Tag Archives: defense policy

A Grain of Contextual Salt in the Chinese Military Strategy

Guest post for Chinese Military Strategy Week by Chang Ching

Whether the newly-published Chinese Military Strategy white paper can be a credible source to decipher the military thinking of the People’s Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China is an important question, one the author seeks to answer. Consider the following.

Jiang Jianguo, Director of the PRC’s State Council Information Office

First, this publication known as the Chinese Military Strategy is generally misperceived as a publication of the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, when in fact it is in the form of a governmental white paper chiefly edited and published by the State Council Information Office (國務院新聞辦公室), headed by Jiang Jianguo. The First Bureau of the State Council Information Office is responsible for coordinating with other governmental agencies to edit and to develop these publications and satisfy inquiries submitted by the foreign media. More importantly, the State Council Information Office is also a government agency with another title within the Chinese Communist Party apparatus — the International Communication Office of the Communist Party of China Central Committee(中共中央對外宣傳瓣公室) — charged with conducting international propaganda. These facts provide context for judging the credibility of the document and its policy implications.

Second, this publication is not a legally binding document nor is it a document demanded by the PRC’s National People’s Congress and associated with the budgeting process. Neither is it a document defined by any legislative process, law, decree or statutory regulation in the PRC’s judiciary system. And it differs from the U.S. National Military Strategy, a document that must be consistent with the U.S. National Security Strategy, and other strategic guidance defined by the 1947 National Security Act and its descendants. This is not the case for the PRC’s seemingly-equivalent publications. The so-called defense white papers published by the State Council Information Office do not direct the PLA’s force planning and strategic thinking. Contents of these white papers are rarely quoted as the internal guidelines for directing military maneuvers or developing doctrine. These white papers are never treated as the basis for arguing defense policies or defending military strategic thinking in any domestic political arena. This suggests the irrelevance of these white papers within the PRC’s political decision-making process and provide reason for caution in other nations using them to understand the military strategy of the PRC and the PLA.

Third, the ratio between retrospective conclusions and prospective intentions may also reveal the value of this white paper. Generally speaking, most of the contents focus on conclusions associated with previous achievements and interpretations of their significance such as assistance given in rural and poor economic areas and law enforcement functions as described in the 2012 white paper on “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces.” As to declaring a plan for future direction, the statements of the white paper mainly follow existing practice such as the anti-piracy patrol mission. Although certain strategic challenges are explicitly pointed out, measures or policies for tackling these are basically repetition of previously-declared positions such as those regarding the situations in the East and South China Seas. Perhaps, though, it is optimistic to expect anything new may be exposed by a vehicle for international propaganda.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey introduce the 2015 National Military Strategy, DoD photo.
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey introduce the 2015 National Military Strategy, DoD photo.

Last but not least, all readers should consider the respective prepared contexts for the introduction of the Chinese Military Strategy white paper and the 2015 U.S. National Military Strategy. The press conference introducing the U.S. strategy to the public was jointly hosted by the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of the Staff. Comparatively, the PRC’s white paper was introduced at a press conference in the State Council Information Office and attended by several senior colonels. The 2015 US National Military Strategy was signed and publicized by a four-star general, the incumbent CJCS who will retire in September 2015. Since it is part of their political education, the members in the People’s Liberation Army well know the positions put forward in the Chinese Military Strategy white paper as it relates to their internal political decision-making process. But this is not a source for formal direction of military policy. It is no surprise that no significant discussion may occur within the Chinese military on this document except as a means to boost morale or boast of past success.

Of course, the content of the Chinese Military Strategy white paper is not totally without value. At least, readers may glean from it the areas of inquiry from the foreign press and policy critics that most concern the PRC’s State Council Information Office (or office for international propaganda). It may also be of use in understanding how the government of the PRC would like to shape the public image of the PLA. But the value of this document should never be overstated. Reading its content is a necessary precondition for understanding the PLA’s strategic thinking, but do not take it is as sufficient for thorough understanding.

Chang Ching is a Research Fellow with the Society for Strategic Studies, Republic of China. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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Beyond the Security Dilemma? De-Escalating Tension in the South China Sea

Guest post for Chinese Military Strategy Week by Jan Stockbruegger

A Chinese vessel at Johnson South Reef, which is being turned into an island, AP Photo.

In May 2015 China presented its new Military Strategy white paper. The white paper, which appeared at a time of heightened tensions over land reclamations in the South China Sea, has triggered much debate and discussion. How should the strategy be interpreted, and how should policy makers respond to it? Does it demonstrate China’s expansionist and revisionist intentions? And does more need to be done to contain China’s rise as a super power? In this contribution to the debate I briefly summarize China’s new military strategy and reflect on it in the light of two diverging interpretations. I first argue that the strategy needs to be understood in terms of a deterrence logic that indicates the emergence of a security dilemma in the Asia-Pacific. I then offer a reverse interpretation that sees China’s military strategy as a move toward transparency and building trust and confidence. I conclude with some optimistic thoughts about how these two contradicting logics play into each other.

Maritime Rebalance and Military Modernization

Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, CDR USPACOM and Director General of the Institute for Defense Strategy, Lt Gen Nguyen Chien in Hanoi, Dec. 10, 2013. U.S. Army photo.
Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, CDR USPACOM and Director General of the Institute for Defense Strategy, Lt Gen Nguyen Chien in Hanoi, Dec. 10, 2013. U.S. Army photo.

China’s new military strategy is a very analytical document. It describes, analyses, and explains China’s perspective on international security, and it provides a frank and honest assessment of the threats and challenges the country faces. This includes “‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces,” as well as the U.S. “’rebalancing’ strategy,” and its “military presence and its military alliances in this region.” China is particularly worried that some “external countries” – most likely the U.S. “are … busy meddling in the South China Sea affairs” and that a “tiny few maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China.” The strategy also refers to the dispute in the South and East China Sea – though it does not say so explicitly – when it notes that “some of China’s offshore neighbors take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied.” China thus has to protect its “territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.” Hence, the strategy argues the “traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned,” and “great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans.” China, it claims, will become a “maritime power” and “develop a modern maritime military force structure.” China intends to strengthen its navy, which “will gradually shift its focus … to the combination of ‘offshore waters defense’ with ‘open seas protection.’” The “preparation for military struggle,” in particular maritime military struggle, is central to China’s new military strategy.

Yet in the strategy China also claims that it does not have offensive military ambitions and will avoid armed confrontation and escalation. Its military philosophy is based on the idea of active defense, which holds that China “will not attack unless we [China] are attacked.” China will try to prevent crisis and, most importantly, “strike a balance between rights protection and stability maintenance.” The strategy also says that China supports collective security and embraces Confidence Building Mechanisms. Notably, China intends to deepen “military relations with the U.S. armed forces” to reflect the “new model of major-country relations” between the two states.

China’s new military strategy is to some degree ambiguous if not contradictory. It announces an ambitious military modernization program to protect its expanding interests while at the same time emphasizing its peaceful intention. This leaves room for interpretation. So how should one understand China’s military strategy? And how should the international community, in particular the U.S. and regional states, respond to it?

Deterrence and Security Dilemma

One way to interpret China’s military strategy is to look at what it says about the country’s military intentions and ambitions. From this perspective, China’s military modernization program appears threatening. It signals China’s long-term determination to dominate the Asia-Pacific and to use its expanding military capabilities to further narrow national security objectives. The strategy suggests that China will not accept Taiwan’s independence, will not abstain from its claims in the South China Sea, and will try to limit U.S. influence and military operations in the region. From this perspective, China is a threat that needs to be deterred. The U.S. in particular needs to do more to reassure its allies, to contain China, and to strengthen its predominant position in the Asia-Pacific.

This interpretation has significant implications for the regional security environment. It would eventually create a security dilemma, a situation in which, according to the eminent political scientist Robert Jervis, “the means by which a state tries to increase its security decreases the security of others.” It is easy to see how this would work. China feels its position is insecure, and it modernizes its military to deter potential aggressors. East Asian states and the U.S., on the other hand, feel threatened by China’s military build-up and behavior in the South China Sea, and they therefore strengthen their military capabilities to counter potential Chinese aggressions. Hence, even though neither side might want to risk conflict, their behavior increases exactly that risk. This dynamic reinforces rivalries, triggers intense security competition, and increases the likelihood of a confrontation between the world’s major military powers.

USMaritimeStrategy15It is important to note that the security dilemma is not a fantasy or a distant future; its contours are already clearly visible, not only in China’s new military strategy and ongoing military modernization program, but also in the U.S. rebalance to Asia. Indeed, current U.S. defense debates are no longer about whether or not China needs to be deterred militarily; instead, analysts are already discussing specific military deterrence strategies (e.g., the Air-Sea Battle Concept, now renamed the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons). According to the new U.S. Seapower Strategy, 60 percent of U.S. Navy ships and aircraft will soon be deployed in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. Put differently, the Asia-Pacific security dilemma is an emerging reality, and China’s new military strategy further reinforces this trend.

Transparency and Strategic Trust

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, left, and China's Minister of National Defense Gen. Liang Guanglie in Beijing, AP Photo.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, left, and China’s Minister of National Defense Gen. Liang Guanglie in Beijing, AP Photo.

Another way to interpret the strategy is to view it as a move towards military transparency, openness, and dialogue. In the strategy, China officially declares its long-term military interests and ambitions. It describes threats and challenges, outlines China’s plans for military modernization, and it also discusses China’s strategic new orientation. This might sound worrying and threatening to some security analysts. However, the strategy certainly does contribute to clarifying China’s military intention and explaining its rationale. Hence, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman commented in the New York Times that China’s new strategy “is an example of transparency” and “exactly the type of thing that we’ve been calling for.”

Military openness and transparency create trust and confidence among adversaries. They enables a better understanding of what each side wants, why they do the things they do, and how they might behave in the future. A military strategy hence also contributes to dialogue and mutual engagement. It allows actors to identify disagreements, develop joint interests, and reach common ground. Military dialogue does not resolve political conflicts, such as the islands disputes in the South China Sea, but it creates opportunities to avoid military escalation and to manage the security competition that such unresolved disputes produce.

Such an Asia-Pacific military dialogue is already underway. In April 2014 regional naval representatives at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium signed a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea. A similar document, a Memorandum of Understanding Regarding Rules of Behaviour for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters, was signed by the U.S. and China in November 2014. Both documents, which are not legally binding, regulate military encounters at sea and seek to prevent incidents that could trigger military confrontations. The militaries of China and the U.S. also signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the Notification of Major Military Activities. With this document both sides “seek to foster greater comprehension of each other’s security policy.” They agree to engage in “regular exchanges of information related to major official publications and statements,” which includes “White Papers, strategy publications, and other official announcements related to policy and strategy.”

This is exactly what China has done with the publication of its new military strategy. Hence, from this perspective China’s military strategy does not reinforce the emerging Asia-Pacific security dilemma; rather, it is part of a pragmatic coping mechanisms aimed at managing this dilemma and de-escalating tensions in the region.

De-Escalating the Security Dilemma?

In this piece I have offered two interpretations of China’s new military strategy. I have argued that China’s military strategy contributes to a deterrence-based logic, and that it also de-escalates security competition. These two interpretations are certainly contradictory, but they are not mutually exclusive. China’s military strategy reflects a pragmatic double-strategy through which states seek to balance their security interests. On the one hand, China finds it necessary to deter potential adversaries militarily. On the other hand, however, it also relies on a peaceful international environment based on cooperative security arrangements. Yet whether the Asia-Pacific will manage to keep this balance is unclear. Regional disputes and conflicts are yet to be resolved, military expansion and modernization continue, and the emerging security order remains fragile. Are more efforts needed to manage the security dilemma and to ensure that security competition remains peaceful? This is exactly the question that stakeholders need to discuss jointly and as part of a sustained dialogue aimed at keeping peace and security in the face of increased geopolitical tensions and security competition in the region.

Jan Stockbruegger is a Research Assistant at Cardiff University and a graduate student in Political Science at Brown University. He is the lead editor of piracy-studies.org, a research and resource forum for maritime security studies. Jan can be contacted at stockbrueggerj@cardiff.ac.uk. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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Reviewing Charles Glasers’ “China-U.S. Grand Bargain”

Guest post for Chinese Military Strategy Week by Peter Marino

In May of this year, the PLA released its most expansive defense White Paper ever. Having now firmly left in the past the original missions of the PLA simply to defend the Chinese mainland, the paper imagines a solidly regional, and even global, role for its armed forces to protect Chinese vital interests in economics and politics. This has understandably put additional pressure on US and Western defense planners to review their own strategic postures towards China and reassess how they intend to position themselves against it, as the post-First Cold War international architecture breaks down and a Second Cold War seems to be coming into focus. Squarely in the middle of any reassessment of U.S. strategic posture towards China would undoubtedly be Taiwan policy. Should the US hold to its commitments under the 1979 Taiwan Relations act? Should it strengthen these commitments? Or should it abandon them altogether? China specialists across the spectrum are weighing in. Today, I take a moment to review one such proposal, by Professor Charles Glaser of the Elliott School.1


[1] Charles L. Glaser. “A U.S.-China Grand Bargain? The Hard Choice between Military Competition and Accommodation.” International Relations 39, No. 4, Spring 2015, 49-90.

Peter Marino holds an MSc in Global Politics from The London School of Economics and is a graduate of Norwich University. He lived in Shanghai from 2003 to 2008 and served as head of China development for London-based Aurigon, Ltd. He founded and sold Quaternion, a political risk startup, and is currently establishing a new Think Tank for International Affairs aimed at promoting engagement with the “Millennial Generation.” He also produces Globalogues, a video blog with commentary on global politics and economics. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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Avoiding Conditions for an Asia-Pacific Cold War

Guest post for Chinese Military Strategy Week by Jack McKechnie

The People’s Republic of China’s new Military Strategy white paper indicating China’s military strategy is a positive step towards transparency, but comparison with the recent U.S. National Military Strategy (NMS) reveals a significant difference and ominous implications of future paths. Should China and the U.S. pursue their stated military strategies, a period of increasing tension and force buildup will ensue as the U.S. and allies seek to maintain an absolute advantage over a rising Chinese regional advantage. While the national leaderships of China and the U.S. will likely strive to avoid the use of force, miscalculations can occur and attempts at reassurance can fail with severe, complicating, and long-lasting consequences for everyone involved. A future strategy by China that reassures the rest of the world that its rise is peaceful is necessary to avoid this situation.

Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, Reuters
Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, Reuters

Although both documents appear to portray each country’s military strategies, there is a key difference that makes this an imperfect comparison. While the U.S. president is both commander-in-chief of the U.S. military as well as party chief of his political party, the U.S. military is not a party army, and the U.S. NMS has no mandate to keep the Democratic Party in power. Xi Jinping is both chairman of the China’s central military commission as well as general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), but the PLA is a party army, and the PRC defense white paper declares that “China’s armed forces will unswervingly adhere to the principle of the CPC’s absolute leadership” and “remain a staunch force for upholding the CPC’s ruling position.”

Communist Party of China in the Great Hall of the People, CNN.com
Communist Party of China in the Great Hall of the People, CNN.com

The PRC defense white paper articulates a response to security threats to the CPC, not China, and there are circumstances in which a move benefitting the CPC does not benefit China. A fixation to remain in power and a tendency to exaggerate threats to party rule may lead the CPC to assume a more aggressive posture resulting in higher risk of conflict than the actual security threat to China would justify. The risk of a serious conflict, which would be devastating for the Chinese people, warrants consideration of an assuring and less threatening stance instead. The CPC’s aggressive rhetoric regarding Taiwan, Japan, and the South China Sea may be intended to bolster domestic support for the CPC, but should miscalculation and conflict occur, the impact to China’s growth could be severe. Ironically, these economic consequences of conflict may cause the CPC to face a primary concern, disorder at home, and which they may hope to forestall by rallying their populace with assertive foreign policy.

From the perspective of the CPC, this makes reassurance and the avoidance of miscalculation critical, but the difference in objective for the PRC defense white paper contributes to difficulties in reassuring the U.S. and other countries that China’s rise will remain peaceful. The U.S., distrustful of authoritarian governments and wary of attempts to unilaterally disrupt the international order by a rising power, would need enhanced reassurances from China.

Dale Copeland describes the commitment problem as the inability of one state’s leadership to convince another state’s leadership that promises made today will be kept. In this case, the U.S. may not only be concerned that China may have a change of heart later once they have more relative power, but also that new leaders in China may adopt very different policies.1 Ambiguity in the PRC defense white paper regarding how they intend to safeguard Chinese maritime interests and address the issue of Taiwan fails to ease the U.S. and regional states. And while principles of defense, self-defense, and post-emptive strike are declared, other countries have little assurance that these principles will be adhered in the future.

U.S. Navy Photo
U.S. Navy Photo

The ambiguity in the PRC’s strategy, in conjunction with an alarming, sustained military buildup at a time when China’s mainland has never been safer from invasion, may be construed as a more or less direct contradiction of reassurances that China does not pose a security threat. Neither the U.S. nor the Chinese military strategy explicitly discusses force posture, but the fact that the U.S. is transparent with products such as the U.S. Navy’s 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan to Congress, a document that describes long-term future fleet composition, while China has no overt guidance for their desired size for their rapidly-growing military does give cause for concern by the U.S. and the rest of the world.

The strategies executed together produce the conditions for an Asia-Pacific Cold War in the future security environment as described by a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “Deepening regional bipolarization and militarization, driven by a worsening U.S. – China strategic and economic rivalry in Asia.”2 Arms races, military crises, and increasing tension regarding Taiwan reunification could result in a period of constant tension while the U.S. and regional allies balance the increase of Chinese capabilities to preserve an absolute advantage that, they hope, deters conflict. China’s lack of articulation regarding the intended future size of their military and the failure to provide reassurance for exclusively peaceful means to handle their concerns with Taiwan, Japan, and with other claimants in the South China Sea do not reassure the U.S. and other countries, and the likely result will be continued arms build-up and increasing tensions.

The deliberate use of lethal force by China in pursuit of territorial claims, whether for a coercive reunification of Taiwan or establishment of solid control over the nine-dash line, will result in dramatic changes around the world. A loss of confidence in Asia will cause multiple, independent actors to react in unforeseen ways which may have a dramatic effect on Asian commerce. Moreover, the CPC may not understand the potential resolve of the U.S. and other democracies to resist lethal aggression and what actions they may take against China and what consequences, economic and otherwise, they are willing to impose. While growth and stability of the entire world would be profoundly affected, China, with its high growth dependence on foreign trade and commerce, could face the most serious consequences. The results within China would ironically jeopardize the social and political order the CPC may have used to justify aggression in the first place.

ASEAN Member States, Public Domain.
ASEAN Member States, Public Domain.

To best serve the security interests of China and maximize economic potential while minimizing threat of war, there are measures the CPC might pursue to assure the rest of the world while remaining in power. As stated by James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon, China can better reassure the U.S. and regional countries by leveling military budget growth at approximately half of the U.S. level and scaling back missile deployments and other military capacities directed at Taiwan, commit to exclusively peaceful means towards Taiwan, and join in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Code of Conduct with a commitment not to use or threaten force to resolve territorial disputes.3 As a revisionist power, assurance is incumbent on the Chinese, and only positive measures such as these will provide the necessary assurance to regional and global powers that China’s intent is peaceful and will minimize the risk of miscalculation and the associated social, economic, and military consequences.

Jack McKechnie is a Commander in the U.S. Navy currently assigned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. He was a former U.S. Seventh Fleet operational planner, Japan country officer, and assistant director for theater security cooperation from Oct 2011 to July 2014 and a Federal Executive Fellow with Johns Hopkins University APL from Aug 2014 to July 2015. The views expressed in this article are his own.

[1] Dale Copeland. Economic Interdependence and War (Princeton University Press, 2015), 41.

[2] Michael Swaine et al. Conflict and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region: A Strategic Net Assessment (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington D.C., 2015) 167.

[3] James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon. Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: U.S. – China Relations in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press, 2014), 209-210.

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