Putting defense in perspective

(China Daily)
Updated: 2007-01-05 07:16

On December 29, as I was preparing to enjoy the New Year weekend, Beijing issued its latest defense White Paper. Instead of engaging in the usual festivities, I found myself downloading the report, comparing it with past versions, and scrambling to arrange a seminar at my institute to discuss it.

But I shouldn't complain. It is still a source of amazement to those who study Chinese security affairs that Beijing issues these White Papers at all. Few topics in China remain as sensitive as those on security. So the good news is there are People's Republic of China defense White Papers to analyze, compare, and to argue about. Can it be that transparency is on the march?

Yes or no, depending upon whom one speaks to; but with the publication of this fifth version the habit of issuing such papers seems to have taken root, and that's a good thing.

Because China does not issue a national security strategy, as does the United States, these defense White Papers serve as vehicles to pronounce China's views on a wide range of geo-strategic security issues.

In addition to military matters, these documents address Beijing's perceptions of international and regional security affairs and offer assessments of China's security situation. In retrospect, then, each edition has been a child of its times and each can be given a thematic name.

1998: The "Dbut" Edition. This first edition was likely driven by the perceived need to counter what was termed the "China threat theory" developing in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, especially concerns in Southeast Asia about China's growing power. Prior to 1998 China issued no public document addressing defense policies, so the very act of issuing a defense White Paper was part of the message "We are becoming more transparent" and "don't worry about China".

2000: The "Calm the Worries but Stay Vigilant" Edition. The 2000 version came on the heels of a major domestic debate in 1999 in which concerns were raised about the prospects for China's security in the aftermath of a series of international events such as the errant bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, events in Kosovo and beyond.

Therefore, this iteration had an important message for the Chinese people: that "peace and development" was still the keynote of the times and that China was under no imminent threat of war, but that the PRC must remain vigilant. External messages went to the United States as well as Taiwan. In this edition rising Chinese concerns about the allegedly destabilizing impact of US "hegemonism" and "power politics" were underscored. This edition was also notable for its dire assessment that "The Taiwan Straits situation is complicated and grim" reflecting worries raised by former Taiwan "President" Lee Teng-hui's "two-state theory" (1999).

2002: The "Don't Rock the Boat" Edition. This edition came after the events of September 11, the 16th Party Congress, and a leadership transition. This was also a period during which US-China relations were beginning to slowly recover from a downturn that reached a nadir with the EP-3 incident (when a Chinese jet pilot collided with a US Navy EP-3 surveillance plane over international airspace. The Chinese pilot died in the crash and the damaged US plane was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island, where the crew was held until the United States apologized).

By 2003 Chinese analysts assessed that the United States had put China on the back burner as "America's new enemy" because Washington, they asserted, was now forced to focus on the war against terrorism.

This version, therefore, was the "Don't Rock the Boat" Edition. Compared with 2000, it was a fairly toned-down document as far as judgments on US policies were concerned. It was also a document that highlighted China's cooperation in international security regimes, and the rhetoric on Taiwan was ratcheted down.

2004: The "Taiwan-Centric" Edition. If there was any single issue that was likely driving the 2004 version it was the heightened concern over Taiwan, especially the policy predilections of Tawian "President" Chen Shui-bian. The clarity of the paper's statements on the Taiwan issue made this obvious.

Some scholars have argued that by carefully laying out the objectives and progress of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) modernization programs, the 2004 White Paper could itself be viewed as an act of deterrence aimed at Taiwan.

What of the 2006 edition? Some analysts will focus on the section on nuclear strategy to determine whether this is new or merely a reiteration of past policies. On defense modernization, the 2004 and 2006 versions, read together, provide an excellent overview of key military modernization objectives.

But many will wonder why these increasingly informative sections remain bereft of basic data such as the number of personnel in each of the services. As for regional security, analysts on my side of the Pacific will note that the biggest security event in Asia since the last White Paper a nuclear Democratic People's Republic of Korea is listed fourth after concerns about the United States and Japan.

But what thematic title shall we give this latest iteration? I am inclined toward titling it the "Globalization Is a Two-Edged Sword" Edition.

Why? The paper asserts that China's "overall national strength has considerably increased, as has its international standing and influence", and that "Never before has China been so closely bound up with the rest of the world as it is today." At the same time we are told that "The growing interconnections between domestic and international factors and interconnected traditional and non-traditional factors have made maintaining national security a more challenging task."

The paper lists "energy, resources, finance, information, and international shipping routes" as new security issues. But not all of these are defense or military issues per say, and these judgments beg larger questions about how best to assure China's security beyond military modernization. Can it be that the series "China's National Defense" can no longer serve double duty and that a national security strategy-like document is now called for? I'll leave that for the PRC government to answer.

I welcome each edition of this document. Even if some of the judgments are disconcerting, it is better to have these views in the public domain than guessed at. Even if there is still data lacking no one who reads these documents can say they have learned nothing. But next time, please reconsider the timing of the release.

David M. Finkelstein is director of the China Studies Center and Project Asia at the CNA Corporation, a non-profit research institute in Alexandria, Virginia, USA

(China Daily 01/05/2007 page11)

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