By Lauren Dickey and Stephen Liszewski
On Tuesday, the Chinese Ministry of Defense issued its first policy document in two years, a white paper titled, “Chinese Military Strategy.” The document, released amid ongoing Chinese island reclamation and increasingly hostile warnings to U.S. Navy aviation assets operating in the South China Sea, outlines how the Chinese armed forces are expected to support Beijing’s geopolitical objectives.
In the white paper, a copy of which can be read online in English or Chinese, China vows to use the armed forces to create a “favorable strategic posture with more emphasis on the employment of military forces and means,” in order to guarantee the country’s peaceful development. The document also less-than-subtly indicts the United States (and other neighbors) for taking “provocative actions” surrounding Chinese reefs and islands.
Five major elements of the strategy worthy of American attention stand out:
1. Preserving the role of the Communist Party remains the People Liberation Army’s (PLA) number one priority. The PLA’s most important task remains maintaining the power and authority of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The white paper makes it perfectly clear that the PLA first exists to protect the CPC and the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Notions of defending the Chinese homeland or the people of China take a back seat to preserving the legitimacy and efficacy of the CPC. After all, the PLA is an arm of the CPC—not the Chinese state—and thus the Chinese armed forces are tasked solely with defending the Party rather than the well-being of 1.3 billion Chinese people. Should economic, demographic, or social issues threaten CPC legitimacy, Xi has the option of utilizing PLA forces to quell political opposition and domestic unrest.
2. China is building a military to fight and win wars. The Chinese military is focused on ensuring recent investments in the PLA translate into genuine warfighting capability. The white paper clearly states that the PLA intends to, “endeavor to seize the strategic initiative in military struggle, proactively plan for military struggle in all directions and domains, and grasp the opportunities to accelerate military building, reform and development.” The Chinese military desperately wants a military capable of going on the offensive and defeating any challengers. The white paper gives particular emphasis to Chinese naval ambitions of becoming a blue water force. A Chinese blue water navy will operate regularly beyond the “first island chain” separating the South China, East China, and Yellow Seas from the Pacific, to protect Chinese strategic interests.
For officials in Beijing, a blue water navy is a modernized force capable of defending territorial claims, conducting global operations, and perhaps most significantly, constituting a “real challenge” to the U.S. Navy. While the desire for a capable blue water navy is not surprising, it serves as a warning to other nations in the region, a warning that is unlikely to ease existing tensions with neighboring Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. A Chinese military that is built to fight and win wars is also a military that could show little reluctance in using force to assert sovereignty.
3. The PLA appears focused on perceived threats from the United States, Japan, Taiwan, South China Sea littoral states and the Koreas. The white paper and its reworked strategic guidelines reflect a perception of “new” national security issues: the U.S. rebalance to Asia; Japanese revisions to military and security policy; external countries meddling in Chinese territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere; instability and uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula; and independence movements simmering in both Taiwan and Tibet. Beijing’s security interests now lie farther from home, and across regions requiring an active military presence. The PLA leadership is seeking to equip and train its forces to meet new perceptions of the Chinese security environment. In doing so, the latest white paper makes certain China has no qualms in upholding a military strategy of “active defense,” or what the document breaks down into a combination of strategic defense, self-defense, operational and tactical offense, and a willingness to counterattack.
4. The Chinese military knows it has some big organizational hurdles to overcome. The white paper examines necessary measures to overhaul the daily operations and internal structure of the PLA. These include: giving continued priority to ideological and political work, modernizing logistics infrastructure, establishing a military law system, and integrating military and civilian support efforts. Specifically at the domestic level, the white paper stresses the need to improve national defense education, boost public awareness of the Chinese military, and rethink processes for bringing on PLA enlistees. These initiatives all appear to be aimed at tackling existing weaknesses in organizational and human capital to yield a stronger military force.
5. The good news: China is interested in military-to-military contacts and relationships and the white paper is a sign of increased transparency. The white paper states that, “China’s armed forces will continue to develop military-to-military relations that are non-aligned, non-confrontational and not directed against any third party.” More specifically, the white paper expresses Chinese armed forces’ interest in fostering a new model of military relationship with U.S. armed forces that would include defense dialogues, exchanges and other measures aimed at strengthening mutual trust, preventing, unintended escalation, and mitigating crises. Military-to-military contact and engagement with China are beneficial to the United States because such initiatives can help avoid miscalculation and improve the U.S. ability to understand Chinese intent. Engagement also establishes a foundation for future negotiation and de-escalation if crises develop. The other “good news” in the white paper is its transparency. The white paper is a clear statement of Beijing’s military intent; after reviewing the white paper, the international community is left with a better understanding of Chinese plans for their military.
A clear-eyed reading of China’s new white paper should temper naïveté in thinking Beijing seeks to become a peaceful, responsible stakeholder in the global order. Aside from an interest in deepening existing mil-mil relationships, the new strategic guidelines leave little room to doubt Chinese ambitions of transforming into a modern, maritime power capable of challenging the United States in the Asia-Pacific theater and elsewhere in the world. The white paper signals that the Chinese military intends to project power beyond its immediate periphery, into the open ocean, in pursuit of a “national rejuvenation” aimed at countering what Chinese leaders see as U.S.-led efforts to check China’s rise. The document marks a notable transition from a Chinese focus on economic development—and a hands-off approach to global affairs—to a reorientation that not only accounts for the global scope of Chinese interests, but also suggests a national tenacity to defend Chinese interests through the use of force.
China’s white paper sends some disturbing messages that China is committed to “achieving slow motion regional hegemony.” It appears that China has both a vision and a plan to extend the PLA’s global reach—now it is up to the United States and its allies and friends in the Pacific to engage with China while working to devise an adequate response.
Lauren Dickey is a research associate for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Colonel Stephen Liszewski, U.S. Marine Corps, is a Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Before coming to CFR, he served as Commanding Officer, 11th Marine Regiment. His combat deployments have included Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2012. The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government.