On China’s Military Strategy: Implications for India

China’s White Paper on Military Strategy does not feature India explicitly, but points to stepping up of China’s involvement in the Indian Ocean Region

by Piyush Singh (@PiyushS7)

On May 26th, China released its white paper on military strategy, emphasizing a shift from “offshore water defence” to “open seas protection”. The white paper focuses on the current predicament in South China Sea. Otherwise, it contains the usual rhetoric of Taiwan’s unification, Tibetan independence, and makes thinly veiled references to outside powers perceived to be meddling in China’s domestic affairs, namely United States and Japan.

PLAN Harbin: Photo by Felix Garza, U. S. Navy

PLAN Harbin: Photo by Felix Garza, U. S. Navy

The paper mentions that while China has long followed the policy of defensive restraint, it will now follow a policy of “active defence”. Specifically, it means that China is going to be more involved in securing its interest abroad and participating in “regional and international security cooperation exercises actively”. However, the interpretation of “active defence” is that it is of defensive nature only in words, and can be used by party cadres to justify a military action. This means that if China initiates a military attack, then it will be interpreted as only defending itself and its interests against belligerent “expansionists”.

The armed forces of China are entrusted to adhere to the CPC’s leadership and take part in the dream of Chinese rejuvenation. This is being repeated in all propaganda campaigns across China, in light of the recent anti-corruption drive and arrest of certain high profile military leaders. Civil-Military Integration (CMI) is also being strengthened under Xi Jinping. It is further entrusted to build up strategic capability to counter threats in new domains, such as cyber-counterattacks and fighting off local wars within a limited timeframe. Chinese defence policy is highly influenced by the Gulf War of 1991 and the United States military complete dominance in bringing the war to a swift end.

The PLAAF will also expand on its defensive and offensive capabilities. PLA will be built into flexible and mobile units, capable of switching between theatres at short notice. This is important for India to ponder over because it shares a long border with China, divided into three sectors. China does not face any major land based threat in the region as much as it faces from India and this policy maybe directed at India. A rather proactive strategy is also being adopted for outer space security and cyber strategy.

Regarding its nuclear strategy, the paper notes that nuclear force will continue to be the centrepiece of national security and sovereignty. And it will continue to pursue a policy of no-first use.

The greatest emphasis has been laid down on the maritime domain. The paper states, “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.” China has actively studied the role of sea-lanes and their independence in securing a strong domestic front, both from history and United States dominance of open seas. ”Far Seas” concept would see a rise in offensive capabilities of the PLAN centred on aircraft carriers.

Days of Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “keeping a low profile” are over. The military strategy paper clearly demonstrates China’s changing priorities and strategies. A blue water navy is surely up on the cards.

Even though the primary focus of the white paper is power projection in the Pacific sector, PLAN is bound to enter into the Indian Ocean.

India, does not feature prominently in the white paper, apart from obscure references, such as “Some external countries are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs“, in an apparent reference to India’s deal with Vietnam for oil exploration in South China Sea. Implications of the white paper for India are that the land border is not as much a focus for China as the maritime domain is.

India should expect greater involvement of the PLAN in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), on the pretext of anti-piracy operations and naval exercises. As the Maritime Silk Road gets momentum, China will be actively be involved in protecting its interests in the region. China will also expand its capabilities to protect SLOC’s passing through Malacca Straits. Stand-offs in the regions could be expected.

India, has clearly not appreciated China’s involvement in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Selling of 2 diesel submarines to Bangladesh again questions China’s true intention in the region. The paper talks about fostering peace and development in the region, however its actions prove otherwise.

As a response, greater cooperation with the Australian and other regional powers is necessary for India. Furthermore, India should also deepen its relationships with its friends in the South China Sea. India’s 5-year defence agreement with Vietnam is likely to ruffle some Chinese feathers, and will surely see some counter action in coming days.

Piyush Singh is a Junior Research Associate with the Takshashila Institution. Piyush is a student of law at the Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur. He is on twitter as @PiyushS7