China’s new defence white paper, the first since 2015, has made headlines abroad for its unusually blunt language on its strategic competition with the United States. In India, attention was predictably fixed on the lone reference to the boundary question. But beyond the headlines, the People’s Liberation Army white paper merits closer reading.
Even as many observers in India remain focused on the situation on the land boundary, what comes out in the white paper is the growing salience of the maritime domain, where China’s rapid construction of a blue-water navy has widened the gap with India.
The white paper says China was keen to promote stability with India with “effective measures” to ensure “favourable conditions” to resolve the 2017 Doklam stand-off. It does not reflect a new strategy per se, as M. Taylor Fravel, a noted expert on the Chinese military, reminded us. Indeed, the recent paper reiterates the “active defence” mantra of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that was articulated in 2014 and in the previous 2015 white paper. It does, however, shed some light on what the PLA sees as evolving priorities, particularly as it expands its global footprint.
China’s interest beyond its shores
China lags far, far behind the US in projecting power beyond its shores. But over the past decade, it has strengthened its ability to do so in its backyard, particularly in the South China Sea, where it has faced virtually no resistance as it strengthened its control through bases and airstrips it built on artificial islands in disputed waters.
Since 2014, China has launched more warships and submarines than “the entire number of ships in the UK’s fleet”, launching 400,000 tonnes of vessels between 2015 and 2017, twice the output of the US. By 2030, “the Chinese navy could have 530 warships and submarines” in comparison to around 400 today, according to reports.
This expansion comes against the backdrop of China’s growing interests far beyond its shores, and is unlikely to show any signs of easing. That much is clear in the white paper.
The paper’s third part devotes a section to “Protecting China’s Overseas Interests”. In the third paragraph, it rather casually notes the August 2017 opening of what it calls the “PLA Djibouti Support Base”, which was essentially China’s first overseas base and marked a major departure from its long-standing policy of not operating military facilities abroad.
“The base has provided equipment for the maintenance of four escort task groups, offered medical services for over 100 officers and sailors on board, conducted joint medical exercises with foreign militaries, and donated over 600 teaching aids to local schools,” the paper said.
The white paper hints that more bases are likely on the way. It noted: “To address deficiencies in overseas operations and support, it builds far seas forces, develops overseas logistical facilities, and enhances capabilities in accomplishing diversified military tasks.”
Only this week, The Wall Street Journal reported that China had quietly signed a deal with Cambodia for what would likely be its second naval base, to come up in the Gulf of Thailand right in the heart of the Indo-Pacific region. The gulf sits across the Andaman Sea on the other side of the Malay peninsula and astride the strategically significant waters of the Malacca Strait and South China Sea, through which an increasing share of India’s trade passes.
PLA Navy on speed
The white paper also notes the massive reorganisation of the PLA under President Xi Jinping, and the diminishing importance of the PLA Army (PLAA). It notes that “300,000 personnel have been cut to keep the total active force at 2 million”. “The PLA has significantly downsized the active force of the PLAA, maintained that of the PLAAF (Air Force) at a steady number, moderately increased that of the PLAN (Navy) and PLARF (Rocket Force), and optimised the force structures of all services and arms.”
The paper noted that the PLAN “in line with the strategic requirements of near seas defense and far seas protection… is speeding up the transition of its tasks from defense on the near seas to protection missions on the far seas, and improving its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counterattack, maritime maneuver operations, maritime joint operations, comprehensive defense, and integrated support, so as to build a strong and modernized naval force.”
The PLAN, it said, has now “extended training to the far seas” and deployed China’s first “aircraft carrier task group, built around the retrofitted Liaoning, “for its first far seas combat exercise in the West Pacific”. The second aircraft carrier — the first homebuilt one, called Type 001A — is undergoing trials and may be deployed next year, barely five years after construction began in March 2015 and ahead of schedule. The third carrier, Type 002A, which is under construction, will be the largest and, according to analysts, likely deployed in the Indian Ocean.
The white paper reiterated Xi Jinping’s earlier declared mission of building a “world-class military” by 2050. China hasn’t spelled out what that means, although it is widely seen as a reference to the benchmark set by the US. Chinese analysts have previously said China would need six aircraft carriers in the next decade, with two strike groups each for the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean in addition to two for the South and East China Seas.
India constrained by its budget
India’s Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh Thursday acknowledged the increasing resources that the Chinese Navy now commands, as well as the constraints that India’s Navy faces. “Lot of resources have been shifted from other arms to the PLA Navy, obviously in line with their intention to become a global power. We have to watch it carefully and see how we can respond within our budget and the constraints that we have,” he said. “We require long-term fiscal support to build a Navy, that is the only way we can plan. And, this has been my constant refrain.”
But whether that is being heard is another question. Every year, the PLA Army’s share of China’s total defence budget, which this year was hiked by 7.5 per cent to $177 billion, is declining, while that of the PLA Navy is growing. Underlining the challenge India faces, its budget this year was $43 billion – one-third of China’s – although a large chunk was towards pay and allowances, with little left for modernisation, including of the Navy.
The author is a Visiting Fellow at Brookings India and was previously China correspondent for India Today and The Hindu. Views are personal.