After every Chinese Defense white paper is released the first question invariably asked is “What’s new?” The unsatisfying, but accurate, answer is “It depends on what you already know about the Chinese armed forces.”
The white papers repeat long-established policy and usually contain some new information and updates to earlier versions. Their opening sections serve as a barometer for Chinese government’s views of the international security environment. Although military personnel have the lead in drafting the defense white papers, the text is coordinated with other central government ministries and the final product is issued by the Information Office of the State Council—not by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). White papers, however, are not the vehicle the Chinese government would use to announce new policies.
White papers build on information provided in previous editions. Readers studying a specific subject should examine each of the eight white papers, beginning in 1998, to see how that topic is or is not addressed in each one.
It is unfortunate, but true, that readers need to be familiar with the content in previously issued white papers to judge the latest edition . While the Chinese government has provided a lot of information in the series of Defense white papers, knowledgeable readers always will find that subjects are not discussed at all or in sufficient detail to answer many longstanding questions, especially about the military budget or new weapons and equipment entering the PLA.
For a different perspective on many of topics covered by the Chinese and for significantly greater detail about weapons capabilities and numbers, readers also should consult the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual reports to Congress about the Chinese military.
A Taxonomy of “New” Information
Several types of “new” information may be found in each white paper. First, some “new” information simply brings readers up-to-date with developments concerning topics that had previously been discussed in prior white papers. This often is the most prevalent form of information, frequently addressing basic national security and military policy issues.
Second, some “new” information may be a “first” for inclusion in a white paper. This sort of information usually has already been released in the official Chinese media to less fanfare and attention.
Third, some white papers contain “new” information that is the first time the Chinese government has ever divulged this specific fact or figure. This information usually amounts to a very small proportion of any single white paper’s content.
Fortunately, the Chinese take the extra step of translating each white paper into English for the benefit of foreign readers, their main target audience. Comparing the Chinese and English versions can be a fruitful language exercise and helpful in understanding the exact meaning of some terms.
What’s “New” in the 2013 white paper?
The first new element in the 10,000-word white paper published on April 16, 2013 is not so much in its content, but in its form. The report’s main author, Major General Chen Zhou of the Academy of Military Science, points out that this edition is “a thematic white paper that focuses on the diversified employment of China’s armed forces,” as opposed to the comprehensive papers of previous years (China Military Online, April 18). As such, this year’s emphasis is on what the Chinese armed forces are doing to defend sovereignty, support national economic development as well as contribute to peace and stability.
Before discussing these topics, the white paper starts with a section on the international situation and the missions of the armed forces. Though “peace and development remain the underlying trends of our times” (a theme first identified in the 1998 white paper), these trends are faced with “new opportunities and challenges.” The preface reiterates China’s basic defense policies, such as China’s defensive posture and its commitment not to seek hegemony, military expansion or interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. Foreign audiences frequently dismiss such statements as “boilerplate” or the “party line,” but, for Beijing, they serve as a statement of China’s strategic intentions.
While mentioning “signs of increasing hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism,” the international environment portrayed was considerably less hostile than might have been expected. For example, there was only one direct reference to the United States, “The [United States] is adjusting its Asia-Pacific security strategy,” and an indirect statement that “Some country has strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser.” This tone is considerably less confrontational than found in previous papers, such as in 2000 when the U.S. was mentioned by name over half dozen times, in particular for its arms sales to Taiwan.
Despite having been included in every other white paper, arms sales to Taiwan were not mentioned this year. The absence of this subject does not indicate it is no longer a priority issue for China. In fact, the topic was raised a week later during Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey’s visit to China (Xinhua, April 22).
Similarly, cross-Strait relations were described as “sustaining a momentum of peaceful development” and Taiwan independence forces mentioned only once. On the other hand, stronger words were directed at Japan, which “is making trouble over the issue of the Diaoyu Islands.” Still, the tone of this language toward Japan was restrained compared to how the Chinese might have described the state of the bilateral relationship. India is not mentioned in this section.
Despite the tenor of the treatment devoted to the international situation, the white paper leaves no doubt of China’s commitment to defending its national sovereignty and territorial integrity—which are an official part of China’s “core interests.” The white paper states China will defend itself by implementing the “military strategy of active defense” (based on the premise “We will not attack unless we are attacked; but we will surely counterattack if attacked”) and developing “new ideas for the strategies and tactics of people’s war.”
The third section of the paper is devoted to defending national sovereignty through “the diversified employment of the armed forces aims to maintain peace, contain [deter] crises and win wars.” This section is a recitation of longstanding elements of defense policy supported by discussions of the PLA’s “scenario-based exercises,” trans-military region deployments, force-on-force exercises and “blue water” training to prepare for these missions. Much of this information has been reported before in the Chinese military and civilian media and interested readers easily can augment this information—often with much greater detail.
One last not-so-new, new element to this white paper is the identification of the goal “to build a strong national defense and powerful armed forces which are commensurate with China’s international standing”—a task previously specified in the 18th Party Congress Work Report in November 2012 (Xinhua, November 16, 2012). Many foreign analysts have long attributed a similar goal to China as it seeks “its rightful place in the world” .
Perhaps intentionally for the domestic readership, on the same day the white paper was published the Chinese-language military newspaper PLA Daily described a much more severe situation: “Hostile western forces have stepped up the strategy to westernize and divide our country and to do everything possible to curb and contain China’s development” (PLA Daily, April 16). Similar language was used in China’s National Defense in 2008: “[China] faces strategic maneuvers and containment from the outside.” The authors of the 2013 white paper, however, appear to have decided to take a more conciliatory tone toward foreign threats.
What’s Really “New”?
The white paper actually did contain some new information that previously had not been released by the Chinese government. For the first time, it announced personnel numbers for the PLA Army’s “mobile operational units” of 850,000, along with 235,000 for the Navy and 398,000 for the PLA Air Force. These numbers, however, do not represent the total PLA active duty force of 2.3 million, which was last reported in the 2006 edition.
In the same paragraph as the Army numbers, the paper states, “The PLA Army (PLAA) is composed of mobile operational units, border and coastal defense units, guard and garrison units.” The 850,000 figure does not include “border and coastal defense units, guard and garrison units,” nor does it include Army personnel assigned to the four General Departments in Beijing and their affiliated organizations, the seven Military Region headquarters, or the personnel in the local headquarters at provincial, prefectural, and county levels (described by the 2004 and 2006 white papers), or those in the Army’s system of military academies and universities. Second Artillery personnel also are not included in the 850,000 (some estimates assess the Second Artillery to have about 100,000 personnel).
By subtracting the personnel numbers for the Navy and Air Force from the PLA’s total strength of 2.3 million, 1,667,000 personnel remain. That number represents the combined strength of both the Army and Second Artillery. The 850,000 number is a subset of the 1.667 million—or, slightly more than half of the total Army and Second Artillery manpower.
The white paper also identified each of the 18 “combined corps” (or group armies) and listed which Military Region (military area command) they are subordinate. This is a new degree of transparency for an official Chinese source, but several foreign sources, including the Pentagon’s reports to Congress, have provided this (and greater) level of detail for decades.
Also new is the description of three alert levels for the PLA from Level III, the lowest, to the highest Level I. The white paper, however, did not provide any further elaboration of what these alert levels meant for preparations and readiness.
Another new number is the 68 incidents of “serious violence” the People’s Armed Police has “participated in handling” from 2011 to 2012. Given the tens or hundreds of thousands of “mass incidents” reported in China, 68 incidents appear to represent a very small percentage of the total . Like many “statistics with Chinese characteristics,” the white paper, however, does not define what “serious violence” or “handling” the incidents are. Though this is a “new” data point, it is unclear exactly what it means.
Despite the flaws in the new numbers, their inclusion was a positive sign and should be of value when foreigners have the chance to discuss these issues with knowledgeable Chinese.
What Was Not Included?
By limiting its scope to the “diversified missions” of the armed forces, some subjects previously addressed in other white papers were not addressed this year. For example, in response to a question about whether China had changed its “No First Use” (NFU) nuclear weapons policy, Major General Yao Yunzhu noted that this year’s paper does not have a section on “National Defense Policy.” In previous editions, that section usually contained the specific NFU commitment (China-U.S. Focus, April 22). In other editions, the NFU statement was found in an “Arms Control and Disarmament” section, which also was not included in 2013. Nonetheless, the latest paper describes the Second Artillery’s nuclear counterattack role in language consistent with established NFU policy and Yao assured the world that there had been no change to Chinese policy, though she did acknowledge that “calls for a policy change on the official NFU pledge are repeatedly heard in the Chinese media.”
Likewise, because of the limited scope of the white paper, there was no discussion of the defense budget. In previous years, the white paper included a section on “Defense Expenditures,” which provided more information about the defense budget than was released during the official budget announcements made during the annual National People’s Congress. Perhaps a future white paper can offset this omission by making defense expenditure its primary theme.
While this year’s and other white papers provide a lot of data and statistics, they do not attempt to analyze that information. For example, the 1,842 Chinese personnel participating in UN peacekeeping missions are far less than one percent of the total PLA manpower strength. Moreover, using statistics for each individual mission provided on the UN website, it can be seen that Chinese participation in no case amounts to the majority of personnel on the mission and usually falls between one and seven percent of the mission’s personnel . Similar analysis could be performed for the individual ships that have participated in the Gulf of Aden missions compared to the total number of PLA Navy surface combatants or the numbers of troops who have participated in exercises with other countries. Such analysis would show that many more PLA personnel have been involved in domestic disaster relief efforts or in support of national development projects than have been deployed overseas on peacekeeping, maritime escort, or training operations and exercises. Nonetheless, the white papers are a good starting point from which to begin more detailed analysis.
Since the white papers are targeted at foreign audience and have an important role in China’s deterrence objectives, it should come as no surprise that they do not include assessments of the PLA’s capabilities. The Chinese military media frequently carry stark evaluations made by unit commanders and staff officers of shortcomings in PLA personnel abilities, command and control, organization, training and logistics. This body of data contributes to the “Two Incompatibles” (liangge buxiang shiying) assessment of PLA capabilities attributed to Hu Jintao, which roughly says, “the level of PLA modernization is incompatible with the demands of winning a local war under informatization conditions and our military capabilities are incompatible with the demands of carrying out the Army’s historic missions.” This assessment was seen most recently in the PLA Daily commentator article of April 16 and is intended to acknowledge the progress made in modernization and training in recent years but also to urge the troops to continue the hard work ahead.
Finally, the white paper did not mention Xi Jinping’s appointment as chairman of the Central Military Commission (the 2004 report noted Hu Jintao’s assumption of that post). Nor did it mention Xi’s guidance to the armed forces to “build a people’s military that obeys the party, can fight and win wars, and has an excellent image” (wei jianshe yi zhi ting dang zhihui, neng da shengzhang zuofeng youliang de renmin jundui). This statement reflects the continuation of the armed forces’ priorities of maintaining loyalty to the Communist Party, striving to raise their operational capabilities, and acting as models for the rest of society—rather than loyalty to any specific personality.
The 2006 and 2008 white papers identified 2049 as the completion date for the multi-faceted military modernization process that began in the late 1970s. This transformation aims to create a smaller, more technologically-advanced PLA and includes comprehensive changes to its personnel, training, education and logistics systems, major modifications to force structure, doctrinal updates to accommodate new missions and the introduction of new equipment. The pace of the process increased in the mid- to late-1990s, boosted by an influx of funding and newly-available domestic electronics. The PLA still lacks the support of a professional non-commissioned officer corps and recent combat experience in modern joint and combined arms warfare. The senior PLA leadership understands the difficulties in this undertaking and recognizes that it can only make gradual changes in the modernization process trajectory, because of the human and experiential factors. Xi’s guidance, along with details found in the white paper, indicate continuity in the course of Chinese military modernization as it prepares to perform the deterrence, warfighting and non-traditional security tasks assigned by the Communist Party leadership.
The 2013 white paper The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces is available at the Ministry of National Defense website <https://eng.mod.gov.cn/Video/2013-04/19/content_4443469.htm>. Previous Chinese defense white papers are available at the Chinese Central Government’s Official website <https://english.gov.cn/official/2005-08/17/content_24165.htm>.
- For one relevant example of this analysis, see James A. Lewis, “Cyber War and Competition in the China-U.S. Relationship,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 2010, available online <https://csis.org/files/publication/100510_CICIR%20Speech.pdf>.
- Manfred Elfstrom and Sarosh Kuruvilla, “The Changing Nature of Labor Unrest in China,” International Labor and Employment Relations Conference, Philadelphia, July 2–5, 2012, available online <https://ilera2012.wharton.upenn.edu/NonRefereedPapers/Kuruvilla,%20Sarosh%20and%20Elfstrom,%20Manfred.pdf>.
- United Nations Peacekeeping Website, “Troop and Police Contributors” (Updated Monthly), available online <https://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/resources/statistics/contributors.shtml>.