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China’s National Defense: “Intricate and Volatile”

by Adam Segal
April 1, 2011

Chinese People's Liberation Army

Soldiers from Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy Marine Crops, Air Force Aviation and Airborne Corps (from top to bottom) stand at attention during a training session at the 60th National Day Parade Village on the outskirts of Beijing on September 15, 2009. (Joe Chan/Courtesy Reuters)

China, in an ongoing bid to be more transparent about its military modernization, released the 2010 defense white paper, China’s National Defense in 2010, this week.

The overall picture painted is of Beijing operating in an increasingly complicated security environment.  The 21st century is a time of cooperation, says the report, and “the current trend toward peace, development and cooperation is irresistible.” At the same time, “international military competition remains fierce.” The Asia-Pacific region remains “intricate and volatile” because of continued tension on the Korean Peninsula, and the United States is reinforcing its military alliances and asserting itself in regional security issues.  The key goals are:

  • Safeguard national sovereignty, security, and national development
  • Maintain social harmony and stability
  • Accelerate the modernization of national defense
  • Maintain world peace

After a quick reading, two things stand out.  First, as Andrew Erickson points out, this seems to be the first time that a white paper refers to the ground forces as the PLA Army as opposed to just the PLA.  This is a demotion of sorts—before it was just the navy and air force that needed the descriptive nouns following PLA—and seems to suggest the growing importance of the PLA Navy and PLA Air Force, which makes sense given the military’s focus over the last two decades on improving power projection capabilities out into the South China Sea and the Western Pacific.

Second, while previous white papers have had numerous references to informationization (the integration of information technology systems into military systems and war fighting), this is, I think, the first time that there have been specific mentions of cyberspace.  The white paper refers to “some powers” that have built out missile defense, developed global strike capabilities, and “enhanced cyber operations capabilities to occupy new strategic commanding heights.” Of course the list of powers that have done all of those things is not very long.  In the face of these threats, the military is tasked with defending China’s “security interests in space, electromagnetic space and cyberspace.”

That is not a great deal of detail about how China is thinking about conflict in cyberspace.  But it is an oblique acknowledgement that China and the United States are now engaged in strategic competition in cyberspace.  To be fair, the United States has only recently begun moving toward greater transparency; U.S. Cyber Command is reportedly finalizing its new warfighting strategy.   The Chinese reliance on nonstate actors, patriotic hackers and criminals, to conduct attacks increases the ambiguity and opacity.  Both sides are going to have to tilt toward greater openness if they want cyberspace to be anything other than “intricate and volatile.”

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  • Posted by John Hildebrand

    First, PLA capabilities may be rapidly improving but still unproven. China hasn’t fought a war since 1979. I feel that China perceives it would be in its interest to avoid sharing information that might reveal to the West, particularly the United States, the PLA’s current limitations.

    Second, the PLA is creating ambiguity around it’s military capabilities in the hopes that the US will not be able to assess how much it would cost them in a conflict, thus avoiding conflict in general.

    So the White Paper does what China does best, reveal information that they want revealed.

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