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Decoding China’s Military Strategy White Paper: Assessing the Maritime Implications

Cdr Abhijit Singh was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 02, 2015

    China’s new military strategy white paper released last week is creating ripples in global strategic circles. The document, released by China’s State Council, the chief administrative body of the Chinese government, is the ninth in a series of white papers released since 1998. But it is the first on ‘military strategy’ and it calls for a hard posture in China’s near-seas, even discussing the possibility of greater PLA-N presence in the distant oceanic spaces.1

    Media reports in the past few days have highlighted four aspects of the new military strategy: One, greater emphasis on ‘open seas protection" rather than continuing with ‘active offshore defence’ (the mainstay of Chinese maritime strategy so far). Second, a shift in air operations from territorial air defence to both ‘defence and offence’. Third, an increase in the PLA’s mobility. And, last, the strengthening of Chinese nuclear forces for “medium and long-range precision strikes”. Since the central theme of the white paper is the “long-standing task for China to safeguard its maritime rights and interests,” much space is devoted to explaining the shift in PLA thinking from ground operations to joint naval and aerospace operations, and attendant changes in other aspects of future military modernization.

    Whilst many of China’s maritime policy positions in the new document are well known, the timing of the white paper’s release says something about its message and intended addresses. At a time of heightened regional tensions over Chinese reclamation of disputed islands in the South China Sea, Beijing’s new military strategy is meant to signal increased resolve to the United States and its allies in the Pacific. The document pointedly raises the possibility of “military struggle” if Washington and its allies in the Pacific continued taking a hard line on China’s activities in the South China Sea. In keeping with the popular nationalistic sentiment in China, the strategy recommends a muscular approach in dealing with maritime territorial threats.

    In one significant area, however, the new white paper breaks fresh ground. Stressing on the ongoing transformation of China into a true maritime power, the document emphasises greater high-seas presence and offensive naval operations. China’s emphasis, the white paper states, will be on “building a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure”. The shift to an expeditionary combat template is noteworthy, for it highlights China’s desire for a greater security role on the global stage, especially in the wider Pacific region, where the new document projects the PLA as a virtuous force, and the US Navy as a destabilising presence.

    From an Indian perspective, the most interesting aspect of the new strategy is the possibility of greater military activity in the Indian Ocean. In the past few days, discussions on the Chinese white paper have revolved around one key announcement: a gradual shift in PLA-N operations to “offshore defence with open seas protection”. The document’s assertion that the PLA-N will soon “enhance its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counterattack, maritime manoeuvres, joint operations at sea, comprehensive defence and comprehensive support” is a matter of concern because such maritime missions represent an enhanced capacity for sustained presence in the IOR littorals.

    Observed in conjunction with the latest strategic developments in South Asia, the new white paper outlines a more assertive Chinese far-seas strategy – particularly the possibility of greater PLA-N posturing in the IOR. It is no coincidence that a key component of President Xi’s recent proposal committing $46 billion to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is the development of Gwadar Port – a potential staging-post for the PLA-N and a crown jewel in a new ‘silk noose’ around the Indian peninsula. With other strategic sites in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Maldives forming part of a broader network of PLA-N presence, China could soon be chipping away at India’s regional maritime influence.

    While the latest military strategy does not directly allude to PLA-N presence in the IOR, some parts resonate strongly with previous semi-official documents that address the question of Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean. There are echoes, for instance, with the Blue-Book in the Indian Ocean, released two years ago by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Modestly named “Development Report in the Indian Ocean”, this 2013 document had painted a comprehensive picture of China’s growing economic and security interests in the Indian Ocean, including the possibility of the PLA-N playing a larger security role in the region. In a curious parallel, the latest white paper mentions the need for the PLA-N to pay “close attention to the challenges in new security domains”, and also work hard to “seize the strategic initiative in military competition”. The fact that the PLA-Navy will now actively “participate in both regional and international security cooperation and effectively secure China's overseas interests” should give pause to Indian strategic planners.

    To be sure, the immediate ‘trigger’ for China to clarify its military posture does not lie in the Indian Ocean at all. The white paper appears to be a reaction to US-led moves to constrict Beijing’s strategic space in the South China Sea and the East Sea, especially the release of fresh guidelines for US-Japan defence cooperation that bind Washington and Tokyo in a tighter strategic embrace. With Japan upping the ante by announcing its openness to partner the United States in military operations in the wider Western Pacific, China’s political elite sense that the regional strategic dynamic may have deteriorated to the point of no-return.

    Beijing, in fact, has been under severe pressure to come up with a suitable response to provocative forays by US surveillance planes into territorial zones surrounding the disputed islands, even counter allegations that the PLA has placed mobile artillery weapons systems on a reclaimed structure. Not surprisingly, the white paper is positioned as a strategic response to the US rebalancing strategy, and Japan’s attempts to “dodge the post-war mechanism, overhauling its military and security policies”.

    Japan, in fact, seems to be a key point of reference in the new white paper. With Tokyo’s announcement that Japanese self-defence forces (JSDF) airplanes might be pressed into patrols in the South China Sea, and Prime Minister Abe’s attempts to expansively interpret Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, the white paper’s authors seem to be driven by the need to act before the world perceives China as having conceded vital strategic ground.

    Even so, the document offers no reasonable explanation for Chinese reclamation in the South China Sea. In the past 18 months, geo-engineering on a massive scale has resulted in the reclamation of over 2000 acres of submerged islands and reefs, leading to a significant rise in regional tensions. China claims that the reclaimed features are meant to further regional humanitarian aid and assistance efforts and also ensure greater freedom of navigation, but the justification is a barely disguised pretext. The new strategy document does not explain Beijing’s blatant attempts at reshaping the status quo in the South China Sea, allowing itself a stronger point of leverage in its maritime disputes.

    For India, the new Chinese military strategy is a cause for concern, simply because it illustrates China’s expansionist mind-set. Till some time ago, the PLA-N’s stated distant-seas strategy was one of benign cooperation, but that no longer appears to be the case. The new white paper’s reference to open-seas protection hints at a more robust military posture in the IOR, and lends credence to recent speculation about China’s effort to establish a naval logistics base in Djibouti.

    The Indian Navy’s (IN) response to the latest development has been one of characteristic guardedness. Following the Naval Commanders’ Conference in New Delhi last week, the Navy Chief, Admiral Robin Dhowan, observed that “Chinese maritime activities in the Indian Ocean were being monitored minutely”, which cautiously expressed Indian anxieties about recent PLA-N submarine deployments in the IOR. The IN has been emphasising its own plans to develop the Andaman and Nicobar Islands into a strategic outpost – crucial in countering Chinese influence in the region. On the eve of the Commanders Conference, the Navy released a 15 year perspective plan for infrastructure creation, a clear indication of India’s strategic stakes in the Indian Ocean.

    Yet, there is wariness about hyping up the Chinese threat in the IOR. Many senior Indian naval officers acknowledge China’s economic interests in the Indian Ocean and its need to secure the vital sea lines of communication. A section of India’s strategic elite too feels that there is a strong case for greater engagement with China. The pragmatists oppose trilateral maritime exercises in the IOR involving India and the United States, even while pushing for greater nautical cooperation with China. Not surprisingly, the Indian Navy has extended an invitation to the PLA-N to participate in the International Fleet Review at Visakhapatnam in 2016, even as doubts are being raised over Japan’s participation in the Malabar exercises later this year.

    For the moment, it may be advisable to interact with the PLA-N and improve bilateral strategic trust. But given China’s growing confidence in the maritime domain, India’s senior political and military leadership will need to come up with a more imaginative response than ‘episodic engagement’ to deal effectively with the Chinese challenge in the IOR. The new defence strategy white paper is a clear indication that China’s stated ambition to be a formidable force in global security affairs is driven by cold calculations of national power. It is not a matter of a minor shift in the Indian Ocean’s balance of maritime power, but one that impacts India’s capacity and will to impose a deterrent cost.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India