Defending China: PRC’s Defence White Paper 2010 and Military Transparency
Brig Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow, VIF

As part of its effort towards bringing in more transparency in military affairs People’s Republic of China has been regularly churning out its white papers on national defence since 1998. Progressively, China has been increasing the length of its defence white papers so as to convey more information to justify its defence policies and expenditure to the domestic and international audience at large. However, such an exercise has been part of its perception management endeavours which reveal less and hide more.

While surveying the security environment, the seventh paper issued last month considers the overall security environment in Asia Pacific as becoming more intricate and ‘volatile’. It also notes that ‘relevant major powers are increasing their strategic investment. The United States is reinforcing its regional military alliances, and increasing its involvement in regional security affairs’. It is a different matter that China’s assertiveness in its neighbourhood especially in its dealings with Japan, India and in South China Sea as well since last year have created apprehensions about China’s so called peaceful development or rise. PRC leadership’s assertions about working towards a ‘harmonious neighbourhood’ and ‘harmonious world’ (and now the concept is extended to ‘harmonious oceans’ also) merely appear to be slogans. While India had to suspend its annual defence dialogue with PLA because of China’s revised and questionable policy of issuing stapled visa’s to Indian citizens from Jammu and Kashmir thus questioning India’s sovereignty over Kashmir, Beijing got into aggressive spat with Japan over Senkaku Islands. India’s Foreign Secretary recently mentioned about increase in number of Chinese transgressions across the Sino-India Line of Actual Control.

According to a survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project 2010, the percentage of respondents in India who viewed China unfavorably due to its growing assertiveness had grown to 52 percent (compared to 34 percent in the previous year), a figure exceeded in Asia by only South Korea, with 56 percent, and by Japan, with 69 percent.

Even Australia has publicly conceded the risks of China’s rising military power and the need to respond to such risks in terms of minimal military capabilities and hedging in the political and military technology arena.

Aggressive pattern of behaviour on part of China has rightly raised questions about China’s ulterior motives. The White Paper acknowledges that ‘suspicion about China, interference and countering moves against China from the outside are on the increase’. This kind of behaviour on the part of China has resulted in Japan revising its defence posture and defence policy guidelines, strengthening its alliance with the US and encouraged it to embark more purposefully towards installing missile defence thus spurring an arms race in the region.

Further, even though China has provided aid and relief to Japan in the wake of earthquake cum tsunami followed by nuclear disaster the conventional security threats to Japan have by no means gone to the background. According to a report datelined March 28, 2011 China has not terminated its provocative actions in the East China Sea. A helicopter of China’s State Oceanic Administration buzzed the destroyer of Japan’s Maritime Self Defence Force on March 26. Similarly, the Philippines has stepped up patrols on its western maritime borders after an incident on March 2 in which two Chinese boats threatened to ram a survey ship conducting seismic tests. The Philippines also plans to upgrade an airstrip on an island it occupies in the South China Sea to strengthen its claim on the disputed area. Manila had for some time adopted a pro-China policy in the regional geo-politics but in the face of aggressive stance of China in South China Sea it has become more inclined to balance China with a tilt towards the US and others.

The White Paper observes that ‘China has vigorously maintained national security and social stability, and its comprehensive national strength has stepped up to a new stage’. Thus, apparently China has come to conclusion that with its rapidly accumulating Comprehensive National Power (CNP) it is time to assert itself in the region. This is despite the fact that China considers the two decades of the current century as period of ‘strategic opportunity’ which in effect means that it aims to consolidate and build its CNP during this period before embarking on initiating any regional conflicts. Apparently, hardliners in China are tempted to use its expanding CNP before it has matured creating more problems for China rather than solving any. With the coming change of leadership in 2012 it is unlikely that some of the assertive policies that China has been following of late would see any dilution.

Coming to the question of military transparency that China is supposed to be exhibiting through its White Papers one needs to also take note of the socio-cultural context in Asian societies. These societies have strong traditions of maintaining secrecy. For instance, generations of Chinese have been fed on philosophy of Sun Tzu who in his book ‘The Art of War’ that emphasizes on secrecy and stratagems and stresses that all warfare is based on deception. According to Sun Tzu ‘military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective’. Chinese leadership’s precepts have been shaped by such thought processes. In November 1991, Deng Xiaoping advised, “observe calmly, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly, hide our capacities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile, and never claim leadership”. Perhaps, this sage advice is being disregarded considering the actions of China in East and South China Sea and in its relations with India.

During the Sixth Shangri La Dialogue held few years back, Lt. Gen Zhang of PLA observed that military transparency is somewhat a nuanced and dynamic concept. He postulated, “Regarding military transparency, I think that due to differences in history, culture, social system and ideology, countries naturally disagree on what transparency means, and how to achieve it. Nothing in this world is absolute. Transparency is a relative concept too. More importantly, the growth of a country's military power is a dynamic process full of changeable factors, which is difficult to be valued precisely so it takes time to achieve transparency”. It can be said that Chinese have managed to exhibit adequate military transparency to deter its neighbours and regional competitors while at the same time they may have been able to conceal their strategic intentions and force developments from their peer competitor like the US.

Also, exhibition of military might by a powerful state has the effect of deterring as well as coercing others. The other states may seek to counter perceived threats to their security either through internal balancing or external balancing. Former would lead to arms racing and the latter would lead to forming military alliances with other states. Both outcomes can be considered as causes for instability. And this is what is precisely happening in China’s neighbourhood where all the neighbours are busy increasing their ‘strategic investments’ as observed in China’s White paper. One of the major factors contributing to rise in the defence expenditure in Asia-Pacific is the double digit growth in PRC’s defence budget from 1990 to 2011 even after discounting for annual increase of consumer price index. According to a Pentagon report 2000-2009 data indicates China’s officially disclosed military budget grew at an average of 11.8 percent in inflation-adjusted terms over the period, while gross domestic product (GDP) grew at 9.6 percent.

Further, it is well accepted that there is a considerable degree of opacity in Beijing’s defence expenditure. The actual military budget is said to be two to two and half times the official figures given out in the White Paper or elsewhere. Expenditure on many accounts is not included in the military expenditure.

To bring in more transparency in military affairs China needs to provide objective information in military matters, including transparency of military expenditures according to UN Resolutions. There is laid down performa titled ‘Instrument for Standardized Reporting of Military Expenditures’ which goes into a fair degree of detail to include military expenditure incurred by the reporting country on operating costs, procurement and construction, and research and development. Such reporting by China on its defence expenditure may meet the repeated demands by China’s neighbours, U.S and others to show more transparency in its defence expenditure.

As for military modernisation, the PLA had first mentioned in its 2004 White Paper that it was adopting Revolution in Military Affairs with Chinese characteristics. It had also coined a new lexicon ‘informationisation’ as one of the main goals to be achieved in phases. Since then it has been increasingly acquiring competencies in information warfare and cyber warfare fields. The latest White Paper observes that ‘In line with its strategic objective of building informationized armed forces and winning informationized wars, and with overall planning and phased implementation, the PLA is trying to break through major bottlenecks which hinder the building and improvement of combat effectiveness of systems’. Countries like India and others that have been at the receiving end of PRC’s information and cyber warfare capabilities can readily vouch for China’s progress in this field. PLA has made considerable progress in laying down optical fibre communication network, space based communication network and allied systems to support its increasingly ‘informationised’ forces.

Further, the PLA Army Aviation wing “has worked to move from being a support force to being a main-battle assault force further optimized its combat force structure, and conducted modularized grouping according to different tasks” thus indicating that PLA’s policy of ‘Active Defence’ does not preclude an offensive intent and action. In similar vein the White Paper states that the PLAAF is working to ensure the development of a combat force structure that focuses on air strikes, air and missile defence, and strategic projection..”. Therefore, PLA Air Force, far from providing only close air support to the army and being a defensive force as an auxiliary to the PLA, is aiming to become a strong power projection force.

Staging a test flight of its latest Stealth Fighter aircraft J-20 just before the visit of the US Defence Secretary to China in January 2011 was possibly a strategic communication from China to the international community of its rising military capabilities. President Hu Jintao and other civilian leaders gave the impression that they were unaware of the test which raised questions about civil control of military and the opaque nature of decision making in PRC. The J-20, a midair-refuelable, missile-capable jet is designed to project power far beyond China’s borders.

In line with the requirements of ‘offshore defence strategy’, the White Paper asserts that the PLA Navy is developing its capabilities in conducting operations in distant waters and in countering non-traditional security threats. Since last year PLAN has been sending its frigates to the western Indian Ocean on the pretext of countering Somali piracy on the high seas. PLAN has taken part in joint naval exercises with the Pakistan Navy and has also been basing its ships in Gawadar. All these activities have strategic connotations for India.

Furthermore, PLA is concentrating on modernising its nuclear and missile deterrence. The paper says that Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) its capabilities in rapid reaction, penetration, precision strike, damage infliction, protection, and survivability, while steadily enhancing its capabilities in strategic deterrence and defensive operations. Improving its missile capabilities including its ballistic missile defence capacities would definitely invite a response from India and some of its other neighbours. With Pakistan increasingly adding to its nuclear arsenal and PLA troops strutting about in Northern Areas the strategic environment for India could not be more ominous.

India can ill afford to remain complacent about modernisation of its armed forces in a hurry. Unlike the decision making structures across much of Asia, Indian decision making is tied down by complex bureaucratic machinery and the limited grasp of the political leadership of strategic issues. India needs to improve it’s missile warfare capabilities (to include range and accuracy), ground holding capabilities, strategic surveillance, rapid reaction and infrastructure development in border regions.

The Indian Ocean is a region that is critical to Indian security and one that China aspires to dominate in the future. For now, India retains an edge due to its littoral basing and it will continue to attempt to retain this edge for as long as it can. Engagement of China’s neighbours, particularly Japan and Vietnam and even some of the other ASEAN nations is a natural response to China’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy.

India can not but take notice of the rising military capabilities of PRC because intentions can change any time and capabilities take long time to be built. More India grows and becomes prosperous more it needs to protect its growing prosperity. India would need this insurance cover even in the absence of any neighbour building its military capabilities or not. Strategic lessons learnt so far teach us that weakness invites aggression. Therefore, it is a strategic imperative that Revolution in Military Affairs which is progressing in Indian defence forces at a glacial pace should be accelerated and adequate funds allotted for defence modernisation.

Published date : 11 April, 2011

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