29 July 2019

China’s Defense White Paper Means Only One Thing: Trouble Ahead

Here I offer an assessment of China’s 2019 Defense White Paper and its implications.

Andrew S. Erickson, “China’s Defense White Paper Means Only One Thing: Trouble Ahead,” The National Interest, 29 July 2019.

Observers should look elsewhere for the latest insights on the specifics of PLA development, but no one should miss the ambition, assertiveness, and resolve permeating this official policy document. Real and consequential actions will follow from these sometimes vague but often forceful statements. Prepare for trouble ahead: we have been warned.

Lately, Beijing has been making forceful statements and backing them with impactful actions. Speaking at the Aspen Security Dialogue on 18 July 2019, Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Admiral Phil Davidson described People’s Republic of China (PRC) Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe’s 2 June speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue as “quite chilling.” “Not only did [Wei] make it clear that he didn’t think Asia and the Western Pacific was any place for America, he said Asia wasn’t even for Asians—it was for the Chinese.” Then, “within 24 hours of that they tested a new nuclear ballistic missile,” the submarine-launched JL-3. On 8 July, at a forum of defense ministers from Latin America and Pacific island nations in China, Wei acknowledged that Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative—in Davidson’s words, “was indeed a way to put a military foothold within other places around the globe.” “Within hours of that,” Davidson added, “they shot six anti-ship ballistic missiles—new ones that they have developed—into the South China Sea…the first time they have done an at-sea test.” To Davidson, “once might be a coincidence, but seeing this happen twice is indeed a message….” Most recently, on 24 July the PRC released “China’s National Defense in the New Era,” its first major military policy document for an international audience in four years. What statements, then, does this 2019 Defense White Paper make? What actions may follow from it?

Four years was a long wait for a document that generally restates what experts already know. Short on substantive updates, the report contains confusing, arguably contradictory phrasing and showcases simplistic, often unconvincing assurances designed for international public consumption. Many will disagree that “China is always a builder of world peace… and a defender of the international order….” Many will remain unpersuaded by the report’s assurance that China is “Never Seeking Hegemony, Expansion or Spheres of Influence.” Many, in Vietnam and across the globe, will question the claim that the PRC “has never started any war or conflict.” The “firsts” trumpeted in the official rollout are underwhelming for anyone trying to better understand the People’s Liberation Army (PLA); that purpose is much better served by consulting the Pentagon’s latest reports, together with the recent profusion of other U.S. government documents. Leading-edge analysts like Elsa B. Kania will always uncover nuances at the margins, but they do not depend on this single PRC source for those insights.

As an assertion of policy, however, China’s 2019 Defense White Paper clearly follows from General Wei’s remarks. It clearly embodies Xi’s self-dictated era, strategy, goals, reforms, and rhetoric. At its core, it reflects an unabashed Chinese Communist Party-led effort to make China great again at home and abroad while allowing no domestic or foreign foe to disrupt this self-assigned historic mission.

From Strategy to Implementation:

This year’s Defense White Paper replaces innovation and revelation glimpsed in previous iterations with an emphasis on implementation and justification. It lacks the 2006 edition’s extensive coverage of Border and Coastal Defense organizational structure, including the latest trends in “Militia Force Building,” and the 2015 edition’s substantive statements explaining the PLA’s transition to an unprecedented joint naval and aerospace orientation. The latter, China’s first-ever Defense White Paper on strategy, showed the PLA embracing new concepts and missions that represented significant innovations in safeguarding China’s national security. These doctrinal developments reflected the PLA’s adoption of a new strategic guideline in summer 2014, its ninth since 1956: “winning informatized local wars” (打赢信息化局部战争). Five areas merit particular mention as strategic emphases that the PLA has been implementing over the past four years.

First, in explicating China’s latest “military strategic guideline,” the 2015 Defense White Paper cited changes to the security environment, including accelerated worldwide use of “long-range, precise, smart, stealthy and unmanned weapons.” As for the nature of the local wars that the PLA must prepare to fight and win, it highlighted, in particular, the need to prepare for “maritime military struggle.”

Second, it emphasized comprehensive full-spectrum operations: peacetime probing and pressure, as well as combat readiness. It articulated a “holistic view of national security” encompassing both traditional and nontraditional security. Related tasks included “comprehensively manag[ing] crises,” “enrich[ing] the strategic concept of active defense,” and “establish[ing] an integrated joint operational system in which all elements are seamlessly linked and various operational platforms perform independently and in coordination.”

Third, it emphasized the need to safeguard Beijing’s increasingly complex, far-ranging overseas interests. It stressed that “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.” These include four “critical domains” and corresponding forces: “seas and oceans, outer space, cyberspace, and nuclear….”

Fourth, it contained unprecedented maritime emphasis. Notably, it stated, “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned… great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.” It underscored determination to strengthen Chinese “strategic management of the sea.” It called for China to “build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure.”

Fifth, it emphasized growing power projection capabilities. “The PLAN will continue to organize and perform regular combat readiness patrols and maintain a military presence in relevant sea areas,” it stated. This entailed moving from “near seas defense” to “the combination of ‘near seas defense’ and ‘far seas protection’.” This first mention of the latter phrase (远海护卫) in a Defense White Paper suggested the need to develop a limited blue water navy.

Key Takeaways:

In contrast to the 2015 Defense White Paper’s new strategic thinking, the 2019 edition reflects intensification, implementation, and justification. Perhaps the biggest change is in tone, aptly summarized in the South China Morning Post: “Cooperation is out in favour of antagonism and complaint.”

In framing world events, the report envisions a new international order emerging. But this trend is complicated by rising great power competition, with the paper placing particular blame on the United States and its key regional allies. The report also notes pronounced Russian emphasis on nuclear weapons, but appears to excuse it for the sake of larger bilateral efforts: Beijing and Moscow are attempting to show that their strategic partnership is not merely one of convenience. In the short run, the two great powers share interests in opposing efforts of the United States and its allies to maintain their equities, and key aspects of, today’s international system. And there are still substantial, albeit dwindling, areas of Russian weapons technology and expertise from which China can benefit greatly. Of course, none of this precludes future discord stemming from Chinese strength and Russian weakness in the form of border, migration, ethnocultural, and resource tensions; as well as economic asymmetries and China’s relentless quest to obtain critical technologies by all means necessary.

Worryingly, the Defense White Paper contains intensified rhetoric doubling down on domestic stability imperatives and sovereignty claims vis-à-vis Taiwan and the South and East China Seas. In explaining the report and its significance, the Central Military Commission’s Office for International Military Cooperation (OIMC) is unapologetically assertive: “China exercises its national sovereignty to build infrastructure and deploy defensive capabilities on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea, and to conduct patrols in the waters of Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.” The report’s wording resolving to prevent “East Turkestan” independence and to pursue cross-Strait reunification, in particular, appears stronger than before. Characteristically providing no specifics, the paper states, “Since 2014, the [People’s Armed Police] has assisted the government of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in taking out 1,588 violent terrorist gangs and capturing 12,995 terrorists.”

Regarding cross-strait issues, the 2019 report contains even stronger wording than the ten previous editions. As OIMC itself states: “The document especially points out that solving the Taiwan question and achieving complete reunification of the country is in the fundamental interests of the Chinese nation and essential to realizing national rejuvenation. The People’s Liberation Army will resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China and safeguard national unity at all costs, the white paper stresses, clearly conveying China’s firm will to oppose any interference by foreign forces and defend its own core interests.”

As mentioned previously, China’s 2015 Defense White Paper placed unprecedented emphasis on Beijing’s growing external security focus. Now, the 2019 edition states, “One of the missions of China’s armed forces is to effectively protect the security and legitimate rights and interests of overseas Chinese people, organizations and institutions.” Perhaps the most significant related event of the four-year interim was the August 2017 entry into service of China’s first overseas military facility, the “PLA Djibouti Support Base.” The report suggests that additional “overseas logistical facilities” are in development, but—characteristically—offers no details regarding their potential nature or location. Here it is interesting to consider recent reports of an agreement allowing China to use Cambodia’s Ream naval base. Cambodian and Chinese officials have issued vague denials that do not fully clarify the situation. In any case, it is worth recalling an event once described to the author: Premier Zhou Enlai reportedly told a foreign delegation that if China ever attempted to establish an overseas base, foreigners should join patriotic Chinese in thoroughly opposing the PRC government to prevent such an ‘imperialist’ development. One might imagine Zhou’s reaction were he to learn of a PLA “Base” of any sort operating thousands of kilometers from China. Now consider what other PRC policies might evolve over time.

One of the more substantive aspects of the Defense White Paper is its progress report on reforming PLA leadership and organization to support a joint operations command system, a process that Xi announced officially in September 2015. The PLA is doing so with new capabilities and organizations for emerging domains that seek to leverage information-age innovation and thereby prepare for new ways of war. Among them, “China’s armed forces accelerate the building of their cyberspace capabilities, develop cybersecurity and defense means, and build cyber defense capabilities consistent with China’s international standing and its status as a major cyber country. They reinforce national cyber border defense, and promptly detect and counter network intrusions. They safeguard information and cybersecurity, and resolutely maintain national cyber sovereignty, information security and social stability.” All these actions are justified as defensive responses to pressing threats. On a related note, the report describes the PLA Strategic Support Force as providing information and communications assurance, information security and battlefield environmental protection, new technology testing, and other facilitating functions. This entails such complex activities as system of systems integration (体系融合) and military-civil fusion (军民融合).

Additionally, the report states, “Outer space is a critical domain in international strategic competition.” Noted space expert Michael J. Listner has shared the following analysis with the author: The 2019 Defense White Paper continues with the theme of the 2015 White Paper, which identified outer space as a commanding height. It also adds a new facet by characterizing space as a critical domain in the context of strategic competition. In doing so, it appears to respond to both the Pentagon’s 2019 China military power report and the Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2019 report on space security. In this way, this year’s paper is part policy statement and part propaganda response to the recent focus on outer space as a domain of war by the United States and the growing recognition of the strategic importance of outer space by NATO and Western nations more broadly. In doing so, the paper overtly labels the United States as the aggressor in outer space, which is a common refrain of Western non-governmental organizations focused on outer space security, and postures its outer space capabilities as a deterrent response as opposed to an active counter-space capacity.

Listner adds that the Defense White Paper applies lawfare techniques and attempts to manipulate the rule of law by promoting the PRC’s accession to the four major space law treaties and its work on international agreements—including the Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT)—to evince its stance as promoting outer space for peaceful purposes in opposition to that of the United States, NATO, and other Western alliances. As with all policy positions taken in other domains, however, Beijing’s true intentions in outer space are better gauged by its actions than its words.

The report’s greatest concentration of its ever-scarce specifics is used to characterize China’s defense budget as moderate and unreproachable given the nation’s specific circumstances: “Comparisons on three dimensions—ratio of defense expenditure to GDP, ratio to government spending, and per capita defense expenditure—prove without any doubt that China’s defense expenditure is on a relatively low level and its increase is reasonable and appropriate.” In fact, however, the data’s sourcing is underspecified and they are not publicly explained, rendering these assertions unproven. There is a fascinating, albeit unverifiable, suggestion that in 2017 41.1 % of PLA expenditures went to fund “equipment expense” versus only 30.8% to fund personnel. This is a tooth-to-tail ratio that most other militaries could only envy, and would reflect the fruits of Xi’s organizational reforms to make the PLA leaner and meaner. Among its extremely limited information concerning the hardware and force structure thus funded, the report states that the J-20 low-observable fighter aircraft and the DF-26 ballistic missile have both been “commissioned.”

Warning: Trouble Ahead

“By issuing the white paper,” OIMC asserts, “the Chinese government confronts… sensitive issues squarely and responds to international concerns actively, in a bid to dispel doubts and boost trust, and enhance international understanding and recognition of China’s national defense and military construction.” Unfortunately, there is a chasm between these highly normative assertions and their likely reception by many audiences, who will fail to meet Beijing’s increasingly impatient expectations of accord and acquiescence. The report extols China’s contributions and cooperative outlook, but Beijing’s actions often demonstrate otherwise. The latest Defense White Paper is vague in many areas, and unclear even in its specifics: most statistics regarding exercises, for example, are hard to interpret absent additional context. What the report does reflect clearly is that Xi remains large and in charge, determined to make China great again by all means necessary, guided by a grand strategy that is the grandest and most strategic of any nation’s today, and refusing to accept obstacles in his path.

Back at the Aspen Security Forum half the world away, Admiral Davidson remarked that with respect to enforcement of UN sanctions against North Korea, “Where we’re not getting help is China. …China has dozens and dozens of…Maritime Militia ships operating in the South China Sea to serve Chinese ends when they could be up helping…on a denuclearization effort of…North Korea and helping monitor these situations that are principally happening…in Chinese territorial waters, in their contiguous zone….”

Yet this is just one of many things that Beijing will not help with. Rather than allay Davidson’s concerns moving forward, China will almost certainly add to them. In key areas of its latest Defense White Paper, as well as in key domains, we are witnessing an increasingly assertive China increasingly determined to forcefully pursue its own interests on its own terms. Observers should look elsewhere for the latest insights on the specifics of PLA development, but no one should miss the ambition, assertiveness, and resolve permeating this official policy document. Real and consequential actions will follow from these sometimes vague but often forceful statements. Prepare for trouble ahead: we have been warned.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a professor of strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute and the recipient of the  inaugural Civilian Faculty Research Excellence Award at the Naval War College. He is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University and blogs at  www.andrewerickson.com.