On July 24, 2019, the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China released the 2019 National Defense White Paper “China’s National Defense in the New Era.” It had been four years since China’s Ministry of National Defense released the 2015 National Defense White Paper, which was entitled “China’s Military Strategy,” on May 26, 2015. China’s National Defense White Papers were released every two years from 1998 until 2010. Then, there was a three-year interval before the next document was released in 2013. The next white paper came once again after a two-year interval in 2015.
The 2019 National Defense White Paper “China’s National Defense in the New Era” follows on the theme of the “New Era,” which was the subject of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (19th Congress) held in October 2017. It is also significant that the “New Era” theme has once again been used almost three years since President Xi Jinping declared a “New Era” at the 19th Congress.
The 2019 National Defense White Paper is organized into the Preface, 1. International Security Situation, 2. China’s Defensive National Defense Policy in the New Era, 3. Fulfilling the Missions and Tasks of China’s Armed Forces in the New Era, 4. Reform in China’s National Defense and Armed Forces, 5. Reasonable and Appropriate Defense Expenditure, 6. Actively Contributing to Building a Community with a Shared Future for Mankind, and Closing Remarks.
In comparison to the 2015 National Defense White Paper which was comprised of the Preface, 1. National Security Situation, 2. Missions and Strategic Tasks of China’s Armed Forces, 3. Strategic Guideline of Active Defense, 4. Building and Development of China’s Armed Forces, 5. Preparation for Military Struggle, and 6. Military and Security Cooperation, the 2019 National Defense White Paper is characterized by its emphasis on military diplomacy.
Put simply, in contrast to the 2015 National Defense White Paper which articulates goals on the strategic level, the 2019 National Defense White Paper addresses the policy level. There is also a difference in volume. While the 2015 National Defense White Paper was a little less than 10,000 characters, the 2019 National Defense White Paper is nearly double that, a likely result of its detail policy stipulations.
This paper analyzes the 2019 National Defense White Paper and compares it with the 2015 National Defense White Paper to clarify its function as well as examine why the specific timing for its release was chosen and why this theme was adopted.
1. International Security Situation
The chapter describing the international security situation provides a window into understanding China’s perception of the issues. The 2015 National Defense White Paper structured similar content into a chapter entitled “National Security Situation,” which stated, “With a generally favorable external environment, China will remain in an important period of strategic opportunities for its development, a period in which much can be achieved.” It took the form of analyzing security situations both worldwide and regional entirely from the standpoint of whether or not a situation would be advantageous or disadvantageous for China, particularly in terms of “China’s development.”
By contrast, the 2019 National Defense White Paper is structured to include a chapter entitled the “International Security Situation” of which the main assertion is that: “International strategic competition is on the rise.” It takes the form of objectively analyzing situations with a focus on system-level issues affecting the international community.
The adoption of this perspective in analyzing situations is because China blames the United States for being a factor that disrupts the international society rather than regarding the United States as a threat to itself. Whereas the 2015 National Defense White Paper saw the international situation as favorable for China’s development, the 2019 National Defense White Paper has shifted to a different understanding of the situation which is that the international security environment has deteriorated. The cause of this is the United States.
The 2019 National Defense White Paper is critical of the United States, stating, “The US has adjusted its national security and defense strategies, and adopted unilateral policies. It has provoked and intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defense expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defense, and undermined global strategic stability.”
While the National Defense White Paper presents an adversarial stance against the United States, it emphasizes that the confrontation is not between the United States and China, but the United States and the international community. This suggests that China would like to avoid a solo confrontation with the United States. The reason for such avoidance seems to be that China recognizes it would not be able to win a war with United States and that a solo confrontation would be disadvantageous for China. One could say that the statements in the 2019 National Defense White Paper regarding China’s situational perception reflect its intention to avoid a direct contest with United States and engage in diplomatic warfare that mainly maneuvers international opinion.
Still, this is the first time that China has explicitly criticized the United States in a National Defense White Paper. The gravitational center of the world economy and strategy continues to shift to Asia, which is also where the United States has been strengthening its military alliances. Within this context, while the National Defense White Paper also discusses the security policies and military activities of Japan and Australia, it seeks to convey the impression that, in their position as allies with the United States, the root cause of the deteriorating security situation is the United States.
In the subsection entitled “China’s Security Risks and Challenges Should Not Be Overlooked,” the first point raised is Taiwan’s pro-independence forces. This is followed by land territorial disputes, territorial sovereignty of some islands and reefs, and maritime territorial disputes. It states that ships and aircraft of countries from outside the region frequently enter China’s territorial waters and the waters and air space near China’s islands and reefs, which has been increasingly harmful to China’s security. This wording keeps in mind the “freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs)” conducted by the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea.
The section entitled “Global Military Competition is Intensifying” cites technology as a reason for the heightened competition. The statement that “[d]riven by the new round of technological and industrial revolution, the application of cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), quantum information, big data, cloud computing and the Internet of Things is gathering pace in the military field. International military competition is undergoing historic changes” is indicative of China’s intent to hasten the application of these technologies to its own military equipment and devices.
2. China’s Defensive National Defense Policy in the New Era
The “New Era” is the theme of the 2019 National Defense White Paper. Its use of the term “defensive national defense policy” rather than merely “national defense policy” is likely a contention aimed at the international community to indicate that the buildup of China’s military and its military activities are to defend China.
The aims that the National Defense White Paper cites as China’s national defense policy in the New Era are “to deter and resist aggression; to safeguard national political security, the people security and social stability; to oppose and contain ‘Taiwan independence’; to crack down on proponents of separatist movements such as ‘Tibet independence’ and the creation of ‘East Turkistan’; to safeguard national sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity and security...” Instead of merely stating “to defend the state,” the addition of “to deter and resist aggression” also is conceivably an indication of China’s wariness against the use of armed force by the United States.
Generally, a state is regarded as comprising three elements, its territory, sovereignty and people, and defense of the state is more specifically the defense of these three elements. However, in contrast to other countries, China perceives that its territorial unity will first be consummated once Taiwan has been integrated. President Xi Jinping adopted a position in which China is willing to exercise armed force against “interference by external forces and elements of the Taiwan Independence Movement,” which he stated in a speech marking the 40th anniversary of “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan” held on January 2, 2019. In 1979 when Deng Xiaoping was China’s paramount leader, the announcement of China’s “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan” was an official declaration of the shift in China’s Taiwan policy from armed liberation to peaceful unification.
China’s defense policy in the “New Era” does not use the word “strike” in regard to the issue of Taiwan, but the more toned-down expression of “oppose and contain.” This is an indication of China’s strong stance toward domestic independence and other such movements, about which China believes that it does not need to give any consideration to the United States. It is probable that the reason more moderate expressions are used in the National Defense White Paper in contrast to China’s willingness to employ armed force in regard to Taiwan is that China wanted to avoid conveying the impression of being aggressive.
China’s national defense aims continue with “to safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests; to safeguard China’s security interests in outer space, electromagnetic space and cyberspace; to safeguard China’s overseas interests; and to support the sustainable development of the country,” which are an indication that, in addition to maritime interests, China has military interests in the new domains of space, electromagnetic space and cyberspace. In this respect, the aims resemble the “multi-domain defense force” set forth in Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines in December 2018. In the National Defense Program Guidelines, a “multi-domain defense force” is defined as organically fusing capabilities in all domains including space, cyberspace and electromagnetic spectrum; and capable of sustained conduct of flexible and strategic activities during all phases from peacetime to armed contingencies while honing the attributes of the Dynamic Joint Defense Force presented in the previous Guidelines which conducts dynamic and sustainable activities through joint operations.
Japan’s multi-domain defense force and China’s policy also follow on the operational concept of the multi-domain battle that the United States military is already seeking to perfect. To the extent that China is following in the footsteps of the United States’ operational concept, the vision that the People’s Liberation Army is seeking to achieve is exactly that of the United States military and the construction of a similar force structure. This makes it difficult for the People’s Liberation Army to secure a dominant position over the US military. China has repeatedly stated that it will have a world-class military by the middle of this century, but such statements also imply that it will construct a military force comparable to the US military, but not necessarily that PLA will surpass the US military.
The National Defense White Paper states that China will safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity. In this document, it claims that the South China Sea Islands (which China claims) and the Senkaku Islands are inalienable parts of the Chinese territory. It states that China’s deployment of military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea is the construction of necessary defense capabilities and that patrols in the waters around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea is an exercise of national sovereignty in accordance with the law. No variation may be seen here in China’s claims of its rights in the South China Sea and East China Sea as well as the justification of its actions there.
Continuing on, the National Defense White Paper addresses the resolution of the Taiwan question in which it shows strong resolve that its military will do whatever it can to hinder Taiwan’s independence. The National Defense White Paper states that China has the firm resolve and powerful ability to safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity and will never allow the secession from China of any part of China’s territory by any person, organization, political party by any means and at any time. Moreover, it says, “The PLA [People’s Liberation Army] will resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China and safeguard national unity at all costs.”
These stipulations about China’s stance toward the Taiwan question are nothing new. Subsequent statements about China’s strategic policy regarding national defense and the Chinese way of strengthening the military are also repetitions of what has previously been expounded. Moreover, there is also a provision about a “community with a shared future for mankind.” This also is based on the “community with a shared future” articulated in the National Defense White Paper entitled “China’s Peaceful Development,” which the State Council of the People’s Republic of China released in 2011 and clearly presented at 18h National Congress of the Communist Party of China (18th Congress) in November 2012. This also is not novel.
3. Fulfilling the Missions and Tasks of China’s Armed Forces in the New Era
The 2019 National Defense White Paper lists the missions and tasks that the People’s Liberation Army is to perform in the New Era as “safeguarding national territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests,” “maintaining combat readiness,” “carrying out military training in real combat conditions,” “safeguarding interests in major security fields,” “countering terrorism and maintaining stability,” “protecting China’s overseas interests,” and “participating in disaster rescue and relief.”
However, just as with in second chapter, each of these is a repetition of declarations that China has previously made and, once again, nothing new has been presented. Along with Chapter 2 “China’s Defensive National Defense Policy in the New Era,” Chapter 3 is also offered in a format that recapitulates policies previously set forth by the leadership of the Communist Party of China regarding actions which the People’s Liberation Army should take in the “New Era.”
However, this chapter also presents data, a distinctive feature of the 2019 National Defense White Paper. In the explanations of each subsection regarding, for example, actions in the East China Sea, South China Sea and Yellow Sea, statements are included such as: “Since 2012, China’s Armed Forces have deployed vessels on over 4,600 maritime security patrols and 72,000 rights protection and law enforcement operations, and safeguarded maritime peace, stability and order.” Even for small activities as well, there is an effort to present numerical and other data. This might be due to a desire on China’s part to show transparency in its national defense policies and military activities.
4. Reform in China’s National Defense and Armed Forces
Chapter 4 is of great interest as it is a section set out to present that the ongoing reform of the People’s Liberation Army, which was decided on and initiated at the Central Military Commission Reform Conference held on November 26, 2015. In the “Central Military Commission’s Opinion on Deepening National Defense and Military Reform” which was released on January 1, 2016, the Central Military Commission, which presides over all of China’s armament capabilities, stated that reforms encompassing major structures, operational capability systems, military training institutions, and the People's Armed Police Forces would be implemented with incremental reforms basically completed in 2016 and adjustments, optimizations and improvements proceeding to be carried out in relevant areas over the period from 2017 through 2020, maintaining the drive to reform in each area. The organizational reforms are able to be completed by the end of 2016, but the commanders have stated that a period of four years will be necessary for the new organization to function as President Xi Jinping intends it to.
The first half of this chapter emphasizes that the types of reforms carried out and for what purpose of the People’s Liberation Army command system, force composition, as well as policies and institutions are a result of the Xi Jinping administration, and it clearly indicates that the People's Armed Police Force is in the process of reform.
On January 10, 2018, the People’s Armed Police Force was finally reshuffled and placed under the Central Military Commission, thereby establishing a unified command. An internal power struggle in China was the likely reason that the People’s Armed Police Force was unable to be reformed until 2018. Prior to reorganization, the People’s Armed Police Force had been under the Ministry of Public Security (Police), a state institution. Although it was also considered to be under the direct command of the Central Military Commission, the People’s Armed Police Force was under the control of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China, which was the leadership organization. It was Zhou Yongkang, who had a strong relationship with the former president Jiang Ze-min, that wielded tremendous influence over the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission.
The January 2018 reorganization separated the People’s Armed Police Force from the control of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission and placed it under the command of only the Central Military Commission. The 2019 National Defense White Paper suggests that this reform is ongoing with the statement: “People’s Armed Police Force is enhancing capacity…so as to build a strong and modernized armed police force.”
The 2019 National Defense White Paper discusses military buildup only in the section entitled “Promoting Defense and Military Development in All Respects.” Again, there is almost nothing new in this subsection, yet it is very interesting in that it explicitly states: “with a view to comprehensively raising standardization, serial development and interoperability.” Looking at the state of construction of naval vessels since the mid-1990s leads to the recognition that China’s People’s Liberation Army has sought to standardize and develop its armaments serially, and this posture clearly stipulates such a course of action.
The listing of weapons, such as Type 15 tanks, Type 052D destroyers, J-20 fighters, as well as DF-26 intermediate and long-range ballistic missiles, signifies that such weapons will be deployed in large numbers by the People’s liberation Army to serve as core capabilities in the future. Among these weapons, the regarding of intermediate-range ballistic missiles as key capabilities demands attention. China’s enhancement of its intermediate-range ballistic missile capability has produced results that have alarmed the United States and this advancement is also related to the United States’ withdrawal from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, so this may also lead to changes in the rules governing nuclear deterrence.
5. Reasonable and Appropriate Defense Expenditure
One of the major purposes of the 2019 National Defense White Paper is to justify China’s military buildup and military activities as well as present itself as being transparent. This is indicated by the content on defense expenditures in Chapter 5.
Here, there is a chronological presentation of numerical figures indicating China’s defense expenditures as a percentage of GDP, stating that this figure has stayed below 2% for the past 30 years and emphasizing that China has not spent in massive amounts to build up its military. In addition, defense expenditures as a percentage of China’s government expenditures are also presented, which show a downward trend. An effort has been made to eradicate the image that China has been proceeding with a massive military buildup.
What catches one’s attention in this chapter is the claim that China’s research and development expenditures for military equipment are also included in these publicly-released defense expenditures. It is the evaluation of most researchers and experts that China’s research and development expenditures and other such expenses for military have not been included in the defense budget. Therefore, they reason that China’s actual defense budget is much greater than the publicly-announced figure. The 2019 National Defense White Paper negates such an analysis in seeking to advocate transparency with regard to China’s defense expenditures and belie the image of a rapid military buildup taking place.
The National Defense White Paper also states that China’s defense expenditures are based upon appropriate reasoning and it argues that these expenditures by no means stands out in a comparison of the defense expenditures of various countries as either a percentage of GDP or percentage of these nations’ government expenditures. This claim seems to have been made to deflect international criticism directed towards China about its military buildup.
6. Actively Contributing to Building a Community with a Shared Future for Mankind
In the final sixth chapter, the 2019 National Defense White Paper contends that China is aiming to build a community with a shared future for mankind that reflects the aspirations of peoples throughout the world. As stated previously, China presented the idea of a community with a shared future for mankind at the 18th Congress in 2012, so this is not a new concept. However, China is advocating for fulfilling its responsibility as a major country with the statement: “China’s armed forces have responded faithfully to the call for a community with a shared future for mankind. They are actively fulfilling the international obligations of the armed forces of a major country.”
China has recently begun to emphasize its “responsibilities as a major country.” For example, in December 2018, Chinese media ran special features commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Chinese Navy’s participation in an anti-piracy campaign in the Gulf of Aden. In these articles, the expression “responsibility as a major country” was repeatedly used.
One element that supports China status as a major country is its permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council. In the subsection entitled “Resolutely Upholding the Purposes and Principles of the UN Charter,” it states, “As a founding member of the United Nations and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China unswervingly endorses the central role of the UN in international affairs….”
The reason why China repeats such statements about the UN is believed to be because the United Nations serves a convenient framework for China. In contrast to the G7 framework which China detests, the United Nations is a framework where all participating countries have voting rights and the will of developing nations is also reflected rather than one where only advanced nations work to resolve international issues. With economic aid and investment, China has tried to incorporate developing countries into its support base. It may also be said that China considers the United Nations to be a framework that easily reflects China’s own inclinations. Moreover, China also maintains veto authority as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
China has begun to be more emphatic that it will play a leading role as a major country in the resolution of problems in the international community. China has also declared that it will construct a “new type of international relations” at the core of which is cooperation and win-win relationships. For example, during an address given on the occasion of a military parade that took place on September 3, 2015, President Xi Jinping stressed, “All countries should jointly uphold the international order and system underpinned by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and build a new type of international relations featuring win-win cooperation.”
The 2019 National Defense White Paper follows with a subsection entitled “Building a New Model Security Partnership Featuring Equality, Mutual Trust and Win-Win Cooperation.” In this subsection, after first describing China’s military exchanges, it discusses military cooperation with Russia. Russia is the only country named as engaging in military cooperation with China. It states that the China-Russia partnership is very significant for maintaining global strategic stability, and suggests that military cooperation with Russia in the future will be an important means for countering the United States.
Following the discussion of Russia, the National Defense White Paper takes up military cooperation with Europe. This is believed to reflect China’s awareness that European countries, wary of the Trump administration’s policies, are beginning to search for “strategic autonomy” and it is an opportunity to co-opt Europe as it seeks to distance itself from the United States. Next, there is mention of military cooperation with developing countries in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and the South Pacific. It may be said that the statements about countries and regions that China regards as a focus for military cooperation are indicative of the emphasis that China places on military diplomacy.
The most prominent feature of the 2019 National Defense White Paper is that it designates and criticizes the United States as a cause of destabilization in the international community. One reason why China was unable to release the National Defense White Paper until July 2019 was its inability to reach a consensus domestically on its evaluation of the United States. However, as it became clear that the strong stance taken by the United States against China was shared not only by President Trump, but also by the United States Congress and the supportive business community, China started to believe that it would not be able to deflect pressure from the United States only with concessions.
According to media reports, in May 2019, the Chinese government presented the United States with extensive revisions to all seven chapters of the proposed agreement on trade negotiations between the United States and China. The United States’ perception was that: “The Chinese side undermined the core architecture of the deal.” In China as well, a change in its stance toward the United States has also been confirmed. According to United States media outlets, in responding to the trade dispute with United States, the Chinese leadership had forbidden the national media to use of the term “trade war.” However, President Trump’s announcement once again of additional tariffs change this, leading to the expression again being frequently used around May 2019. Moreover, the official media of the government and the Communist Party has begun to actively distribute editorials and articles calling on the people to rally together and resist external pressure. On May 13, 2019, in an editorial posted on its website, a media outlet of the Communist Party called the US-China trade dispute the “People’s War,” and a threat to all of China.
In addition, the Xi Jinping leadership has likened the trade war with United States to the Long March and called on the country to prepare for a protracted struggle. At a park commemorating the Long March in Jiangxi Province, President Xi Jinping said, “We are now embarking on a new Long March.” The Long March was a journey traversing 12,500 km, that began in 1934 when the Red Army of the Communist Party of China, which was being defeated by the Kuomintang Army, abandoned its stronghold in Ruijin, Jiangxi Province.
The appearance of such changes in China’s domestic arena and its stance toward the United States seems to show that a consensus has been reached to a certain extent within the Communist Party to resist the United States. That may be why China released a National Defense White Paper that specifically calls out and criticizes the United States.
However, what the 2019 National Defense White Paper discusses is not a confrontation between the United States and China. China seeks to establish a structure in which there is confrontation between the international community and the United States. While, on the one hand, clearly indicating that this arrangement is how it perceives the international situation, China stresses that it will fulfill its responsibility as a major country in the international community and that the Chinese military buildup has a reasonable and appropriate basis that guarantees transparency. These assertions seem to have been presented to gain the support of the international community. Such descriptions may also be viewed as representing China’s intention to resist the United States by employing diplomatic means for the time being and not to engage in direct military confrontation.
And, one important concrete means that China presents is its military cooperation with Russia. According to a statement by Russia, its military aircraft, at which scrambled South Korean fighter jets fired warning shots because of its territorial violation over Takeshima, was conducting a joint patrol operation with Chinese military aircraft on July 23, 2019.The following day on July 24, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defense also stated, “The Air Forces of both China and Russia jointly conducted their first strategic patrol in Northeast Asia.” Whether it be a patrol flight or an intelligence gathering flight, there is no military rationale for multiple aircraft to fly in formation around that area. The purpose of the joint patrol was conceivably to send a political message displaying the military cooperation of China and Russia.
Watching the clear stance taken by both China and Russia towards the United States, North Korea also seems to have taken advantage of this trend as seen by its launch of short-range missiles. China’s stance toward the United States as revealed in the 2019 National Defense White Paper may likely bring about more changes in the security environment around Japan as well as throughout the Western Pacific region.
12 For example, at multiple sessions of GLOBSEC 2019 which was held at Bratislava beginning on July 9, 2019, politicians, bureaucrats, researchers and other panelists participating from European nations emphasized a “strategic independence” in which an appropriate distance would be kept from the United States.