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China's National Defence In A New Era
Beijing’s latest white paper on defence, which happens to be the first since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012 and the 10th in the series, is an attempt to link Chinese dreams with reality
Vijay Shankar

The Chinese news agency Xinhua announced on July 24, 2019 that “China had issued a white paper to expound on its defensive national defence policy in the new era and explain the practice, purposes and significance of China's efforts to build a fortified national defence and a strong military”. Titled "China's National Defence in the New Era", the paper was released by the State Council Information Office with a view, as the Council suggested, to helping the international community better understand China's national defence. It is the tenth white paper on national defence that the government has issued since 1998 and the first comprehensive one since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012.

At a macro-level, the paper responds to a perceived shift in global strategies as major players retract from a focus on counterterrorism and extremism to an acute slant on competition, rivalry and friction. It flags the fact that China in its bid to revise the global order on its terms is now a contender for regional dominance. Its ascendancy is backed by military forces that are developed to the point where they will be able to challenge any adversary that may attempt to deny its interests. The Document describes Taiwan, Tibet, and Turkistan as separatists that threaten national unity and underscores the dangers of territorial conflicts erupting should there be intervention of any nature on this account. It notes in cavalier fashion that “countries from outside the region conduct frequent close-in surveillance by air and sea, enter China’s territorial waters and the airspace near China’s islands and reefs undermining China’s national security”. Through all this, China remains quite oblivious to the legality of their newly established but discordant Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) of 2013, the 9-Dash (10-Dash after 2013) line delineating their claim over most of the South China Sea, contravening major tenets of the United Nations Conventions on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) and breaching of international law.

Unlike Chinese white papers of the past which focused blandly on China’s questionable “peaceful” intent and not very convincing views of ‘win-win’ cooperation, the 2019 edition highlights China’s military development as a national riposte to what it considers as the challenges that it is faced with. The main body of the white paper is divided into six thematic sections:

The international security situation.

China's defensive national defence policy in the new era.

Fulfilling missions and tasks of China's armed forces in the new era.

Reform in China's national defence and armed forces.

Reasonable and appropriate defence expenditure.

Actively contributing to building a community with a shared future for mankind.

Some statistics are featured in the 27,000-character document; 10 tables on topics such as a cursory breakdown of China's defence expenditure have been attached and listing of international cooperation activities is included in the appendices.

International security & visions of a new global order

The paper offers insights into how Chinese leadership conceives a world order characterised by greater multipolarity and its aspirations to exercise control amongst what it perceives to be a “community of common destiny.” It also outlines its strategic objectives, in the quest for which Beijing will neither accommodate nor soften its position. The paper, significantly, re-emphasises China’s intentions to revise the current global order to create a future more favourable for its interests.

“National Defence in a New Era” is a continuum on the official narrative of China’s emergence as a great power with global influence. In discussing the security situation in the Asia-Pacific, China makes a grand assumption that countries in the region are “increasingly aware of being members of a community with shared destiny” and then deduces that they are therefore in harmony with Beijing’s ideological make-up. While the questionable nature of the ‘grand assumption’ throws up a flawed deduction; what comes next is disquieting. It is the illusory context of the document linking China’s defence directly to the notion of a “community of common destiny for humanity” that provides a dangerous strategic underpinning for that very community. The question being, is the new era envisaged by China an emerging reality? And is its model of governance acceptable and appropriate for this reality? For, if not (as it seems most likely) the prospects of friction and disruption loom large.

China's defensive National Defence Policy

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September 2019

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