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China’s first major defense white paper in four years was published on July 24. While much of its content is familiar from previous white papers, the line taken on the United States and Taiwan is markedly more aggressive, and the political message it sends to both the domestic and the international audience is clear – a strong reminder that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is the army of the Communist Party and ideology is key, and that China is a responsible power.

Chinese soldiers assemble in Macau to celebrate the 92nd anniversary of the founding of the PLA. Source: ImagineChina.

Released by China’s Ministry of National Defense the white paper, titled “China’s National Defense in the New Era,” is the first major defense policy paper to be issued during Xi Jinping’s second term in office and is more comprehensive than earlier versions.

In terms of China’s military strategy and the PLA strategic tasks, the paper mostly reiterates what was included in previous white papers and official statements. China claims to remain committed to the strategic concept of “active defense”, to the no-first-use of nuclear weapons and to building a world-class military that can fight and win wars by 2049 and that is commensurate with China’s international standing. The paper also assesses that, although the country faces difficult challenges, China is still in the middle of an important period of strategic opportunity for development.

From the title of the paper to the actual content, this white paper clearly reflects Xi Jinping’s policy priorities, strategy and global ambitions, and it is entirely consistent with his statement at the 19thParty Congress in 2017. There is the repeated emphasis on the fact that the PLA is the army of the Communist Party, which has been a main theme of Xi’s policies, and that, therefore, political loyalty in the military is paramount.

Three broader issues stand out in this 2019 defense white paper:

Stronger language on Taiwan

Whereas previous white papers devoted only a few lines to Taiwan, this new issue is noticeably more aggressive, sending a clear warning signal to the Taiwanese population that force will be used, if necessary, to achieve China’s goals. With presidential elections coming up in 2020, it reflects the increased sense of urgency in Beijing to solve the issue of reunification.

The 2015 white paper on China’s Military Strategy only devoted three lines to this issue, mentioning that “reunification is an inevitable trend in the course of national rejuvenation” and criticizing “Taiwan independence separatist forces.” This new paper delves deeper into the issue, openly criticizing the Taiwanese government and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of President Tsai Ing-wen for “stubbornly sticking to Taiwan independence,” intensifying hostilities and “borrowing the strength of foreign influence.” It not only reiterates China’s claim that complete reunification is essential to realizing national rejuvenation, it also refuses once more to renounce the use of force in pursuing this goal and openly admits that the recent series of drills and training exercises around the island of Taiwan –  20 or so since early 2018 – are meant to “send a stern warning to the Taiwan independence separatist forces.”

Not-so-subtle criticism of the United States

Some of the white paper’s strongest language is reserved for the role of the United States in the current international security situation. The international security system and order, China claims, are undermined by “growing hegemonism, power politics, unilateralism and constant regional conflicts and wars.” This, the paper implies, is to a large extent Washington’s doing. The US is accused of double standards on the issue of non-proliferation, and of undermining the strategic balance in the region through the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea. Furthermore, the white paper calls out the United States’ “wrong practices and provocative activities” regarding a host of issues, including arms sales to Taiwan, sanctions on the CMC Equipment Development Department and “illegal entry” into China’s territorial waters and air spaces near “relevant islands and reefs” – a clear reference to the South China Sea.

This critique of the United States’ policies and presence in the Asia-Pacific can be read as a response to the latest US National Security Strategy from 2017 and National Defense Strategy from 2018, which named China a “strategic competitor” and criticized Beijing for undermining the international order from within. Beijing clearly intends with this white paper to present a different narrative, showing the United States as the destabilizing power.

This narrative also allows Beijing to continue to promote Xi Jinping’s concept of a “community with a shared future for mankind” as the solution to global challenges. Claiming that this concept reflects “the common aspirations of all peoples throughout the world”, the paper commits the PLA to fulfilling the international obligations of a major power and working towards global peace, stability and prosperity. The PLA will also “actively participate in the reform of the global security governance system,” it claims.

Intended for an international audience

The overall intention of this white paper is clear – to signal to the outside world that China and its armed forces are responsible, engaged members of the international community, especially in contrast with the United States under President Trump.

From the very beginning it makes clear that the target audience for this document is the international community, rather than domestic audiences, opening with the sentence: “The Chinese government is issuing China’s National Defense in the New Era […] with a view to helping the international community better understand China’s national defense.” This helps explain the length and level of detail in the document, which clearly strives to give an impression of transparency to international audiences regarding China’s defense policies and the PLA.

As such, the paper contains entire sections, as well as appendices for the first time, on issues that are of interest or concern to international China watchers and decision makers and that help support China’s statements that the PLA remains committed to a defensive national defense policy and to developing constructive relations with foreign militaries in order to safeguard world peace.

The paper, for example, describes China’s recent military reforms at length, and also provides more information on its defense budgets since 2012. Additionally, a series of tables in the appendix list the major multilateral treaties on both arms control and counterterrorism that China has joined, as well as major joint exercises by the PLA and foreign militaries, and major security dialogues that the PLA participates in. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a key foreign policy concept of Xi Jinping’s, is notably absent from this white paper, possibly as a response to the growing international backlash against this initiative.

Overall, while this white paper does not outline any major changes to China’s defense policies or strategy, it helps China signal its red lines on a number of issues, from Taiwan to the South China Sea, and sends a clear political message to the international community. Xi Jinping’s goals for the PLA are clearly here to stay and we should expect continued efforts to complete modernization of the military by 2035 and fully transform the PLA into a world-class force that can fight and win wards by 2049. Therefore, over the next few years we are likely to see a PLA that is increasingly active and assertive overseas and, as a result, friction with the United States and other powers – particularly in the Asia-Pacific – will continue to rise. Beijing’s aggressive tone on several issues, especially around its “core interests”, meanwhile, will continue to throw into question China’s claims that it is a force for world peace and stability.

This blogpost is also the focus topic of the China Global Security Tracker covering January to June 2019.