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.