Theory And Practice A Comparative Look At Chinau2019s New Defence White Paper

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15 June 2011
Theory and practice—a comparative look at
China’s new defence White Paper
by Andrew Davies and Andrew Rothe
The publication earlier this year of the latest Chinese defence White Paper
China’s National Defense in 2010 (CND10) gives us another look—however
limited—into China’s thinking about its military development. Unfortunately,
there is not much that is new in it. Most of its contents closely parallel its 2008
predecessor (CND08), which is perhaps not surprising given the short interval
between them.
As a result, many past criticisms of Chinese public statements can be levied
against this one. In particular, readers looking for more transparency in
China’s declaration of its military strategy will not find it in CND10. Similarly,
the declared budget is likely to be judged a serious underestimate—perhaps
by as much as a factor of two—by external analysts.
The differences between CND10 and its predecessor are largely at the
margins, although the most recent publication continues the trend towards
a more confident and assertive tone, albeit still couched in the ‘new historic
missions’ language of Hu Jintao’s 2004 formulation. ASPI published an
analysis of CND08 and most of the observations there remain pertinent.
Rather than reworking the same ground, this report takes a different
approach. Since the publication of CND08, the United States published
its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), allowing for a comparative
assessment of the two public defence planning documents.
By comparing the two, it’s possible to identify those areas where
transparency—at least as it is understood in the West—is lacking in China’s
articulation of its defence policy. Some of the ‘missing’ elements of the
Chinese strategy can be inferred, while others continue to be mysterious.
But we need to be careful—it’s easy to make the mistake of focusing on what
is said rather than what is being done. A more complete analysis requires
examination of both. A distinction is required between current and planned
capabilities and those that remain as a ‘gleam in the eye’. This report finishes
with a discussion of the resources available for the further development of
Chinese capability and how that might shape both China’s military thinking
and the way in which strategic competition could evolve.
2Theory and practice—a comparative look at China’s new defence White Paper
China’s strategy
China’s overarching defence goal is entirely unexceptional and closely mirrors what
would be found in almost any defence White Paper (apart, of course, from that of
the United States):
China’s national defense is tasked to guard against and resist aggression, defend
the security of China’s lands, inland waters, territorial waters and airspace, safeguard
its maritime rights and interests, and maintain its security interests in space,
electromagnetic space and cyber space.
However, what follows is distinctly Chinese:
It is also tasked to oppose and contain the separatist forces for ‘Taiwan
independence’, crack down on separatist forces for ‘East Turkistan independence’
and ‘Tibet independence’, and defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
As was the case with CND08, the United States makes an appearance in the list
of destabilising forces in the Asia–Pacific, sharing the distinction with terrorists
and extremists:
Asia-Pacific security is becoming more intricate and volatile. Regional pressure points
drag on and without solution in sight. There is intermittent tension on the Korean
Peninsula. The security situation in Afghanistan remains serious. Political turbulence
persists in some countries. Ethnic and religious discords are evident. Disputes
over territorial and maritime rights and interests flare up occasionally. And terrorist,
separatist and extremist activities run amok. Profound changes are taking shape
in the Asia-Pacific strategic landscape. Relevant major powers are increasing their
strategic investment. The United States is reinforcing its regional military alliances,
and increasing its involvement in regional security affairs.
That China should regard the US increasing its involvement in regional affairs as
a negative is not surprising. There is a strong Chinese national narrative centred
on the so-called ‘century of humiliation’ at the hands of external powers—primarily
the European powers and the Japanese. Against that history, the modern rise of
China is seen as an opportunity to eventually cast off external powers in favour of
a regional order more favourable to China. That doesn’t mean that China wants
the US to withdraw precipitously from the Western Pacific—China is not currently
in a position to fill the resulting power vacuum and the overall result would be
destabilising. But the ultimate Chinese aim is likely to be an Asian strategic order
that is not dictated by Washington.
CND08 noted that China was building forces to defeat ‘strategic maneuvers and
containment from the outside’. CND10 reiterates that approach and notes that
‘suspicion about China, interference and countering moves against China from
the outside are on the increase’, reflecting Chinese unease about the posture of
the United States and its allies and, by inference, their perceived attempts to limit
China’s strategic opportunities.
In that light, the enduring presence of one or more Western powers in its strategic
approaches is an affront. The Chinese military has a long-established doctrine of
‘active off-shore defense’, first articulated as PLA Navy (PLAN) doctrine in 1985,
and which in many ways forms the conceptual basis of Chinese maritime force
development efforts over the last quarter century.
Those efforts received another
boost in the wake of the 1995–96 Taiwan Strait crisis, when Chinese efforts towards
sea and air denial were redoubled to raise the stakes for the US Navy when
contemplating the deployment of carrier strike groups to the waters around Taiwan.
Denial is easier to effect than control, and some US analysts believe that China
is not far from possessing the ability to hold US carrier strike groups at bay in the
Western Pacific or defeat the United States in an air battle over the Taiwan Strait.
3Theory and practice—a comparative look at China’s new defence White Paper 3
So, at least to an extent, Chinese military development is consistent with the stated
aims of holding external powers at bay from China’s territory and abutting waters.
But a key question remains unanswered—how far out from the Chinese coast do
China’s ambitions extend? Driven in large part by the aim of ensuring the ultimate
reunification of Taiwan (or, from a Chinese viewpoint, preventing part of China from
being abetted in separatism by external forces), the PLAN has focused mostly on
the development of short-range naval forces suited for operations within the ‘first
island chain’ (incorporating the East China Sea, Taiwan, and most of the South
China Sea). But Chinese thinking doesn’t stop there, and there has been much
speculation about Chinese ambitions out to the second island chain (taking in the
South China Sea as far south as the Strait of Malacca, the Philippine Sea and
the Sea of Japan). There are also indicators that Chinese naval strategists are
developing a Mahan-like strategy of blue water capabilities designed to protect sea
routes as far away as the Indian Ocean. The ongoing development of aircraft carrier
and nuclear submarine capabilities is consistent with that long-term aim.
But none of that is to be found in CND10—and that is the basis of most criticism
of China’s lack of transparency. One statement shows a certain level of frustration
about the current maritime balance in the Western Pacific; ‘Pressure builds up in
preserving China’s territorial integrity and maritime rights and interests’(CND10, p5).
The White Paper follows up with a criticism of the American role in supplying arms
to Taiwan (hence the ‘territorial integrity’ concern) but there is no explanation of
exactly which maritime rights are perceived to be under pressure, or where.
From other sources, the informed reader can make educated guesses. A May 2010
reference by a Chinese official to the South China Sea as a ‘core interest’ (and thus
on the level of Tibet or Taiwan as a Chinese concern) is one indicator—albeit one
that has not been reiterated in CND10 or elsewhere. Another cause of irritation is
US sea and air intelligence collection operations around China.
There are a few references in CND10 to force projection capabilities, but they are
not placed in the context of an overall military strategy or strategic objective:
[The PLA Air Force] is working to ensure the development of a combat force structure
that focuses on air strikes, air and missile defense, and strategic projection…(p. 10).
Of course, China is under no obligation to spell out its plans to the rest of the world,
but a comparison with the corresponding American document makes it clear why
transparency is seen to be an issue.
The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review
The United States is at war, and it’s not surprising that the QDR has a focus on
the Afghanistan–Pakistan theatre of operations. But America’s view of itself in the
world still extends well beyond the limits of those current conflicts to its role in the
broader geostrategic landscape. Two overarching themes permeate the QDR. The
first is the importance of maintaining US primacy and power projection capabilities
as being vital to US national interests. The second is ensuring an international order
and global institutions conducive to US interests.
The QDR presents a view of an increasingly uncertain global security environment
in which power is becoming more diffuse and America’s ‘hard power’ becoming
less effective, with China and India having a greater influence on the international
system. It still sees the US remaining the most powerful actor, but one that is
increasingly challenged as power relativities change. Clearly the United States
is worried about its relative decline and, as a result, there is an emphasis on
strengthening US allies and the broader international system in order to relieve
some of this pressure. That approach is also driven at least in part by the inability
4Theory and practice—a comparative look at China’s new defence White Paper
of the United States to sustain high defence spending in the face of mounting
government debt.
Like CND10, the QDR highlights the increased diversity of security challenges as
state and non-state actors gain advanced asymmetrical capabilities. Those actors
are also challenging the security of the global commons by a variety of means,
including cyber attacks, piracy and anti-satellite capabilities. But the most pertinent
aspect of the QDR to the analysis here is the concern expressed by the US military
about growing access-denial capabilities that have the potential to limit the ability of
US forces to project power:
In the future, U.S. forces conducting power projection operations abroad will face
myriad challenges. States with the means to do so are acquiring a wide range of
sophisticated weapons and supporting capabilities that, in combination, can support
anti-access strategies aimed at impeding the deployment of U.S. forces to the theater
and blunting the operations of those forces that do deploy forward.
… China is developing and fielding large numbers of advanced medium-range
ballistic and cruise missiles, new attack submarines equipped with advanced
weapons, increasingly capable long-range air defense systems, electronic
warfare and computer network attack capabilities, advanced fighter aircraft, and
counter-space systems.
China is not the exclusive focus of American concern; North Korea and Iran rate
mentions as well. But the QDR’s response to these developments in the form of a
‘joint air-sea battle concept’ and the expansion of long-range strike platforms seems
to be especially well-suited to the Western Pacific (QDR, p. 31). In a 2009 RAND
, US forces found themselves at a considerable disadvantage due to the
vulnerability of their few local bases (including aircraft carriers) and the geographic
proximity of a large number of Chinese bases. These facts are likely a motivator for
the QDR statement that ‘enhanced long-range strike capabilities are one means of
countering growing threats to forward-deployed forces and bases and ensuring U.S.
power projection capabilities’ (p. 32).
The force structuring priorities in the QDR are consistent with its strategic outlook.
Those priorities include increasing the number and roles of unmanned aerial
systems (including naval variants), increasing long-range strike capabilities such
as the potential expansion of capabilities for the Virginia class attack submarine
and acquisition of fifth generation aircraft; and increasing the resilience of forward
operating bases and command and control networks. Those capability priorities
have a strong logical link to the QDR’s strategic outlook and military strategy.
In short, the rhetoric and actions of the United States are consistent—which
constitutes a useful working definition for transparency.
What they say about one another
As was the case in CND08, there is criticism, both implied and overt, of the United
States at various places in CND10. It states that ‘some powers’ have developed
strategies and capabilities for ‘prompt global strikes’, the control of space and
cyberspace, and the development of missile defence systems (p. 4). Considering
that (barring nuclear weapons) the United States is the only power with the ability to
launch truly ‘prompt global strikes’ (and the only one to use that language) this can
only be read as criticism of US force projection.
In other places CND10 names names. Amid a paragraph on the rising volatility
of the Asia–Pacific, it points to the United States reinforcing its regional alliances
and becoming more involved in security issues, tying that to Chinese fears about
containment and territorial integrity.
5Theory and practice—a comparative look at China’s new defence White Paper 5
The United States, on the other hand, is concerned about transparency. The QDR
states that while the United States welcomes a stronger China playing a greater
role in regional and world affairs, it is worried about a lack of transparency regarding
the pace and scope of China’s modernisation program, decision-making system,
and its ultimate aims and long term intentions (pp. 31, 60). The US is worried
about growing Chinese power projection platforms and the long-term intentions for
these capabilities, and remains unsatisfied by Chinese insistence that its military
modernisation is purely defensive in nature. American concerns about ‘a number
of states’ developing anti-access capabilities is the flip-side of CND10’s concerns
about ‘some states’ being able to launch prompt global strikes.
CND10 and the QDR do have some good things to say about Sino–US relations.
They both mention consultations, military dialogues and open communication. The
preface to CND10 observes that:
China has now stood at a new historical point, and its future and destiny has never
been more closely connected with those of the international community. … China
maintains its commitment to the new security concepts of mutual trust, mutual benefit,
equality and coordination (p. 3).
The QDR echoes similar sentiments:
America’s interests are inextricably linked to the integrity and resilience of the
international system. Chief among these interests are security, prosperity, broad
respect for universal values, and an international order that promotes cooperative
action (p. iv).
However, it is in the nature of military planning to prepare for the worst and the
overall tone in both documents is one of caution and suspicion. There is nothing
in either to suggest that ASPI was wrong in previously observing that ‘at least to
some extent, [the two sides are] configuring their militaries to fight one another’.
Consultations and dialogues are more useful in resolving conflicts of understanding
than conflicts of national interest.
To the extent that tensions can arise from
misunderstanding, talks, exercises and exchanges are useful. When they arise
from inherent perceptions of national interest, they are much harder to manage.
Defence spending
A comparison of the declaratory policies in the QDR and CND10 provide an insight
into the ‘worst cases’ of the militaries on either side of the Pacific and the rhetorical
strategic competition that is going on. However, a look at the resources available to
turn rhetoric into reality reveals a different picture.
As expected, Chinese defence expenditure is set to increase in real terms for the
2011 year. The declared budget is RMB 532 billion (US$81.8 billion at the current
exchange rate). That corresponds to a nominal increase of 8% or a real increase
of a little over 4%. CND10 notes that ‘the growth rate of defense expenditure
has decreased’—but that is compared to a probably unsustainable average real
increase of more than 14% over the previous two years.
By any measure, Chinese defence expenditure has increased markedly since the
mid-1990s. China’s own figures show a trebling of the defence budget since 1999
(albeit from a low base—Chinese defence spending was less than 1% of GDP in
the mid-1990s). Also, many outside observers regard the Chinese self-reported
figure as an underestimate. Figure 1 shows Chinese numbers over the twelve most
recent years, compared to United States Department of Defense (DoD) estimates,
which are more than double the Chinese figures. (Interestingly, the average rate
of growth implied by the US Department of Defense numbers is less than China
admits to, but still shows an increase of more than two and a half times since 1999.)
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