• Nawal Ali

Changing Priorities: What China’s Military Policy Papers Indicate About Future Chinese Defense Strat

On July 24th, the Chinese government published a defense white paper entitled “China’s National Defense in the New Era.” This 50-page document, written both in Mandarin and English, is China’s strategic policy document and is intended to describe the Chinese national defense strategy, explain Chinese priorities in military modernization and development, as well as justify governmental plans and priorities to both a domestic and international audience. While China has published defense white papers in the past, the publication of this document is important due to the Chinese government and military’s major lack of transparency regarding Chinese military operations which makes this white paper an opportunity to provide major insights on how China perceives its national security, as well as how China seeks to preserve its security. Some of the more important insights this policy paper provides are how China perceives the United States concerning its defense strategy, more information about Chinese military spending, and what China views as important in its objectives of achieving great power status.

Compared to the last time China released a defense white paper in 2015, where China only briefly mentioned the United States in the context of the United States’ general involvement in Asia-Pacific regional hotspots, this year’s white paper has taken a more critical stance on the United States and referred to the U.S. multiple times when discussing the regional and international security environment. A succinct statement that would describe Chinese perceptions in the white paper would be found in the first section of the paper, where they describe the “International Security Situation,” stating, “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. NATO has continued its enlargement, stepped up military deployment in Central and Eastern Europe, and conducted frequent military exercises.” This section showcases either a general attitude among Chinese government officials and strategists that the United States is a source of instability or an attempt to present the U.S. as a source of instability.

However, this perception of the United States mirrors how the United States perceives China concerning American national security strategy. Both the United States’ 2017 National Security Strategy document and the 2018 National Defense Strategy document showcase from the American perspective the critical extent to which China presents a threat to U.S. interests and security. The National Security Strategy labeled China as one of the two revisionist powers as well as criticized China for its attempts to expand its influence internationally and for facilitating major incidents of intellectual property theft among other criticisms. The National Defense Strategy describes countering China as one of its major priorities, specifically designating the Asia-Pacific theatre as important for future defense implementation. With the publication of the Chinese white paper on defense and its criticism of the United States, it is quite likely that for the foreseeable future both governments will have strategic distrust of each other and this distrust will be a major factor of how future defense strategy will be formulated for both the United States as well as China.

Another major insight that this white paper offers is more information about Chinese military spending at a time when there is a dearth of information on this topic. Under the section “Reasonable and Appropriate Defense Expenditure” information is provided about Chinese military spending since 2012. From 2012 to 2017, Chinese military spending increased an average of 9.42% annually. Military spending accounts for 1.42% of GDP and 5.42% of overall government spending. A breakdown of military spending was provided which consisted of personnel, training and maintenance, and equipment categories. Since 2015, equipment spending has composed of 40% of total military spending, with personnel and training and maintenance taking 31% and 28% of overall spending respectively. This is a change from the last time China released information about military spending in 2010, where each of these categories composed roughly one-third of China’s military budget back then.

While taking into account factors that might lead to this official release of statistics understating the extent of Chinese overall military spending, this shift in military spending over the years does showcase China’s adoption of their own version of a “Revolution in Military Affairs” due to the emphasis on acquiring new equipment systems and lessened focus on personnel numbers. The “Revolution in Military Affairs” refers to the concept of the evolving nature of warfare through the development and deployment of new technologies that change military operations. The United States, as well as other militaries over the years, have engaged in pursuing this revolution through developing technologies and operational concepts needed to fight full spectrum conflicts. The recent Chinese focus on equipment over personnel confirms the previous analysis of the Chinese military’s interest in technological modernization to pursue their version of this “revolution in military affairs.”

Furthermore, the white paper provides a better understanding of China’s conception of how to achieve and maintain great power status. It has been quite clear over the years that China is interested in establishing itself as a great power. With China’s rising international influence and power, China likely can be a great power, but what is unclear is how China seeks to exercise or maintain its status as a great power. This white paper provides insight into this factor.

China in the white paper emphasized the need to continue growing its power projection capabilities; in the section “Reform in China’s National Defense and Armed Forces,” the paper states “New types of combat forces have been enhanced to conduct special operations, all-dimensional offense and defense, amphibious operations, far seas protection, and strategic projection, aiming to make the force composition complete, combined, multi-functional and flexible.” The first mention of “far seas protection” as well as focus on concepts such as strategic projection likely indicates plans by China to develop a blue-water navy, as previous focus on naval strategy always emphasized “near seas defense.”

Another important aspect behind China's focus on power projection is shown when stating “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.” This statement likely is in recognition of Chinese attempts at expanding the international reach of the People’s Liberation Army, as seen in the establishment of China’s first overseas military base in a foreign country in Djibouti, as well as the paper stating more such facilities are being constructed—agreements are made for a base in Cambodia. Efforts by the Chinese military to expand their power projection capabilities internationally showcase active attempts by China to exert influence as a great power and how they seek to maintain their status as a great power.

This new white paper by China on their description of their future national security and defense strategy showcases important trends in how China will pursue their foreign and defense policies for the foreseeable future. The increased level of distrust and critical perspective China has regarding the United States will heighten tensions in the current strategic competition that is ongoing between both countries. The information given on defense spending showcase China in a transition from its traditional manpower heavy armed forces to one that relies upon more technologically modern equipment in the form of their own “revolution in military affairs.” The increased efforts and focus by the Chinese military on expanding overseas power projection capabilities indicate that how China seeks to exercise its status as a great power and plans on China seeks to maintain its new interests as a rising power.

Image via Wikimedia Commons


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