Major Themes in China’s 2019 National Defense White Paper

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 14

Image: PRC State Council Information Office representatives unveil the new National Defense White Paper at a press conference in Beijing, July 24. (Source: Xinhua)

Introduction

On July 24, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) issued its first new national defense white paper (NDWP) since 2015 (Xinhua). “China’s National Defense in a New Era”  attempts both to articulate a vision of global security in which China is a driving force for “world peace,” and to establish clear red lines on China’s core “sovereignty, security, and development interests.” While unsparing in its critique of power politics and “hegemonism,” this document also calls for China’s armed forces to “adapt to the new landscape of strategic competition.” Although the paper includes some notable information regarding the modernization and development of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), these issues will be examined specifically in a later article. 

While caution is required against over-interpreting a document intended for messaging to a global audience, certain themes provide important takeaways. In particular, “China’s National Defense in a New Era” offers insights into how the PRC leadership imagines a world order characterized by greater multipolarity, its aspirations to exercise leadership within that “community of common destiny,” and the strategic objectives on which Beijing will brook no compromise. This paper reveals Beijing’s intentions to reshape the current architecture of the global order towards a future more favorable for its interests, which are expanding into new domains around the globe. 

Dreams of a New Global Order

“China’s National Defense in a New Era” continues an official narrative on China’s emergence as a great power with global influence. While this latest defense white paper reflects the PRC’s response to new directions in U.S. national security strategy, there are striking differences in how Beijing and Washington portray the dynamics of a time when the strategic landscape is undergoing “profound changes.” In discussing the security situation in the Asia-Pacific, the claim that countries in the region are “increasingly aware that they are members of a community with shared destiny” (命运共同体, mingyun gongtongti) asserts a narrative in line with Beijing’s ideological inclinations. Similarly, in a 2017 white paper on Asia-Pacific security cooperation, the PRC had articulated its commitment to “shoulder greater responsibilities for regional and global security, and provide more public security services to the Asia-Pacific region and the world at large” (State Council Information Office, January 2017). [1]

Relative to prior defense white papers, certain staple messages from Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda are featured more prominently. The framing of this white paper links China’s defense directly to the notion of a “community of common destiny for humanity” (人类命运共同体, renlei mingyun gongtongti), often rendered in English as as a “community of a shared future for mankind.” [2] While the 2015 NDWP had also described a “community of shared destiny,” the 2019 edition directly describes Chinese power as the underpinning of that community.  

As a theory of global governance, this concept has been clearly elevated in importance under Xi Jinping’s leadership, emerging as a major element of PRC diplomacy. In particular, Xi Jinping has featured the “community of a common destiny for humanity” in many of his major speeches on international relations (China Brief, July 16). This phrasing is assessed to encapsulate “Beijing’s long-term vision for transforming the international environment to make it compatible with China’s governance model and emergence as a global leader.” [3] The prominent placement of this vision within this latest NDWP is unsurprising, yet nonetheless significant. 

China’s “Strong Military Dream” in a New Global Order

This white paper links Xi Jinping’s discourse on the “China Dream” (中国梦, Zhongguo Meng) with this vision for a new world order. The “strong military dream” (强军梦, qiang jun meng) is often characterized as an essential element to secure the China Dream; that narrative is now expanded to argue that a more powerful Chinese military is equally essential to this global dream (Qiushi, December 1, 2013). The paper attempts to reframe the trajectory of  Chinese military modernization by claiming: “A strong military of China is a staunch force for world peace, stability and the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.” This assertion is intended to reassure China’s neighbors about about the rise of Chinese military power, which has progressed at a speed and scale that have often provoked concerns, arguing this is instead a boon for the region. The Chinese military is characterized as playing a role that is constructive, directed to  “actively participate in the reform of [the] global security governance system.” 

Although the PRC’s aspiration to exercise a leading influence in global governance and contribute to reforms of that system are hardly surprising, this is the first time that China’s armed forces have been so directly and officially connected to that agenda. It continues to be debated whether this intention to reform the world order should be considered a hallmark of revisionism, or a rightful assertion of greater influence commensurate with growing capabilities. However, the articulation of the Chinese military’s intention to “contribute to a security architecture” is a more novel framing of the PRC’s national defense policy. The call for such a new architecture to be characterized by equality—or literally “inclusivity” (包容, baorong)—implies a shift away from the current global system of alliances. This apparent objective is rendered even more explicit by the advocacy of “partnerships rather than alliances.” Consistently, China has criticized U.S. efforts to strengthen military alliances as “adding complexity to regional security.” 

This critique of military alliances is interesting when juxtaposed against the deepening of defense cooperation between China and Russia. This complex relationship, categorized as a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era,” is characterized in this document as possessing significance for “maintaining global strategic stability”—perhaps an implicit allusion to the function of this deepening alignment in balancing against the United States. Strikingly, this partnership is starting to take on certain features of a military alliance, involving “the sound development of exchange mechanisms at all levels, expanded cooperation in high-level exchanges, military training, equipment, technology, and counter-terrorism.” This military cooperation has notably extended to the PLA’s participation in Russia’s Vostok exercise in September 2018. The joint air patrols by strategic bombers that entered South Korea’s airspace in July 2019 illustrate another evolution of this partnership to target a U.S. ally (Eurasia Daily Monitor, July 25).

In this “new era,” China’s armed forces are called upon to take on new global missions in an unprecedented manner. Although the rise and rapid growth of China’s military power has provoked concern, this NDWP argues that “China’s armed forces have responded faithfully to the call for a community with a shared future for mankind,” through “actively fulfilling the international obligations of the armed forces of a major country.” Such discourse indicates that the Chinese military today may be preparing to undertake the role of “global policeman” that the U.S. military has traditionally shouldered in providing “public security goods,” including contributing to the security of global passages (e.g., sea lanes). Notably, there is even an allusion to plans to “play a constructive role in the political settlement of hotspot issues”—a questionable claim given China’s recent actions, such as boycotting resolutions to address the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar (Reuters, December 17, 2018). At the same time, the notion that China “is opposed to interference in the external affairs of others” is belied already by an extensive body of evidence of influence revealing activities intended for precisely that purpose, prominently in Australia and Singapore (China Brief, May 9; China Brief, July 16). 

Signaling of Red Lines and Resolve

“China’s National Defense in a New Era” is clearly intended to send strong signals to a global audience. However, this communication of redlines and resolve often stands in stark contradiction to the discourse on China’s commitment to “world peace,” and claims that its policy and strategic intentions are purely defensive (Xinhua, July 24). PRC warnings regarding Taiwan are highly prominent. The NDWP adopts a tone that is much more strident compared to the 2013 or 2015 editions, potentially indicating a response to trends in Taiwan’s politics, and increased skepticism over the viability of “one country, two systems” as a model in light of the situation in Hong Kong. Noting “the fight against separatists is becoming more acute,” this official document includes the following statement: “To solve the Taiwan question and achieve complete reunification of the country is in the fundamental interests of the Chinese nation and essential to realizing national rejuvenation.” 

By this logic, China’s goal of “national rejuvenation”  by 2049 will remain incomplete until and unless Taiwan is “reunified” with the PRC. [4] Decrying “any foreign interference” (i.e., potential support from the United States), the statement of inevitability is again repeated: “China must be and will be reunited.” In a warning that comes across ominously, “We make no promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures.” Although such threats are a frequent feature of Chinese propaganda, the tone and language are heightened significantly compared to earlier NDWPs. The signaling is directed just as much against the United States as against Taiwan, considering such decisions as the recent $2.2 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan (Xinhua, June 6). These threats, intended to be reinforced by the  “stern warning” of “sailing ships and flying aircraft around Taiwan,” may backfire and are ironically juxtaposed with the claim that China will “never seek hegemony, expansion, or spheres of influence.” From Beijing’s perspective, the notion of “reunification” may be justified and described as defending national sovereignty, but such an objective is inherently offensive and involves expansionism relative to the status quo. 

Ambiguities of Language in the 2019 NDWP

Although this NDWP is clearly intended for a global audience, the official English translation of this paper seems lacking. Certain discrepancies between English and Chinese versions of official PRC documents can be telling as to different narratives intended for internal and external audiences. However, the official English translation appears contradictory in ways that can be confusing, whether deliberately or unintentionally, to those who cannot reference the original Chinese version to clarify meaning. [5] Notably, the paper stresses that the Chinese military’s missions include “effectively protect[ing] the security and legitimate rights and interests of overseas Chinese people, organizations and institutions” (emphasis added)

Here, a literal and accurate translation would be “overseas Chinese citizens” (海外中国公民, haiwai Zhongguo gongmin), and that difference is significant. The assertion of a mission to defend the rights and interests of those who are ethnic Chinese (中华, Zhonghua) non-citizens would be newsworthy, presenting a striking parallel to Russia’s assertion of an obligation to defend ethnic Russians in other countries. On the other hand, a commitment to protecting overseas Chinese citizens or nationals is hardly surprising and reflects consistency with the 2013 defense white paper (Xinhua, April 16, 2013). However, it remains unclear whether that choice of translation was deliberate, or simply reflected a lack of precision in phrasing. Regardless, the conflation may be telling regarding the CCP’s perspective. 

China’s Concept of National Security 

For this new era, concerns of political security remain of tantamount importance for the regime. [6] This document highlights the imperative for China’s national defense to “safeguard the political security, the people’s security and social stability” (保卫国家政治安全、人民安全和社会稳定 / baowei guojia zhengzhi anquan, renmin anquan he shehui wending), listed second only to  “to deter and resist aggression.” In this context, the introduction of the concept of “people’s security” (人民安全, renmin anquan), which is seen as the “soul” and core purpose of national security, alludes to the factors required for improvement of the “people’s well-being,” reflecting underlying connections between national defense and continued development (PLA Daily, April 20, 2018). Increasingly, there are also concerns about threats to social stability in new domains, especially cyberspace. The security and survival of the regime is an absolute imperative for the CCP, and China’s armed forces are required and expected to defend it if necessary. 

Although CCP concerns over social stability appear to remain intense, this latest NDWP claims that “China continues to enjoy political stability, ethnic unity and social stability,” asserting a “notable increase” in “resilience to risks.” At the same time, this document escalates linguistically to call for actively “cracking down on proponents of separatist movements such as “Tibet independence ” and the creation of “East Turkistan,” rendering the more coercive approach that has been tragically displayed a matter of official policy. Against this backdrop, the surprising assessment about unity and stability may reflect greater confidence in the growing coercive capacity of the state, including enhanced surveillance and powerful paramilitary capabilities. For instance, the People’s Armed Police (PAP), which has primary responsibility for internal security missions, has been elevated bureaucratically and functionally to be situated under the command of the Central Military Commission (CMC) as of December 2017. [7] In addition to the PAP, the PLA also “supports  the civil authorities in maintaining social stability, provides security for major events, and responds to emergencies in accordance with the law.” This statement, when juxtaposed with signaling about potential military intervention in Hong Kong, may convey an ominous message. 

Conclusion

This “new era” of China’s national defense is characterized by both changes and consistency in the PRC’s global outlook and interests. At a time when U.S. strategy is highlighting a new era of great power rivalry, the 2019 NDWP may appear at first glance to present a much more conciliatory perspective. However, the intention to “reform” the system of global governance and create a new security architecture revealed in the document are nonetheless concerning. China may soon encounter new tests of this vision for “world peace” and security, as leaders in Beijing confront intense protests in Hong Kong and ponder the potential outcomes of presidential elections in Taiwan set for January 2020. In the meantime, China’s military power continues to increase in a manner justified as commensurate with its global standing and interests. 

Elsa Kania is an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Technology and National Security Program of the Center for a New American Security. She is also an Associate with the U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute.

Peter Woods is a defense analyst with Textore Inc., and previously served as the editor of China Brief from 2015 to 2018.

Notes

[1] This white paper on Asia-Pacific security cooperation was released in 2017 through the State Council Information Office. Although the issues that it discusses pertain to defense, this document was not considered or characterized as a national defense white paper because its subject pertained to regional diplomacy, rather than defense. Nonetheless, it makes for an interesting comparison to this latest 2019 national defense white paper.

[2] This concept did not originate with Xi Jinping and was initially featured in Hu Jintao’s report to the 18th Party Congress in 2012 (People’s Daily, August 15, 2017). 

[3] For an in-depth analysis of the “community of common destiny for mankind” concept and its use in Chinese foreign policy, see  Liza Tobin, “Xi’s Vision for Transforming Global Governance: A Strategic Challenge for Washington and Its Allies,” Texas National Security Review, November 2018, https://tnsr.org/2018/11/xis-vision-for-transforming-global-governance-a-strategic-challenge-for-washington-and-its-allies

[4] To be precise, the actual and accurate phrasing is “unified” (统一), particularly considering that Taiwan has not ever been subject to the sovereignty of the People’s Republic of China in its modern history.

[5] As another example, elsewhere in the document, there is an allusion to progress that China’s armed forces have “innovated in military doctrine.” Since the PLA does not appear to have formally released a new generation of its equivalent to doctrine, known as operational regulations (作战条令) since 1999, this update could appear to be quite notable. However, the actual phrasing here is better translated as “military theoretical innovation” (军事理论创新), and thus does not appear to be an indication that the PLA has actually completed its full doctrinal revisions.

[6] Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, a “holistic view of national security” or the  “comprehensive national security concept” (总体国家安全观, zongti guojia anquan guan) has been highlighted in authoritative statements, including incorporation into China’s National Security Law (国家安全法). This concept has been described as balancing “internal and external security, homeland and citizen security, traditional and non-traditional security, subsistence and development security, and China’s own security and the common security of the world.” (“China’s Military Strategy,” May 2015). As defined in the official English translation of China’s National Security Law: ““National security” means a status in which the regime, sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity, welfare of the people, sustainable economic and social development.” See: “National Security Law of the People’s Republic of China (2015),” http://eng.mod.gov.cn/publications/2017-03/03/content_4774229.htm. For reference, see also: Samantha Hoffman’s excellent research on the notion of “state security,” including: “‘Dangerous Love’: China’s All-Encompassing Security Vision,” The National Interest, May 17, 2016. https://nationalinterest.org/feature/dangerous-love-chinas-all-encompassing-security-vision-16239 and Timothy Heath, (China Brief, June 19, 2015).

[7] For a more detailed assessment of the reforms to the PAP, see: Joel Wuthnow, “China’s Other Army: The People’s Armed Police in an Era of Reform,” Institute for National Strategic Studies, April 16, 2019, https://inss.ndu.edu/Media/News/Article/1815868/chinas-other-army-the-peoples-armed-police-in-an-era-of-reform/