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China’s Defence White Paper 2013: Lessons for India

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • April 25, 2013

    On 16 April 2013, China’s State Council published a White Paper titled The Diversified Employment of China's Armed Forces Page. This 2013 edition is an update on the 2011 White Paper. While there are several elements of continuity, there are also important differences. The 2013 paper is shorter, crisper and gives some facts and figures on the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) numbers that were not known earlier.

    The 2013 White Paper is the first defence document that reflects the views of the new leadership. The paper will be analysed from various angles by analysts but its central message is clear: there will be no compromise with China’s sovereignty; and thanks to sustained efforts of the last several decades, the pace of China’s military modernisation will only increase in the future. Further, the PLA, now a formidable force by international standards, will remain the most important instrument of governance in the hands of the Chinese communist party.

    Struggling to deal with a rigid China on the intractable border issue, India would do well to digest the core assertions of the paper. It has several elements that will impinge on India’s security interests.

    First, the reach of the PLA is becoming global and extends to areas where India has interests. The Chinese PLA is carrying out exercises in far flung regions extending from the West Pacific right up to the African coast and with Latin American counties. The scope of these exercises varies but the intent of extending the PLA’s reach is very clear. Further, the Chinese navy and air force are also carrying out joint exercises with Pakistan and with countries to the east and west of India.

    Second, the professionalisation of the Chinese armed forces is growing rapidly. There is huge emphasis on training and combined operations. The White Paper provides greater clarity on doctrinal aspects. The focus on winning ‘local wars under conditions of informationalisation” continues. This means the PLA is geared to fight information and network centric wars.

    Third, China’s Second Artillery Force, in charge of nuclear and conventional missiles, is being modernised. For the first time, the White Paper did not explicitly mention the “no first use” doctrine but it laid emphasis on strategic deterrence and counter attack. Non-mention of the No First Use has led many observers to debate whether China is beginning to dilute its NFU commitment. This will need to be watched.

    Fourth, Chinese military forces will be used in combating the three evils of separatism, extremism and terrorism. The indirect reference here is to Xinjiang and Tibet regions, in close proximity to India.

    Fifth, tensions between China and the United States, and between China and Japan, can be expected to increase. Both Japan and the United States are India’s strategic partners. Japan has been referred to as a country which is making ‘trouble’ over Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, and the US, without being named, as a country promoting new hegemonism in the Asia Pacific. China’s other neighbours, i.e. the ASEAN countries have also been issued a veiled warning not to “complicate or exacerbate the situation”.

    Sixth, China’s military doctrine is taking up a distinctly superpower flavour. The White Paper says that China will develop armed forces commensurate with its international status. They will protect China’s diverse overseas interests, including the sea lanes of communications and various economic assets. The PLA will also provide safety to Chinese nationals abroad when they are in distress. There is a long mention of how China takes its obligations to world peace and security seriously and how much it contributes to international peacekeeping efforts.

    Some numbers mentioned in the White Paper give an insight into the nature of China’s modernisation. There are useful details about the seven military regions and the deployment of corps and commands. The focus on cyber and space is going to continue but the paper lacks details on these issues. The sections on deployments, training and joint exercises are interesting. The emphasis is on inter-operability, rapid reaction, mobility, jointness and command and control.

    There is an intrinsic message to the domestic audiences in China too. China’s military is playing and will continue to play a big role in national development, not only in maintaining social stability but also in building massive infrastructure. The PLA is forging closer coordination with the civilian authorities.

    The White Paper provides specifics of modernisation of the PLA army, navy, air force, second artillery, and militia. All are being modernised and reorganised rapidly through the induction of high technology and training. For instance, PLA Army, with 18 combined corps, has a strength of 850,000, is concentrating on mobility, special operations forces, digitalized units while enhancing air-ground integrated operations and long-distance manoeuvres.

    According to the White Paper, the PLA navy (PLAN), the most visible arm of the PLA, has 235,000 officers, organised into three fleets, namely, the Beihai fleet, the Donghai fleet and the Nanhai fleet., each equipped with aviation divisions and marine brigades. The navy has lately acquired an aircraft carrier, submarines, surface vessels, naval aviation equipment, etc. PLAN also has marine corps and coastal defence arms.

    The PLA Air Force (PLAAF), with 398,000 officers and men, organised in seven Military Area Commands (MACs) of Shenyang, Beijing, Lanzhou, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Chengdu, is developing a variety of reconnaissance and early warning, air strike, air and missile defence, and strategic projection systems.

    The PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) is the PLA’s nuclear force. According to the White Paper, its capabilities of “strategic deterrence, nuclear counterattack and conventional precision strike are being steadily elevated”. Equipped with a variety of "Dong Feng" ballistic missiles and "Chang Jian" cruise missiles, the PLASAF has a number of missile bases, training bases, specialized support units, academies and research institutions.

    In addition to the army, air force, navy and second artillery force, China has a large number of militia and police who are well integrated with the PLA. They have an important role in the domestic security context. They coordinate their activities with the PLA.

    There are some other details which should interest India. For instance, according to the White Paper, the PLA has been involved in constructing the Galungla tunnel along the Medog highway in Tibet and also in harnessing the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra river close to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

    The PLA plays an important role in China’s foreign and security policies, be it relations with neighbours or its interests overseas. India’s own perception of China’s foreign policy will be incomplete without taking into account the views of the PLA. Therefore, it is necessary that the Indian establishment should deepen contacts with PLA academies and institutions. Indian think tanks can play a role in this regard.

    The White Paper appears to be a document of an increasingly confident, emerging, super power. The strides made in military modernisation are impressive. It is likely that the details given out in the White Paper will generate more anxiety in the international community, particularly among China’s neighbours.

    China’s new leadership, and now the White Paper, reemphasise the defence of national sovereignty and territorial integrity as the key task of the Chinese armed forces. The White Paper says, “China will resolutely take all necessary measures to safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

    India will need to ponder over the implications of this assertion in the White Paper in the context of the current standoff with China on the western sector of the Line of Actual Control. China can be expected to be hard on issues involving its territorial integrity, as can be seen in the South China Sea and East China Sea where the PLA navy is playing an increasingly assertive role. At the same time, China is also conscious of projecting a clean and benign image to the world. It will be watching the quality of the Indian response. India will need to seize the opportunity and respond to the latest crisis in a firm manner which balances diplomacy with appropriate measures on the ground. A weak response may hurt India’s national security interests.

    The author is Director General, IDSA. The views expressed are his personal.