While China’s leadership understands the current high-stakes gamble for global and regional superiority, its palates are vetted with its nearly decade-old “new era” status as the second largest economy in the world.
By Srikanth Kondapalli
China released its tenth white paper on national defence on July 24. Beginning the process of being “transparent” in conveying to the international community on its perceived threats, intentions and capabilities as a part of its “responsible big country” status, these white papers – in the absence of any other authentic and extensive “primary sources” – provide for the thinking of the strategic establishment in China. Beijing used to issue such white papers almost every alternative year, except the current one which was issued after the previous one in 2015.
Major takeaways of this round of white paper include an explicit (for the first time) taking up cudgels with the United States in the Asian region, naming as well the ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan, building “world class” military forces (after this was outlined in 2017 party congress), bold and defiant manner in its assertion of protecting its ever-changing “core interests” including explicitly on Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, and overseas interests. The white paper explicitly blamed that the US had “undermined global strategic stability”. The stage is thus set for protracted contest with the powers that be in the region and beyond. In this round, despite a relative decline in economic growth rates to 6.2 percent, it is advantage China which expressed confidence that “the configuration of strategic power is becoming more balanced”.
While China’s leadership understands the current high-stakes gamble for global and regional superiority, its palates are vetted with its nearly decade-old “new era” status as the second largest economy in the world. The white paper mentions about “notable increase in China’s overall national strength, global influence, and resilience to risks.” The hardliners in China – including from the armed forces – have been arguing for a more muscular orientation of the country. The white paper declared unabashedly that the armed forces will provide for a “strong strategic support for the realization of the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation”. Previously, stemming the Tiananmen Square protests of students, workers and peasants in 1989, the then leaders Yang Shangkun and Yang Baibing mentioned similar “escort” duties for the armed forces.
Another domestic determinant as well is visible when the white paper mentions about the “tigers” captured in the anti-corruption drive recently including high level military officials like Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou, Fang Fenghui, and Zhang Yang. Incidentally many of these belonged to the ailing leader Jiang Zemin’s faction.
A third significant aspect of this white paper is the ad nauseam mention of “community of shared destiny”. While stating that China is against military alliances and its preference for loosely defined and non-binding “partnerships” with other countries, including in the military field, China has been advocating this concept explicitly since the 19th communist party congress in 2017. Of course, the testing time for building such a community for China will be on its insistence on protecting “inalienable” territories in East China Sea, South China Sea and with India.
Despite recent tensions in these regions with extensive militarization by China, Beijing maintains a posture of calm or even confidence in addressing sovereignty disputes with neighbours through coercive diplomatic posturing. For instance, despite active militarization of the South China Sea leading to periodic ship or oil rig collision incidents, Beijing describes the situation in the region as “generally stable and improving as regional countries are properly managing risks and differences”. China argues that it will build a “sea of peace, friendship and cooperation” in the region.
A fourth significant aspect of the white paper is that while China had termed its national defence policy orientation as being “defensive”, it had outlaid ambitious military modernization programmes of protecting “overseas interests” and allocating the second highest defence budget in the world. While a sleight of hand is clearly visible in the articulation that China spends less as a percentage of government expenditure or that of its “coordinated” development with the GDP, what is clear is the resolve to build “fortified national defense and a strong military commensurate with the country’s international standing, and its national security and development interests”. Obviously, such raising of a “world class” military is going to be costly in the medium to long term.
Finally, while India has been mentioned extensively in this round – unlike the other white papers – by as many as 16 times in the main text, the tone is more condescending in nature. In terms of importance of countries to China, which generally believes in hierarchical terms, relations with Russia, the US, Africa and Latin America, Vietnam, India, Philippines and Japan were mentioned in that order. However, like India, the white paper mentions about China’s desire to work for “balanced, stable, open and inclusive Asian security architecture”.
(The author is is Professor in Chinese Studies at JNU, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)