Lately, Beijing has been making forceful statements and backing them with impactful actions. Speaking at the Aspen Security Dialogue on 18 July 2019, Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Admiral Phil Davidson described People’s Republic of China (PRC) Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe’s 2 June speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue as “quite chilling.” “Not only did [Wei] make it clear that he didn’t think Asia and the Western Pacific was any place for America, he said Asia wasn’t even for Asians—it was for the Chinese.” Then, “within 24 hours of that they tested a new nuclear ballistic missile,” the submarine-launched JL-3. On 8 July, at a forum of defense ministers from Latin America and Pacific island nations in China, Wei acknowledged that Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative—in Davidson’s words, “was indeed a way to put a military foothold within other places around the globe.” “Within hours of that,” Davidson added, “they shot six anti-ship ballistic missiles—new ones that they have developed—into the South China Sea…the first time they have done an at-sea test.” To Davidson, “once might be a coincidence, but seeing this happen twice is indeed a message….” Most recently, on 24 July the PRC released “China’s National Defense in the New Era,” its first major military policy document for an international audience in four years. What statements, then, does this 2019 Defense White Paper make? What actions may follow from it?
Four years was a long wait for a document that generally restates what experts already know. Short on substantive updates, the report contains confusing, arguably contradictory phrasing and showcases simplistic, often unconvincing assurances designed for international public consumption. Many will disagree that “China is always a builder of world peace… and a defender of the international order….” Many will remain unpersuaded by the report’s assurance that China is “Never Seeking Hegemony, Expansion or Spheres of Influence.” Many, in Vietnam and across the globe, will question the claim that the PRC “has never started any war or conflict.” The “firsts” trumpeted in the official rollout are underwhelming for anyone trying to better understand the People’s Liberation Army (PLA); that purpose is much better served by consulting the Pentagon’s latest reports, together with the recent profusion of other U.S. government documents. Leading-edge analysts like Elsa B. Kania will always uncover nuances at the margins, but they do not depend on this single PRC source for those insights.
As an assertion of policy, however, China’s 2019 Defense White Paper clearly follows from General Wei’s remarks. It clearly embodies Xi’s self-dictated era, strategy, goals, reforms, and rhetoric. At its core, it reflects an unabashed Chinese Communist Party-led effort to make China great again at home and abroad while allowing no domestic or foreign foe to disrupt this self-assigned historic mission.
This year’s Defense White Paper replaces innovation and revelation glimpsed in previous iterations with an emphasis on implementation and justification. It lacks the 2006 edition’s extensive coverage of Border and Coastal Defense organizational structure, including the latest trends in “Militia Force Building,” and the 2015 edition’s substantive statements explaining the PLA’s transition to an unprecedented joint naval and aerospace orientation. The latter, China’s first-ever Defense White Paper on strategy, showed the PLA embracing new concepts and missions that represented significant innovations in safeguarding China’s national security. These doctrinal developments reflected the PLA’s adoption of a new strategic guideline in summer 2014, its ninth since 1956: “winning informatized local wars” (打赢信息化局部战争). Five areas merit particular mention as strategic emphases that the PLA has been implementing over the past four years.
Second, it emphasized comprehensive full-spectrum operations: peacetime probing and pressure, as well as combat readiness. It articulated a “holistic view of national security” encompassing both traditional and nontraditional security. Related tasks included “comprehensively manag[ing] crises,” “enrich[ing] the strategic concept of active defense,” and “establish[ing] an integrated joint operational system in which all elements are seamlessly linked and various operational platforms perform independently and in coordination.”
Fourth, it contained unprecedented maritime emphasis. Notably, it stated, “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned… great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.” It underscored determination to strengthen Chinese “strategic management of the sea.” It called for China to “build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure.”
In framing world events, the report envisions a new international order emerging. But this trend is complicated by rising great power competition, with the paper placing particular blame on the United States and its key regional allies. The report also notes pronounced Russian emphasis on nuclear weapons, but appears to excuse it for the sake of larger bilateral efforts: Beijing and Moscow are attempting to show that their strategic partnership is not merely one of convenience. In the short run, the two great powers share interests in opposing efforts of the United States and its allies to maintain their equities, and key aspects of, today’s international system. And there are still substantial, albeit dwindling, areas of Russian weapons technology and expertise from which China can benefit greatly. Of course, none of this precludes future discord stemming from Chinese strength and Russian weakness in the form of border, migration, ethnocultural, and resource tensions; as well as economic asymmetries and China’s relentless quest to obtain critical technologies by all means necessary.
Regarding cross-strait issues, the 2019 report contains even stronger wording than the ten previous editions. As OIMC itself states: “The document especially points out that solving the Taiwan question and achieving complete reunification of the country is in the fundamental interests of the Chinese nation and essential to realizing national rejuvenation. The People’s Liberation Army will resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China and safeguard national unity at all costs, the white paper stresses, clearly conveying China’s firm will to oppose any interference by foreign forces and defend its own core interests.”
One of the more substantive aspects of the Defense White Paper its progress report on reforming PLA leadership and organization to support a joint operations command system, a process that Xi announced officially in September 2015. The PLA is doing so with new capabilities and organizations for emerging domains that seek to leverage information-age innovation and thereby prepare for new ways of war. Among them, “China’s armed forces accelerate the building of their cyberspace capabilities, develop cybersecurity and defense means, and build cyber defense capabilities consistent with China’s international standing and its status as a major cyber country. They reinforce national cyber border defense, and promptly detect and counter network intrusions. They safeguard information and cybersecurity, and resolutely maintain national cyber sovereignty, information security and social stability.” All these actions are justified as defensive responses to pressing threats. On a related note, the report describes the PLA Strategic Support Force as providing information and communications assurance, information security and battlefield environmental protection, new technology testing, and other facilitating functions. This entails such complex activities as system of systems integration (体系融合) and military-civil fusion (军民融合).
Additionally, the report states, “Outer space is a critical domain in international strategic competition.” Noted space expert Michael J. Listner has shared the following analysis with the author: The 2019 Defense White Paper continues with the theme of the 2015 White Paper, which identified outer space as a commanding height. It also adds a new facet by characterizing space as a critical domain in the context of strategic competition. In doing so, it appears to respond to both the Pentagon’s 2019 China military power report and the Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2019 report on space security. In this way, this year’s paper is part policy statement and part propaganda response to the recent focus on outer space as a domain of war by the United States and the growing recognition of the strategic importance of outer space by NATO and Western nations more broadly. In doing so, the paper overtly labels the United States as the aggressor in outer space, which is a common refrain of Western non-governmental organizations focused on outer space security, and postures its outer space capabilities as a deterrent response as opposed to an active counter-space capacity.
Listner adds that the Defense White Paper applies lawfare techniques and attempts to manipulate the rule of law by promoting the PRC’s accession to the four major space law treaties and its work on international agreements—including the Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) —to evince its stance as promoting outer space for peaceful purposes in opposition to that of the United States, NATO, and other Western alliances. As with all policy positions taken in other domains, however, Beijing’s true intentions in outer space are better gauged by its actions than its words.
Warning: Trouble Ahead
Back at the Aspen Security Forum half the world away, Admiral Davidson remarked that with respect to enforcement of UN sanctions against North Korea, “Where we’re not getting help is China. …China has dozens and dozens of…Maritime Militia ships operating in the South China Sea to serve Chinese ends when they could be up helping…on a denuclearization effort of…North Korea and helping monitor these situations that are principally happening…in Chinese territorial waters, in their contiguous zone….”
Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a professor of strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute and the recipient of the inaugural Civilian Faculty Research Excellence Award at the Naval War College. He is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University and blogs at www.andrewerickson.com.