What’s ‘New’ in China’s New National Defence White Paper 2019?

Prerna Chahar
August 18, 2019
Image Courtesy: Strait Times

After four years gap, on 24 July 2019, the Chinese Defence Ministry in Beijing published its White Paper titled “China’s National Defence in the New Era”, highlighting various aspects of its defense and security objectives. It outlines defense policy goals, reforms, tasks, and role of the armed forces that is being undertaken by the People Republic of China’s for a “New Era”. This “new era”, as referred by China, depicts the changing international security environment, which is being diluted by “growing hegemonism, power politics and unilateralism and constant regional conflicts and wars”. What does the new White Paper indicate and what it means for India and the Indo-Pacific region at large?

The ‘Swing’ in Strategies

The US and China today poses an open strategic and economic challenge to each other. Their ongoing trade truce depicts the shift from the concept of “New Type of Great Power Relations”, which outlined the three-pronged strategy of ‘mutual respect, mutual cooperation and no confrontation’ during the meeting of President Barack Obama and Xi Jinping in 2013. Since then, both the countries did not quite get along well with this new concept and appeared to be at loggerheads on several economic and strategic fronts (including trade, South China Sea dispute, Taiwan, etc.). The new White Paper while referring to United States policies as the biggest threat to the international community states, “the US had not only adopted unilateral policies but had provoked and intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defense expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defense and undermined global strategic stability”. The US approach to China has not been any different. The US National Security Strategy (NSS) report of 2017 and the National Defence Strategy (NDS) of 2018, labeled China as “revisionist power”. Both these stands in the official documents of the two major Indo-pacific powers signals the massive realistic shift from ‘cooperation’ to ‘competition’.

Indo-Pacific: ‘Generally Stable’ Region

Beijing observes that despite strategic ‘Great-Power’ competition, “the configuration of strategic power is becoming more balanced” due to the economic growth and opportunities, the strengthening of the existing regional security frameworks, the emergence of new partnerships between the like-minded countries, counter-terror action, investment and technological upgrades witnessed among the developing countries of the region. Apart from rebuking American policies for “strengthening its Asia-Pacific military alliances and reinforcing military deployment and intervention” and “conflicts between India and Pakistan flare up from time to time”, Beijing interestingly appears confident. It views the region as “generally stable”, as member countries who are aware of their ‘shared identities’, are capable of solving challenges and differences through multiple regional frameworks and diplomacy. Indirectly, China seems to be hinting at the inevitable importance and constructive role played by constituents of the China-led regional security architecture including Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), BRICS, China-ASEAN Maritime Exercise-2018, etc.

India’s Dilemma

Apart from Washington, the document has been extensively analyzed by experts in India. Besides one specific mention of India on Doklam standoff, the paper mostly makes reference to India on a benign note. The statement on the Doklam issue that “the PLA will take effective measures to create favorable conditions for the peaceful resolution of the Dokhlam (Doklam) standoff” hints that the dust over Doklam issue has not yet settled. Whether it should raise the alarm or make India unfazed will be known in days to come, but India after the informal Wuhan Summit of 2018 did well to keep China off the hook. The informal meeting between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, did best to recalibrate US-China ties during the summit.

Furthermore, in the past couple of months, India has taken an ambiguous position on the issues like denying to send officials to meet the protestors in Hong Kong, remained relatively mute on the issue of South China Sea and dismissing claims over selling Brahmos missile to Vietnam. India has always supported the principles of “freedom of navigation and of overflight” in the Indo-Pacific region. However, during the Quad meeting in May 2018, India did not make any reference to these principles. During the event, Minister of External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar remarked “the Indo-Pacific is for something, not against somebody” which reflected India’s vision of inclusive Indo-Pacific, as also outlined by PM Modi, during the trilateral meeting of ‘Japan-America-India’ (JAI) in 2018. So far, India has intended l to keep these sensitive issues at an arm’s length and avoided irking Beijing.

In sum, the message of  China’s new defense White Paper is amply clear; first, the ‘organizational restructuring’ of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or critical reforms in the armed forces is fundamentally undertaken with the objective to protect Beijing’s overseas interests; second, China remains undeterred by the American ‘hegemonist, protectionist, unilateral’ approach and represent a formidable challenge to the US in the wake of its growing military influence in the Indo-Pacific region; and lastly, New Delhi should read the new White Paper through the prism of safeguarding its own national interests, both regionally and globally to avoid being the new “yam between the two boulders”, i.e., the US and China.

*** The author is a Doctoral Scholar, Centre for Canadian, U.S. & Latin American Studies (CCUS&LAS), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi ***