China’s Defence Policy: Major Projections and Missing Links

05 Jun, 2013    ·   3975

Gurmeet Kanwal analyses the continuities and lacunae in China's national defence policy

As part of its efforts to appear transparent about its intentions, to dispel its image of a reclusive regime shrouded in secrecy and to foster confidence among its neighbours, the Chinese government has been issuing White Papers on national defence every two years since 1998. The eighth in the series, entitled “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces”, was published on April 16, 2013.

The crux of China’s national defence policy is to ensure a stable security environment so as to permit the unrestricted development of its economy and the modernisation of its military. The defence policy relies on military power as a guarantor of China’s strategic autonomy and is designed to ensure that China continues to enjoy unfettered access to critical strategic resources like oil and natural gas and rare minerals. China has apparently decided that its interests lie in projecting a positive, balanced and cooperative image to the international community. China’s growing economic and military power is gradually giving it the leverage to turn the perceived instability in its security environment into a newfound strength through bilateral and multilateral strategic partnerships and mutually beneficial trade. However, China is still hesitant to join any cooperative regional security arrangements. In fact, over the last few years, China has behaved rather assertively to stake its claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea and in the Sea of Japan. China’s military assertiveness has shaken the confidence of its Asian neighbours in its ability to resolve disputes peacefully.

China stresses that its national defence policy is essentially defensive in nature and that it is subordinate to the higher goal of building a prosperous China. The White Papers emphasise that China launches only counter-attacks in self defence. This is contrary to China’s fairly aggressive military posture and incursions into India, Russia and Vietnam over the last few decades. A significant recent development is China’s proactive regional posture in diplomatic, strategic, economic and cultural spheres in parallel with China’s increasingly global posture. This is contrary to China’s claim that it “plays an active part in maintaining global and regional peace and stability.” Indeed, Beijing’s recent posturing on the Spratly Islands has been criticised all across Southeast Asia.

While China stresses the “purely defensive” nature of its defence policy, perceptive observers have noted the power projection capabilities that are inherent in China’s growing strategic outreach plans. Also noteworthy is the increasing role that military power is paying in enhancing China’s comprehensive national power. Roy Kamphausen is of the view that the PLA is currently “projecting military power throughout Asia by responding to crises, contributing to deterrence and enhancing regional stability using current capabilities. These efforts derive from and contribute to the building of comprehensive Chinese national power, which, in turn, serves to increase China’s stature in Asia, advance China’s foreign policy goals and even check US influence.”

China continues to proclaim that it follows a “no first use” (NFU) nuclear doctrine. However, the improvements in the quality of its nuclear-tipped missiles and the progressive increase in their quantity are conferring new options and spurring new thoughts among China’s national security analysts about the efficacy of its nuclear doctrine. Several of them have expressed the view that “under certain circumstances – such as an all-out attack against the country by conventional forces – China should use nuclear weapons.”As more sophisticated ICBMs like DF-31A and SLBMs like JL-2 enter service in larger numbers, China may be emboldened to review its NFU policy. Any Chinese move to discard the no first use policy will be inherently destabilising.

There are still many gaps in what is known about China’s defence policy and military power. There is much more that needs to be learnt about China’s ideas of statecraft, its approaches to the use of force, its perceived vulnerabilities and its preferred operational methods, as well as about the political and military organisations that work on military assessments and plans. Not enough is known about China’s actual military doctrine, command and control and capabilities such as military logistics. Although China’s growing interest in coercion and pre-emption strategies and emerging methods of warfare – particularly the employment of missiles and information warfare – are now better understood, it is difficult to accurately assess how these developments will shape China’s overall military capability.

China is increasingly concerned with the increasing US influence in Asia and the planned US pivot to the Indo-Pacific. According to the 2013 White Paper, “the US is adjusting its Asia-Pacific security strategy, and the regional landscape is undergoing profound changes… has strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser.” Clearly, US-China rivalry is growing and countries in the Indo-Pacific region will eventually be forced to choose the side they wish to support. It is in India’s interest to maintain its strategic autonomy while watching out for China’s growing power and influence.