CHINA CHALLENGES THE UNIPOLAR WORLD ORDER: AN ASSESSMENT OF CHINA’S DEFENCE WHITE PAPER 2014

China  has  been  issuing  Defence  White  Papers  biennially  since  1998.  The  ninth  White Paper of 2014 titled ‘China’s Military Strategy’  was released recently in May 2015. This essay seeks to analyse the salient aspects of the document, particularly in context of the preceding document of 2012 released in April 2013.

In comparison to the Defence White Papers published by China in the preceding years, the 2014 document is very concise. Nonetheless, it reveals substantial content and context, disproportionate to the size of its text. While much of the revelation is likely to be Beijing’s ‘strategic communications’, the document is nonetheless insightful.

Title of White Paper

The present White Paper has continued the trend of using a thematic title – a trend that was  initiated  with  the  2012  document  titled  ‘The  Diversified  Employment  of  China’s Armed Forces’. The trend and the specific title spelling out  “China’s Military Strategy” signify the increased self-confidence of an emerging global military power, which until a few years ago, preferred to be opaque to the world on ‘matters military’.  The document also reflects an increased self-assurance as a nation, stating that “China’s comprehensive national   strength,   core   competitiveness   and   risk-resistance   capacity   are   notably increasing, and China enjoys growing international standing and influence”.

Core National Objectives

In  the  document,  China  has  maintained  its  earlier  stance  of  avoiding  war  through  its military strategy of “active defence” (that envisages an ‘offensive’ only at the operational and tactical levels). However, the document mentions “preparation for military struggle (PMS)”,  which  indicates  its  strong  desire  to  retain  the  option  of  first  use  of  military force, if  it  cannot  achieve its  core objectives  otherwise. Furthermore, the emphasis on “maritime PMS” indicates that these objectives pertain to Taiwan’s “reunification”, and fructification of its maritime-territorial claims in the Western Pacific. Furthermore, the inclusion  of  the  phase  “You  fight  your  way and  I  fight  my  way”  indicates  that  China’s war-fighting   concept   to   meet   its   core   objectives   is   likely   to   be   based   on   use   of asymmetric capabilities.

Maritime Interests

The  previous  2012  document  stated  the  PLA  Navy’s  mandate  to  preserve  China’s sovereignty  over  its  territorial  seas  and  its  maritime  rights  and  interests  in  ‘offshore areas’  against  complex  security  threats,  thereby  portraying  China  as  a  victim  or  an underdog reacting to the actions of Japan, and implicitly, of the U.S. The new document, however,  emphasises  on  a  more  proactive  protection  of  its  interests  in  ‘open  waters’, thereby enlarging its strategic depth. Notably, the document also calls upon the need to shed the mindset that peace, stability and development of China is linked to affairs on land  rather  than  the  sea.  This  indicates  a  maritime  emphasis  of  China’s  military strategy.

With  regard  to  the  security  of  sea-lanes,  it  uses  the  term  “strategic  Sea  Lines  of Communication   (SLOCs)”.   Although   the   term   ‘SLOC’   itself   bears   a    ‘strategic’ connotation,   the   addition   of   the   adjective   indicates   that   China’s   considers   itself vulnerable to commodity denial during war, thereby severely limiting its option of use of military force. Although the document does not specifically mention the ‘Indian Ocean’, the reference to Indian Ocean SLOCs may be inferred.

Naval Presence in Indian Ocean

Alike  the  previous  2012  document,  the  2014  White  Paper  states  that  the  PLA  Navy would  maintain  “regular  combat  readiness  patrols…(and  maintain)…military  presence in relevant sea areas.” While the former may refer to the Western Pacific, the latter is a likely reference to the  Indian Ocean. This is buttressed by the statement that the PLA Navy  would  “continue  to  carry  out  escort  missions  in  the  Gulf  of  Aden  and  other  sea areas  as  required,  enhance  exchanges  and  cooperation  with  naval  task  forces  of  other countries,  and  jointly  secure  international  SLOCs.”  This  implies  that  China’s  naval presence  in  the  Indian  Ocean  would  continue,  and  may  even  increase.  While  such presence  may  be  primarily  for  undertaking  ‘Military  Operations  Other  than  War’ (MOOTW),  it  is  likely  to  be  dovetailed  with  preparing  for  ‘wartime’  operations.  This assertion  is  borne  out  by  Beijing’s  assertion  in  September  2014  that  its  Song-class submarine  deployed  in  the  Indian  Ocean  was  meant  for  counter-piracy  mission.  (The credibility  of  this  rationale  was  dismissed  by  naval  analysts  on  operational  grounds). The  document  adds  that  the  “PLA  Navy  will  work  to  incorporate  MOOTW  capacity building  into…PMS”  thereby  implying  the  China  would  also  seek  to  develop  fungible capabilities.

Furthermore,  the  White  Paper  lays  emphasis  on  ‘sustenance’  of  the  forward- deployed naval platforms through “strategic prepositioning”. This indicates that China is likely  to  seek  overseas  access  facilities  (if  not  military  bases)  in  the  Indian  Ocean,  or even  resort  to  the  U.S.  concept  of  ‘sea-basing’.  The  latter  possibility  is  supported  by recent  news-reports  about  China  developing  large  ‘Mobile  Landing  Platforms’  (MLP) used by the U.S. expeditionary forces.

Military Interface with Major Powers

The mention of Russia in the White Paper precedes all other countries. The “exchanges and cooperation with the Russian military within the framework of the comprehensive strategic partnership…to promote military relations in more fields and at more levels” indicates the imminence of a China-Russia quasi-alliance.

The 2012 White Paper, without naming the U.S.,  had expressed a concern for its “pivot”  to  Asia  strategy  and  “strengthening  of  its  military  alliances  with  the  regional countries,  leading  to  tensions”.  In  contrast,  the  2014  document  mentions  the  U.S. explicitly. While it does state the need for “cooperative mechanisms with the US Navy, including exchange of information in the maritime domain”, its tone and tenor indicates a  precursor  to  a  ‘Cold  War-style’  military  interface  between  the  two  major  powers.  It talks about a “new model of military relationship” with the US based on “major-country relations”, with “strengthening of defence dialogue (and)…CBMs to include notification of  major  military  activities  (and)  rules  of  behaviour”  to  prevent  “air  and  maritime encounters…strengthen mutual  trust,  prevent  risks and manage crises.”  However, it  is yet unclear what kind of bipolar interface will eventually emerge since the current global environment  marked  by  close  China-U.S.  economic  ties  is  vastly  dissimilar  to  the erstwhile Cold War era.

The 2012 White Paper had mentioned India’s combined Army exercises with PLA and  increased  anti-piracy  coordination  with  India.  Since  the  2014  document  is  more succinct, the lack of details is understandable. However, the lack of even a mention of defence exchanges with India, or any other Asian country is remarkable.

Also  ‘conspicuous  by  absence’  are  the  various  facets  of  ‘transparency’  that  the preceding Defence White Papers had addressed, ranging from China’s defence budget to its nuclear weapons policy of no-first use (NFU). Evidently, China has ‘arrived’ on the world stage with a single-minded preoccupation of how it could challenge the unipolar world order dominated by the U.S.

About the Author 

Captain (Dr.) Gurpreet S Khurana is the Executive Director, National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, the Indian Navy or the Government of India. He can be reached at gurpreet.bulbul@gmail.com

 

 

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