What does China’s new defence strategy mean?

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For India, which has been working on getting Beijing to yield on its admission to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the white paper’s assessment of the international non-proliferation regime as “compromised by pragmatism and double standards” is likely to be troubling.

New Delhi would have been watching closely as State Council Information Office spokesperson Hu Kaihong held up a white paper titled “China’s National Defence in the New Era” in Beijing on July 24, 2019. | Reuters

China on Wednesday published its first defence white paper in four years, outlining the strategic military guideline for what it terms as a new era. The document offers an insight into Beijing’s view of the changes in the international security situation. It discusses China’s defence policy objectives, along with the reform, missions and tasks that its armed forces are undertaking. Further, it elaborates on the role of the armed forces in the broader Chinese geopolitical objective of establishing a community with a shared future for mankind.

Here are five key takeaways from the white paper. The line taken by the document indicates a generally positive outlook towards India. Nevertheless, there are certain potential points of impact to be noted from the perspective of Indian interests:


Shifting balance of power

The white paper begins with an assessment of the changes in the international security environment. It argues that the world is increasingly heading towards multipolarity. But, it isn't yet a “tranquil place,” with strategic competition on the rise. Beijing’s diagnosis is that “the configuration of strategic power is becoming more balanced,” with the strength of emerging markets and developing countries growing. The big threat to this is the change in American policy, i.e., “growing hegemonism, power politics, unilateralism”.

This necessitates a reinforcement of the UN’s role in global security, strengthening new regional security arrangements, establishing security partnerships (with Russia, for instance), investments in better weapons and technological upgrades and bolstering arms control and non-proliferation regimes. For New Delhi, which has been working on getting Beijing to yield on its admission to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the white paper’s assessment of the international non-proliferation regime as “compromised by pragmatism and double standards” is likely to be troubling.


The Asia-Pacific contest

The document observes that while the Asia-Pacific region is “generally stable”, there is increased “major country competition”. Essentially, it perceives the dynamics in the region within the framework of U.S.-China. frictions. The U.S., it argues, “is strengthening its Asia-Pacific military alliances and reinforcing military deployment and intervention”. The key partners for Washington that it identifies are South Korea, Japan and Australia. Despite that, the document largely assesses Chinese neighbourhood policy as having been successful. “Asia-Pacific countries are increasingly aware that they are members of a community with shared destiny”, it reads, hinting at the rapid emergence of a China-led security architecture.

The constituents of this Sinosphere are structures like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, CICA, China’s expanding dominance in the South China Sea, dialogues with ASEAN members, regional counter-terror action and increasing bilateral military-to-military diplomacy. Interestingly, China views South Asia also as “generally stable,” although “conflicts between India and Pakistan flare up from time to time.” This suggests that Beijing is rather confident about its ability to manage tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad.


BRI’s Military component

Ever since Xi Jinping launched, in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), there has been much debate about the security implications of Chinese investments around the world. The white paper tells us that protecting China’s overseas interests is a strategic objective for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It states that “one of the missions of China’s armed forces is to effectively protect the security and legitimate rights and interests of overseas Chinese people, organizations and institutions”. In order to do so, the document says that the PLA is building “far seas forces”, “overseas logistical facilities”, and capabilities for “diversified military tasks”. That’s followed by a glowing evaluation of the PLA’s Logistics Support Base in Djibouti, which was set up in 2017. This is perhaps the clearest admission of the emerging military component of the BRI. But that’s not all. Beijing is also likely to continue to invest in and focus on participation in Humanitarian and Disaster Relief operations internationally. This is couched within the rhetoric of providing international public goods. But such activities allow for the enhancement of Chinese forces’ operational skills and experience and normalises their presence in far-flung regions of the world.


Resilient China

The 2015 Chinese defence white paper had argued that “China faces a formidable task to maintain political security and social stability”, while discussing Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet. In 2019, there’s a mention of “external separatist forces” with regard to Tibet and Xinjiang. But the forces seeking Taiwan’s “independence” are identified as the “gravest immediate threat”, with the use of force not being ruled out. Despite that, generally the domestic security environment is assessed to have improved considerably. “China continues to enjoy political stability, ethnic unity and social stability. There has been a notable increase in China’s overall national strength, global influence, and resilience to risks,” the white paper says. However, it is also worth noting that “safeguarding national political security” and political work in the armed forces to uphold Xi Jinping’s status as the core of the Party-state system remain priorities.


Quality and Efficiency

Arguably one of the most important components of the reforms that Xi has pursued has been the restructuring of the country’s armed forces. The white paper encapsulates this as the PLA striving to transform itself from a quantity-and-scale model to that of quality and efficiency. This entails a shift in focus from manpower to firepower and from personnel-intensive to science and technology–intensive forces, according to the white paper. The impact of this overarching shift in approach has meant organisational restructuring. That has involved a shift in the balance of different forces. Over the past few years, there has been a reduction in personnel numbers, particularly from the ground forces. The Second Artillery Force has been reconstituted as the PLA Rocket Force. New strategic support and logistics forces have been established. Greater attention has been paid to safeguarding interests in outer space, electromagnetic space and cyberspace. The white paper, in fact, identifies this as one of the nine fundamental goals of the PLA going forward. Its equipment-development policy and approach to combat, therefore, are evolving from mechanisation to “intelligentised warfare” and “informatisation”. That has led to a reassessment of training methods to ensure greater interoperability among forces. These are developments that New Delhi should be watching closely and factoring into its defence planning, given that they have a direct impact on India’s security interests.

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