“China’s Military Strategy,” released on May 26, 2015, is the 9th Chinese defense white paper since 1998. For the first time, the white paper elaborates comprehensively on the missions and strategic tasks of China’s armed forces in the new political environment and emphasizes the essence of the strategic concept of active defense. There are four critical security domains highlighted in this White Paper: challenges for outer space security; security of strategic SLOCs and overseas interests; maintenance of a minimum nuclear capacity sufficient to meet national security demand; an increased capacity for cyber security.

Four important messages could be read between lines. First, China is aware of the profound changes in the international situation. While a world war is unlikely, China admits that the world still faces both immediate and potential threat of local war. China’s threat perception includes “hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism.” “Border and territorial disputes” are highlighted in the list of hotspot issues. Though not pointing a finger directly at the United States, the white paper shows China’s deep concern about increasing U.S. engagement in the South China Sea, which can be read from its assessment of the national security situation.

The United States is described as carrying on “its ‘rebalancing’ strategy and enhanc[ing] its military presence and its military alliances in this region,” in parallel with “Japan’s effort of dodging the post-war mechanism” and “some offshore neighbors taking provocative actions and reinforce[ing] their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they illegally occupied.” The example of “constant close-in-air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China” is explicitly highlighted in the white paper. China has consistently opposed these activities based on its interpretation of 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the “legitimacy of military activities in foreign countries’ EEZ,” and this is a long standing argument with the United States. The U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft directly flying over a Chinese administered artificial island constructed atop the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea is simply not constructive to the management of the South China Sea dispute, and not helpful for a healthy China-U.S. relations in the maritime domain. Despite the question of the legitimacy under UNCLOS, which is worth debating, activities of this kind have the potential to trigger accidents at sea, like EP-3 incident in 2001. Such incidents are clearly not the interests of China and the United States. A regional mechanism to help avoid accidents is urgently needed. Such a mechanism could be in line with the existing international instruments, such as Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA) or a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES).

Second, “active defense” is the essence of the military strategic thought indicated in the white paper, which boils down to: adherence to the unity of strategic defense and operational and tactical offences; adherence to the principles of defense, self-defense and post-emptive strike”; the basic point of “preparation for military struggle (PMS)” will be placed on “winning informationized local wars, highlighting maritime military struggle and maritime PMS.” The wording of “maritime military struggle and PMS” may catch eyes when it is read in the context of maritime disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. However, another important message could also be revealed from “adherence to the stance that ‘we will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked’.” No one in this region wants to see a breakout of a military conflict near home, even it is small scale, given the interdependence of ASEAN and China. China assures in this White Paper that it will not be the one who “fires the first gun.” China’s concern derives from the potential intervention from the extra-regional states, which may take provocative attempts due to the misperception of each other and miscalculation or assessment of the situation in this region. China hopes to work with ASEAN to solve their differences in the South China Sea in their preferred ways.

Third, the navy will shift its focus to “open seas protection,” rather than “offshore waters defense” alone. In general, the PLA is seeking to shift away from a narrow focus on defense of its territory and near-periphery, toward the ability to defend and secure Chinese national interests farther abroad. For the PLA Navy, that will mean moving from an emphasis on “offshore waters defense” to an equal focus on “offshore waters defense” and “open seas protection.” On the one hand, the PLA Navy is expected to play a bigger role in pursing its maritime interests. On the other hand, China wants to play more of a role in protecting the security of strategic SLOSs and oversea interests, and to participate in international maritime cooperation so as to provide strategic support for building itself into a maritime power.

Fourth, in the field of “preparation for military struggle,” China emphasizes preparing for military operations other than war such as emergency rescue and disaster relief, counter-terrorism and stability maintenance, rights and interests protection, guard duty, international peacekeeping, and international humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. For military and security cooperation, China will endeavor to establish fair and effective collective security mechanisms and military confidence-building measures. This statement is clearly a positive message from this white paper.

About Nong Hong

Dr. Nong HONG heads the Institute for China-America Studies (ICAS), an independent, non-profit academic institution launched by the Hainan Nanhai Research Foundation. She also holds a joint position of research fellow with National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS) and China Institute, University of Alberta (CIUA).