China’s Defense White Paper: What it Does (and Doesn’t) Tell Us

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 2

Credit should be given where it is due, and if one reads between the lines, the four Chinese defense white papers released every even year since 2000 have provided clearer insight into Beijing’s strategic aims and defense planning than ever intimated by Zhongnanhai through the 1990s. While the China’s National Defense in 2006 white paper should be primarily read as a piece of propaganda—part of China’s public campaign to assure the reigning hegemon (i.e., the United States) of its peaceful intentions—the paper does reveal invaluable insights into China’s thinking about the global strategic situation [1]. Those reading the white paper as one would read a U.S. defense budget document or defense policy review, however, will be quite disappointed, for it leaves many questions about China’s military capabilities and spending unanswered and provides no avenue for China’s citizenry to question (let alone challenge) the defense plans of its leadership.

Readers of the defense white paper may be happy to learn that Beijing has determined that “world wars or all-out confrontation between major countries are avoidable for the foreseeable future” and that “peace and development remain the principal themes in today’s world.” The latter of these saccharine phrases reflects a longstanding determination by Deng Xiaoping that China should focus on the development of its economy as the basis for greater national power in the future, rather than gird its loins for an immediate struggle with other great powers. This patient outlook is complemented by Deng’s dictum to “bide our time, hide our capabilities,” while preparing for the future.

The white paper is concerned about the United States getting in China’s way as it “peacefully develops,” and declares that “hegemonism and power politics remain key factors undermining international security” and just as ominously, that a “small number of countries…have intensified their military alliances and resorted to force or threats of force in international affairs.” Just to make sure that the point is not lost, the paper proceeds to outline the major “complications” for security in Asia: “The United States is accelerating its realignment of military deployment to enhance its military capability in the Asia-Pacific region. The United States and Japan are strengthening their military alliance in pursuit of operational integration. Japan seeks to revise its constitution and exercise collective self-defense. Its military posture is becoming more external oriented.” Of course, lest Washington and her allies take all the blame for a complex security situation in Asia, the white paper adds that North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapon tests have also made things more difficult. Taiwan, meanwhile, remains a challenge that “must not be neglected.” Indeed, the paper concludes that the “struggle to oppose and contain the separatist forces for ‘Taiwan independence’” poses a “grave threat” and that Washington makes matters worse by continuing to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan.

Enquiring minds are left wondering: how will China respond to this security environment, which is described in detailed, if euphemistic prose? It is here that the white paper becomes significantly less transparent in outlining China’s future military ambitions. Although the white paper states that it is the mission of China’s military to “stop separation and promote reunification, guard against and resist aggression, and defend national sovereignty, territorial integrity and maritime rights and interests,” it does not clearly identify what China views as necessary means to achieve those ends.

For example, despite the warning that China’s armed forces will crush any “major incident of ‘Taiwan independence,’” the paper provides no guidance on what would be considered as such an incident: constitutional reform? The re-election of the DPP in 2008? The paper is thus left making a vague (if ominous) threat rather than a clarification of Beijing’s true intentions. Such a pattern was likewise seen in the March 2005 “Anti-Secession Law,” which provided little insight other than reveal Beijing’s willingness to employ force when it believes that Taiwan’s independence is unavoidable or that possibilities for peaceful reunification are “exhausted” (China Daily, March 14, 2005).

Perhaps the most problematic question is what China means when it says that it intends to defend its “maritime rights and interests.” Recent incidents involving expanded efforts by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to probe into waters outside of its immediate control indicate what this effort entails. In November 2004, a Chinese submarine was detected in Japan’s waters, a provocation that heightened tensions between Tokyo and Beijing (The Washington Post, November 17, 2004). Then last October, a Chinese Song-class submarine approached within five miles undetected of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, an incident that could have easily escalated into an armed clash (Taipei Times, December 6, 2006).

These Chinese naval efforts point to two possible explanations. First, that China seeks to guarantee its penultimate goal of reunifying Taiwan with the mainland by establishing an ever larger zone into which the so-called “anti-access/area denial” threat faced by U.S. and allied forces prevents a rapid response to an invasion of the island. Second, is the degree to which these capabilities extend beyond the immediate question of Taiwan’s future to that of Chinese naval power for its own sake, a point that Chinese President Hu Jintao touched upon in a recent speech to the Central Military Commission (People’s Daily, December 27, 2006). If China can establish maritime supremacy into the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean, it will be able to prevent U.S. freedom of movement in the “first island chain” extending from Sakhalin through Indonesia, beyond to Southeast Asia, and even extending into parts of South Asia. Such a maritime sphere of influence will give Beijing options for exercising its power as it sees fit, thus remedying the “serious imbalances” in the international strategic alignment that it sees today.

As the key instrument in such a strategy, the white paper states that the PLAN “aims at gradual extension of the strategic depth for offshore defensive operations and enhancing its capabilities in integrated maritime operations and nuclear counterattacks.” The white paper does not discuss specific capabilities that will allow it to accomplish this goal, and indeed, does not mention any specific platforms that the military seeks to acquire. China’s naval acquisitions, however, provide some perspectives into this question. In recent years, China has built a pair of Type 093-class fast attack and one Type 094 Jin-class ballistic missile nuclear submarines, expanding both the PLAN’s reach into the open ocean as well as China’s second-strike capability. Perhaps even more critical, the purchase of twelve advanced conventional Kilo-class submarines from Russia have helped Beijing expand the sea area where it can deny U.S. operations: Kilo-launched wake-homing torpedoes are a particularly deadly threat to aircraft carrier battle groups, a target that Chinese strategists have focused on especially after the 1995-1996 Taiwan missile crisis [2]. This rapid buildup of open ocean and area denial capabilities means that China’s naval sphere will only continue to expand.

China’s Second Artillery Corps, or independent missile command, is also crucial for enhancing the country’s ability to limit the exercise of U.S. power in Asia. China’s build-up of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles places U.S. and friendly assets at risk throughout the region, while the reported development of the DF-31 anti-ship ballistic missile variant poses an additional threat to U.S. aircraft carriers [3]. The recent successful test of the KT-1 anti-satellite missile likewise demonstrates that China is attaining the ability to limit U.S. intelligence gathering capabilities in Asia, a key asset for U.S. military decision makers (The Guardian, January 19, 2007; see also “Motives and Implications behind China’s ASAT Test”). Except for some modest verbiage on the need to become a more “streamlined and effective” force with an improved command and control structure, the white paper addresses none of these developments.

This same lack of transparency on specific capabilities extends from China’s development of its military force to the question of the scale of China’s defense expenditure. On the defense budget, the Chinese government announced a budget of $35 billion in 2006, a figure that is viewed with skepticism among independent analysts. The Defense Intelligence Agency, for example, estimates Chinese defense spending in 2006 to be between $70-$105 billion, a figure that includes a tremendous amount of research and development funds that the Chinese figure does not include. But while the United States may be concerned with the lack of transparency on specific accounts of China’s military plans, budget and hardware buildup, there is one area where U.S. concerns are particularly cogent—the absence of a broad, domestic debate in China about the appropriate use of the military and the best direction for the national strategy.

For all their differences, the United States once experienced China’s current position of being a rapidly rising world power in the face of a global hegemon—then of course, the United Kingdom. Although Washington also sought to dress its rise in as peaceful a garb as possible, the citizens of Mexico, Spain, Cuba and the Philippines at the time would have disagreed. For its faults, however, the United States always found a domestic source of inertia to imperialism—the debate inherent to being a liberal democracy. Each of America’s expansionist wars inspired political opposition encompassing such figures as Henry David Thoreau, to Abraham Lincoln to Andrew Carnegie. This dissent did not always prevent the abuse of expanding U.S. power, but limited it. Most importantly, Britain watched the debate in Washington, ultimately concluded that America was no threat and accommodated her rise.

And this is the greatest risk that the biannual publication of China’s defense white paper inadvertently highlights. While it is as thorough an examination of China’s strategic environment and objectives as one may expect from Beijing, it will go publicly undebated and unopposed within China. Can it really be that in a society of 1.3 billion people no important segments of society oppose a military build-up to “crush” Taiwanese “independence” activities that are conducted by the elected representatives in a democracy? Is there no debate about the merits and costs of challenging U.S. preeminence? As long as China remains a closed society, it will have an opaque defense policymaking process, Washington will have to draw inferences about China’s strategic intentions, and prudent policymakers will naturally take into account worse case scenarios.

It is a safe bet that in two more years, China will still be telling the world that it is peacefully developing and its military build-up is a response to the ills of hegemonism. Independence forces in Taipei will still pose a grave threat to Chinese sovereignty and security in the Taiwan Strait. Meanwhile Washington and her allies will continue to hedge against an “unpeaceful rise,” and this will remain the state of affairs until the Chinese people have the freedom to question their nation’s security strategy.


1. All references to China’s National Defense in 2006 are to the version made available by China Daily on December 29, 2006; available at

2. Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein and William Murray, “‘Gate Crashing’: Chinese Submarines Test New Waters,” Chinese Military Update 2:7.

3. Remarks by Richard Fisher at American Enterprise Institute, July 11, 2006; available from

4. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2006, p. 20