China’s 2010 National Defense White Paper: An Assessment

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 7

China released its latest national defense White Paper on March 31. The document, entitled China’s National Defense in 2010, is the seventh that the Chinese government has released since 1998 when it began publishing the biannual defense White Papers [1]. Like all of China’s defense White Papers, this is primarily an externally focused document. Since 1998, the defense White Papers have served as an element of China’s strategic messaging. The White Papers are intended to respond to external concerns about transparency and to reduce mistrust based on China’s growing defense spending and military modernization. On balance, China deserves some credit for its efforts even though they fall short of what many observers would like to see.

The latest White Paper offers an overview of Chinese assessments of the country’s security situation, some discussion of China’s national defense policy, a general overview of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) modernization, and a recounting of the PLA’s involvement in activities such as participating in U.N. Peacekeeping Operations, conducting escort operations in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia, holding joint military exercises with other countries, and participation in international disaster relief operations. In addition, it includes sections on topics such as national defense mobilization, the military legal system, China’s defense expenditure, military confidence building, and China’s arms control and disarmament policy.

China’s View of the Security Situation

The section that outlines China’s assessment of its security situation is one of the most noteworthy parts of the latest White Paper because it articulates China’s views of the international strategic environment and outlines Beijing’s strategic threat perceptions. The section reflects China’s mixed perception of its external security environment, highlighting developments that are generally positive from Beijing’s perspective but also underscoring growing unease about trends that Chinese analysts view as threatening. It summarizes China’s view of the security situation as follows:

The international situation is currently undergoing profound and complex changes. The progress toward economic globalization and a multi-polar world is irreversible…the current trend toward peace, development and cooperation is irresistible. But, international strategic competition and contradictions are intensifying, global challenges are becoming more prominent, and security threats are becoming increasingly integrated, complex and volatile. (p. 3)

This section also reflects Beijing’s assessment that its comprehensive power is growing relative to that of the United States and other major countries, especially in the wake of the global financial crisis. As the White Paper puts it, “the international balance of power is changing, most notably through the economic strength and growing international status and influence of emerging powers and developing countries.” (p. 3)

The latest White Paper paints a relatively favorable picture of a security environment in which China’s power is increasing and the world is becoming more multi-polar. China is still able to enjoy a period of opportunity for domestic development, one that has already enabled it to become a much more powerful country. The White Paper also highlights positive developments in cross-Strait relations over the past few years. At the same time, however, it notes that further progress in the cross-Strait relationship “is still confronted by some complicating factors.” (p. 5) [2]. In addition, it points to some security trends that are deeply concerning from Beijing’s perspective, such as threats posed by “separatist forces” in Xinjiang and Tibet.

The White Paper also portrays the broader international security situation as one that has become “more complex.” According to the document, “International strategic competition centering on international order, comprehensive national strength and geopolitics has intensified. Contradictions continue to surface between developed and developing countries and between traditional and emerging powers, while local conflicts and regional flashpoints are a recurrent theme.” (p. 4) Although this section does not call out any particular country by name, it is fairly clear whom the authors have in mind when they characterize international military competition as “fierce.”

According to the White Paper: “Major powers are stepping up the realignment of their security and military strategies, accelerating military reform, and vigorously developing new and more sophisticated military technologies. Some powers have worked out strategies for outer space, cyber space and the polar regions, developed means for prompt global strikes, accelerated development of missile defense systems, and enhanced cyber operations capabilities to occupy new strategic commanding heights.” (p. 4) Indeed, this is clearly a reference to U.S. activities of concern to China, such as the development of new military capabilities and emerging operational concepts like air sea battle and the establishment of the United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) [3].

Turning to the situation in the Asia-Pacific, the White Paper proclaims that it is “generally stable,” but also warns that it is “becoming more intricate and volatile.” According to the White Paper: “Profound changes are taking shape in the Asia-Pacific strategic landscape. Relevant major powers are increasing their strategic investment. The United States is reinforcing its regional military alliances, and increasing its involvement in regional security affairs.” (p. 4) The document paints a picture of a United States that is taking a more active role in regional security issues as it becomes increasingly concerned about the potential implications of China’s rising economic, political, and military power. It also highlights China’s growing wariness about what it sees as U.S. efforts to check its emergence as a great power through containment. In the White Paper’s words, “Suspicion about China, interference and countering moves against China from the outside are on the increase.” (p. 5) In addition, it argues that China is facing greater pressure in preserving its “maritime rights and interests.” (p. 5)

Reassuring the Neighbors about China’s Defense Policy and Military Spending

Following the discussion of the security situation, the White Paper turns to China’s defense policy. The section on national defense policy seems intended to assuage concerns about how China will use its growing military power by reiterating that China “pursues a national defense policy which is defensive in nature.” (p. 5) It also appears to be aimed at addressing concerns about what China will do as it becomes even stronger economically in the future. According to the latest White Paper, “China will never seek hegemony, nor will it adopt the approach of military expansion now or in the future, no matter how its economy develops,” (p. 6) a consistent theme that Beijing also emphasized in nearly identical language that appeared in its 2008 defense White Paper.

The national defense policy section of the White Paper also presents Beijing’s vision for the future of the cross-Strait relationship, which involves a process of resolving differences “through consultation on an equal footing,” discussing political relations “in a pragmatic manner,” holding exchanges on military issues and building mutual trust in the military field “at an appropriate time,” reaching a peace agreement, and ultimately achieving reunification. In addition, it outlines “the goals and tasks of China’s national defense in the new era,” which include (1) safeguarding national sovereignty, security and interests of national development; (2) maintaining social harmony and stability; (3) accelerating the modernization of national defense and the armed forces; and (4) maintaining world peace and stability. (p. 6)

The White Paper’s coverage of Chinese defense expenditure seems intended to counter concerns in the United States and in the region about the growth of China’s defense budget, which has increased by double-digit percentages almost every year since the early 1990s. According to the White Paper, “China has increased its defense expenditure moderately as needed,” but has kept its defense spending “at a reasonable and appropriate level” in line with its economic development. The paper reports that the share of GDP devoted to defense “has remained relatively steady” in recent years, while the portion of the government’s total financial expenditure devoted to national defense “has been moderately decreased.” The White Paper also notes that as a result of “the residual impact of the global financial crisis and other uncertainties, the tension between revenue and expenditure in China’s finances persists.” Moreover, the paper suggests that this means defense spending has to compete with other priorities, such as agriculture, rural development, education, science and technology, health, and social welfare. As a result, “the growth rate of defense expenditure has decreased.” (p. 30)

Modest Transparency on PLA Modernization

The White Paper also includes a section that covers the modernization of the PLA, providing an overview of army, navy, air force, and Second Artillery modernization, but it offers little that is genuinely new in the way of details about the PLA’s growing capabilities. Instead, it provides general discussions of the modernization of Chinese ground, air, naval, and nuclear and conventional missile forces. One interesting part of the section on PLA modernization, however, is a brief discussion of advances China has made in modernizing its command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) architecture. According to this part of the White Paper, the PLA has made major strides in its communications infrastructure and related capabilities:

The total length of the national defense optical fiber communication network has increased by a large margin, forming a new generation information transmission network with optical fiber communication as the mainstay and satellite and short-wave communications as assistance.

Significant progress has been made in building information systems for reconnaissance and intelligence, command and control, and battlefield environment awareness. Information systems have been widely applied in logistics and equipment support. A preliminary level has been achieved in interoperability among command and control systems, combat forces, and support systems, making order transmission, intelligence distribution, command and guidance more efficient and rapid. (p. 11)

More on MOOTW

Prominently featured in the latest White Paper following the discussions of defense policy and PLA modernization is a new section on the “deployment of the armed forces.” This new section covers PLA participation in military operations other than war (MOOTW) activities and it lists several accomplishments, such as Chinese participation in U.N. Peacekeeping Operations, PLA contributions to domestic and international disaster relief efforts, and the PLA Navy’s involvement in counter-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and off of Somalia. This section seems intended to offer an overview of the PLA’s MOOTW accomplishments and highlight the growing international role of the PLA. For example, in the area of peacekeeping, the White Paper reports, “As of December 2010, the PLA had 1,955 officers and men serving in nine U.N. mission areas. China has dispatched more peacekeeping personnel than any other permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.” (p. 18).

China’s naval escort activities are also highlighted as a constructive contribution to international security. The ships China has deployed to conduct escort operations in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia since December 2008 are responsible for “safeguarding the security of Chinese ships and personnel passing through the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters, and the security of ships delivering humanitarian supplies for the World Food Program and other international organizations, and shelter pass-by foreign vessels as much as possible.” As of December 2010, according to the White Paper, the PLA Navy “has provided protection for 3,139 ships sailing under Chinese and foreign flags, rescued 29 ships from pirate attacks, and recovered nine ships released from captivity.” (p. 18)

What’s Missing

Perhaps as interesting as what is included in the White Paper is the exclusion of several subjects that have figured prominently in recent international media coverage of Chinese military developments. Indeed, some rather high- profile issues—chief among them the test flight of the developmental J-20 stealth fighter that took place during Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ visit to Beijing in January and what seems to be a growing willingness to discuss China’s determination to deploy aircraft carriers—are conspicuous by their absence. China’s defense White Papers generally do not offer many details about specific capabilities, and the potential political and diplomatic sensitivity of topics like China’s aircraft carrier ambitions could be further reasons for avoiding detailed discussions in a document like the defense White Paper.

Perhaps less notable than the carrier but also omitted are any mention of China’s January 2007 anti-satellite (ASAT) test or its January 2010 missile defense test, even though the White Paper reiterates that China opposes the weaponization of outer space and implicitly criticizes U.S. missile defense policies [4]. Nor does the latest White Paper mention other capabilities that have generated a great deal of international media attention since the release of the last White Paper, such as the anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) intended to hold U.S. aircraft carriers at risk. In addition, the lack of discussion of China’s evacuation of citizens from Libya would also seem to be a notable omission, especially given the emphasis of the White Paper on China’s participation in activities like disaster relief, peacekeeping, and counter-piracy operations, but it was most likely left out because it happened too recently to be included in the document without delaying its release.


In spite of the White Paper’s lack of detail on specific capabilities, it would behoove Western analysts to study the perspectives offered in the biannual assessment. One reason is what the White Paper tells us about changes in Chinese threat perceptions. Beijing still sees a security situation that is favorable on the whole, but its suspicion of U.S. strategic intentions seems to be increasing and it perceives growing challenges related to China’s maritime interests. Another reason to study the latest White Paper is its emphasis on PLA participation in MOOTW, which it portrays as part of an adaptation to the requirements of a changing security environment in which China’s military must be prepared to deal with a variety of traditional and non-traditional security challenges.


1. China released English and Chinese versions of the document. For the English version, see Information Office of the State Council, China’s National Defense in 2010, March 31, 2011, For the Chinese version, see Information Office of the State Council, 2010 年中国的国防, March 31, 2011, Page numbers are from the PDF on the U.S. National Defense University’s website:
2. The White Paper charges that the “‘Taiwan independence’ separatist force and its activities are still the biggest obstacle and threat to the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations.” It also criticizes the United States for continuing to sell weapons to Taiwan “in the defiance of the three Sino-US joint communiques,” which it argues remains a serious impediment to the further development of U.S.-China relations and continues to impair the development of cross-Strait ties.
3. In addition to these more traditional security concerns, another set of problems described in the White Paper centers on non-traditional security challenges. According to the White Paper, the security threats associated with problems such as terrorism, global climate change, nuclear proliferation, information insecurity, natural disasters, public health threats, and transnational crime are growing, and the situation is becoming more complex as “Traditional security concerns blend with non-traditional ones and domestic concerns interact with international security ones, making it hard for traditional security approaches and mechanisms to respond effectively to the various security issues and challenges in the world.”
4. On missile defense, China’s 2010 National Defense White Paper states: “China maintains that the global missile defense program will be detrimental to international strategic balance and stability, will undermine international and regional security, and will have a negative impact on the process of nuclear disarmament. China holds that no state should deploy overseas missile defense systems that have strategic missile defense capabilities or potential, or engage in any such international collaboration.”