China’s Long-Anticipated Defense White Paper Disappoints

By Bonnie Glaser

After a three month delay, the Chinese Ministry of Defense released its National Defense White Paper for the year 2010.  This is China’s seventh such report and its biennial publication has raised expectations in the region and beyond for greater transparency about Chinese military developments.  Each edition of the white paper is intended to build on past reports rather than provide a comprehensive picture of the People’s Liberation Army.  This year’s report adds little to already existing knowledge about the PLA, however, and therefore will do little to assuage the concerns that many countries have about growing Chinese military power and opaque Chinese intentions.

Despite numerous media reports about the pending deployment of a Chinese aircraft carrier, the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile system that has reported reached initial operational capability and poses a threat to U.S. aircraft carriers, and the new J-20 stealth fighter that conducted its first flight test during U.S. Secretary of Defense Gate’s January visit to China, none of these developments were mentioned in China’s new white paper.  More could be learned about new equipment entering the force from the display at the 2009 military parade than can be gleaned from reading the pages of the new report.

Indeed a priority of this year’s white paper seemed to be to present PLA capabilities and doctrine in as benign a light as possible.  A new section is included on the implementation of military confidence building measures between China and its neighbors.  There is also a lengthy section on the diverse uses of China’s armed forces in peacetime.  China’s national defense goals and tasks are summed up as: defending national sovereignty, security, and development interests; maintaining social harmony and stability; advancing national defense and military modernization; and maintaining world peace and stability.

As was the case with previous defense white papers, the new report fails to provide much detail about the force.  There is a separate chapter on PLA modernization that recounts over 60 years of PLA developments, emphasizing that the PLA has grown from a single-service force into a strong military force that features a mix of services and arms and is making strides toward informatization.  But there is no concrete data to inform readers about how big any of the services are.  The report says there are 1342 military lawyers, but it does not reveal how many officers are in the PLA.

One important point highlighted this year is the armed forces role in domestic stability, with a three paragraph section on “maintaining social stability” and many other references to stability. This is not surprising given the obsession of the Chinese leadership with the preservation of social stability in the aftermath of riots in Tibet and Xinjiang, and efforts to promote a Jasmine Revolution in China similar to those that have erupted in the Middle East.

Also new is the proposal to explore the establishment of a “military security mechanism of mutual trust” across the Taiwan Strait.  China has officially proposed cross-Strait CBMs since 2004, but this is the first time that it has been included in a defense white paper.  The offer is notably conditional on upholding the “one-China principle,” which differs from the vague understanding that both sides agree that there is only one China, but the two sides of the Strait can express the meaning of that one China according to their own interpretations, commonly known as the 1992 consensus that has provided the basis for cross-Strait rapprochement.

The white paper’s description of the international situation betrays growing Chinese worries about external security threats.  It says that “deep-seated contradictions and structural problems behind the international financial crisis have not been resolved. . . . Security threats posed by such global challenges as terrorism, economic insecurity, climate changes, nuclear proliferation, insecurity of information, natural disasters, public health concerns, and transnational crime are on the rise. But the report also reveals confidence that China’s relative power and status are improving: “The international balance of power is changing, most notably through the economic strength and growing international status and influence of emerging powers and developing countries.  Prospects for world multi-polarization are becoming clearer.”

After a series of confrontations between China and its neighbors in the past two years, it will not be surprising if this white paper disappoints.  Uneasiness about China’s growing assertiveness and military ambitions has grown significantly in Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore.  Beijing’s shielding of North Korea from international condemnation for its violent attacks on South Korea last year have increased tensions in the ROK-China bilateral relationship as well.  As PACOM Commander Admiral Willard stated in congressional testimony on April 7: “Absent clarification from China, its military modernization efforts hold significant implications for regional stability. The region is developing its own conclusions about why the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to expand its ability to project power outside China’s borders, and to range both U.S. forces and U.S. Allies and partners in the region with new anti-access and area-denial weaponry.”

The practice of issuing defense white papers can be a useful tool to reassure China’s neighbors that its rapid rise will not be threatening to the interests of other countries.  To achieve this goal, however, a higher level of transparency about Chinese military capabilities, doctrine, and weapons procurements is necessary.

Bonnie S. Glaser

Bonnie S. Glaser

Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at CSIS.


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