On China's White Paper on National Defense

Online Info-Dienst Ausgabe 2/2005


On December 27, China published a white paper on national defense, entitled "China's National Defense in 2004". This is the fifth of its kind since 1995. The white paper provides a rare window of opportunity to view "China's national defense policy and the progress made in national defense and army building over the past two years".

Significance of the white paper

According to a responsible official from the Foreign Affairs Office of China's Ministry of National Defense, the white paper, as the most authoritative voice on national defense matters in China, is specifically intended to achieve three purposes: One is to promote better understanding of the world on China's national defense so as to strengthen mutual trust and eliminate suspicion among nations. The white paper is thus part of China's efforts to increase military transparency and to integrate itself further into the international community. The second purpose is to make known China's security concerns, including Beijing's threat perception and priorities on its security agenda. This is going to be significant in avoiding miscalculations and ill-defined responses of other countries to China's efforts of defense modernization. Thirdly, the white paper is also intended as an effective means to help popularize and deepen education of national defense among the average Chinese people so as to enhance stronger national cohesion and to consolidate domestic support of China's national defense and army build up.

Compared with previous ones, the current white paper is much more informative as it has greatly expanded in contents, adding a number of new chapters like "revolution in military affairs with Chinese Characteristics", "the military service system", "science, technology and industry for national defense", and "the armed forces and people", etc. These new contents give a more detailed account of various aspects of what has been going on in China's efforts for security and defense modernization in the past two years. But what is of more value is that the white paper provides a clear conceptual framework in which China's security strategy is formulated. This is of particular significance if one is to grasp the essence of China's security outlook and philosophical doctrines for the nature and mission of its national defense in the future. In this respect, one may notice while there is great consistency in China's view of the world and its future task of national defense, there are also noticeable new developments in China's vision as reflected in the white paper.

An enhanced threat perception and redefinition of the importance of security

First of all, the white paper offers a clearer and more systematic China's view of the security situation. China seems still to hold a balanced view on the positive and negative aspects of the security environment, but evidently feel increasingly concerned about the new challenges it faces. According to the white paper, Beijing continues to believe that "peace and development remain the dominating themes of the times", and that the international situation in general and the Asia-Pacific in particular "tends to be stable as a whole". "China's national security environment in this pluralistic, diversified and interdependent world has on the whole improved" it claimed. On the other hand, the white paper seems also to take notice that "factors of uncertainty, instability and insecurity are on the increase", and that "new challenges keep cropping up". Beijing seems to take a new and sterner look at the challenges that are emerging.

The white paper specifically cites four such challenges which will have a major impact on China's security in the future: 1) The rise of the "Taiwan independence" forces, which in China's view "has increasingly become the biggest immediate threat to China's sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as peace and stability of both sides of the Taiwan straits and the Asia-Pacific region as a whole'; 2) The technological gap resulting from evolution of military affairs (RMA), which the white paper first openly cites as a realistic challenge; 3) The risks and challenges caused by the development of the trends toward economic globalization; 4) the prolonged existence of unipolarity vis-à-vis multipolarity, a mild suggestion of the negative implications of the US hegemonic policy in the world in general and in the Asia-Pacific in particular towards China's security.

From the cited generalization of the threats that China faces, one cannot but have a feeling of China's growing uneasiness. They are both practical and potential in China's point of view. For the first time, Beijing officially defines the splitting activities of the "independence" forces in Taiwan as "the biggest and immediate threat". And China seems also determined not to be left too far behind by the developed countries in the ongoing military competition, which has been fueled by the Revolution of Military Affairs (RMA). Indeed, it seems that Beijing evidently views this possibility as the greatest potential threat in the future. All these concerns give an impression of anxiety in China's new threat perception.

Secondly, the white paper seems to try to redefine the role of China's national defense in its overall national grand strategy, which, in essence, involves the relationship between security and economic development on China's national agenda. In this respect, China continues to stress "taking the road of peaceful development and unswervingly pursues a national defense policy defensive in nature". Thus, "the main tasks of China's national defense are to step up modernization of its national defense and its armed forces, to safeguard national security and unity, and to ensure the smooth process of building a moderately prosperous society in an all-round way". On the other hand, following on its enhanced threat perception, the white paper for the first time places development and security in parallel in terms of importance, a noticeable development of China's security outlook. "Proceeding from the fundamental interests of the country, China's national defense policy is both subordinated to and in service of the country's development and security strategies", it stresses. The new wording seems an apparent departure from Beijing's classical position since the mid-1980s that national defense should always be subordinated to and in service of the country's economic construction. The change should not be read as a mere rhetorical adjustment but evidently an indication that from now on China will upgrade the importance of its security as a rising power should.

Military transformation and the continued outward-looking defense policy

Thirdly, the white paper demonstrates an unusual interest in China's military transformation based on China's intended sweeping structural reforms and greater input of science and high-technology in armed forces building. A specific and detailed chapter is included to illustrate how China will pursue the military transformation with its own characteristics. This enthusiasm partly is due to China's desire to be more transparent abroad, but partly also due to its efforts to upgrade consensus of the PLA officers and men on the importance of this issue so as to add greater dynamics to the modernization drive of China's national defense. As the white paper illustrates, China's military transformation has been essentially inspired by the development of RMA, the development of information technology in particular. Thus, the aim of China's military transformation is "building an informationalized force and winning an informationalized war, deepens its reform, dedicates itself to innovation, improves its quality and actively pushes forward the RMA with Chinese characteristics with informationalization at the core".

The white paper summaries the main guidelines for China's efforts in this field: 1) To take the road of composite and leapfrog development. The PLA shall gradually achieve the transition from mechanization and semi-mechanization to informationalization. 2) To build a strong military by means of science and technology. 3) To deepen the reform of the armed forces. 4) To step up preparations for military struggle. And 5) to carry out military exchanges and cooperation. In accordance with these guidelines, the white paper provides rather detailed information on the main contents of China's military transformation:

1) Reduction of number and quality building. The whole purpose is to build leaner but better armed forces. To that end, to reduce the size has been the inevitable trend. "Since the mid-1980s, China has twice downsized its military by a total of 1.5 million. In September 2003, the Chinese government decided to further reduce 200,000 troops by the end of 2005 to maintain the size of the PLA at 2.3 million". Based on the reduction of numbers, a series of important measures have been taken to upgrade the PLA capability to meet the requirements of modern warfare. They include among other things: improving the system of leadership and command, optimizing the composition of the services and arms of the PLA, deepening the reform of joint logistical support, and the establishment and improvement of a new educational system.

2) Strengthening the Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery Force. "While continuing to attach importance to the building of the Army, the PLA gives priority to the building of the Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery Force to seek balanced development of the combat force structure, in order to strengthen the capabilities for winning both command of the sea and command of the air, and conducting strategic counter-strikes". The white paper particularly highlights "the responsibility of the PLA Navy for safeguarding China's maritime security and maintaining the sovereignty of its territorial seas along with its maritime rights and interests". It stresses that "the Navy has expanded the space and extended the depth for offshore defensive operations". In a likewise manner, "the Air Force has gradually shifted from one of territorial air defense to one of both offensive and defensive operations".

The PLA Second Artillery Force is "responsible for deterring the enemy from using nuclear weapons against China, and carrying out nuclear counter-attacks and precision strikes with conventional missiles", and has built in its initial form a weaponry and equipment system that comprises both nuclear and conventional missiles, covers different ranges, and possesses markedly increased power and efficiency".

3) Speeding Up Informationalization. The white paper points out "in its modernization drive, the PLA takes informationalization as its orientation and strategic focus", and that "In the new stage of the 21st century, the PLA strives to comprehensively push forward informationalization with military information systems and informationalized main battle weapon systems as the mainstay and with military informationalization infrastructure development supported and guaranteed".

4) Accelerating the Modernization of Weaponry and Equipment. The white paper reveals that "in order to strengthen the capability to win local wars under informationalized conditions, the PLA, in its development of weaponry and equipment, stresses the importance of capstone design, persists in taking informationalization as the leading force while advancing mechanization and informationalization simultaneously, and strives to build a streamlined, efficient and optimized modern weaponry system appropriate in size and optimal in structure".

5) Implementing the Strategic Project for Talented People. According to the white paper, this project which the CMC began to implement in August 2003 and is aimed at developing five contingents in the PLA within the timeframe of one to two decades to achieve fundamental improvement in the quality of military personnel, and a big increase in the number of well-educated personnel in combat units. These five contingents expected are: "a contingent of command officers capable of directing informationalized wars and of building informationalized armed forces, a contingent of staff officers proficient in planning armed forces building and military operations, a contingent of scientists capable of planning and organizing the innovative development of weaponry and equipment and the exploration of key technologies, a contingent of technical specialists with thorough knowledge of new- and high-tech weaponry performance, and a contingent of NCOs with expertise in using weapons and equipment at hand".

6) Intensifying Joint Training. The primary purpose of intensified joint training among services and arms at all levels in the PLA is to enhance joint fighting capabilities and to adapt to the features and patterns of modern warfare. The future efforts will include highlighting joint operational training, conducting joint tactical training, improving the means of joint training, and training commanding officers for joint operations.

7) Deepening Logistical Reforms. The white paper stresses that the logistic system will carry out most drastic reforms ever experienced in the PLA history in order to enhance the capability to provide fast, efficient and integrated support. The centerpiece of this reform is to pushing forward an integrated tri-service support system. To that end, experimental reforms of joint logistics started in the Jinan Theater in July 2004. The efforts will include: first, all logistical organs of the three services are integrated into one; second, all logistical support resources of the three services are integrated; third, all logistical support mechanisms of the three services are integrated; fourth, all logistical support channels of the three services are integrated.

8) Innovating Political Work. This is one of the areas that characterize China's defense modernization drive. Defined as an armed group to carry out revolutionary political missions, the PLA insists that it is a people's army in nature. Being highly politicized is thus the most salient feature of the Chinese military. In fact the PLA has never regarded itself as only a fighting force, although to be ready to fight is always its first priority. The PLA is also a working force. In addition to fighting, it should be able to disseminate the general line and policies of the Chinese Communist Party and the government to the masses of the people; to organize and even to arm them in case of defending the country or carry out other important tasks. Military professionalism in China’s context thus highlights its political content and requires that every officers and men must be particularly good at handling the relations with the people. To carry out a ll these tasks, it is of paramount importance to strengthen ideological and political work within the PLA to further insure the army politically and ideologically sound. Great effort will continue to be made to educate the army in patriotism, dedication, correct outlook on life, respect for officers and care for soldiers, the spirit of hard working and plain living and revolutionary integrity so as to insure the cohesion and the correct orientation in the army. On the other hand, with the change of world and domestic situation, the white paper stresses keeping with the time and striving to "innovate political work in its content, approaches, means as well as mechanism to give full play to the support and combat functions of political work".

9) Governing the armed forces strictly and according to law. The white paper stresses that the efforts in this field serves as one of the important aspects of the PLA regularization, and enhancing the combat capability in the future warfare. The main task is "incorporating into laws and regulations its good traditions in governing the armed forces and the requirements of the RMA with Chinese characteristics, so as to regulate all dimensions of the armed forces building".

Fourthly, the white paper also emphasizes the more outward-looking orientation of China's defense policy in the future. It is pointed out that "the development goal for China to strive for in the first two decades of this century is to build a moderately prosperous society in an all-round way. As a large developing country, China has before it an arduous task for modernization, which calls for prolonged and persistent hard work. China will mainly rely on its own strength for development, and therefore poses no obstacle or threat to any one. China needs a peaceful international environment for its own development, which in turn will enhance peace and development in the world". Thus, to maintain an efficient and effective defensive force is only part of China's efforts for its security. Equally important is China's efforts to join the international security cooperation for a more sustained peaceful and stable world.

To that end, "in recent years, China has intensified bilateral and multilateral strategic consultation and dialogues with countries concerned in security and defense fields which contribute to better mutual trust and mutual exchange and cooperation". The interlocutors include almost all the major powers and nations in China's peripheral areas. China has also made a great effort to "pursue a foreign policy of building a good-neighbor relationship and partnership with its neighbors, trying to create an amicable, secure and prosperous neighborhood, and vigorously pushing forward the building of a security dialogue and cooperation mechanism in the Asia-Pacific region". Among other things, China has been playing a proactive role in the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the activities of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the formation of the tripartite cooperation among China, Japan and South Korea. In addition, China attaches great importance to security cooperation in the non-traditional security fields with other countries, participating in UN Peacekeeping Operations, and expanding exchanges and cooperation with the militaries of most the world nations.


The white paper has portrayed how China - a dynamic rising power in the Asia-Pacific - is increasingly concerned over and trying to take a good care of its legitimate security interests. But this should not be mistaken as signs of fundamental change of its defense policy. On the contrary, all China is trying to do is within the realm of defense, and make sure that its moves should be defensive in nature and not threaten others. Thus, China continues to stress its new security concept, which underlines the above quoted main contents of China's defense policy and the major measures taken to promote China's defense modernization. Viewed against the backdrop, China's defense policy can well be described as a two-layer strategy: The first layer involves the equal insurance of development and security while the second layer requires that China expands international cooperation in good faith while maintaining effective military deterrence. The overarching principle is "never go for expansion, nor will it ever seek hegemony", as the white paper emphasizes. China's defense policy will continue to be one of the major positive factors to maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific.

On the other hand, it is obvious that it will take China many years, generations perhaps, to achieve its professed goal. The success of China's efforts will to a large extent depend on the evolution of the world situation as well as its continued pursuance of a wise security strategy and defense policy. This will not be an easy smooth sailing to be sure. Potential risks abound in the years ahead. The following could be great challenges for China to address in its security policy:

1) To insure sustained economic development and national security, including stopping the "independence" trend at Taiwan at the same time could be conflicting if not properly handled. The white paper has at least put the two major tasks at the same level of importance in theory. But how to balance these two equally important tasks in practice requires greater political insight, shrewd calculation and even adequate courage of the political and military leaders, and could be for China one of the greatest challenges in the future. The issue at the bottom is still lack of comprehensive national strength. Take military expenditure, for example, despite its annual continuous double-digit increase, "the absolute amount of China's defense expenditure has long been lower than those of some major Western countries, and the proportion to the GDP and state financial expenditure has also been relatively low". Furthermore, the increased part of China's defense expenditure has primarily been used for increasing the salaries and allowances of the military personnel, and further improving the social insurance system for servicemen. Thus while the government has done its utmost to expand its input on defense, the relatively small budget can hardly meet the growing demands if the military transformation and strengthening military deterrence are to fully put into operation. Like in all the other major powers, the time-worn tension between butter and cannon will also remain in China.

2) To insure a peaceful and stable international environment demands China to further integrate into the international community. On the other hand, given the size and its overall increasing strength, China's development is bound to give rise to the apprehension and misgivings about China's future orientation by its neighboring countries. How to solve this security dilemma, that is, to insure peace and stability in the international environment while China develops continues a tremendous challenge.

3) With a most probably difficult if not hostile Sino-American relationship in the future, China's security will be much complicated. The China-US bilateral relationship may particularly be put to test when the new Bush team tries to review and push its policy towards Taiwan and the US-Japan alliance. The two issues will have a great bearing on China's threat perception and determine how China will respond in defense.


(1) See "China's National Defense in 2004", the State Council Information Office, Beijing, December 27, 2004. Http:// en/English/2004/Dec/116032.html. Followed in the paper will be many quotes taken from the same document but without each necessarily pointed out the same source.

(2) Yan Jinjou and Ding Zhengyi, Interview with Responsible Official of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Ministry of National Defense on "China's National Defense in 2004", Beijing, December 28, 2004. Http://www.chinamil.comcn/sitel/xwpdxw/2004-12/28content_97848.htm.

(3) According to the white paper, China, whose GDP in 2002 and 2003 was 10,517.234 billion Yuan (1.267 trillion US dollars) and 11,725.194 Yuan (1.412 trillion US dollars) respectively, only spent 170.778 billion Yuan (20.57 billion US dollars) and 190.787 billion Yuan (22.98 billion US dollars) respectively on national defense in the corresponding year. China's budget for 2004 is 211.701 billion Yuan (20.50 US billion dollars). Its defense expenditure in 2003 amounted to only 5.69 percent of that of the US, 56.78 percent of that of Japan, 37.07 percent of that of the UK, and 75.94 percent of that of France.

The Author:

Major General Pan Zhenqiang (retired) is Professor and Deputy President of the Shanghai Institute for International Strategic Studies.

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