30 May 2015

The 2015 Chinese Defense White Paper on Strategy in Perspective: Maritime Missions Require a Change in the PLA Mindset

Superb analysis from Dennis Blasko on China’s recently released defense white paper on strategy. A disciplined adherent to what might be termed a strictzero-based budgetingapproach to analysis, Blasko never makes statements that cannot be supported with extremely specific, contextualized, well-documented evidence. When he makes the bold, underlined statements below, therefore, everyone should pay close attention! It is no small thing to declare that “the white paper makes a ‘new’ statement that turns the PLA’s traditional approach to operations and strategy on its head, or at least on its side” and that “The white paper has thereby acknowledged the need to shift the balance in PLA thinking from ground operations to joint naval and aerospace operations… The impact of this admission on the PLA as an institution cannot be understated.” Coming from Blasko, however, such assertions have true credibility. To which I would add: there’s never been a more exciting time to follow China’s military maritime and aerospace development!

Dennis J. Blasko, “The 2015 Chinese Defense White Paper on Strategy in Perspective: Maritime Missions Require a Change in the PLA Mindset,” Jamestown China Brief 15.2 (29 May 2015).

Nearly 20 years ago in November 1995, the Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China issued the first defense-related white paper on “Arms Control and Disarmament.” In 1998, the first “defense white paper” was issued, called simply “China’s National Defense.” Subsequently, roughly every two years a new defense-related white paper has been issued. On May 26, 2015 the tenth defense-related white paper was released called “China’s Military Strategy.” …

The 2015 White Paper

Despite the increased tensions in the Pacific region, the 2015 white paper reiterates the peace and development theme and assesses “In the foreseeable future, a world war is unlikely, and the international situation is expected to remain generally peaceful, ” but “the world still faces both immediate and potential threats of local wars.” Under these new circumstances, “the national security issues facing China encompass far more subjects, extend over a greater range, and cover a longer time span than at any time in the country’s history.” Therefore, without “a strong military, a country can be neither safe nor strong.” A strong military is the basis for China’s multi-dimensional strategic deterrence posture as well as necessary to carry out its warfighting and military operations other than war or non-traditional security tasks. …

However, the main theme for the 2015 white paper is the “long-standing task for China to safeguard its maritime rights and interests.” In particular, “the US carries on its ‘rebalancing’ strategy and enhances its military presence and its military alliances in this region. Japan is sparing no effort to dodge the post-war mechanism, overhauling its military and security policies.” Additionally, “some of its offshore neighbors take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied. Some external countries are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs; a tiny few maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China.” Thus as an example of the evolution in China military strategy, this year a new “strategic task” has been added: “To safeguard the security of China’s overseas interests.” Currently, most foreign analysts assess China’s overseas interests to include substantial maritime aspects, as previously inferred from the historic missions to safeguard China’s national development and national interests.

In order to address the maritime challenge, the white paper makes a “new” statement that turns the PLA’s traditional approach to operations and strategy on its head, or at least on its side: “The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.” As a result, the PLA Navy “will gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defense’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defense’ with ‘open seas protection,’” an evolutionary development from what was announced in the 2006 white paper, the “Navy aims at gradual extension of the strategic depth for offshore defensive operations.”

The white paper has thereby acknowledged the need to shift the balance in PLA thinking from ground operations to joint naval and aerospace operations—something that has been signaled for years (going back officially at least to 2004), but will require change in all aspects of future military modernization. The impact of this admission on the PLA as an institution cannot be understated. It will have effects on everything from force size, structure and composition to personnel polices, doctrine, training, logistics and equipment acquisition.

This development would appear to be directly related to the November 2013 announcement at the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Chinese Communist Party Central Committee “that joint operation command authority under the [Central Military Commission], and theater joint operation command system, will be improved” and decided to “optimize the size and structure of the army, adjust and improve the proportion between various troops, and reduce non-combat institutions and personnel.” [3] Though no details of these changes have been announced publicly, we can expect them to be rolled out in the coming years and take several more years to implement and trouble shoot. …