The Chinese government on Wednesday set out its defence strategy in a White Paper, superseding the previous strategy document of May 2015. Titled “China’s National
Defense in the New Era”, the new strategy reflects “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, which China’s strongman president wrote into the constitution of the Communist Party of China
at its 19th National
Congress in 2017.
The new white paper details the reorganisation the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has undergone since 2015. Its earlier seven military area commands (at Shenyang, Beijing, Lanzhou, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Chengdu) have been restructured into five tri-service theatre commands: Eastern Theater, Southern Theater, Western Theater, Northern Theater and Central Theater Commands.
Outlining a radical manpower reduction, the strategy notes: “300,000 personnel have been cut to keep the total active force at 2 million… Thus, the number of personnel in the [higher headquarters] has been cut by about 25 per cent, and that of non-combat units by almost 50 per cent. The PLA has significantly downsized the active force of the PLAA (army), maintained that of the PLAAF (air force) at a steady number, moderately increased that of the PLAN (navy) and PLARF (rocket force).”
“The PLAN has a very important standing in the overall configuration of China’s national
security and development,” says the white paper, without directly ascribing it to the US challenge in the Western Pacific and Taiwan Strait. As the PLAN grows, its three fleets – the Donghai, Nanhai and Beihai Fleets – and the Marine Corps are shifting focus “from defense on the near seas to protection missions on the far seas.”
A fundamental change in the 2019 strategy is China’s blunt description of a world of Great Power rivalry rather than cooperation. The 2015 white paper had said: “In the foreseeable future, a world war is unlikely, and the international situation is expected to remain generally peaceful… [though] the world still faces both immediate and potential threats of local wars.”
The 2019 white paper, however, anticipates confrontation with the US. “International strategic competition is on the rise. 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”, the paper says.
In a jab at the US-India Nuclear Deal and India’s push for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the white paper says: “The international non-proliferation regime is compromised by pragmatism and double standards, and hence faces new challenges.”
The new strategy is unusually frank in detailing the threat from separatism. “The Taiwan authorities, led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), stubbornly stick to “Taiwan independence”… borrowing the strength of foreign influence”, it states.
In a swipe at India’s support to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile, the paper says: “External separatist forces for ‘Tibet independence’ and the creation of ‘East Turkistan’ launch frequent actions, posing threats to China’s national security and social stability.”
For the first time, the PLA’s missions specifically include: “to oppose and contain ‘Taiwan independence’ [and] to crack down on proponents of separatist movements such as ‘Tibet independence’ and the creation of ‘East Turkistan’.” This could be an admission that the People’s Armed Police is unable to do this on its own.
Referring to the Wuhan summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Xi, the strategy paper notes: “To implement the important consensus reached by the leaders of China
and India, the two militaries have exchanged high-level visits and pushed for a hotline for border defense cooperation and mechanisms for border management and border defense exchanges.”
The 2019 white paper frankly accepts that “The PLA still lags far behind the world’s leading militaries”. It states: “The US is engaging in technological and institutional innovation in pursuit of absolute military superiority. Russia is advancing its New Look military reform. Meanwhile, the UK, France, Germany, Japan and India are rebalancing and optimizing the structure of their military forces.”
On the PLA’s mission to build a high-tech military, which was also stated in its 2015 white paper, the new strategy documents notes: “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 (the PLA’s term for digital integration). China’s military security is confronted by risks from technology surprise and growing technological generation gap.”
Towards this end, the white paper reports that the PLA has restructured military education and research institutes, constituting 77 existing universities and colleges into 44. Meanwhile India’s military is struggling to set up its first National Defense University.
The strategy paper underplays China’s defence spending and over-estimates that of other countries: “As a percentage of GDP (gross domestic product), from 2012 to 2017, China’s average defense expenditure was about 1.3 per cent. Comparative figures were: the US about 3.5 per cent, Russia 4.4 per cent, India 2.5 per cent, the UK 2.0 per cent, France 2.3 per cent, Japan 1.0 per cent, and Germany 1.2 per cent. In fact, India’s defence spending has been closer to 2 per cent of GDP, while China’s is about 1.8 per cent levels.