One of the perennial problems of international relations is how to assess what an adversary will do next. Do you look at past behaviour, the types of weapons they’re buying, their leaders, or something else? We have a reasonable idea of China’s order of battle — its ships, missiles and satellites. But American satellites can’t tell us what China plans to do with these. So what does one do when a rival simply declares its plans and publishes them on its website — dismiss it as artful misdirection, or accept the threats and assurances at face value?
Last month, China published the latest in its series of defence white papers, on military strategy, given added piquancy by tensions in the South China Sea. Beijing has perfected the subtle combination of tedium, platitude and self-assurance that is the hallmark of all such documents. One finds the usual affirmations of international bonhomie, half-baked sociology and the earnest repudiation of “power politics”. Beneath the bromides, however, are important messages.
The white paper sets out a broader, more assured and active view of China’s place in the world. It acknowledges “the growth of China’s national interests”, naming “overseas interests” — energy, sea-lane security and Chinese personnel abroad — as an “imminent issue”. Indeed, as China scholar Andrew Erickson notes, this is the first time a Chinese defence white paper has omitted mention of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, the Panchsheel forged in the prelapsarian days of Sino-Indian friendship, perhaps suggesting that cracks are appearing in the doctrine of non-interference. Equally important, the white paper declares an unabashed turn to the sea, conceding that “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned”, and promising that the PLA’s so-called “preparation for military struggle” will now be focused on “maritime military struggle”. Taken with farther-flung interests, this translates into a commitment to shift from “offshore waters defence” to “open seas protection” — in other words, power projection well away from China’s shores.
Nothing here will shock China-watchers. China’s growing concerns about energy security have been obvious in its diplomacy with Pakistan and the development of alternative overland routes. China’s maritime turn is equally plain, evident in long-range anti-piracy missions and a rapidly modernising fleet, with a second aircraft carrier confirmed three months ago. But the paper’s significance lies in the fact that China’s leadership, rather than playing down its strength, emphasising local and traditional missions, as well as assuaging other Asian powers, is baldly embracing the notion of a China that is both able and willing to throw its weight around — and doing so at a time of heightened tensions in the South China Sea. The paper gives us confidence that present trends in China’s defence procurement and posture will continue.
India goes unmentioned in the paper, reflecting its marginal role in Chinese defence thinking, but there are nevertheless a few important lessons. The first is that it cannot assume China will be tied down in local waters for years to come. While China is honing its so-called anti-access area denial (A2/AD) capabilities to deter US intervention, it will, at the same time, accelerate its forays into those “open seas”. The appearance of Chinese submarines in Sri Lanka last year, their months-long deployments to the Gulf of Aden, and China’s discussions with Djibouti over a permanent base are indications of what will be a long-term challenge in the Indian Ocean, one with the potential to constrain India’s own power projection. If Indian anti-submarine warfare capabilities don’t advance, this could be a crippling weakness.
Second, China is demonstrating that it understands the changing demands of modern warfare. Two things stand out. One is the emphasis on jointness, which refers to how well different branches of the military can work in concert. While it would be foolish to take Chinese professions of reform at face value, it is clear India is not doing enough in this regard. The other is the focus on “informatisation” of war, which refers to the way in which battlefield information flows through a military and is denied to an enemy. It would be wrong to suggest that India has made no progress here, but its public debate on military affairs tends to focus on bean-counting (the number of fighter squadrons) at the expense of the technology that fuses these together.
Third, white papers matter. They allow a state to craft its signals carefully, rather than have them trickle out in ad hoc briefings or sporadic bilateral communiqués. For instance, India’s Act East policy has emerged piecemeal in separate joint statements with the US, Japan, Australia and others. Collecting and cohering these messages can bring clarity for friends and adversaries alike. My understanding is that the ministry of external affairs is indeed preparing a white paper on foreign policy, to be released at the end of this year. This will be a significant moment in India’s recent foreign policy. It would be even better if the ministry of defence followed suit.
The writer is senior research fellow, Royal United Services Institute, UK
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