China’s Military Blueprint: Bigger Navy, Bigger Global Role

In its first defense white paper, China's leadership paints a muscular vision of how it will defend its newfound place in the sun.


China laid out its military strategy in its first-ever defense white paper, promising not to hit first, but vowing to strike back hard if attacked in a world full of what it sees as potential threats.

The paper, released by China’s State Council, the chief administrative body of the Chinese government, is especially noteworthy at a time of heightened tensions with the United States over China’s aggressive behavior in disputed areas of the South China Sea. On Monday, Chinese state media spoke of war with the United States as “inevitable” if the United States keeps pressing Beijing on its illegal activities; in the United States, meanwhile, the consensus over accommodating China’s rise seems to have given way to a more hawkish stance on the need to contain the rising Asian giant.

China’s new white paper provides plenty of points of continuity with past strategies, especially with Mao Zedong’s doctrine of “active defense,” known in the United States as the Billy Martin school of conflict management. (“I never threw the first punch; I threw the second four.”)

At the same time, though, the defense blueprint breaks new ground. It codifies the ongoing transformation of China into a true maritime power, and puts more emphasis on high-seas, offensive naval operations. More broadly, it envisions a much bigger, global role for Chinese armed forces than had previously been the case, and in some places echoes the famously hawkish Chinese views of thinkers such as Liu Mingfu, whose bestselling book “The China Dream” paints a vision of nearly inevitable conflict between the two global titans.

Here are some of the main takeaways from the white paper’s English-language version.

Times may be peaceful, but things sure look scary in Beijing

The defense strategy’s starting point is a generally benign global environment: “Peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit have become an irresistible tide of the times,” the paper says. “In the foreseeable future, a world war is unlikely, and the international situation is expected to remain generally peaceful.”

But that doesn’t mean everything’s rosy from the vantage point of Chinese leaders. Traditional security threats have been compounded by new threats, from terrorism to cyber war, to make life potentially perilous. One rival country in particular, with a penchant for hanging on to its leading position and supporting treaty allies in the Asia-Pacific region, merits special attention: “There are, however, new threats from hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism.”

For a 5,000-year old civilization that has survived invasions from Mongols, Japanese, and Western Europeans, this is a sobering conclusion: “In the new circumstances, the national security issues facing China encompass far more subjects, extend over a greater range, and cover a longer time span than at any time in the country’s history.” Later, the paper notes: “Due to its complex geostrategic environment, China faces various threats and challenges in all its strategic directions and security domains.”

That’s especially true when it comes to the South China Sea

The white paper is mostly focused on higher-level issues of how China’s military will support the realization of China’s national “rejuvenation,” but it pays special attention to a potential area of conflict that’s in the headlines these days, China’s land reclamation efforts at a spate of reefs and rocks in the Spratly and Paracel island groups. Those activities on land features whose ownership is disputed have sparked tensions with the United States, Vietnam, the Philippines, and even Japan, which is shedding much of its post-World War II pacifism.

“On the issues concerning China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, some of its offshore neighbors take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied. Some external countries are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs; a tiny few maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China. It is thus a long-standing task for China to safeguard its maritime rights and interests.”

To underscore the point, and perhaps send a message to the U.S. Navy, the paper speaks at length about the need to ensure “preparations for military struggle” in China’s watery backyard: “In line with the evolving form of war and national security situation, the basic point for PMS will be placed on winning informationized local wars, highlighting maritime military struggle and maritime PMS.”

The paper makes clear that what’s at stake in the South China Sea is not the fate of a few atolls or uninhabited islands, but the very nature of Chinese sovereignty. Among the Chinese military missions in this new world will be to “safeguard national territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, and maintain security and stability along China’s periphery.” Such doctrinal stances make it hard to believe China will easily blink first in a showdown over navigation rights in the region.

How do you say Mahan in Chinese?

Building a stronger navy was a priority of former President Hu Jintao, and has only been accelerated under Xi Jinping. But if there were any lingering doubts about China’s aim of transforming itself into a modern, maritime power, the white paper puts them to rest.

For a country whose eyes were locked on the northern and western frontier for millennia, this is noteworthy: “The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests. It is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security and development interests, safeguard its national sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, protect the security of strategic [sea lanes of communication] and overseas interests, and participate in international maritime cooperation, so as to provide strategic support for building itself into a maritime power.”

Importantly, especially in the context of China’s interest in ports and possibly bases across the Indian Ocean, the white paper’s first order of business for military modernization is the ability to operate far from home: improving logistics.

That’s a very active defense you’ve got there

The white paper couches China’s posture in terms of active defense, a mainstay of Chinese defense thinking since Mao’s guerrilla campaigns in the 1930s: “We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked.” But the paper itself details just how the Chinese navy and air force are shedding their traditional defensive roles to take up more pro-active positions, including a true blue-water navy: “In line with the strategic requirement of offshore waters defense and open seas protection, the PLA Navy (PLAN) will gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defense’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defense’ with ‘open seas protection,’ and build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure. The PLAN will enhance its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counterattack, maritime maneuvers, joint operations at sea, comprehensive defense and comprehensive support.”

China is embracing its global role

Finally, the white paper makes explicit what had seemed to be a recent evolution in China’s approach to the world. Traditionally, China focused on economic development and took a hands-off approach to global affairs. But with Chinese interests growing by leaps and bounds in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, China is finding that its defense responsibilities are set to go as global as its economic interests.

“In response to the new requirement coming from the country’s growing strategic interests, the armed forces will actively participate in both regional and international security cooperation and effectively secure China’s overseas interests.”

That may not all be bad news: The West, after all, has been asking China to become a “responsible stakeholder” for a decade. The white paper concludes on just that note:

“With the growth of national strength, China’s armed forces will gradually intensify their participation in such operations as international peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance, and do their utmost to shoulder more international responsibilities and obligations, provide more public security goods, and contribute more to world peace and common development.”

Photo credit: DANIEL BARKER/U.S. Navy

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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