China’s 2008 Defense White Paper: The View from Taiwan

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 3

Beijing published the 2008 edition of "China’s National Defense" (hereafter White Paper) on the cusp of U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic inauguration on January 20th. The past three editions (2002, 2004, and 2006) of the White Paper were all published in the final month of every other year, but this time Beijing purposely delayed its release for almost three weeks. An incident wherein Beijing exhibited similar behavior was in July 1998 when it released the 1998 edition of the White Paper on the same day that ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum (ARF), a landmark security dialogue among mainly Southeast Asian states, were meeting in the Philippines. The meeting coincidentally called upon its members to have more transparency in their defense planning. On both occasions, it is clear that Beijing deliberately choose the timing of the release to indicate its intention to accept the common practice of confidence-building measures (CBMs) in the Asia-Pacific and project an image of a responsible stakeholder.

Although the White Paper argues that China “is still confronted with long-term, complicated, and diverse security threats and challenges,” leaders in Beijing believe that “China’s security situation has improved steadily” [1].  The White Paper mentions that “China’s overall national strength has increased substantially, its people’s living standards have kept improving, the society remains stable and unified, and the capability for upholding national security has been further enhanced” [2]. Most importantly, the White Paper reveals that Beijing’s threat perception in the Taiwan Strait has been greatly reduced. The White Paper, however, explicitly said that China’s military capabilities will continue to grow even as the Taiwan issue thaws, verifying that a Chinese national security strategy looking beyond Taiwan is taking shape.

What is Said and Not Said in the 2008 Defense White Paper

Beijing harps that the new White Paper provides previously unreleased information and reflects new changes to the previous editions. For instance, the current edition includes developments in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Army, Navy, Air Force and the Second Artillery Force organized by separate chapters rather than grouped into the same chapter like previous editions (Defense News, January 26). Some notable developments in each branch of the Chinese armed forces highlighted by the White Paper include: acquiring capabilities of high mobility with three-dimensional assault in the Army; integrated sea-air capabilities for offshore defensive operations in the Navy; integrated air-land capabilities for both offensive and defensive operations in the Air Force; and surface-to-surface missile equipment system comprising both nuclear and conventional missiles with different ranges in the Second Artillery Corps.

Most importantly, the White Paper describes when and how China plans to use its nuclear weapons. The White Paper outlines three different operational scenarios (i.e., under peacetime, nuclear crisis and nuclear attack) for nuclear escalation. The nuclear missile force of China’s Second Artillery Corps will go into a state of alert when facing a nuclear crisis to deter the enemy from using nuclear weapons against China. Beijing’s leader will then use nuclear missiles to launch a counterattack against the enemy when it comes under a nuclear attack. The conventional missile force of the Second Artillery Force is responsible for conducting medium and long-range precision strikes against key strategic and operational targets of the enemy [3].

While building a modern military, China continues to skip doing certain things in the process of mechanization (i.e. enhancing hardware and acquiring more advanced operational platforms) and strives to achieve leapfrog development in key areas. Therefore, it adopts a policy of composite development of mechanization and informationization (i.e. digitalization of weaponry, information system network, and integration of battle elements, particularly applicable to military command, control, and communication). The PLA is also transforming a strategy from winning a local war with the condition of high-technology to winning a war under the condition of informationization. By 2020, the PLA will accomplish the goal of mechanization and make major progress in informationization (China Brief, November 24, 2008) [4].
Even though PLA experts have known the geographical locations of the three fleet commands, the 2008 White Paper was the first to explicitly identify Qingtao as the site for the North Sea Fleet, Ningbo for the East Sea Fleet and Zhejiang for South Sea Fleet. Nevertheless, the White Paper, as usual, did not provide any details on the new Chinese destroyers, frigates, submarines and warplanes that have made the PLA Navy more capable in projecting its power in the region. Reports on the building of aircraft carriers were also not confirmed in the White Paper [5].

The White Paper fails to address concerns over Chinese missile deployments targeting Taiwan and U.S. forces stationed on bases surrounding Taiwan. Moreover, Beijing avoided the chance of explaining its anti-satellite (ASAT) test in January 2007, which remains a major sticking point in Sino-U.S. political-military relations, as well as the decline of a port visit by the USS Kitty Hawk to Hong Kong in November 2007. To soothe U.S. security concerns, the White Paper did, however, acknowledge that China and Russia jointly submitted in February 2008, a draft Treaty to the Conference on Disarmament on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects [6].

Beijing cautions in the White Paper that China is facing “the superiority of the developed countries in economy, science and technology, as well as military affairs.” More importantly, China “also faces strategic maneuvers and containment from the outside” [7]. While not pointing a finger at the United States, it is indirectly condemning the United States as its major adversary. China publicly warns the United States for its arms sales to Taiwan and claims that this will cause “serious harm to Sino-U.S. relations as well as peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits” [8]. Beijing suspended its military exchanges program with the United States in response to the $6.5 billion arms sales package that the Bush administration sanctioned in October 2008, but with the new Obama administration, the resumption of military relationship is expected to take place soon.
In addition to the United States, Beijing lists separatist forces such as those supporting “Taiwan independence,” “East Turkistan independence” and "Tibet independence" as threats to China’s “unity and security.” The White Paper claims that Beijing has succeeded in thwarting “Taiwan independence” from seeking “de jure Taiwan independence,” therefore, the situation across the Taiwan Straits has taken a significantly positive turn [9]. Beijing believes that cross-Strait relations have improved because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT) have resumed negotiations on the basis of the “1992 Consensus.” The White Paper, however, did not reflect the policy articulated by Chinese President Hu Jintao on December 31, 2008, concerning cross-Strait discussion of military CBMs between Taiwan and China through increased military contacts and exchanges.

In the White Paper, China indicated that it has formulated a military strategic guideline of active defense for the 21st Century.  This active defense guideline include four components: winning local wars in conditions of informationization; emphasizing the prevention and deterrence of crises and wars; enhancing the capabilities to counter various security threats; and setting up a logistical mechanism of military mobilization and civilian-based economy, science, technology, information and transportation mobilization [10]. In different chapters of the White Paper, the PLA like the United States, is focused on the new task of its armed forces in handling the challenges of military operations other than war (MOOTW) in areas such as counter-terrorism, stability maintenance, emergency response, peacekeeping, emergency rescue and disaster relief [11]. The PLA Navy is also committed to developing a capability of countering non-traditional security threats in distant waters, which explains Beijing’s decision to dispatch a mini-fleet to the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian Sea for protecting its national surface ships from piracy.
The White Paper disclosed the trend in defense budget increases throughout the past three decades. For example, the average annual increase of defense expenditures in the 1978-1987 was 3.5 percent, 14.5 percent in 1988-1997, and 15.9 percent in 1998-2007. Arguably, the increase reflects its rapid economic growth but also exhibits its need to meet “the requirements of the RMA (Revolution in Military Affairs).” From 2006 to 2008, the PLA’s defense expenditure grew even more significantly. The defense expenditure was RMB 297.938 billion (about $38 billion) in 2006 and RMB 355.491 billion (about $45 billion) in 2007, up 20.4 percent and 19.3 percent respectively over the previous year [12]. In a longer time span, Chinese defense spending has risen sharply—from about RMB 16.7 billion ($2.4 billion) in 1978 to about RMB 417.7 billion (about $60 billion) in fiscal year 2008, roughly a 25-fold increase. The official figure, however, is much lower than the estimations by different Western defense-related organizations. For example, the White Paper claims that China’s defense expenditure budget in 2007 was around 1.38 percent of China’s GDP, but the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) calculates that the real figure might be around 2.1 percent of GDP [13].

Overseas Concerns

In the 2006 White Paper, Beijing’s leaders was more concerned over the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) under former President Chen Shui-bian for pushing a pro-independence agenda, such as the name rectification campaign and constitutional reform. Then, Beijing warned that political developments in Taiwan remained a challenge that “must not be neglected,” and that the “struggle to oppose and contain the separatist forces for ‘Taiwan independence’” poses a “grave threat to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” (China Brief, January 24, 2007) [14]. As demonstrated in President Hu Jintao’s end-of-year "six-point proposal" toward Taiwan, Beijing is far more confident now about the prospect of eventual unification than it was during the past eight years. The new political climate after the 2008 Taiwan’s presidential election greatly altered Beijing’s threat perceptions in the Taiwan Strait.

Although Taiwan’s defense ministry shunned away from making a public statement on the 2008 White Paper, experts in Taiwan argue that there is little new information revealed in the White Paper. While Beijing continues to warn the United States over its arms sales to Taiwan, the Obama administration has no urgent need to consider providing Taiwan with new weapons after the Bush administration announced $6.5 billion in arms sales to the island. The Ma Ying-jeou government, restrained by the economic downturn and pressure to preserve the political gains from cross-Strait rapprochement, might find less economic and political imperatives to request more advanced U.S. defense hardware including the F16C/D and diesel submarines. Taiwan has long had proposed CBMs with the Chinese military, such as making defense information more transparent, limiting military deployments, establishing communication channels, and setting up verification measures. Although the 2008 White Paper fails publicly to endorse the future direction of cross-Strait CBMs, it is likely that think tanks in Beijing and Taipei will have more opportunities to talk on issues to “stabilize cross-Straits relations and ease concerns about military security” (Xinhua News Agency, December 31, 2008).

Speculation in the Chinese media continues that Beijing might consider removing or freezing the numbers of its surface-to-surface missiles targeting at the island. The new scenario, however, could pose a security dilemma for the Ma Ying-jeou government and the Obama administration, because Beijing will fully take advantage of this dramatic gesture to weaken justifications of future U.S.-Taiwan military cooperation.

Two days after the publication of the White Paper, President Ma spoke to Taiwan’s military and urged them to combine hard with soft power to safeguard the island’s security. Ma argued that through military readiness, Taiwan could deter a war in the Taiwan Strait. Ma also proclaimed that “resolute defense and effective deterrence” is always the goal of Taiwan’s defense [15]. Nevertheless, both Ma Ying-jeou and Barack Obama will face one chilling reality—that the military balance in the Taiwan Strait is tilting in favor of the PLA.

Compared to Taiwan’s low-keyed response to the White Paper, the Japanese media have been much more vocal. In an editorial of the Asahi Shimbun it expressed disappointment because the White Paper “said nothing about China’s reported plans to build new nuclear-powered submarines equipped with ballistic missiles and aircraft carriers” and its “silence about these projects has only increased international unease.” The editorial furthers its critique by commenting that “the report didn’t refer to any review of China’s military capabilities in response to the improvement in relations with Taiwan” (Asahi Shimbun, January 23).

In the White Paper, Beijing toned down the pronouncement of its security concerns over Japan’s military modernization compared to its 2006 edition. Japan, however, is particularly concerned that the PLA is building a blue water navy that will pose a security challenge in the overlapping territorial claims over the disputed islands in the East China Sea (Japan Times, January 23).

Taiwanese and Japanese concerns are not exceptions. In a Senate Armed Service Committee testimony on January 27, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates identified the threats of Chinese military buildup by stating that “the areas of greatest concern are Chinese investments and growing capabilities in cyber and anti-satellite warfare, anti-air and anti-ship weaponry, submarines, and ballistic missiles.” Gates believes that “modernization in these areas could threaten America’s primary means of projecting power and helping allies in the Pacific” [16]. The United States, however, stated that it has “the capability in place to deal with any Chinese threat for some time to come” (Washington Times, January 27).


Even with further reduction of tension in the Taiwan Strait, China has decidedly maintained its rapid pace in building a high-tech and digital armed force with the ability to counter conventional and nuclear threat or to handle complex issues related to human security. Beijing has shown that its defense planning is already beyond Taiwan’s capability and could potentially challenge Japan and the United States in the Western Pacific. Undeniably, Beijing has made progress with each different edition of the White Paper since 1998, but it still conceals a great deal of defense information that shrouds its intent. Japan as well as the United States, and to a lesser extent Taiwan, are not reassured by Beijing’s latest Defense White Paper.  By keeping its strategic planning from being completely transparent, it could strengthen China’s psychological defense vis-à-vis its potential adversaries. Partial revelation of China’s defense information to meet the minimum standard of CBMs, while playing up the role of a responsible stakeholder, appears to be the strategy and intent behind the publication of China’s 2008 National Defense White Paper.   


1. Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s National Defense in 2008,” January 20, 2009, chapter 1, cited in
2. Ibid.
3. “China’s National Defense in 2008,” Chapter 7.
4. “China’s National Defense in 2008,” Chapter 2.
5. “China’s National Defense in 2008,” Chapter 5.
6. “China’s National Defense in 2008,” Chapter 14.
7. “China’s National Defense in 2008,” Chapter 1.
8. Ibid.
9. “China’s National Defense in 2008,” Chapter 1.
10. “China’s National Defense in 2008,” Chapter 2.
11. “China’s National Defense in 2008,” Chapters 2 and 3.
12. “China’s National Defense in 2008,” Chapter 12.
13. Petter Stålenheim, Catalina Perdomo and Elisabeth Sköns, “Military Expenditure,” in SIPRI 2008 Yearbook: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, cited in
14.  Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s National Defense in 2006,” December 2006, Beijing Review, No. 2 (January 11, 2007), Vol. 50, No. 2 (January 11, 2007), p. 3.
15. Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan), News Releases, January 22, 2009.
16. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates Submitted Statement, Senate Armed Services Committee, January 27, 2009, cited in