China’s Defence Policy Speak softly but carry a big stick

As part of its efforts to appear transparent about its intentions and to dispel its image of a reclusive regime shrouded in secrecy, the Chinese government has been issuing White Papers on national defence every two years since 1998. The latest in the series, China’s National Defence in 2010, was released recently. Though the White Papers do not follow a rigid format, the issues covered are by and large the same. These include the security environment, the national defence policy, defence expenditure, leadership and the military service system, details of the structure of the PLA and the process of its modernization through a “revolution in military affairs with Chinese characteristics”, details of China’s armed police forces, border and coastal defence, science, technology and industry for national defence, international security cooperation, and arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation.

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. 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, mutually beneficial trade and a cooperative attitude towards regional security arrangements. 

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 pro-active 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.” Recent posturing on the Spratly Islands has been criticised all across South East 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 reach and 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.” 
While China continues to proclaim that it follows a “no first use” nuclear doctrine, 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 no first use 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 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. In Interpreting China’s grand Strategy: Past, Present and Future, Michael Swaine and Ashley Tellis, at present with Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, have written: “The continued increase in China’s relative economic and military capabilities, combined with its growing maritime strategic orientation, if sustained over many years, will almost certainly produce both a re-definition of Beijing’s strategic interests and increase Beijing’s ability to protect those interests in ways that directly or indirectly challenge many of the existing equities…”

Another principle component of China’s grand strategy is to preserve and enhance its political supremacy and influence in Asia “without provoking the emergence of a countervailing coalition of states.” India’s objective is to build a strong economic base that will be capable of supporting its aspirations as a regional power with the same primacy as China in Asia. Burdened by the baggage of history and still motivated by the “Middle Kingdom” syndrome, China has always had immense difficulty in accommodating India’s aspirations as the second Asian power. Despite improving trade relations with India, with the balance of trade now in China’s favour, and relative tranquility on the border, even though the territorial dispute is still far from being resolved, China is engaged in implementing a diabolical policy aimed at the strategic encirclement of India with a view to confining India to the backwaters of the Indian Ocean and stunting India’s overall growth so that it is prevented from acquiring sufficient comprehensive national power to challenge China’s hegemony in Asia. The salient ingredients of this strategy are indeed diabolical.
China seeks to contain India through nuclear weapons-cum-missiles nexus and an extremely strong strategic partnership based on extensive military cooperation with its “all-weather” ally and friend Pakistan, whose territorial integrity it has guaranteed. It has built the strategic Karakoram Highway linking Xingjian with Pakistan through the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir in the north and now plans to build a railway line as well. It has built a major sea port with the potential for establishing a naval base at Gwadar on the Makran coast. 

China is also engaged in serious attempts to make inroads into India’s neighbourhood through Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. China offers military aid, military training and subsidised arms to these countries, makes strategic infrastructure investments in them, such as the development of ports, and absorbs limited quantities of uneconomical imports from them. This is unlikely to change in the near future. In Varun Sahni’s view, China’s strategy in Southern Asia is “to create alternate incentive structures in India’s neighbourhood to prevent the pacification and consolidation of the region.” While this view is widely held by members of the Indian strategic community, many perceptive analysts in the West also share it. In Red Dragon Rising, Edward Timperlake and William C. Triplett II have carefully documented how China is engaged in surrounding India and “arming India’s enemy”.

China’s growing power and influence in Asia poses a long-term strategic challenge to India. Competition for markets and political influence between these two Asian giants could become unhealthy in future. In view of the unresolved territorial and boundary dispute between the two and aggressive military posturing on China’s part at the tactical level, though conflict is improbable, it cannot be completely ruled out. India must carefully weigh its options and upgrade its present military strategy from dissuasion to deterrence. For genuine deterrence, India needs to enhance the capabilities of its nuclear forces by adding 5,000 km range IRBMs (Agni-IV and V) and SSBNs armed with SLBMs to the arsenal while, simultaneously, adding offensive operations capabilities to ensure that the next conflict on land is fought deep inside Chinese territory. The choices are clear, only vigorous implementation is lacking.