In defence of China

Published : Jan 28, 2005 00:00 IST

A Chinese White Paper on national defence, which emphasises "peaceful development", comes down on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and support for Taiwan's endeavours to create and maintain a political identity distinct from that of mainland China.

in Singapore

CHINA'S leaders have alerted the international community to the grimness of the political situation vis-a-vis the non-sovereign territory of Taiwan while reaffirming Beijing's policy of "peaceful development". In spirit this policy, spelt out in the White Paper on "China's National Defence in 2004", is of a piece with the country's earlier affirmations about its "peaceful ascendance" on the wider international stage.

The White Paper, issued on December 27, is the fifth in a series of documents, since 1995, on the state of Beijing's military profile in the context of the international strategic environment. The most important aspects of the new document, as perceived by the international community, relate to the strategic bottom line on Taiwan and the moves to infuse its own "revolution in military affairs" (RMA) with definitive "Chinese characteristics".

Of these two themes, Taiwan is of particular concern to not only Beijing but also the United States, which is seen to be solidly behind the Taiwanese authorities in their endeavours to create and maintain a political identity distinct from that of mainland China. China's RMA, defence spending and the like are not of direct concern on the same scale as the Taiwan question for the major international players.

Emphasising that China's strategic policy is entirely "defensive in nature", the White Paper sets out five "basic goals and tasks in maintaining national security". Topping the list is the goal "to stop separation and promote reunification" - a transparent reference to the aim of preventing Taiwan from declaring "independence" and, more importantly, ensuring its "reunification" with mainland China. Three other goals set out in what Asia-Pacific diplomatic circles regard as China's most transparent Defence White Paper to date are "to safeguard the interests of national development; to modernise China's national defence; and to safeguard the political, economic and cultural rights and interests of the Chinese people".

The last but not the least goal is "to pursue an independent foreign policy of peace and adhere to the new security concept featuring mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination" among all countries "with a view to securing a long-term and favourable international and surrounding environment" insofar as Beijing's position in the global order is concerned.

"China's national security environment in this pluralistic, diversified and interdependent world has, on the whole, improved, but new challenges keep cropping up." The White Paper is candid about the specifics of these "new challenges": "The vicious rise of the `Taiwan independence' forces, the technological gap resulting from RMA, the risks and challenges caused by the development of trends towards economic globalisation, and the prolonged existence of unipolarity vis-a-vis multipolarity - all these will have a major impact on China's security."

To address these factors, China seeks multipolarity by opposing Washington's tendency, as the sole superpower, to act unilaterally on several international issues. China is often seen by its critics as opposing Washington's unipolarity in as prudent a manner as possible in any situation, such as the current volatility in U.S.-occupied Iraq.

However, Beijing does reassure other countries repeatedly of its policy of not seeking hegemonism and expansionism. The new White Paper, too, is emphatic in spelling out that China poses "no obstacle or threat to anyone".

The policy of "peaceful development", articulated by Beijing in an emphatic fashion for some time now, has increasingly come to occupy as much prominence as the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence in China's foreign and defence policies.

Beijing has also sought to address, in multilateral fora as also on an individualistic basis, the "risks and challenges" caused by economic globalisation trends. Faced with an RMA-related technological gap between itself and some other major powers, most notably the U.S., China has expressed its determination to narrow down and eliminate the distance. The White Paper says that "the PLA (the People's Liberation Army), aiming at building an informationalised force and winning an informationalised war, deepens its reform, dedicates itself to innovation, improves its quality and actively pushes forward the RMA with Chinese characteristics, with informationalisation at the core".

Given this objective, China is planning a further reduction of its military personnel by 0.2 million, on top of the two cutbacks involving 1.50 million personnel since the mid-1980s, by the end of 2005, when the overall size of the PLA would be a slim 2.3 million (as against a total population of over 1.3 billion). The central objective here is to right-size the PLA for a vigorous RMA endeavour.

Coping with the related issue of defence expenditure, China points out that its spending of the order of $22.98 billion in 2003 should be seen against the country's gross domestic product (GDP) of $1.412 trillion in that year. This reflects a mark-up from the defence expenditure of $20.57 billion in 2002 when the GDP base was $1.267 trillion. However, China's defence spending in 2003 was just 5.69 per cent of the U.S. military budget.

In facing these challenges as also the critical Taiwan question, China has had to reckon with increasingly "complicated security factors in the Asia-Pacific region" or Beijing's immediate geopolitical neighbourhood. Amplifying these complications, the White Paper sketches out as follows: "The United States is realigning and reinforcing its military presence in this region by buttressing military alliances and accelerating deployment of missile defence systems."

A regional power of some serious concern to China is Japan, not Russia or India. The White Paper notes: "Japan is stepping up its constitutional overhaul, adjusting its military and security policies and developing the missile defence system for future deployment." Japan "has also markedly increased military activities abroad" - a refence to Tokyo's deployment of Self-Defence Force units in Iraq, on a humanitarian mission but in aid of the U.S. forces there.

In addition, "the foundation of the six-party talks is not solid enough, as uncertain factors linger in the settlement of the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula". China has hosted three rounds of the six-party parleys so far.

The White Paper also identifies non-conventional threats, including terrorism and piracy, as prime concerns. Overall, though, what matters much more to China is its equations with the other five countries within the six-party framework - the U.S., Russia, Japan, South Korea and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. China has developed a good deal of strategic rapport with Russia in recent years, bilaterally and under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

Beijing's relations with New Delhi suffered in the immediate context of India's nuclear weapons tests in 1998, especially as the then Indian leaders cited China as a key factor in the rationale for the Pokhran-II detonations. However, China's ties with India have begun to look up as a result of conscious diplomacy on both sides.

While China's equation with the U.S., too, has acquired a qualitatively new tone of constructive and cooperative engagement, especially after the terrorist blitzkrieg of September 11, 2001, Beijing is acutely aware of the games that Washington plays in regard to the Taiwan issue - a point that has been emphasised abundantly in the White Paper.

Robert L. Suettinger, a former American intelligence `insider' who has explored the politics of U.S.-China relations under the auspices of the Brookings Institution, concluded that "there has been an important improvement in the tone and content of the official relationship" since September 11, 2001. However, "one does not discern a sense of permanence about the change". Indeed, "it does not seem to be grounded in a genuine strategic or political meeting of the minds".

This view is, in a sense, reflected in the White Paper, which comes down heavily on Washington's continuous arms sales to Taiwan, reflective of both "qualitative" and "quantitative" increases. China has pointed out that the U.S. behaviour does not meet Washington's own frequent commitments to adhere to a "one-China policy" and "oppose" the idea of "independence" for Taiwan. So, the strategic equation between the U.S. and China is still in the making, as the two wish to triumph over their distinctive challenges of the 21st century.

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