ISSSP Reflections No.59, July 31, 2019
Authors: Amit Mukherjee and Prakash Panneerselvam
The rising discordance between the US and Chinese interests is now reaching new heights. The prelude to this newly heightened rattle was visible in recent times as the two countries were seen locked into an ongoing trade war. Combined with this, the increasing tension over the recent US administration announcement of arms sale worth US$ 2.2 billion to Taiwan, the ban of Huwaei Electronic from the US communication network by Trump administration and US-China naval standoff in South China has heightened tensions in the region, not seen since the end of the Cold War. Keeping in view with the changing dimensions of security and international scenario which directly affects Chinese ambitions for growth, the White paper 2019 in the New Era, released by the Ministry of Defense, China, on 24th July 2019 (English version), is a clear departure from the demure notations of previous editions.
China’s Defense White Paper – 2019: An Overview
China’s release of the white paper on National Defense Policy 2019 in the new era, has been touted in some circles to be an extension of the previous White paper released in 2014. The first section on the International security situation emphasizes its position viz. what its views are on global security challenges. It was expected that given rising US-China tensions, the 2019 version would be poised more aggressively against the US. Inclusion of words like ‘unilateral’, ‘provoking’ and ‘intensifying’ – ‘global competition and expansion of military dimensions’ by the US in the international arena, is mentioned in no unclear terms. Thus the report does reflect (to an extent) the common understanding among several analysts that the 2019 Whitepaper is primarily addressing Chinese perception of threats from the US.
The report explicitly holds the US responsible for changing its priorities in the Indo-Pacific region as the reason for adding ‘complexity to the regional security aspects’. In extension it also mentions Japan to be taking pro-active measures to increase its ‘outward-looking military endeavours circumventing preparedness of the post-war mechanism’. Thus letting the global community know about its watchfulness about Japan and its aggressive posture under US influence.
The whitepaper, while describing increasing military preparedness by countries like India, Russia, Germany, UK and Japan, places them in an act of re-balancing position. Russia has been described as strengthening its conventional and nuclear arsenal for ‘strategic containment, and striving to safeguard its strategic security space and interests’. The European Union (EU) is attributed to ‘accelerating its security and defense integration to be more independent in its own security’. Even NATO preparedness has been listed with a mere mention of expanding operations in Central Europe and Eastern Europe. The attempt at alluding that all nations (mentioned) are increasing their defence and security capability in an environment of rising uncertainty in the world as a direct consequence of American policies, is surmisable.
The rest of the document tries to allay concerns about China’s increasing influence by declaring it to be self-contained and to meet domestic security concerns. It has been highlighted that China is increasing its military power for defensive purposes only. This is however subject to conditions and inapplicable where the question of Taiwan and Tibet appear, as non-negotiable elements. Ironically, Hong-Kong which is witnessing mass protests, against a bill that enforces stronger Chinese controls and weakening of the “One nation, two systems” policy, is nowhere mentioned in the report, indicating relegation of the problems in Hong-Kong as a domestic disturbance and agitation sans the concerns that China attributes to Taiwan, Tibet or East- Turkistan.
In the past White Papers, it was a practice to describe the PLA Armed forces capability in terms of numbers and potential. In this edition, the report has focused on an overall presentation of the armed forces modernization process and its challenges. The report mentions China’s national defense aims that include deterrence and resistance against any perceived aggression. It clearly outlines its policy to safeguard national and political security, the people’s security and social stability. It intends to oppose and contain “Taiwan independence”, declares its intent to ‘crackdown on proponents of separatist movements’.
Integration of ‘Taiwan and Tibet and East Turkistan’ has been clearly worded as non-negotiable and ‘crack-down’ has been used to describe a definitive response. The report which was released within a month of the 30th anniversary of the Tianmen square incident, with strong words that define the policy of curtailment, did not appear in such direct form in the past White Papers, understating a measured and calculated departure from previous approaches.
The remaining portions of the report have common content from the previous versions. An all-encompassing structure for peaceful co-existence in Asia through regional originations has been envisioned. Its aim to maintain Asian security cooperation architecture through ‘ADMM-Plus, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Shangri-La Dialogue, Jakarta International Defense Dialogue and Western Pacific Naval Symposium, regularly holds China-ASEAN defense ministers’ informal meetings, and proposes and constructively promotes initiatives to strengthen regional defense cooperation and China-ASEAN Maritime Exercise-2018’, are all indicators of the Chinese aims to carve out an area of influence in the Asian region. It is consistent with President Xi’s aims of ‘rejuvenating’ the Chinese nation through assimilation and consolidation of regional and territorial integrity.
In its quest for playing a larger role in the region and global arena, China has been increasing its outreach activities in all directions. One such extension which has received primary attention is enhancing maritime capability and increased naval activity. In view of recent activities of China in the Indian Ocean, many nations are responding through joint maritime exercises to prepare for what they perceive as China’s expansionist approach. This makes the maritime security domain in the Indian Ocean a direct concern for India.
Quest for Maritime Power: Implications for India
Military modernization is one of the key aspects of the Defence White Paper 2019. Particularly, PLA – Navy has one of the largest fleets in the world. It is also poised to grow multifold in the next few decades as China is seeking to expand its naval force to make “China a preeminent military power in the region.” In line with Chinese ambitions to become a global power, the White Paper claims it has for the first time deployed a Carrier Task Group for a training exercise in the far seas of Western Pacific. This will improve PLA Navy capabilities for strategic deterrence and expeditionary capability. Since 2008, the Chinese PLA Navy has been deployed in the Gulf of Aden in the anti-piracy role. From 2013 onwards Chinese PLA Navy Submarines have been deployed in the Indian Ocean as part of its effort to expand their influence in the region.
It is mentioned in the White Paper that the role of the navy has been in transition from defense of the near seas to far seas. This mission is aligned with Former General Secretary Hu Jintao’s call for building China into a Maritime Great Power (MGP) in the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China 2012. General Secretary Hu Jintao proposed that China should focus on four major areas 1) the ability to exploit Ocean resources, 2) develop the maritime economy, 3) preservation of the maritime environment and 4) Resolute protection of maritime rights and interests, to make a major maritime power.
This MGP has not only survived the transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping’s term but has also gained much higher attention during the current Xi administration. China’s Xi Jinping’s grand strategy of Belt and Road Initiative and Maritime Silk Route, which envisages a strong role for connectivity, aims to integrate other regions with the Chinese mainland. Therefore, its Naval power plays a very crucial role to safeguard its overseas interests in the Asia Pacific.
The Doklam incident proved to China, India’s preparedness is no longer ailing with the frailties of the past decades. It should also be taken into cognizance that present Chinese military capability is far superior to many nations in the region. Particularly, Chinese naval expansion in the Indian Ocean poses a direct challenge to India’s interest in the region. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and growing China-Pakistan strategic cooperation raise serious concern over India’s maritime interest in the area. In response to the Defence White Paper, Indian Naval Chief Admiral Karambir Singh mentioned that to achieve their global power status, “lots of resources have been shifted from other armed services to the PLA navy, obviously in-line with the intention to become a global power. We have to watch it carefully and see how we can respond within our budget and the constraints that we have”. India should focus on modernizing its naval force to keep it on par with China.
Concurrent Chinese ambitions can be directly read through this White Paper. A clearer understanding of the likely direction that China is going to take in the international arena, can be estimated through the subtle indications in the report. Integration of high-end technology to match the advanced military powers of the world can be seen as a declared aim. Increasing mechanized capability, which is indicative of rapid advancement capability for armed forces, has been marked as an area of active pursuit. Integration of AI and other associated technology has been made a top priority. It would be fair to surmise that given the Chinese capability and thrust in AI and allied technology, it is going to increase its research and development in the aforementioned areas. Such developments shall see through the requirements of growing and maintaining its presence in all areas of influence and growth in the international sphere.
Although the report provides an insight into China’s vision of the world, considerable ambiguity exists. There are significant aspects regarding military preparedness, its national defense aims, and most prominently in its declaration of intent – ‘never seeking hegemony, expansion or sphere’s of influence’, that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. While it commits for maintaining peace and stability in the region it continues to provide military and other assistance to Pakistan, that is detrimental to the already volatile and complex security situation in the region.
Given the rapid aims and posture of China from it’s White Paper, India should engage in building mechanisms for addressing these concerns. It must engage with China for all possible aspects of cooperation wherein the entanglements for conflict can be de-escalated or resolved. At the same time, India must also look to develop intrinsic capabilities for high-end scientific developments that enhance India’s defensive capabilities with the integration of high-end technology. International cooperation for growth in this sector along with indigenous development should be envisaged to meet with all challenges.