China: New defense posture
A new white paper on China's military places sharp focus on the country's international role, signaling a growing confidence in its clout in the world community, writes Adam Wolfe for ISN Security Watch.On the day that Barack Obama was sworn in as US president, China's defense department issued a white paper on the current status and plans of the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) - an English-language report aimed primarily at an international audience concerned about China's growing military presence.
It is the sixth such white paper since 1998, and the sixth demonstration that the country's attempts at transparency can be maddeningly unclear to western observers.
The paper reflects China's growing confidence in its increasingly important role on the world stage, while at the same time downplaying issues that have strained ties with the international community.
As with previous reports, is short on specifics about equipment and technology. Also, the US intelligence community remains convinced that China has understated its military budget by about 50 percent and is deliberately hiding its intentions. What is notable about the new paper is that it directly addresses the budget.
In one of its longest sections, the paper states that China's military budget has grown by about 20 percent annually in recent years for three reasons: rising salaries and benefits for servicemen; compensation for the rise in food and fuel prices; and modernizing the PLA's equipment. The paper further argues that as a percentage of GDP, China's defense spending remains much lower than that of the US, the UK, France, Germany or Japan. Even if the CIA's higher estimates of China's defense budget were accepted, this would remain true.
Another shift in tone came in remarks on Taiwan. Previous papers used the threat of Taiwanese independence as one of the main reasons for China's naval build-up. The new white paper all but declares victory on this front: "The attempts of the separatist forces to seek 'de jure Taiwan independence' have been thwarted, and the situation across the Taiwan Straits has taken a significantly positive turn."
Still, US weapon sales to Taiwan and increased military presence in the Asia-Pacific region are cited as security concerns for China.
Whereas previous papers downplayed China's global ambitions, the white paper signals a fresh confidence in China's position in the world. "The Chinese economy has become an important part of the world economy, China has become an important member of the international system, and the future and destiny of China have been increasingly closely connected with the international community," the paper argues. From this perspective, the paper highlights China's growing presence in global "military operations other than war," (MOOTW, in military jargon).
The white paper notes that China had close to 1,950 military peacekeepers serving in nine UN missions last year. The PLA recently held joint training missions with 14 countries, including the US, India, Australia and the UK. In this regard, the decision to send the Chinese navy to participate in the anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia is probably more of a sign of things to come than a one-off publicity stunt.
Strengthening US ties
While the old concerns remain for both sides (Beijing's lack of budgetary transparency, Washington's weapon sales to Taiwan), the overall trend is toward closer ties between the Pentagon and the PLA.
The US-China relations probably hit their lowest point since the establishment of diplomatic relations early in the Bush administration when a Chinese F-8 fighter and a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft collided near Hainan, China in April 2001. At the time, the Pentagon had put military-to-military communications on hold pending a review. After the incident was resolved, both sides began to take steps to ensure that a dialogue would remain open between their militaries, even if both continued to see each other as potential competitors.
Chinese and US forces staged their first joint search-and-rescue maneuvers in the Pacific and South China Sea in 2006, and Washington downplayed an unexpected surfacing of a Chinese submarine near a US aircraft carrier later that year. There were some hiccups along the road - such as Beijing's refusal to grant a US aircraft carrier a port call in November 2007 - but the both sides continued to pursue a deeper dialogue.
In April 2008, a military-to-military hotline was established to prevent any misunderstandings as Beijing begins to project its power beyond its littoral waters. Obama's decision to retain Defense Secretary Robert Gates seems to indicate that the trend will continue, though there are likely to be further problems along the way.
The new white paper also highlights some of the steps that the PLA has taken to improve its transparency on the international stage - one of the main sticking points for the Pentagon.
Last year, Beijing launched the Information Office of the Ministry of National Defense, which regularly releases military information and holds press conferences. Also in late 2007, Beijing rejoined the UN Standardized Instrument for Reporting Military Expenditures.
Still, the new white paper does not mention China's aircraft carrier program or its missiles aimed at Taiwan - and these are both major concerns for Washington.
The PLA's regional ties
The PLA has - established strong ties with its Central Asian neighbors through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which has held large-scale joint training exercises in recent years. But the new white paper also stresses improving ties with India and Japan as well.
Previous papers emphasized concerns about Japanese attempts to modify its constitution to allow a military build-up. The new paper only mentions mutual visits by the Japanese and Chinese navies, and says the bilateral relationship has improved. The paper also downplays Indian concerns about the Chinese naval build-up and an ongoing border dispute. Instead, the report cites the joint counterterrorism training exercises held in China and India in 2007 and 2008.
While Japan and India are sure to appreciate the new tone, concerns remain about China's regional intentions. Japan and China claim overlapping ownership of a section of the East China Sea. Though diplomatic progress has been made on the issue, it remains unresolved and both sides have adjusted their defensive postures in recent years as a result.
Negotiations over the disputed border with India have gone nowhere in recent years. Also, China's "string of pearls" strategy, which seeks to establish new naval bases and military ties along the sea lanes from the Middle East to the South China Sea, continues to be watched with a wary eye from New Delhi. Just as India is seeking "blue-water status" for its navy, or the ability to project power further away from its coastal region, China appears to be moving into the region with its navy.
Whereas previous white papers stressed the continued need for training within the PLA, the most recent report's emphasis is clearly on China's new place in the world. It describes the country as an indispensable nation: "China cannot develop in isolation from the rest of the world, nor can the world enjoy prosperity and stability without China."
While this emphasis is likely to cause concern in capitals around the world, it also opens the door for greater cooperation with China's neighbors and the US. The Chinese ships heading to Somalia will be the first test case for what Beijing clearly believes will be a new role for its military.