China’s 2008 Defence White Paper, released Jan. 20, offers insight into numerous aspects of China’s ongoing military reform (and conceals just as much). Clearly timed to coincide with the inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama, the paper expands on the recent shift in the focus of China’s military, from one primarily of national defence to one more integrated into the overall political and economic foreign policy of the nation. The subtext is that China can be a valuable international partner or a potentially dangerous competitor, depending upon the U.S. attitude.
China released its sixth biennial Defence White Paper on Jan. 20. The nearly 100-page report covers the organizational structure of the People`s Liberation Army (PLA) and its various branches, discussing equipment and doctrinal developments and laying out the general direction for Chinese defence policy through the middle of the 21st century.
Because the paper was released the same day U.S. President Barack Obama took the oath of office (the last three Defence White Papers were all released during December, and the two prior papers in September and July), at least part of this paper`s message appears directed at the incoming U.S. administration.
In short, the White Paper portrays China as an emerging military power, one with evolving technologies — including generational leaps that skip intermediate stages of development — and an expanding global defence role, and as a country that can be either a cooperative force in maintaining global peace and security or a capable competitor. As the paper notes, in a discussion on China`s integration into the global system, “China cannot develop in isolation from the rest of the world, nor can the world enjoy prosperity and stability without China.”
While not necessarily intended as a threat, it is a clear message that neither will China ignore global issues, nor should the world — or the United States — ignore China`s role.
Over the past decade, China has shifted its attention from domestic policies to international involvement.
The rapid economic expansion of China not only afforded Beijing more leverage around the globe, it also expanded China`s vulnerabilities as its economy became more intricately linked with other regions and countries around the world. To deal with both its rising influence and its risks, China has tentatively stepped into a role as an international “player.”
It focused first on economic cooperation; then on political influence (usually via multinational institutions) and promoting “multipolarism;” and more recently on a comprehensive package of foreign policy tools, including cultural, economic, political and military tools. As the military is being used as a tool of foreign policy, this is bringing the PLA back into the halls of power and decision-making.
In many ways, 9/11 opened the door for China to portray itself as cooperative rather than confrontational. When the Bush administration took office in early 2001, its focus was on stemming the so-called rise of China. The standoff following the collision of a Chinese Jian-8 fighter and a U.S. EP-3E Aries II reconnaissance aircraft off the Chinese coast characterized relations between the two states, painting a picture of an emerging confrontation and potential Cold War between Washington and Beijing.
This was reversed with the sudden shift of U.S. attention after Sept. 11, and China quickly took the opportunity to portray itself as a nonthreatening partner rather than try to take advantage of the U.S. crisis.
For Beijing, this not only reduced tensions with Washington, it also allowed the Chinese to focus on internal problems and the transition of power from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao. The less external pressure China faced, the more Beijing could focus on domestic policies and problems (though Beijing still struggled with shaping an effective future-use policy for its military amid rapidly shifting global circumstances). Internationally, China debuted a “peaceful rise” policy around 2003. About the same time, Beijing began committing military forces, as opposed to just police or military observers, to U.N. peacekeeping operations.
By 2005, Washington was offering China a chance to expand cooperation, with then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick calling for Beijing to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international arena.
In essence, Zoellick was offering China the recognition it desired as a big power in return for Chinese cooperation in areas where the United States did not necessarily have the leverage that Beijing did.
At the same time, China also began to fully realize that it could no longer ensure its international economic and security interests simply through comments or political means. China not only expanded its U.N. operations and international diplomacy, it also ramped up defence exchanges and joint training with other countries.
It also accelerated the restructuring of its own military to better deal with contingencies abroad. By 2007, China`s economic growth and its quest for raw materials already had begun drawing opposition in Africa, with China likened to the European colonial powers. Attacks against its interests in Ethiopia and Sudan reinforced Beijing`s need to find new ways to address threats to Chinese interests abroad.
China`s 2008 Defence White Paper emphasizes Beijing`s response: MOOTW, an acronym for “Military Operations Other Than War.” MOOTW serves as a euphemism for everything from peacekeeping and counternarcotics to maritime security and counterpiracy operations.
The restructuring of China`s military to be more mobile and flexible and have longer reach was already under way, but the 2008 paper makes it clear that this capability is intended not just for contingencies in China, but also for contingencies abroad.
The deployment of Chinese warships to Somalia is a clear demonstration of this expanding capability and focus, and it is about further refining those capabilities through operational experience. Expanding MOOTW on an international scale builds on prior years of shifting personnel and training, improving technology and communications, streamlining logistics and extending the range of Chinese military systems. It also fits in with China`s expansion of its overall global policy, where the military plays a role in tandem with economic and political tools.
The White Paper thus offers the new U.S. administration things it will find positive. China is offering to take on a more active role in international security operations. It is placing the PLA on the table as one option among myriad others in dealing with social, economic and security problems, from counterterrorism and antipiracy operations to humanitarian and peacekeeping operations.
China has already hinted, for example, that it might be interested in an expanded role in Afghanistan as part of a comprehensive regional solution. China, which borders Afghanistan, sees the problems there not only as contributing to potential terrorism inside China, but also as part of a larger instability on the Chinese periphery.
The balance of relations among India, Pakistan and Afghanistan is of critical concern to China. While the PLA has not been offered up directly, Afghanistan is of key interest to China, and it is a place where Beijing might also be able to give its forces a real-world test of their capabilities and training while expanding China`s role and influence.
But the White Paper also contains aspects the new U.S. administration will find less positive. In the paper, Beijing raises the potential for competition, if not future confrontation, should Washington significantly adjust its current China policy.
Beijing has been concerned about the incoming Obama administration from a trade and human rights perspective. The current economic downturn has left Chinese leaders feeling that the new Democratic administration and Congress could scapegoat China and implement protectionist policies. The White Paper reminds the new U.S. administration that China`s economy and military are part of the same policy.
The idea of a more active PLA far beyond China`s shores is only part of the potential competition Beijing warns of in the newest White Paper. The paper also openly states that China`s submarine force now possesses a nuclear counterstrike capability. (Previous reports simply say the Chinese navy was working on its nuclear capabilities.)
It also says that China`s military has focused on information and electronic warfare and has accelerated the introduction of third-generation technologies into the PLA. Moreover, the paper says that China now has more precision-guided weapons, and that the military is expanding operations beyond China. It also lays out the process by which the Second Artillery Force, which oversees China`s ballistic missiles, would respond to a nuclear threat or attack. And it adds that the missile force could combine a nuclear response with the nuclear weapons of other branches of service, suggesting the existence of a nuclear triad.
While the White Paper is not directly threatening a more aggressive and confrontational Chinese military, it does suggest that the capabilities for a cooperative PLA are equally applicable to a confrontational one, should the global system evolve in the “wrong” direction. Coming as it did on the day of Obama`s inauguration, the paper is clearly part of a Chinese strategy to shape the new U.S. administration`s views on China from the start. And the message is clear: “The world [cannot] enjoy prosperity and stability without China.”