China’s Defence White Papers: A Political Reading

An extract from Jabin T. Jacob, “China’s Defence White Papers: A Political Reading,” in Gurmeet Kanwal and Dhruv C Katoch (eds.) China’s Defence Policy: Indian Perspective (New Delhi: Lancer Publishers, 2011), pp. 33-42.

China’s white papers on national defence (WPs) are intended to shed light on the country’s defence capabilities and plans. However, just as importantly, these are documents that reflect the current thinking within the corridors of power in China on important political considerations – domestic and international. While the WPs are ostensibly released by the State Council, that is, the government of the People’s Republic of China, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that represents China’s armed forces is not beholden to the state but to the Communist Party of China (CPC).

By virtue of being the Party’s army rather than the state’s, the PLA is a far more important actor in China’s foreign and security policymaking than counterparts in democratic countries such as India. At the same time, given that it seeks popular legitimacy by association with the masses and by implication the CPC, the PLA is also not as overwhelming a presence as armies in straightforward military dictatorships or in military-dominant countries like Myanmar or Pakistan.

Each of these distinctions is important and needs to be kept in mind while reading the WPs or trying to understand civil-military relations in China. This short essay examines a few political aspects of China’s WPs from both the external and internal angles. While the focus will be on the 2010 WP, references will be made to previous WPs as well. The first two sections look at the external implications while the next two deal with the internal. In the first section, China’s relationship and concerns with the world are highlighted while the second section is a specific examination of the international political implications of China’s stress on MOOTW (military operations other than war). The third section looks at messages in the WPs aimed at domestic constituencies and the fourth scrutinizes the important but understudied – from the Indian point of view – issue of the role and place of the PLA in the Chinese political system. The concluding section highlights the lessons that Indian policymakers ought to be drawing from the intersection of the political and military in China.

China’s Relationship and Concerns with the Rest of the World

China’s first WP was released in July 1998 and since then every WP has used soaring rhetoric to place China’s primary concerns before the world as well as to reassure the international community of China’s good intentions. Obvious in the high sentiment of the 1998 WP is Beijing’s sense of occasion and opportunity to make a fresh beginning as the 20th century drew to a close, and even an unstated ambition that it was going to be China’s turn to lead the new century. This sentiment is bolstered in the 2000 WP which states, “The Chinese people have fought bravely for their national independence, liberation, democracy and freedom. They have finally brought the country onto the road toward modernization. The Chinese people know full well the value of peace.” The reference to China’s struggles for universal desirables such as “national independence, liberation, democracy and freedom” at once identifies China with the Third World while the reference to “finally” being on “the road toward modernization” also separates China from the rest of the still-struggling developing world by highlighting both China’s achievements as well as its being the most likely of all developing country emerging powers to close the gap with the developed West.

Meanwhile, in the forewords to all WPs until 2002, there has been a constant reference to China’s need for a peaceful international environment and in particular, a favourable periphery in the interests of its own development. From 2004, a specific reference to a conducive periphery is missing in the opening statements even if “securing a long-term and favorable international and surrounding environment” finds mention as one of China’s goals elsewhere. Given that in this period, the Chinese have seen increasingly severe crises in their neighbourhood including the North Korean nuclear tests and the ‘global war on terror’ in the AfPak theatre and instability in Pakistan, this would suggest a deep pessimism about the immediate periphery and its inability to do anything about it.

Not surprisingly, an anti-hegemonic stance is a constant theme in all WPs and reflects China’s concerns with a United States that it seemed was not about to vacate the top spot on the global stage so easily, even if this were the ‘Asian century.’

Yet, the intention is not to take the United States head on but to deepen engagement with the rest of the world. Thus, the 2006 WP notes in the opening statement, “Never before has China been so closely bound up with the rest of the world as it is today” and this even as the United States remained mired in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The stress on China’s integration with the world was necessary in part, owing to its own rising military expenditure and the resultant threat perceptions in its neighbourhood. In fact, besides reiterating that China “pursues a defense policy which is purely defensive in nature,” Beijing specifically stated that “China will not engage in any arms race or pose a military threat to any other country” (2006 WP).

While expressions such as “peaceful development” and “harmonious world” had started appearing in 2006, the 2008 WP points out that while “China cannot develop in isolation from the rest of the world, nor can the world enjoy prosperity and stability without China.” This last statement is the first time that Beijing makes an implicit threat. To understand why, one must look at the circumstances surrounding the release of the WP in January 2009. As the WP notes in its opening, “2008 was an extraordinary [year]” with the Sichuan earthquake, the hosting of the Olympic Games and the marking of the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the policies of reform and opening-up. Left out in this narrative are the Tibetan protests that took place in the first quarter of the year that had not only deeply embarrassed China internationally but worse still, from the point of view of the Chinese leadership, had caught them unawares and showed up the limitations of their ‘economics first’ approach to stabilizing Tibet. In making the threat, China was simultaneously reminding the world of its influence on the international order in a year that the West was hit by the debilitating financial crisis. Indeed, in retrospect, China’s increased belligerence in 2010 whether in the East and South China Seas or with India in the form of stapled visas should have been predicted.

However, the unfavourable reactions of its neighbours together with their willingness to invite the United States back into China’s immediate neighbourhood as a security guarantor seems to have sobered China up into repeating in WP 2010, their 2006 formulation of “its future and destiny… never [having] been more closely connected with those of the international community.”

International Political Implications of MOOTW

Political Statements intended for Domestic Audiences

The WPs are not only intended as a means to showcase China’s transparency in military matters to the outside world but also to highlight the dominance or importance of one or the other political leader or idea in the Chinese system. In this latter respect, Chinese WPs also communicate to domestic constituents. A Chinese WP is, in fact, an exercise in careful balancing between addressing international concerns and requirements on the one side and domestic perceptions of the CPC’s leadership and the PLA’s capacity to deal with external and internal challenges on the other.

The constant reiteration in all WPs that China follows an “independent foreign policy” performs much the same function that such a statement would perform in the Indian context – to show that any perceived compromises with or lack of a strong response to actions by Western powers, in particular the United States, or other dominant regional players is not a sign of weakness. The reference to a “revolution in military affairs with Chinese characteristics” in the WPs also suggests that indigenous development of military technology and capabilities is part of an “independent foreign policy.”

Similarly, references to a “scientific development outlook” and to a “harmonious world” in the opening of all WPs starting from 2006 is a clear acknowledgement of Hu Jintao’s role as both China’s political supremo and the head of the Central Military Commission. However, the fact that the aim of “building a well-off society” of the 2002 WP is of Jiang Zemin-era vintage and that there are iterations in the 2004, 2006 and 2010 WPs indicate both continuity with the past and the need to pay obeisance to competing and powerful factions within the Party. 2008 was the only year where this formulation did not find prominence in the WP opening statement, either because of a certain hubris associated with the Olympics and the financial crisis affecting the West more seriously than it did China or more likely to avoid any insinuation that Tibet’s economic  development path towards political stability had failed. Meanwhile, both this expression and the constant reference to the linkage between national defence and economic development highlight also the importance of China’s economic growth and development in the Chinese military modernization process.

“Social stability” is another important expression whose incidence has been increasing in recent WPs. The 2010 WP has in fact, a separate section titled “Maintaining Social Stability” which is an acknowledgement of China’s continued inability to pacify and integrate its Tibetan and Uyghur ethnic minorities and of the significant number of protests in ethnic Han-majority areas resulting largely from economic issues such as corruption, illegal land grabs and so on.

The PLA and the Chinese Political System


While studying the military aspects of China’s National Defense White Papers, Indian policymakers and military planners must pay attention to the political elements of this document in order to achieve a fuller more accurate understanding of China’s intentions. In the constant reiteration by sections in the Indian strategic community that one must look at the gap between China’s rhetoric and its force modernization, the implication has been that China’s rhetoric ought not to be taken seriously and that its intentions had to be understood from the nature of its capabilities. This is certainly a prudent approach, but it is equally true that no matter what China’s capabilities – and often such capabilities are only the result of a desire for achieving a measure of parity with the United States or reclaiming some perceived ‘lost’ glory or prestige – the employment of these capabilities can also be limited by both political choices in China’s current international and domestic political milieus and by its historical conditioning.

Questions highlighted above such as how India will deal with a diplomatic use of China’s military resources in the Indian Ocean region are as much political questions as they are military ones. India will have to decide whether cooperation with the PLA or keeping it at an arm’s length is the way forward. And that decision will depend on a larger choice India will have to make about China’s regional and global intentions and how they relate to India, and what India’s own regional and global intentions are.

If India can ascribe to itself a rational and pragmatic approach to global affairs and to achieving its security objectives, it cannot but expect the Chinese to want to behave rationally and pragmatically, as well. The exceptions and conditions that can cause China to depart from rationality and pragmatism are not military, but political such as Taiwan or Tibet, for example. Indian policymakers must therefore, invest as much if not more, in understanding China’s political conditions and intentions as they do in trying to understand its military capabilities.

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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