The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Parsing China’s Defense White Paper

May 28, 2013

On April 16, 2013, the Japanese government lodged a protest with Beijing over a statement in China’s white paper on defense, released earlier that day. The problematic passage, as translated by the Chinese government, reads, “On the issues concerning China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, some neighboring countries are taking actions that complicate or exacerbate the situation, and Japan is making trouble over the issue of the Diaoyu [i.e., Senkaku] Islands.” [1] The statement appears in Section I, “New Situation, New Challenges, and New Mission,” in the midst of a long passage enumerating the challenges facing China’s security apparatus.

Noting that this is the first time a Chinese defense white paper has referred to Japan by name, many observers in Japan concluded—based on this sentence—that Beijing is doubling down on its hard-line, anti-Japanese stance. To really understand China’s intentions, however, we need to consider the statement in the context of the white paper as a whole, while considering the document in relation to previous reports. In the following I attempt to provide such perspective via a brief overview of the latest defense white paper.

New Thematic Organization

China’s white papers on defense, issued every two years, have been marked by regularity, but the edition released in April 2013 represents a departure in some respects. Titled “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces,” it is the first Chinese defense white paper organized around a specific theme, as Xinhua pointed out in its news coverage. [2]

A comparison of the table of contents of the document with that of previous white papers clarifies the change in organization. Until this year, the main body of the paper invariably began with a section titled “Security Situation,” followed by a second section titled “National Defense Policy.” The third section dealt with the status of the People’s Liberation Army and directions for growth or change, and its title varied according to the trends and concerns of the moment. For example, in 2004, Part III was titled “Revolution in Military Affairs with Chinese Characteristics,” reflecting the interest in RMA within the Chinese military. Next came sections on the organization of the armed service system, national defense mobilization, defense science and technology, defense expenditures, and security cooperation.

In the new white paper, Section I, “New Situation, New Challenges, and New Missions,” covers the content previously divided between the first two sections (Security Situation, National Defense Policy), while Section II, “Building and Development of China’s Armed Forces,” discusses the branches of the PLA and their makeup. This is followed by Section III, “Defending National Sovereignty, Security, and Territorial Integrity”; Section IV, “Supporting National Economic and Social Development”; and Section V, “Safeguarding World Peace and Regional Stability.” Sections III through V, in short, concern themselves with various aspects of the PLA’s mission and function.

Perception of the Security Situation

Section I (New Situation, New Challenges, and New Missions) articulates Beijing’s perception of the current security situation, as well as the basic policies and principles governing the use of its armed forces. Warning of new potential for instability, paragraph 1 concludes with this statement: “The Asia-Pacific region has become an increasingly significant stage for world economic development and strategic interaction between major powers. The US is adjusting its Asia-Pacific security strategy, and the regional landscape is undergoing profound changes.” In short, China perceives troubling changes in its security environment as a result of the strategic rebalance to Asia announced by the Barack Obama administration.

The second paragraph in Section I elaborates on the challenges and threats of this changing security situation. After observing that a “certain country” ( you de guo jia ) has “strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser,” it notes further that “some countries” ( yi bu guo jia ) in the immediate region are making the situation worse. The “certain country” is clearly the United States, and the “some countries” obviously includes Japan, which is explicitly criticized in the second part of the sentence for “making trouble over the issue of the Diaoyu Islands.” Taken as a whole, the passage strongly implies that the United States has created a tense situation, in the midst of which Japan is beginning to cause trouble. In short, China regards the United States, not Japan, as its main security problem. The specific reference to Japan sends a message that when it comes to the Senkaku Islands, Beijing refuses to gloss over its dispute with the Japanese government.

The section on new security challenges also makes mention of “threats posed by ‘three forces,’ namely, terrorism, separatism and extremism.” The fact that the report refrains from specifying Tibet, the Uygurs of Xinjiang, or other domestic movements in connection with separatism—even while criticizing the “‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces,” as in the past—no doubt reflects a deliberate decision to avoid controversy. Meanwhile, “serious natural disasters, security accidents, and public health incidents” have been added to the list of security challenges.

In the remaining paragraphs of Section I, the white paper articulates a doctrine for dealing with these challenges, predicated on a basic policy of “diversified employment of China’s armed forces” and guided by five principles.

Principles Governing Military Action

The first of these principles is “Safeguarding national sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity and supporting the country’s peaceful development.” In the explanatory text, the report makes it clear that defending the nation and its territory from security threats is “the goal of China’s efforts in strengthening its national defense and the sacred mission of its armed forces, as stipulated in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China and other relevant laws.” Maintaining the traditional emphasis on a “military strategy of active defense,” this year’s white paper differs in that it makes special mention of maritime rights, outer space, and cyberspace as areas of national defense, echoing the Pentagon’s designation of outer space and cyberspace as the fourth and fifth domains of warfare, respectively. Cyber warfare appears to be an issue of particular concern to the Chinese.

Here, we also encounter the assertion, “We will not attack unless we are attacked; but we will surely counterattack if attacked” ( Ren bu fan wo, wo bu fan ren, ren ruo fan wo, wo bi fan ren ). In Japan, some have taken this as a stern warning regarding the Senkaku Islands, but the use of this expression is nothing new for the Chinese; indeed, its earliest official use appears to be a 1939 statement by Mao Zedong aimed at the Kuomintang. [3] ( The Chinese online encyclopedia Baidu Baike traces the expression all the way back to Cao Cao [155–220] of the Eastern Han dynasty.) When Mao used it, he was issuing a warning against a preemptive strike, but in the years since then, it has become a fairly common slogan conveying the notion that anyone who attacks China will pay the ultimate price. In the latest white paper, it appears in quotation marks, followed immediately by the explanatory comment, “China will resolutely take all necessary measures to safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” In short, the phrase expresses China’s determination to defend its sovereignty and its territory—which, as Beijing sees it, includes the Senkakus.

The second principle is “Aiming to win local wars under the conditions of informationization and expanding and intensifying military preparedness.” This is a new emphasis, reflecting a genuine alarm in official circles that war could break out in the not-too-distant future and indicating that the phase of “construction of the nation’s armed forces” is giving way to a focus on combat readiness and unified action in response to real-life conflicts.

The third principle, dealing with “the concept of comprehensive security and effectively conducting military operations other than war (MOOTW),” follows essentially the same formula put forth in previous white papers.

Principle number four is “Deepening security cooperation and fulfilling international obligations,” ideas Beijing has begun to emphasize in recent years.

Chinese destroyer Haikou © Middleburgh
Chinese destroyer Haikou © Middleburgh

Finally, the fifth principle is “Acting in accordance with laws, policies and disciplines.” While echoing the policy of “action in accordance with the law” adopted by Hu Jintao’s regime, the latest white paper focuses more sharply on compliance with international law, asserting that China’s armed forces “consistently operate within the legal framework formed by bilateral or multilateral treaties and agreements” on the basis of “the UN Charter and other universally recognized norms of international relations.” This new emphasis most likely stems from an awareness of widespread concern over recent actions by the Chinese Navy in the East and South China Seas.

New Transparency?

One of the ways in which in the new defense white paper differs from its predecessors is the specificity of the information it provides on China’s military forces (Section II, Building and Development of China’s Armed Forces). In its report on the white paper, Xinhua claims that it provides a new level of transparency by identifying each of the PLA’s 18 “combined corps” and revealing the number of personnel in the PLA Army, Navy, and Air Force, along with a description of the missiles in the arsenal of the PLA Second Artillery Force. The charts provided by Xinhua, while scarcely a model of accuracy, do provide an overall picture of the deployment of the PLA’s units for the first time. (Xinhua’s reporting on the defense white paper can be taken as the Chinese government’s official commentary on the document.)

Up to this point, China had indicated only that its divisions and brigades were divided among seven area commands, without identifying the units or clarifying their makeup in any way. Section II of the white paper does give personnel numbers for the Army, Navy, and Air Force “combined corps” for the first time, but the numbers do not include the personnel strength of the Second Artillery Force or the Chinese Armed Police Force. The CAPF is the corps responsible for cracking down on internal subversive elements, and it is believed to have swollen in size and power since the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989. It may well be that the government prefers not to advertise the scale of a force dedicated to quelling domestic unrest by force.

Moreover, Xinhua’s claim that the white paper identifies the missiles in the Second Artillery Force arsenal is greatly overstated. Section II states merely that “the PLASAF . . . has a series of ‘Dong Feng’ ballistic missiles and ‘Chang Jian’ cruise missiles.” Any move to extend the principle of transparency to the precise names and numbers of China’s missiles would doubtless have met with stiff opposition from hard-line elements in the military and the party.

Maritime Rights and Interests

Where the remainder of the document is concerned, the main focus of concern in Japan has been those passages dealing with “maritime rights and interests” and “overseas interests.” Under the heading “Safeguarding Maritime Rights and Interests,” the white paper highlights efforts to boost cooperation between the Navy and various law-enforcement organs, citing the “Donghai Collaboration 2012” joint exercises held in the East China Sea in October 2012. Under “Protecting Overseas Interests,” it stresses the PLA’s role in safeguarding Chinese economic activity around the world, including its anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off Somalia and its mass evacuation of Chinese nationals from Libya.

Interestingly, the sub-section on “Safeguarding Maritime Rights and Interests,” which has received so much attention in Japan in relation to the Senkaku dispute, is found not under Section III, “Defending National Sovereignty, Security and Territorial Integrity,” but under Section IV, “Supporting National Economic and Social Development.” This serves as a reminder that China regards the matter of maritime rights and interests in the East China Sea as more than a territorial issue. This was apparent also in the Report on the Work of Government that outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao submitted to the National People’s Congress in March, which mentions the need to safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests in an economic and environmental context, unrelated to security. [4]

A Need for Restraint

With a few exceptions, China’s latest defense white paper falls short of Xinhua’s claims regarding transparency and specificity, but it does reveal an effort to move in that direction. Despite the addition of more specific data, this year’s white paper is shorter than previous ones, a result, it would seem, of the new thematic approach trumpeted in Xinhua’s coverage.

The white paper is also marked by a new consciousness of the role of the PLA within the international community. While conveying a strong commitment to defend the nation’s sovereignty and territory, it stresses compliance with international law, norms, and treaties, which would seem to preclude a nuclear first strike or any other act of unilateral aggression. [5]

That said, governments frequently disagree on the line between defensive and preemptive action. China’s latest defense white paper betrays a deep concern over the consequences of America’s rebalance to Asia, and given the report’s specific mention of Japan in relation to the Senkaku Islands, the prospects for an end to the current standoff in the East China Sea seem dim. In such a tense security environment, it is crucial for all sides to exercise the utmost restraint and react calmly to each situation, so as to avert misunderstandings and clashes that might escalate into war.

1. See ; for Chinese, see

2. (Chinese)

3. See (Chinese)

4. See

5. Some analysts in Japan have highlighted the omission of language concerning “no first use” of nuclear weapons, warning that it signals a change in policy.

    • Research Fellow
    • Bonji Ohara
    • Bonji Ohara

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