Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Chinese Defence White Paper: Highlights

This analysis on the Chinese defence White Paper first appeared on the ORF website.

China released its latest defence white paper titled, “China’s National Defense in 2008” on January 21, 2009. While categorical and specific about the threats and challenges that China faces today, it says that there are “long-term and complicated threats” that are more general. The long-term challenges cover all aspects: “existence security” and development security, traditional security threats and non-traditional security threats, and domestic security and international security which the report sees as interdependent in nature. The specific challenges that are highlighted include Taiwan, East Turkistan and Tibet, all issues of Chinese national integration. Ministry of Defense Spokesman Colonel Hu Changming, while releasing the report stated that the separatist moves by these three forces “form a major security threat to the unity of the nation and a challenge to our security organs,” and in the case of Taiwan, the issue is further complicated by US arms sales, which China opposes vehemently.

The white paper outlines that China is “pursuing an independent foreign policy of peace and a national defense policy solely aimed at protecting its territory and people, and endeavouring to build, together with other countries, a harmonious world of enduring peace and common prosperity.” The report also makes the point that while major powers are increasing the level of cooperation and drawing on each other’s strengths, they continue “to compete with and hold each other in check.” Identifying the challenges and difficulties, it says that there is an intensification of struggle for strategic resources, strategic locations and strategic dominance, along with hegemonism and power politics continuing with new power blocs emerging.

China continues to reiterate that its defence policy is purely defensive in nature, although it contradicts itself to state that it implements a military strategy of active defense.[1] According to the report, China formulated a military strategic guideline of active defense keeping in tune with the changes in international security as well as the concepts of warfare. One China scholar, Andrew Scobell, describes the Chinese strategic culture as a result of the “interplay between Confucian and Realpolitik strands.”[2] He in fact has coined the term “Cult of Defense” in which the Chinese elites believe that their country is pacifist, non-expansionist and purely defensive, but simultaneously be able to justify any use of force, including offensive and pre-emptive strikes and consider them defensive in nature. The aspect of offensive operations is another evidence of the continued relevance of Sun Tzu’s in the Chinese military strategy.[3]

Some of the key aspects highlighted in the white paper are informationization, training and jointness.

According to the report, informationization of the Chinese defense and armed forces is a key goal for China, for which it actively promotes the RMA (Revolution in Military Affairs) with Chinese characteristics. Making national defense building an “organic part of its social and economic development,” China is making efforts to balance between social & economic development and the military needs and in fact making the military and civilian forces compatible with and beneficial to each other, particularly in peacetime. China also has strategized plans to “lay a solid foundation” in its endeavour towards “national defense and armed forces building,” complete mechanization process and make significant progress towards informationization by 2020, and achieve a scale of modernisation of their forces by the middle of the century.[4] As part of reforming the PLA, China believes that it is essential to accelerate the processes of mechanization and informationization, improve training under conditions of informationization, advance innovation in military theory, technology, organisation and management, continuously increase core military capability of winning local wars under conditions of informationization as well as strengthening the capability to conduct MOOTW (military operations other than war). MOOTW has been introduced as an important “form of applying national military forces”; this would particularly be important under the concept of local wars in an informationalized scenario.

Training has been given particular emphasis in augmenting the overall fighting capabilities of the forces. In this regard, China reiterates the need to intensify strategic- and operational-level command post training and training in conditions of informationization, night training, integrated exercises for logistical and equipment support, on-base training and simulated training, web-based training, training with opposing players and training complex electromagnetic environments. The training evaluation mechanism as well as the standards of training is reported to have been improved. Training for jointness and on informationized platforms is seen as the key.

Logistics reform is another area that has been highlighted in the white paper. Upgradation of the logistical support and deepening the logistics reform are important objectives in this regard. Carrying it to the next level, the Jinan (Military) Theater in April 2007 formally adopted the joint logistics system based on the integration of tri-service logistical support. The leadership clearly sees the crucial importance of this in achieving tri-service integration and jointness in their operations. Maintaining that integrated joint operations are the way of the future, the PLA has established an army equipment system with high mobility and three-dimensional assault, a naval equipment system with integrated sea-air capabilities for offshore defensive operations, an air force equipment system with integrated air-land capabilities for both offensive and defensive operations, a surface-to-surface missile equipment system for the Second Artillery Force with both nuclear and conventional missiles, and an electronic information equipment system featuring systems integration and joint development. The white paper states that progress has been achieved in the field of command and control systems for integrated joint operations, which has improved the capability of battlefield information support in a significant manner. Main battle weapon systems are believed to have been informationized to a great extent, with particular focus on rapid detection, target location, friend-or-foe identification and precision strikes.[5]

China has also focused on the upgradation of weapons and equipment systems, with emphasis on MOOTW. PLA has been building new types of submarines, destroyers, frigates and aircraft, forming a preliminary weaponry and equipment system with second-generation equipment as the core and the third generation as the backbone. According to the report, the submarine force has underwater anti-ship, anti-submarine and mine-laying capabilities, as well as some nuclear counterattack capabilities. The surface ship force has developed a surface striking force represented by new types of missile destroyers and frigates, and has maritime reconnaissance, anti-ship, anti-submarine, air-defense, mine-laying and other operational capabilities. The aviation wing has developed an air striking force represented by sea-attack aircraft, and possesses reconnaissance, anti-ship, anti-submarine and air-defense operational capabilities. The Marine Corps has developed an amphibious operational force represented by amphibious armoured vehicles, and possesses amphibious operational capabilities.[6] Lastly, the coastal defense force is represented by new types of shore-to-ship missiles and possesses high coastal defense operations capability. China has also been building new ship bases, berthing areas, supply points, docks and airfields. Recently, a new naval base was discovered in Sanya on Hainan Island, which could house a large fleet of surface warships, and also serve as an underground base for submarines. The location is indeed critical as it will let China extend a greater influence in the South China Sea area besides allowing it greater access to the critical Straits of Malacca, while enabling China to have a larger naval presence closer to important sea lanes.[7] This development has certainly upped the ante for several countries including Japan, South Korea, India and the US. Housing of nuclear and non-nuclear submarines in Sanya, so close to the ASEAN region will also go against the 1996 Nuclear-Free-Zone Treaty.

As a rising superpower, China can be expected eventually to seek sufficient capabilities for a sea control strategy, but clearly, China is decades away from such capabilities. The continued significance of an aircraft carrier[8] in the PLA’s strategic thinking comes out essentially from its objectives of sea control and sea denial as also the recognition that air superiority is essential in future combat, besides for power projection purposes, which was evident when PLA officials told visiting US Commanders that “there is no more prominent and visible signal of a nation’s resolve and might than an aircraft carrier coming into a port.”[9]

Similar has been the efforts made by the ground forces, moving from regional defense to trans-regional mobility, making its units small, modular and multi-functional and has stepped up the development of aviation, light mechanised and information countermeasure forces, prioritised the development of operational and tactical missile, ground-to-air missiles, in order to improve capabilities for air-ground integrated operations, long distance manoeuvres, rapid assaults and special operations. In a similar manner, the Air Force has been improving its equipment and weapon systems, with the development of new types of fighters, air and anti-missile defense weapons, and command automation systems, which will increase the air forces’s capability to undertake both offensive and defensive operations. Lastly, the most important arm of the PLA, the Second Artillery Force too has kept up with upgradation, logistical reforms and innovations, suited to informationized warfare.

While China reiterates that it is separatism – Taiwan, East Turkistan and Tibet -- that is the major challenge, its concepts of warfare and capability upgradation go well beyond meeting these challenges. The report once again highlights the Chinese intention to become a global power by the middle of the century.
[1] Mao’s People War and Deng Xiaoping’s local war concepts continue to be guiding factors in China’s military strategy even as it modernizes its forces. The white paper states, “China is striving to make innovations in the content and forms of people’s war, exploring new approaches of the people in participating in warfare and support for the front, and developing new strategies and tactics for people’s war in conditions of informationization.” Themes like active defense and local wars also have been modified keeping in tune with the changes in modern warfare. Even while modernizing its warfare concepts, China continues to emphasize the “people” aspect, saying that “China always relies on the people to build national defense and the armed forces, combines a lean standing force with a powerful reserve force.” Significant changes were brought in the Chinese military strategy after the 1991 Gulf War where the PLA recognised the importance of fighting a ‘modern war under high technology conditions.’ See, Y. Ji, “The Revolution in Military Affairs and the Evolution of China’s Strategic Thinking,” Contemporary Southeast Asia, vol. 21, no. 3, December 1999, p. 353, cited in Dennis Woodward, “The People’s Liberation Army: a Threat to India?,” Contemporary South Asia, vol. 12, no. 2, June 2003, p. 231.
[2] Andrew Scobell, “China and Strategic Culture” (Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College: Carlisle, PA, May 2002), available at
[3] Sun Tzu in his Art of War stated, “Security against defeat implies defensive tactics; ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive.” See, Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Foreword by James Clavell (London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, 1981), p. 23.
[4] Chinese military is the world’s largest military force, with the largest standing army (approx. 2.25 million strong), with well-established five wings – PLA Army, PLA Navy, PLA Air Force, Second Artillery Corps and PLA Reserved Force. Chinese defence expenditure for 2008 stood at 417.77 billion yuan, which is a rise of 62.379 billion yuan from the previous year’s actual spending, a 17.6 per cent increase. China is the world’s fourth largest military spender after the US, UK, and France, but in PPP terms (which is more relevant), China stands second at $188.2 bn after the US which spends $528.7 bn. Consistent with global changes taking place in defence science & technology and weaponry, Chinese military has maintained the pace in its modernisation too. Yet, China believes that it will be able to lay a strong foundation only by 2010.
[5] These have become of particular focus to the Chinese since the first Gulf War. Some of their tanks, artillery pieces, ships and aircraft are believed to be informationized, new types of informationized platforms are being developed and the ratio and number of precision-guided munitions are also on the rise. China, since 1991, has been in the process of development/procurement of precision-guided weapons, improvement of command and control structures as well as the non-conventional methods of warfare like electronic warfare, use of ultra-sonic weapons, laser weapons, stealth weapons, ultrahigh frequency weapons, and electromagnetic guns. The PLA is also believed to be designing a three-tier (land, sea and air) defence system for “outer detection and implicit warning, intermediate interception, and inner denial, including the lethal use of force against intruders.” See, Kenneth Lieberthal, “How Domestic Forces Shape the PRC’s Grand Strategy and International Impact,” Ashley J. Tellis and Michael Wills (Eds.), Strategic Asia 2007-08 (Washington D.C.: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2007), p.61.
[6] China has improved its amphibious capabilities in the recent years, with Beijing conducting more than a dozen such exercises in the last decade or so, with several exercises focusing on a Taiwan scenario. Given the logistics-intensive nature of these operations, and the need to have air and sea superiority, the probability of the Chinese venturing into amphibious operations against the Taiwanese is unlikely. However, the fact remains that China has significantly beefed up its capabilities in this regard.
[7] The new satellite images that are available now reveal cave openings around the Sanya base that can house up to at least eight submarines. It is also believed that there is space for a supported underground structure that could have more than 20 submarines. See, Richard Fisher, Jr., “China’s Naval Secrets,” Asian Wall Street Journal, May 05, 2008, available at See also, “Japan urges greater Chinese transparency on military plans,” AFP, May 31, 2008, available at
[8] There were media reports towards the middle of 2007 that China had given contracts to few Chinese companies for the development of systems and components for the aircraft carrier. Further, towards the end of the year, there was another media report, citing Xu Guangyu, an analyst and director of the government-backed China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, saying that it has almost been decided that the Chinese navy will build aircraft carriers. See, “China: Construction of An Aircraft Carrier,” ABC Radio Australia, July 11, 2007, available at and Earlier, in 1997, Hong Kong media had reported Chinese plans to acquire a smaller aircraft carrier, rather than a large carrier. Later in 1999, the media reported that the Chinese leadership had essentially sanctioned Y 250 million for two carrier, estimated to be completed by 2009, with a displacement of 48,000 tons and could carry 24 Su-27Ks. However, it appears that these were speculations made on the basis of the arrival of a partially finished ex-Soviet carrier, the ‘Varyag’ at a Dalian shipyard. See, Sibapada Rath, “China’s Tryst with Aircraft Carrier,” Naval Despatch, December 2005, p. 37.
[9] Tim Johnson, “Aircraft Carriers on Horizon for China?,” November 11, 2007, available at

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