China's defense white papers are less revelations of new direction than partial reflections of current trends, carefully crafted for foreign and domestic consumption. No secrets are revealed, and little new ground is broken, but a comprehensive view emerges of just how China would like the world to interpret the evolution of its defense capabilities and actions. In China's latest such paper, released May 26, China is sending a message that it is a big power with international interests and will shoulder international responsibilities, but that unlike other major powers before it (alluding in particular to the United States), China has no hegemonic designs.
The centerpiece of China's strategy is "active defense," which Chinese defense officials contrast with the "proactive" defense policies of other nations (a clear nod to the emerging Japanese defense doctrine, as well as to existing U.S. strategy). In short, China wants — and needs — to take a stronger and more active role in international security. But it also wants to prevent any of its actions from being interpreted as aggressive or imperialistic to avoid the political and security consequences of being seen as an interventionist power.
Among the shifts in China's overall defense strategy, as laid out in the white paper but already clearly underway, are modifications of the primary roles of the various branches of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). In Section IV of the white paper, China elucidates these changing roles:
- The PLA Army "will continue to reorient from theater defense to trans-theater mobility."
- The PLA Navy "will gradually shift its focus from 'offshore waters defense' to the combination of 'offshore waters defense' and 'open seas protection.'"
- The PLA Air Force "will endeavor to shift its focus from territorial air defense to both defense and offense."
These evolutions match China's expanding strategic interests and reflect the ongoing refocusing of its defense strategy and capability from internal security and territorial integrity to assuring stability in its near abroad and addressing national interests far from China's borders or shores. This international component is summed up in Section I of the white paper:
With the growth of China's national interests, its national security is more vulnerable to international and regional turmoil, terrorism, piracy, serious natural disasters and epidemics, and the security of overseas interests concerning energy and resources, strategic sea lines of communication (SLOCs), as well as institutions, personnel and assets abroad, has become an imminent issue.
The latter half of this quote may highlight the biggest challenge to China's overall foreign policy. Just the assertion of the importance of Chinese interests abroad — shaped by natural resources, transport corridors, personnel and business operations in other countries — places China on a path of likely intervention that follows the United States and other imperial powers (whether intentionally imperial or otherwise) before it. If China is going to protect its physical interests and assets abroad, including its supplies of raw materials and its manufacturing and market bases, it will be forced to choose sides in political and security issues.
The Necessity of Choosing Sides
A shift in internal political alignment, a rising labor movement, the expansion of a militant organization or a change in international relations can all affect the stability and security of Chinese investments, access to raw materials, and the safety and security of Chinese personnel and assets abroad. In recent years, China has experienced these vulnerabilities firsthand, sometimes because of general trends (needing to pull its citizens out of Yemen, for example). At other times, it has been more directly related to Chinese activities (for instance, protests and actions against Chinese business operations in East Africa). China has already begun to face a stream of local accusations of economic imperialism in Africa, for example, and concerns are being raised about China's expanding economic activities in Latin America. Add in a more active military role, and Beijing will find it increasingly hard to convince other countries or populations that it remains both politically neutral and capable of protecting its interests.
China wants — and needs — to take a stronger and more active role in international security. But it also wants to prevent any of its actions from being interpreted as aggressive or imperialistic to avoid the political and security consequences of being seen as an interventionist power.
An article written by the chief editor of the Sudanese newspaper Al-Ayyam on May 25, timed to nearly coincide with the release of the Chinese defense white paper, highlights this growing challenge for Beijing. Discussing the situation in South Sudan and China's supply of arms to the South Sudanese government, the commentary notes that the situation on the ground is forcing China to take sides and ease away from its noninterference policies, if it truly does want to ensure its own interests. The author then asserts, "China is now speaking the same language as the United States and the West on the South Sudan conflict." This is exactly the image China is trying so hard to deflect, but the reality is that protecting national interests requires choosing sides. And Beijing is finding it increasingly hard to follow its professed noninterference policy — or even its less overt tactic of funding and maintaining political ties with both sides of internal conflicts to ensure it has friends no matter which side wins.
In Africa, Southeast Asia (particularly Myanmar), Central Asia and beyond, Chinese officials face difficult decisions that test the noninterference policies every day. Adhering to noninterference could mean a loss of national interests, of access to strategic commodities, or of ease of passage for goods and services. Violating noninterference presents its own risks, as countries and populations see Chinese actions as more and more selfish and less and less about simply sharing with all in the great rise of the developing nations and the global south. China's clear shift to a more active international defense role shows just how much its thinking and recognition of this change in international relations is a reality. Why develop the ability to intervene to protect Chinese interests abroad if these interests are not threatened and if their status can be resolved through noninterfering political dialogue?
This is not to say that China is about to become the next global policeman, or that Chinese forces will begin deploying around the world on unilateral missions to protect Chinese factories. But the change in defense strategy is tied closely to evolutions in political strategy, and "active defense" to protect "the security of overseas interests" will frequently require choosing a side in internal and regional competitions and conflicts. One of the requirements of a major world power is that it must deal with these sorts of complications and contradictions; it is the cost of an expanded global reach and growing global dependencies.
The Risks of Empire
There is the additional risk that, as China's capabilities increase, countries will attempt to pull China into local or regional conflicts or confrontations to support their own positions. The United States finds itself regularly at the receiving end of requests for military assistance or intervention. And to maintain economic or diplomatic relations, the United States at times finds itself involved in conflicts that are of only tangential interest. For countries with the capability and the need to maintain certain levels of political relations to ensure their economic interests, it can be difficult to avoid being drawn in by third-party interests. Countries and interest groups may seek to exploit China's national interests to compel direct Chinese involvement in issues and cases where Beijing would prefer to remain somewhat distant. The more capability China develops and demonstrates, the more likely it is that weaker states or groups within states will attempt to leverage Chinese power for their own interests.
The more capability China develops and demonstrates, the more likely it is that weaker states or groups within states will attempt to leverage Chinese power for their own interests.
The United States, which China is always alluding to when it mentions hegemonic powers, did not seek to become a global empire and did not intend to be an interventionist power. U.S. policy was frequently espoused as noninterventionist, particularly in the 1800s as the United States emerged from a backwater nation in virgin lands to a globally active economic and military power at the end of the century. Yet as U.S. business interests expanded abroad, the U.S. Navy became a default tool of forcing changes in local behavior to ensure American economic access and security. The United States' claims of anti-imperialism during the same period stemmed from both a political will to avoid following the United Kingdom's path and a recognition of the weakness of the U.S. position abroad compared with the existing imperial European powers. Anti-imperialism was a tool to allow the United States to gain economic and security benefits at minimal cost and lower risk. As China continues its emergence from a regional to a global power, it is encountering similar compulsions and constraints and the contradictions that power and expanding global interests bring to professed ideological and anti-imperial non-hegemonic regimes.
Lead Analyst: Rodger Baker