China Outlines Ambitious Objectives in its Defense White Paper

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 1

Beijing’s recently published “China’s National Defense in 2006” proposes an ambitious blueprint that would allow the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to catch up with the U.S. military in just a few decades. The defense white paper outlines multiple transformation objectives for each of the services and calls for a more assertive military doctrine. The white paper is also geared toward increasing the transparency of the PLA—a significant concern of the United States—and silencing the proponents of the “China threat” theory. While the paper discloses a raft of new details about China’s opaque military, it has failed to either satisfy calls for disclosure of substantial information or quell fears about the resurgent Middle Kingdom’s power projection throughout Asia.

The white paper reflects the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership’s conviction that China must possess military forces that are commensurate with its fast-growing economic and diplomatic clout. It also embodies the latest strategy of President Hu Jintao, who serves as the chairman of the policy-setting Central Military Commission (CMC). The document notes that the PLA’s long-term goal is to “build a digitalized force that is capable of winning digitalized warfare” by the middle of this century. To this end, a “solid foundation” must be laid by 2010 and “relatively big developments” attained by 2020. The document stresses that the military must be able to defend China’s territorial integrity—which includes the goals of unifying Taiwan and asserting China’s sovereignty over the disputed areas in the South China and East China Seas—as well as other national interests, including economic and energy security. Although no direct reference is made to competition with the United States, it seems clear that the CMC is determined that China must increase its military power over the next few decades to a level comparable to that of the world’s superpower.

The white paper takes pains to reiterate China’s peaceful intentions, including its long-standing no-first-use (NFU) doctrine regarding the use of nuclear weapons. Beijing also points out that its defense spending lags behind that of the United States, Britain, Japan, France and Germany. Military analysts note, however, that this is the first time that the CMC has outlined specific modernization targets for the various branches of the PLA so as to better—in Hu’s words—“fulfill the historical mission of the military in this new century and at this new stage [of national development]” (Xinhua, December 27, 2006). Thus, the mission of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has evolved from that of purely defense to “a combination of offense and defense.” Likewise, the Second Artillery Corps, China’s strategic missile force, must boost the reach and accuracy of both its conventional and nuclear arsenals (China Brief, December 19, 2006). The navy must now guard not only coastal areas but also “nearby oceans,” a reference to a blue-water fleet with long-range, all-weather capabilities.

Most significantly, the white paper reveals the priority that the Hu-led CMC has attached to domestic research and development, particularly the enhancement of the country’s defense industry and its ability to manufacture advanced weaponry. While Beijing continues to rely upon Russia for sophisticated hardware, ranging from fighters to submarines, China has made significant progress in developing domestic military hardware. For instance, Chinese-made missiles—including supersonic cruise missiles—were recently on display at the 2006 Zhuhai Airshow (Wen Wei Po, November 25). Furthermore, in a recent war game, newly deployed, indigenously developed J-10 fourth generation jet fighters proved superior to Russia’s Su-27s (Jiefangjun Bao, December 30, 2006). The Chinese defense industry has already begun to capitalize upon its accomplishments, exporting weaponry and technical expertise to over a dozen countries in Asia and Africa.

Immediately after the white paper’s release, General Zhang Bangdong, head of the PLA Foreign Affairs Office, asserted that China’s armed forces mainly “safeguard national security and [economic] development” and “will not constitute a threat to any country.” (Ming Pao, December 30, 2006). Indeed, over the course of the past year, PLA officers have undertaken multiple trips to persuade China’s neighbors not to be worried about the country’s rapid military modernization. Given the party and military leadership’s determination to quickly close the military gap with the United States, however, President Hu and his colleagues will have difficulty allaying their neighbor’s suspicions.

Despite Beijing’s claims about transparency, vast parts of the PLA remain opaque. The military’s spokespersons have made no effort to clarify the controversies over the real size of the PLA budget; the published figure of 283.8 billion yuan ($36.3 billion) for 2006 is widely regarded by independent analysts as a gross underestimation. This is particularly true regarding funds spent on research and development as well as military hardware imports. The report indicates that 83.65 billion yuan ($11 billion) were spent on military equipment in 2005. Yet, owing to the practice, first proposed by Mao Zedong, of the “interchangeability” of the civilian and military sectors, departments under the State Council concerned with areas ranging from IT to space have made substantial contributions to the PLA’s modernization that were not included within the military budget.

The white paper also failed to state the budget of the increasingly important paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP). Although Beijing has, for the first time, disclosed the size of the PAP’s establishment—about 660,000—most analysts have placed the figure closer to one million. This is due to the fact that the PAP’s primary responsibility is to maintain security and stability within China. Owing to the rise in the number of riots and disturbances, the recruitment of PAP officers—as well as ordinary police—has become a priority in recent years.

In light of the increasing role that the PLA and PAP are playing in President Hu’s objective of “constructing a socialist harmonious society” and “building a harmonious world order,” it is unlikely that the relatively conservative leader will propose ambitious defense reforms that would weaken the party’s control of the armed forces. Since the days of Mao, only a handful of top cadres—principally members of the elite Politburo Standing Committee—have had the authority to make significant changes to military doctrines and strategies. Given Hu’s desire to further consolidate power after the pivotal 17th CCP Congress scheduled for later this year, the 64-year-old commander-in-chief is expected to continue to use the PLA and the PAP to bolster his personal authority.

Indeed, toward the end of 2006, Hu engineered yet another series of personnel reshuffles at both the headquarters and regional levels. Appointments are a key method for the CMC chairman, who has very little experience in military affairs, to win the loyalty of the top military officers. It is a long-standing PLA tradition that officers who receive promotions profess allegiance to whoever elevated them. Much like his predecessor, former president and CMC chairman Jiang Zemin, Hu often conducts “heart-to-heart” talks with newly promoted generals in order to establish personal ties with the senior officers. The most notable development on the personnel front was the promotion of 58-year-old General Zhang Bisheng from Assistant Chief of General Staff to Deputy Chief of Staff in charge of intelligence, international affairs and military diplomacy. This was the rising star’s third promotion in four years. General Zhang was the top Chinese commander in the Sino-Russian “Peace Mission 2005” joint military exercise; recently, he toured Japan’s military facilities (Ming Pao, December 20, 2006). There is little doubt that General Zhang is one of a dozen-odd officers who are being carefully groomed by President Hu for further elevation.

Four military regions (MRs)—Chengdu, Shenyang, Lanzhou and Nanjing—witnessed personnel shuffles at the level of vice-commander and vice-commissar in late December. Several of these changes involved the rotation of officers from one region to another. For example, Shenyang MR Vice-Commander Li Shiming was moved to the same position in the Chengdu MR. Rotation of cadres in both the military and civilian arenas is a standard way for the party and military leadership to prevent “warlordism” and to ensure the obedience of local-level cadres. Again sticking to time-honored tradition, Hu is set to reward the loyalty of the top brass by reserving around 20% of the seats of the party’s new Central Committee—that will be endorsed at the 17th Congress—to PLA and PAP officers.