China’s Defence White Paper 2013 – Analysis

China issued its eighth bi-annual Defence White Paper entitled: ‘The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces’, on April 16, 2013. The last White Paper, pertaining to 2010, was published in 2011. China’s Defence White Paper, 2013, is a 47-page document with five sections and 3 short appendices listing: joint exercises and training with foreign armed forces from 2011-2012; participation of China’s armed forces in international disaster relief and rescue (2011-2012); and China’s participation in UN peacekeeping operations (2011-2012).

The Defence White Paper, 2013, makes it apparent that the Asia-Pacific region currently dominates Chinese military thinking. This Defence White Paper is at once an expression of the Chinese leadership’s self-confidence and its confidence in the capabilities of its armed forces. After the ritual assertion that China will “not seek hegemony, behave in a hegemonic manner or engage in military expansion” and brief token acknowledgement of the importance of international cooperation, it states clearly that the military build-up and modernization will continue. There is discernible emphasis on expanding the capabilities and operational reach of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and PLA Air Force (PLAAF) together with increased investment in domestic R&D to upgrade the indigenous defence industry.

China started to fall in line with international practice on matters relating to military transparency since 1998, when it first began to publish Defence White Papers. Issued with the twin objectives of meeting international demands for a degree of transparency with regard to its defence modernization programme as well as wanting to stay engaged with the international community, China has, of late, also begun using the Defence White Papers to publicise its national objectives and world view, albeit in a very cautious way. In this, it follows the practice of other nations.

Though they avoid specifics, China’s Defence White Papers nevertheless do offer an insight into the broad thinking of senior echelons of the Chinese political and military leadership associated with matters of national defence. Unlike Western documents that also focus more on detail and specific capabilities, China’s Defence White Papers gloss over specifics and reveal few details of expenditure or weapons acquisitions or manufacture. China’s record of transparency in these matters remains opaque, though there has been slight incremental improvement over the years. As could be expected in a country where the armed forces are subordinate to the ruling political party, namely the Chinese Communist Party(CCP), China’s Defence White Papers blend political thinking with the broad plans for the armed forces. The leadership’s thinking on a range of issues including: the future plans and role of the armed forces; anticipated areas of conflict; levels of suspicion of other countries; areas of China’s interest; and the extent of military cooperation with foreign nations, are discernible in the present Defence White Paper, 2013. China too uses the Defence White Papers as instruments of politics and diplomacy.

China’s world view outlined in the latest Defence White Paper clearly highlights its preoccupation with the developments in the Asia-Pacific region, especially the role of the US, and identifies potential anticipated threats to China’s ambitions. In the initial two paragraphs of its first Section captioned: ‘New Situation, New Challenges and New Missions’, the Defence White Paper singles out the Asia-Pacific region as having become“an increasingly significant stage for world economic development and strategic interaction between major powers”. Hinting at Beijing’s concern about US interference it says “The US is adjusting its Asia-Pacific security strategy, and the regional landscape is undergoing profound changes”. A blunt, yet thinly veiled, comment follows in the very next paragraph with the assertion that “Some country has strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser.” The implied reference to the US is unmistakable.

The next sentence in the same paragraph makes specific mention of Japan as one among “some neighbouring countries” that are taking actions to exacerbate the situation and cites its “making trouble over the issue of the Diaoyu islands” as example. Affirming that the threat from the “three forces” of terrorism, separatism and extremism is increasing, this White Paper in language almost identical to that used in the Defence White Paper of 2010, describes “Taiwan independence separatist forces” as “still the biggest threat to the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations”. Security risks to China’s overseas interests, it concludes, are on the rise.

Clarifying the role of the armed forces as “to win local wars under the conditions of informationisation”, it listed among the tasks for the armed forces the containing of “separatist forces”, safeguarding border, coastal and territorial air security, and “protecting national maritime rights and interests” and “national security interests in outer space and cyber space”. Significant are the independent references to the armed forces providing “reliable support for China’s interests overseas” and “firmly safeguarding China’s core national interests”. These “core national interests” are neither defined nor elaborated.

Of particular concern to China’s neighbours with unresolved, or overlapping, territorial claims are the portions relating to the PLAN and PLAAF in the section on ‘Building and Development of China’s Armed Forces’. The PLAN, it affirmed, will accelerate its pace of modernization and develop advanced submarines, destroyers and frigates and develop blue-water capabilities of conducting mobile operations. It described the development of an aircraft carrier as having a “profound impact on building a strong PLAN and safeguarding maritime security”. Interestingly, the release of this Defence White Paper coincided with the official disclosure the same day — incidentally also PLA Navy Day — that China’s new aircraft carrier ‘Liaoning’ would go on a long voyage on the high seas later this year. Separate reports suggest it could sail from its present berth at Qingdao’s military dock within about 3 months up to Okinawa or Guam.

The PLAAF, it said, is developing advanced weaponry and equipment such as new-generation fighters, new-type ground-to-air missiles and radar systems, improving its early warning command and communications networks and “raising its strategic early warning, strategic deterrence and long distance air strike capabilities”. There is no mention of the 3-phase R&D effort underway to indigenously develop advanced jet enginesfor the PLAAF, disclosed in mid-March 2013 and for which a huge budgetary allocation has already been made.

A novel feature of China’s Defence White Paper this year is the disclosure of troop strengths of the PLAA, PLAN and PLAAF. It was accompanied by a sketchy outline of the deployment of their formations and, in the case of the PLAA, the identifying numbers of the Combined Armies located in each of the seven Military Regions(MR), which the Defence White Paper called Military Area Commands (MAC). The PLAA’s troop strength was disclosed as 850,000. Listing the MRs in order of seniority, it disclosed the following Combined Army deployments: Shenyang (16th, 39th, and 40th); Beijing (27th, 38th, and 65th); Lanzhou (21stand 47th); Jinan (20th, 26th, and 54th); Nanjing (1st, 12th and 31st); Guangzhou (41st and 42nd); and Chengdu (13th and 14th). The disclosure in the White Paper 2013, confirms the deployments estimated by foreign analysts.

The total strength of the PLAN was stated to be 235,000, while that of the PLAAF was declared to be 398,000 with an Air Command at each of the MRs. This official revelation of troop strengths has helped correct international estimates that were in use till now. These estimates placed the PLAN’s total strength as ranging between 255,000 and 290,000 with that of the PLAAF ranging between 300,000 and 330,000. China’s Defence White Paper 2013, now shows that estimates for the PLAN were low while those for the PLAAF were high. China’s strategic missile force, or the PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF), continues to stay shrouded in secrecy and no details of its strength or deployments have been disclosed.

A close reading of this Defence White Paper reveals certain possible policy level statements. Specifically, these pertain to the use of missiles and nuclear weapons. It described China’s strategic missile force, namely the PLA Second Artillery (PLASAF), as a “core force for China’s strategic deterrence”. It disclosed that the PLASAF will use nuclear missiles to launch a counter-attack either independently or in conjunction with “the nuclear forces of other services”. It added that the PLASAF’s conventional missile force can shift “instantly” from peacetime to wartime readiness “and conduct conventional medium- and long-range precision strikes”. Absent in the White Paper were the routine references to non-first use of nuclear weapons by China, though while referring to the PLASAF’s role the terms “strategic deterrence” and “nuclear counterattacks” were repeatedly used. The assertion that the PLASAF will use its nuclear missiles in conjunction with those of other services makes clear that all the services of the PLA are operationally nuclear capable. That the PLASAF will engage in conventional conflict is made clear in the White Paper, which raises the risk of miscalculation by the adversary.

As in the Defence White Paper, 2011, which used the acronym for the first time, this White Paper also refers to the PLA’s ground forces as the PLAA. There has, however, been scattered mention of the PLAA in China’s official media through 2012.The Defence White Paper 2013, similarly placed the PLAA, or PLA Army, first followed by the PLAN, PLAAF, PLASAF and the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF). Details of the role and functions of the PAPF, militia and border militia, and the Hongkong and Macao garrisons are additions in this year’s White Paper.

Repeated usage of the acronyms PLAA, PLAN, PLAAF and PLASAF indicatesthat these services are increasingly acquiring independent identities and coming out from under the dominance and control of the PLAA or the PLA’s ground forces. The composition of the new Central Military Commission reinforces this view. The moves would be part of the leaderships’effort to professionalise the armed forces, inculcate ‘service pride’ in each service and encourage each of them to generate their own doctrines, or theories, of war and battle plans.

Nevertheless as the large number of PLAA personnel present among the Delegates and Deputies to the 18th Party Congress and 12th NPC reveals, the status and influence of the PLA ground forces remains unaffected, though they have probably dropped more to the level of‘primus inter pares’. Furthermore, the Military Region Commanders are all from the ground forces and the PLAAF and PLAN personnel are placed under their command. PLA General Departments too continue to be staffed mainly by personnel from the ground services and they are the ones who plan, formulate and issue central directives.

China’s Defence White Paper 2013, touched on the other roles of the armed forces including Military Operations other than War (MOOTW), joint exercises and training with foreign forces and international disaster relief. It dwelt at some length on the contribution of the Chinese armed forces to international peacekeeping where Africa came into focus.

Finally, this Defence White Paper contained two references to India in one paragraph and in the same context. This was in the context of the observation that “since January 2012, independent deployers such as China, India and Japan have strengthened their convoy coordination”.

Views expressed are personal.


Jayadeva Ranade
Member of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and
Distinguished Fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.