China’s Defense White Paper: A New Conceptual Framework for Security

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 9

China organized this year’s defense white paper around the historic missions concept as the principal framework for understanding the mission and activities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The concept of “core interests,” a key driver of the historic missions, featured prominently in the white paper as well [1]. The high profile accorded these concepts reflects their enhanced authoritativeness as well as China’s increased power and influence. For these reasons, Beijing can be expected to step up efforts to both consolidate control of its sovereignty claims and shape a favorable international order.

The title of this year’s defense white paper, “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces,” refers to the “diversified tasks” (duoyanghua renwu) the heart of the “historic missions of the armed forces in the new period of the new century,” often referred to simply as the “historic missions.” The missions concept refers to strategic guidance that then-Central Military Commission (CMC) Chair Hu Jintao provided to the military in late 2004 and which has been mentioned in defense white papers since 2006. The historic missions consist of four requirements: (1) provide an important security guarantee for the party to consolidate its ruling position; (2) provide a strong security guarantee for safeguarding the period of important strategic opportunity for national development; (3) provide a powerful strategic support for safeguarding national interests; and (4) play an important role in safeguarding world peace and promoting common development" (Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party [CCP]). As the PLA essentially provides the ultimate backstop for the first requirement, it is not really addressed in the paper. The other elements, however, frame the main content of the white paper.

Core Interests Elevated in Importance

This year’s white paper similarly elevated the importance of the core interest (hexin liyi) concept. This concept has appeared in some form in defense white papers since 2002. The term is a party concept which refers to the most important national interests, which Chinese analysts define as the collective “material and spiritual demands of a state and people.”

Chinese media has explained consistently how the evolving definition of national interests has driven the military to update its mission. The most recent development has been the addition of “developmental interests” to the older groups of security and sovereignty interests, as well as a refinement of the meaning of all three groups in light of China’s growing power and integration into the global economy. A typical PLA Daily article explained that China’s economic growth now required the PLA to protect national “developmental interests” (fazhan liyi) as well as “survival interests” (shengcun liyi). It contrasted the missions and functions of the military in the “agricultural and industrial age,” which focused on “manning the frontiers and defending the territories,” with new mission requirements to “protect China’s peaceful development and great power status” in the “information age” (PLA Daily, December 8, 2005).

Like the historic missions, the core interest concept offers a clearer way to organize thinking about security than the political language of the Mao and Deng eras. Discussing security threats in wildly hyperbolic, rigidly ideological terms are a luxury that economically enfeebled, autarkic communist countries might indulge in, but something that a rising great power can ill afford, especially when surrounded by wary, heavily armed, modern nations. The modernizing PLA of the Deng and early Jiang eras avoided this pitfall, but the lingering influence of communist orthodoxy contributed to a low level of rigor and clarity of thought. By contrast, delineating categories of core interests that tie directly to China’s higher strategic priorities facilitates more precise analysis and allows the PLA to prioritize responsibilities, evaluate threats, and develop plans and capabilities in a rational manner more appropriate for the needs of a great power with global interests.

Why the Concepts Have Risen in Importance

Both the core interests and the historic missions derive from assessments formalized around the year 2000—the start of what the CCP refers to as the “new period in the new century.” Two important developments led to the current elevation in importance of the concepts in the current paper: an increase in political authoritativeness; the relative growth in Chinese power, which has raised the feasibility and urgency of implementing the new guidance.

The ability of the party’s strategic concepts to drive policy is determined in part by the level of authority of those concepts. The higher a strategic concept climbs in authority, the more likely related policies are to enjoy support. The ultimate status for a strategic concept is for it to be adopted as part of the “guiding ideology” (zhidao sixiang). Once a strategic concept attains this status, it enjoys supreme authority and associated policies rise in priority and importance.

Both the historic missions and the core interest concept are associated with the Scientific Development Concept articulated by Hu Jintao soon after taking power in 2002. Thus, when the 17th Party Congress incorporated the Scientific Development Concept into the CCP Constitution, it boosted the legitimacy of the historic missions and core interests. At the 18th Party Congress, the Scientific Development Concept gained the “guiding ideology” status, reflecting strong leadership consensus (“The 18th Party Congress Work Report: Policy Blueprint for the Xi Administration,” China Brief, November 30, 2012). This ensured that the related historic missions and core interest concepts would play a definitive role in China’s security thinking. The revised format of the defense white paper is a symptom of this development.

In addition, China has seen its relative national power continue to increase in recent years. As its surging economy over took Japan to be the second largest in the world in 2010, China has witnessed the European Union’s economy continue to struggle and the United States remain mired in political gridlock. Meanwhile, China’s military continues to expand at a healthy clip. Symptomatic of its growth in power, efforts by the Philippines and Japan to shore up their eroding position on disputed maritime claims vis a vis China have foundered against Beijing’s assertive reactions in the Scarborough Reef and the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands situations.

Not only has China’s growing power bolstered its leverage, it also has increased its sense of urgency regarding security. In particular, the increasing anxiety of the region and attention from the United States in the form of the Rebalance has raised the importance for Beijing of adjusting its security strategy to reduce vulnerabilities, protect core interests, and shape a favorable, stable security environment to enable the nation to maintain its focus on rapid, balanced development.

The New Security Framework in the White Paper

Just as the implications of China’s growing power in an era of globalization lies at the heart of the core interests concept, the challenge of balancing a peaceful, stable security environment with the need to reduce strategic vulnerabilities and protect a growing array of core interests lies at the heart of the historic missions concept. The white paper focuses on both by providing a more thorough description of the core interests viewed from the point of view of the military, and by describing how the military implements the historic missions guidance.

Core Interests. The third chapter of the white paper focuses on the “sovereignty” and “security” core interests. The white paper recognizes that these are the most basic and most important of the core interests. In addition to naming the “core security needs” as “national defense, resisting foreign aggression and defending the motherland,” the chapter discusses air, land, and maritime territorial integrity. While not new, additional leverage granted by its growing power has spurred Beijing to reinterpret its sovereignty and security interests. As but one example, the white paper mentions that the PLA Navy now carries out “blue water training,” which includes “remote early warning” and “open sea interception.” This illustrates that what China regards as necessary for the security of its wealthy seaboard has expanded in depth. Similarly, the white paper mentions that China now has “space and cyber security interests,” concepts that did not appear in official documents ten years ago.

The fourth chapter focuses on the interests related to national development. Two large groups are highlighted: maritime rights and interests, and overseas interests. The former are understood to refer to the economic and legal rights—such as minerals, fishing and other resources—to which China feels entitled. China’s growing appetite for resources has increased the value of the maritime regions. Further, many of the areas that involve direct Chinese maritime interests overlaps with its security interests and sovereignty claims, increasing the strategic value of those waters.

The overseas interests mentioned highlight sea lines of communication and Chinese nationals abroad. This is a growing area of military responsibility, as noted by the paper’s discussion of the continued Gulf of Aden and Libya evacuation missions. These similarly reflect the expansion of Chinese strategic interests as part of its growing power and integration into the global economy.

Historic Missions. The paper is largely organized around the military challenge of balancing the imperative to provide security for the growing array of core interests with the imperative to help shape a favorable security environment. This requires the PLA to respond to non-traditional threats such as disasters and terrorism which could threaten Chinese interests at home and abroad. The white paper employs the Western term “military operations other than war” (MOOTW) to describe these duties. The white paper, however, makes clear that the term “diversified tasks” refers to the PLA’s ability to execute both war and MOOTW in support of the nation’s development. The paper’s second chapter outlines how the PLA’s modernization is enabling it to carry out these responsibilities.

The third and fourth chapters highlight the military’s role in coordinating closely with civilian authorities to protect China’s sovereignty, security, and developmental interests. The picture painted is one in which the military provides direct support to the whole of government’s efforts to incrementally increase the administrative, legal, and economic de-facto control of disputed maritime claims and other interests. As an example, the paper describes how the PLA Navy provides “security support” to maritime law enforcement, fisheries, and oil and gas exploitation. It also discusses cooperation with international bodies to protect China’s overseas interests.

The fifth chapter on “safeguarding world peace and regional stability” speaks to the PLA’s role in shaping a favorable security environment. This means first of all that the PLA play a role in promoting the global and regional stability critical to enabling the country’s development. Participation in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (PKO) also allows provides useful political cover to enhance security of its overseas interests, as the PLA has done through participation in UN anti-piracy operations to protect its sea lines of communication near the Horn of Africa.


Of the PLA’s mission set, the most challenging may be the task to promote regional stability. China seeks to avoid what it deems unacceptable compromises on its interests while simultaneously avoiding instability from conflict over those interests. Key to easing this dilemma is close PLA cooperation with civil authorities, who carry out the sensitive work of enforcing China’s maritime claims. Underlining this point, the white paper sets up the political argument to justify any potential military response to protect its claims and other interests. The paper repurposes Mao’s dictum, “We will not attack unless we are attacked; but we will surely counter attack if attacked” from one of defense against invasion and nuclear attack to one which warns neighboring powers that China will “resolutely take all measures necessary to safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”  This approach shrewdly allows China to quietly consolidate its claims in a manner that minimizes alarm, while throwing the onus on its neighboring powers to risk dramatic action to halt Chinese encroachments, knowing full well that China will exploit any misstep to consolidate its gains even further.

Feasibility will likely remain the key to how fast or hard China pushes on its core interests. If the Chinese feel their leverage has grown to an extent that they can make gains with minimal cost, they are likely to do so. To the extent its actions prove too destabilizing due to insufficient leverage, Beijing may well slow the consolidation of its interests. Moreover, the tensions between the imperatives to enhance control of core interests and maintain a stable security environment are beyond the abilities of China to manage alone. Efforts to tighten control of disputed claims, after all, invariably generate instability, while China lacks leverage to compel powerful neighbors like Japan to concede on maritime disputes. China will continue to reach out to the United States and other great powers to promote international stability and to help China consolidate control of its interests.

The 2012 Defense White Paper presents a clearer picture than its predecessors of how China views security through the lens of its growing power and globalizing interests. The political consensus behind this approach, confirmed at the 18th Party Congress, ensures that this will be the de facto security strategy for the foreseeable future. Understanding the centrality of the core interests and the historic missions concepts for China’s strategic thought can help policy makers more effectively anticipate and respond to future Chinese security-related developments.


  1. The 2013 white paper The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces is available at the Ministry of National Defense website <>. Previous Chinese defense white papers are available at the Chinese Central Government’s Official website <>.