The 2004 Chinese Defence White Paper

The 2004 Chinese Defence White Paper


In a field of much interest yet little hard information, the biannual release of the Chinese Defence White Paper (DWP) is always treated with significant interest. The 2004 paper is no different and there are definite signs this year that the paper has matured into a more useful and informative product. A cursory glance at the publication reveals that this year’s DWP contains less of the jargon and propaganda that has been a feature of its predecessors. In addition, it has been more systematic in explicitly laying out China’s defence goals and military tasks, and in identifying the priorities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Overall, it is a more impressive document than its predecessors. This short paper focuses on three key chapters of the 2004 DWP: the review of China’s security situation, the statement of China’s national defence policy and the discussion of the Revolution in Military Affairs with Chinese Characteristics.


Beijing is of course aware of the international interest in the future of the PLA, and hence it must be assumed that the contents of the DWP, as well as the timing of its release, are determined in part to exert the maximum possible impact on the global community.  An analysis of past papers indicates that they were sometimes released in order to avoid aggravating an existing situation. For example, the publication of the 2000 DWP was probably delayed for fear of adversely affecting the debate that was taking place in the US Senate at the time over the granting of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status to China. With the 2004 DWP coming out slightly later than expected, it is believed that Beijing was waiting until the conclusion of the elections for the Legislative Yuan in Taiwan, and was also seeking to take advantage of the constraining efforts toward Taiwan undertaken by former Secretary of State Colin Powell during his visit to China.


Security Situation

Like the defence white papers of so many other countries, China uses its DWPs as a platform to put forward general thoughts on the global security situation. The section begins by defining the level of global and regional instability and the major trends driving change as well as those specific features of the security environment that threaten or concern China. As has been the case with past DWPs, this section is full of the usual generalities about peace and development, the importance of multipolarity and the importance of economic and technical globalization.


However, comparing this DWP with previous editions shows that there have been fluctuations over the years in the level of emphasis placed on instability, threats and adversaries. In 1998 the DWP focused on the importance of global and regional development and co-operation, but in 2000 the focus was very much on the difficult and threatening security situation. An emphasis was placed on the continuing Kosovo conflict and the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade as well as the deteriorating security situation in the Taiwan Straits. In the 2002 DWP, the focus was on the importance of co-operation in establishing a stable security environment, which was due to strengthened anti-terrorist co-operation among the major countries of the world after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The 2004 paper continues this trend towards a more positive outlook with less emphasis on global instability and threat, and also generally avoids direct criticisms of the US Government (a prominent theme of the 2000 DWP). The focus is much more on general trends in the international security environment, with an emphasis on the notion that the international security situation continues to undergo ‘profound and complicated changes’. There is also a clear move toward a wider definition of security concerns, with reference to the challenges posed by multipolarization and economic globalization. The DWP states that there are many factors on the rise that are triggering instability and insecurity in the international security environment.


On the positive side, the DWP states that some regional hotspots have cooled and that in some areas the level of regional security cooperation has deepened. It also highlights that the global anti-terrorism campaign has progressed well. The section then focuses on events in the Asia Pacific region, identifying China’s major spheres of influence. The report speaks encouragingly of the region having a basic level of stability and also a growing degree of multilateral cooperation. Yet, unsurprisingly, the paper also identifies some increasing problems in the region. Emphasis is placed on US efforts to reinforce its military presence in the region and Japan’s efforts to ‘adjust’ its military and security policies, with a particular reference to Tokyo’s increased military activities abroad. There is also a reference to the continued fragility of the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear crisis.


The softer tones that had been the focus of much of the DWP were not evident in the discussion of the situation across the Taiwan Strait, however. Taiwanese independence was described as the ‘biggest threat to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as peace and stability on both sides of the Taiwan Straits and the Asia Pacific region as a whole’. This section also includes an explicit criticism of the United States, which is blamed for exacerbating the Taiwan situation by providing arms to Taipei. By explicitly linking the activities of those advocating Taiwanese independence to the stability of Asia as a whole, the DWP is attempting to appeal to wider Asian concerns over the Taiwan issue, and not present it as primarily an isolated domestic problem. This is a change from previous DWPs, which largely stressed the impact of the problem on China and the Taiwan Strait.


In contrast to previous publications, this section provides the reader with a more delineated analysis of China’s major security concerns. Unsurprisingly, the threat posed by the prospect of Taiwan independence is at the top of the list, followed by the slow pace of the Chinese military in assimilating the RMA compared to other countries, the risks and challenges brought about by economic globalization, and finally, the long-standing discord between unipolarity and multipolarity in the global system.


Defence Policy

This is a longer section and lists the goals and the tasks of China’s national defence policies. The first priority listed is that of fighting separatism. Although linked with providing defence against invasion and defending national sovereignty, this factor clearly refers to the prospects of Taiwan declaring independence. Later on in the section there is a specific attack on Taiwan’s President Chen Shuibian and a robust expression of China’s determination to crush any clear movement toward Taiwanese independence. However, the DWP also expresses a willingness to end hostility and establish military confidence-building measures (CBMs), on the basis of prior acceptance by Taiwan of the One China policy. This is the first mention of CBMs in any DWP.


The section continues the theme from previous DWPs by identifying China’s main defence strategy as ‘active defence’. However, in a departure from previous years, the paper pairs active defence with efforts to speed up the RMA with Chinese Characteristics. This latter aspect is, for the first time, explicitly discussed in detail and is in fact awarded a whole separate section (discussed below).


In comparison to previous years, there is a more explicit breakdown of individual tasks for the military, which includes some new content. The section states that the priority in military development is being given to the PLA Navy (PLAN), PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the Second Artillery. This clear prioritization was not mentioned in previous DWPs. The section also enumerates a number of other explicit goals, including the development of science and technology in the military and the reform of the armed forces to a more streamlined force.


Despite clear signs of greater maturity in the exposition of China’s military strategy, the DWP unsurprisingly retains some references to the traditional doctrine of People’s War. However, the concept is only very briefly mentioned, leaving the impression that it was added as an afterthought. Instead, the overriding concept of this section is the ‘informationalization’ of the military. This rather cumbersome term is actually mentioned forty times in the paper, while ‘people’s war’ only appears four times. This new development has also triggered a change in the stock military phrase ‘local war under high-tech conditions’, to the new concept ‘win local wars under the conditions of informationalization’.  The term is apparently intended to encompass all conceivable applications of information technology to the preparation and conduct of military operations.  


RMA with Chinese Characteristics

This new section replaces the more general and briefer chapter contained in the 2002 DWP, which was titled ‘The Armed Forces’. For the first time in a DWP, the term is apparently intended to describe the overall approach of the PLA to force building, and not simply a way of fighting.


This section again mentions the priority placed on the development of the PLAN, PLAAF and the Second Artillery, as opposed to the ground forces. The PLAN is identified as having already expanded the space and depth for its offshore defensive capability.  The section gives explicit prominence to the building of maritime combat forces, especially amphibious combat forces and a long-range precision strike capability. Neither of these capabilities have been mentioned in any previous DWP. In regard to the PLAAF, there is an identified doctrinal shift from providing territorial air defence to both defensive and offensive operations. This section also stresses the importance of the Second Artillery to the conducting of ‘precision strikes with conventional missiles’. In the 2002 DWP, the phrase used was ‘fire assaults with conventional missiles’. Analysts looking at this section suggest that this could refer to attacks on Taiwan, other offshore areas, and even perhaps US aircraft carriers.


Other subjects covered in this section include: the acceleration of informationalization; the implementation of a strategic project for talented people (i.e., individuals who can understand and operate more advanced military systems); the intensification of joint military training; the deepening of logistical reforms; and more innovative political work.


This section has thus provided much new information of interest.  However, also notable are the omissions in this DWP.  In all, the document places a greater stress on concepts and processes and provides almost no information on new or developing weapons systems. It also contains less information on the PLA’s command structure.  For instance, the 2002 DWP confirmed that China’s ballistic missile and nuclear submarine forces are under the direct control of the Central Military Commission. Finally there was also only a very small mention of China’s nuclear force: a mere mention of the longstanding no-first-use policy and the defensive purpose of Beijing’s nuclear arsenal.


In conclusion, this paper shows the increasing maturity of China’s military and its DWPs. The document serves as a more useful tool for those looking at the direction that the Chinese military is heading.


Michael Swaine

The author is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC. He specializes in Chinese security and foreign policy,

US-China relations, and East Asian international relations.

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