06 AM   |  A+A-

China’s Defence White Paper issued on April 16, 2013, reflects the views and thinking of its political and military leadership installed at the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress last November and the National People’s Congress (NPC) — China’s version of a parliament — earlier this March. The Defence White Paper’s assessment of US designs and actions in the region, together with the assertion of China’s unyielding resolve on issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity, mirrors the views of the country’s top leadership.

Entitled “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces”, this is the eighth biannual Defence White Paper issued by China. The last one, pertaining to 2010, was published in 2011. The latest is a 47-page document with five sections and three short appendices.

The Defence White Paper, 2013, is an expression of the Chinese leadership’s self-confidence and belief in the capabilities of its armed forces. Opening with the ritual assertion that China will “not seek hegemony, behave in a hegemonic manner or engage in military expansion” and a brief token acknowledgement of the importance of international co-operation, the White Paper definitively states that China’s military build-up and modernisation will continue. There is discernible emphasis on expanding the capabilities and operational reach of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and PLA Air Force (PLAAF). Equally, there is emphasis on plans for increased investment in domestic R&D to upgrade the indigenous defence industry.

Though China’s Defence White Papers avoid specifics and reveal few details of expenditure, weapons acquisitions or manufacture, they still offer an insight into the broad thinking of the political and military leadership associated with matters of national defence. The latest Defence White Paper reveals the leadership’s thinking on a range of issues, including China’s objectives and areas of interest, future plans and role of the armed forces, anticipated areas of conflict, levels of suspicion of other countries and the extent of military co-operation with foreign nations.

This White Paper stresses that China’s world view is presently dominated by the developments in the Asia-Pacific region and, particularly, the role of the US. It identifies potential anticipated threats to China’s ambitions. The first two paragraphs in its first section, captioned “New Situation, New Challenges and New Missions”, assert that the Asia-Pacific region has become “an increasingly significant stage for world economic development and strategic interaction between major powers”. Expressing concern about US interference, it says, “The US is adjusting its Asia-Pacific security strategy, and the regional landscape is undergoing profound changes.” A thinly veiled, yet blunt, comment in the very next paragraph declares that “Some country has strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser.” The implicit reference to the US is unmistakable.

Immediately thereafter, Japan is named as one among “some neighbouring countries” that are taking action to exacerbate the situation. It accuses Japan of “making trouble over the issue of the Diaoyu islands”. There is the standard reference to “Taiwan independence separatist forces” as “still the biggest threat to the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations”.

Reiterating that the role of the armed forces is “to win local wars under the conditions of informationisation” while protecting “national maritime rights and interests” and “national security interests in outer space and cyber space”, it points to plans for extending the operational reach of China’s armed forces. Observing that “Security risks to China’s overseas interests are on the rise”, independent references state that the armed forces should provide “reliable support for China’s interests overseas” while “firmly safeguarding China’s core national interests”.  “Core national interests” are neither defined nor elaborated, thus leaving open enlargement of their scope. This occurred during a regular news briefing in Beijing on April 26, 2013, when the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson for the first time in public described the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands as “a matter of core interest”.

Of particular concern to China’s neighbours with unresolved or overlapping territorial claims are the declared plans for PLAN and PLAAF. The PLAN will accelerate modernisation and development of advanced submarines, destroyers and frigates and develop blue-water capabilities of conducting mobile operations. Development of an aircraft carrier was described as having a “profound impact on building a strong PLAN and safeguarding maritime security”. The release of the Defence White Paper, interestingly, coincided with PLA Navy Day and a disclosure that aircraft carrier ‘Liaoning’ would go in to the high seas later this year. Separate reports suggest it could soon sail from its present berth at Qingdao’s military dock up to Okinawa or Guam.

The PLAAF is also developing advanced weaponry and equipment, new-generation fighters, new-type ground-to-air missiles and radar systems and “raising its strategic early warning, strategic deterrence and long-distance air strike capabilities”. The White Paper did not mention R&D effort to develop advanced jet engines.

A novel feature of this Defence White Paper is the disclosure of the troop strengths of PLA Army (PLAA), PLAN and PLAAF. The PLAA’s troop strength was disclosed as 8,50,000. The strength of PLAN was cited as 2,35,000, and that of PLAAF as 3,98,000. International estimates had placed PLAN’s strength between 2,55,000 and 2,90,000 and 3,00,000 to 3,30,000 for PLAAF.

Details of China’s strategic missile force, or the PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF), remain shrouded in secrecy. Of possible significance and indicative of fresh thinking in China’s military echelons is the absence in the White Paper of the routine declaration of China’s policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons, though references to the PLASAF’s role repeatedly use the terms “strategic deterrence” and “nuclear counterattacks”. In an article on April 23, Major General (Ms) Yao Yunzhu, director of the Centre on Chinese-American Defence Relations at the Academy of Military Sciences, affirmed that the policy had not changed, but acknowledged there had been calls in China’s media for a review. Worrisome is the official disclosure that the PLASAF will use its nuclear missiles in conjunction with those of other services, indicating that all services of the PLA are operationally nuclear-capable. The involvement of the PLASAF in conventional conflict has the real potential to escalate conflict as there is a serious risk of miscalculation by the adversary.

Finally, this Defence White Paper contains two references to India in one paragraph and in the same context. This is along with the observation that “since January 2012, independent deployers such as China, India and Japan have strengthened their convoy co-ordination”.

The author is a Member of the National Security Advisory Board and former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet

ecretariat, Government of India.

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