A peek into China's military mind
By Owen Fletcher
BEIJING - China's national defense white paper released last week hinted at
Beijing's growing confidence on the world stage while showing firm commitment
to further military modernization and to suppressing "splittism" in Taiwan,
even at a time of warming ties.
The paper, released on the day of United States President Barack Obama's
inauguration, called China's defense strategy "purely defensive", and indeed
struck a cooperative tone overall - but it also emphasized China's view that
the world is becoming "multipolar", implying a relative decline in American
"A profound readjustment is brewing in the international system," the paper
says. "[Major powers] continue to compete with and
hold each other in check, and groups of new emerging developing powers are
China's defense white papers have "explained China's military and national
defense to the world and displayed China's increasingly open and confident
image", Defense Ministry spokesman Hu Changming said at a press conference on
the paper's release.
The latest paper, like China's other five since 1995, took small steps toward
improving military transparency. The paper described the organization of
China's army, navy, air force, paramilitary troops and central nuclear missile
But it left many questions unanswered about the buildup of the People's
Liberation Army (PLA) and repeated old figures for defense spending that
foreign analysts have said could be under-reported by as much as three times.
China has not yet announced a defense budget for this year, but in 2008 it said
spending would rise by 17.6% that year to about US$60 billion.
The United States and Japan have pressured China for years to reveal more about
the development of its military capabilities, its foreign arms sales and the
goals of its military transformation. The new paper tried to deflect further
pressure by noting that US military spending dwarfs China's. The US remains by
far the world's biggest defense spender, with a budget of $515 billion for
fiscal year 2009, plus tens of billions of dollars in emergency spending for
the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The white paper used the unyielding language of past papers to condemn moves
toward independence in self-governed Taiwan, though it also said "the situation
across the Taiwan Strait has taken a significantly positive turn".
China-Taiwan ties have drastically improved since the Kuomintang party's Ma
Ying-jeou, an advocate for economic ties with the mainland, became the island's
president last May. China and Taiwan have opened direct air and shipping lines
and Taiwan last week gained a communication link with the World Health
Organization after years of China blocking its entry.
But the paper still labeled independence movements in Taiwan, Tibet and
Xinjiang as primary threats to national security. "These problems all touch on
our nationalities' fundamental interests and core national interests. On this
question there can be no compromise and no concessions," Hu, the spokesman,
said. Hu evaded the question when asked whether China would remove some of its
more than 1,000 missiles pointed at Taiwan.
Beijing has claimed Taiwan as its sovereign territory since the Chinese
Communist Party won a civil war in 1949 and the Kuomintang fled to the island.
It has repeated promises to achieve reunification, by force if needed.
Indeed, the paper suggests that Taiwan remains the core focus of China's
military buildup, at least in the short term. China's "military strategic
guideline", it says, "aims at winning local wars in conditions of
"Local wars," a term Chinese officials use often, likely refers to a potential
conflict over Taiwan, though it could also apply to territorial disputes with
Japan or over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
"Informationization" is the buzzword for the PLA's modernization. It refers to
technical issues such as developing precision-strike missile systems as well as
logistical issues such as training officers to direct battle using new
communications systems. "Main battle weapon systems are being gradually
informationized," the paper says.
The paper emphasizes the PLA's "leapfrog development" of technology, meaning
direct upgrades from outdated to state-of-the-art technologies without the
China has certainly improved what are known as its "C4ISR" capabilities -
command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance and
reconnaissance - through integrative technology. The paper says an "integrated
military information network came into operation in 2006", and that the PLA was
building "digital campuses" at its military academies. Advances in China's
telecom industry have also contributed to upgrades in PLA communications
Communication between units and command centers is also benefiting from China's
Beidou global navigation satellite system, which state media recently quoted an
industry source as saying could achieve full global coverage by 2015.
Fan Jianjun of the PLA's General Planning Bureau dismissed this report as a
rumor during the white paper briefing, but if true then it would mean enhanced
force projection soon for the PLA. Beidou satellites could guide cruise
missiles launched, for example, at Taiwan from Chinese ships. Although inferior
to America's well-established Global Positioning System technology, the system
would also grant China control over its own navigation network, crucial in the
event of war.
China expects to "lay a solid foundation" for informationization of the
military by 2010, to "make major progress" by 2020, and to "by and large reach
the goal" of informationization by mid-century, the paper said.
The white paper also reported growing force projection capability in the air.
The PLA Air Force, it says, "now has relatively strong capabilities to conduct
air defensive and offensive operations, and certain capabilities to execute
long-range precision strikes and strategic projection operations".
That's a step up from China's 2006 defense white paper, which said only that
the air force "aims at speeding up its transition" to offensive capabilities
and "increasing its capabilities" for air strikes and strategic projection.
That, in turn, was a move up from the 2004 defense white paper which never
mentioned the word "projection".
The paper's end implication is that the PLA, while still underfunded and only
at the beginning of a transformation, is increasingly confident in its growth
and in its war-fighting capability. The paper comes after hints last month by
Defense Ministry spokesman Huang Xueping that China may plan to build an
But the paper suggested no broad changes to China's main national objectives,
including a paramount emphasis on protecting sovereignty. Like past papers, it
indirectly criticized American "hegemonism and power politics" and laid
responsibility for improving China-US relations at Washington's feet.
China suspended military exchanges with the US last October over American arms
sales to Taiwan worth $6.5 billion.
Spokesman Hu called at the briefing for Washington "to adopt practical policies
to terminate the obstacles to developing ties between the two [Chinese and US]
Under Obama, Hu said, "We hope China and America can work together to create
beneficial conditions and push forward unswerving improvement and development
in military relations."
Owen Fletcher is a freelance journalist from the United States. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.