China adopts ‘military strategy of active defence’

IN keeping with its past practice, China released its sixth White Paper on National Defence in January 2009. Though it is an improvement on previously published White Papers in terms of transparency, there still is considerable opacity in revealing key defence policies and China’s strategic outlook and its annual defence expenditure.
Beijing had estimated its defence expenditure for 2008 at about US $61 billion. This was much lower than the estimate made by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. According to SIPRI, China is likely to spend a staggering $140 billion on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), its navy and air force this year.
The Chinese leadership believes that “China’s security situation has improved steadily,” although China is still confronted with “long-term, complicated and diverse security threats and challenges.”
The White Paper cautions the Chinese people that China is facing “the superiority of the developed countries in economy, science and technology as well as military affairs… and faces strategic manoeuvers and containment from the outside.”
Although China continues to reiterate that its defence policy is purely defensive in nature, the White Paper reveals that it is working towards implementing a “military strategy of active defence.”
While formulating its military strategy of active defence for the 21st century, China is focussing on four crucial components: emphasising the prevention and deterrence of crises and wars; building hi-tech military capabilities to win local wars in conditions of ‘informationisation’; enhancing the ability to counter various security threats; and, improving its military mobilisation and logistics mechanism.
The latest White Paper selectively provides previously unreleased information. It indicates that the Chinese armed forces are training for integrated joint operations on future battlefields. The army is working towards high mobility and three-dimensional assault.
The navy is acquiring integrated sea-air capabilities for offshore defensive operations. The air force is developing integrated air-land capabilities for both offensive and defensive operations. It has also opted for capital intensive air-to-air refuelling capabilities and strategic airlift for power projection.
The second artillery force, the Chinese equivalent of a nuclear command, has acquired potent surface-to-surface missile systems for both nuclear and conventional missile strikes. Approximately, 1,000 short-range ballistic and cruise missiles are known to be deployed opposite Taiwan. These are mobile systems, which can be easily re-deployed in Tibet and other theatres.
China is also training its armed forces for military operations other than war including UN peace-keeping and peace-support operations, anti-piracy missions, environmental disasters and societal unrest.
These efforts provide evidence of China’s gradual move towards employing its armed forces as an instrument of statecraft, to achieve major national security objectives and to show the Chinese flag as well as mark China’s presence around the world.
Laying added emphasis on the navy the White Paper states, “in line with the off-shore defence strategy, the navy takes informationisation as the orientation and strategic priority of its modernisation drive…” Increasingly larger numbers of Chinese naval vessels are plying in the Indian Ocean.
China is developing deep sea port for Pakistan at Gwadar. This port and others such ports in Myanmar (Sittwe) and Sri Lanka (Hambantota) may be used for berthing facilities or upgraded to bases for the navy in future.
Significantly, the new Chinese naval base at Sanya on Hainan Island could house a large fleet of surface warships and also serve as an underwater naval base for submarines.
The completion of the Sanya base will allow China to extend it influence in the South China Sea and provide it with greater access to the Straits of Malacca. Eventually, the navy will be able to operate and sustain itself in the northern Indian Ocean region by about 2015.
A conspicuous omission in the White Paper is the failure to comment on China’s anti-satellite (ASAT) test of January 2007 - an aggressive demonstration of its technological prowess. The White Paper underlines that Beijing’s threat perception in the Taiwan Strait has been “greatly reduced.”
However, it notes explicitly that China’s military capabilities will continue to grow even as the Taiwan issue thaws, confirming that the evolving Chinese national security strategy will look beyond Taiwan. Notably, the Chinese concepts of warfare and capability upgradation go well beyond meeting challenges such as Taiwan and Tibet.
As China prepares for its 60th anniversary as a Republic in October 2009, the armed forces appear to be receiving enhanced political guidance regarding their responsibilities and missions.
The PLA’s modernisation drive is intended to contribute militarily to enhancing China’s comprehensive national power. It is also expected to ensure that China can fight and hold its own against a Western coalition with armed forces property trained and equipped.
China’s growing power and influence in Asia poses a strategic challenge to India. The Chinese armed forces are well ahead of their Indian counterparts in many areas of defence modernisation and the gap is slowly becoming unbridgeable.
China’s defence budget is growing annually between 16 and 18 per cent while India’s defence budget is now less than 2.0 per cent of India’s GDP.
There is a real risk that 15 to 20 years from now China may attempt to force a military solution to the territorial dispute with India after settling the Taiwan issue.
In case the present trend of inadequate allocations for defence modernisation, bureaucratic red tape and indecision continues, India may be forced to accept an unequal settlement due to its military weakness.
An analyst must listen to what a nation’s leaders say, but s/he must also carefully watch the body language. While China’s leaders make a song and dance about China’s peaceful rise and its adherence to the principles of peaceful co-existence, their body language says, “Get out of the way.”
The writers are with the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.