Interpreting China’s Defense White Paper 2011

When the People’s Daily announced the release of China’s seventh Defense White Paper at the end of March, it began by stating that one of the aims was to “boost the world’s trust in [China’s] commitment to peaceful development.” Besides indicating how increasingly important the world’s opinion is to China, this was also a clear acknowledgement by Beijing that the world and its neighbours in particular, continue to view its military modernization as threatening. For India in particular, the Chinese document holds several implications.

First, while the White Paper suggests that the “prevailing trend is towards reform in international systems” and even talks of “reform of the UN”, it is clear that the focus is on “mechanisms for management of the global economy and finance”. This suggests that China’s real aim is to increase its influence vis-à-vis the United States. It is this reality that New Delhi must keep in mind, therefore, in the context of the recent summit meeting of the BRICS nations in China.

Second, notwithstanding references to the 1993 and 1996 treaties and to the 2005 protocol on implementing CBMs with India and a rather bland declaration that China “works to advance the Sino-Indian military relationship”, the real concern with India is expressed indirectly. In the section on the “Security Situation”, the Paper notes “Some developing countries maintain the push towards strengthening their armed forces, and press on with military modernization”. Also, while there is explicit talk of “mutual respect for core interests” this is no guarantee that India’s ‘core interest’ of Kashmir will be respected.

Third, there is specific mention of Afghanistan as a “regional pressure point”. This is significant and indicates that China’s relations with key players in the region including India, Pakistan and the United States are now increasingly viewed also through the prism of developments in the AfPak theatre.

Fourth, there seems little correlation as usual between China’s two-decade long rapid growth in its defence budget and the explanations furnished in the White Paper. Of particular interest to the Indian Navy should be the fact that there is no mention of China’s advanced anti-ship ballistic missile capability operationalized late last year. And while international attention has been focused on China’s recent official announcement of its aircraft carrier programme, the reality is that Indian naval assets will be increasingly vulnerable to the Chinese and there is perhaps a greater need to focus on building India’s submarine capabilities.

A fifth and related implication, is the increased Chinese focus on Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW) with the PLA Navy (PLAN) at the forefront. More than any ‘string of pearls’, the long-term naval challenge for India is one of managing China’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean region for anti-piracy operations, disaster relief and so on, which both raises its diplomatic and military profile and cuts into India’s dominance.

Sixth, the importance attached to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation in the White Paper would seem for Indians quite at odds with the Chinese support for a civilian nuclear programme in an unstable Pakistan. It is perhaps, to address such concerns that the White Paper notes that China “attaches great importance to non-proliferation export control… to the issue of nuclear security… [and] opposes nuclear terrorism”.

Two final implications relate to the role of the PLA in the Chinese political system. While the PLA and its various affiliates have always been engaged in internal security duties, this is now showing an upward trend and more importantly, are being carried out under increasing international scrutiny. As experience from India shows such duties affects the morale and capacities of a professional army as also the national image.

Also complicating the process of the PLA’s professionalization is the fact that it remains the army of the Chinese Communist Party rather than that of the Chinese state – a fact stressed also in the White Paper. This institutionalized and overt political role of the PLA too appears on the ascendant. In the external realm, this has meant that the PLA has a decisive voice on matters related to Taiwan and China’s relationships with the United States, Japan and India.

While studying the military aspects of the Chinese Defense White Paper, Indian policymakers must remember that it is also a political document. Understanding China’s military capabilities alone is not enough, India must also understand its intentions and for this a better grasp of the intersections of the political and military in China is essential.

Read the original here: Jabin T. Jacob, “China’s Defense White Paper and the message for India,” DNA, 15 April 2011.

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