The Future of China's Security Strategy

Hideshi Tokuchi
Senior Fellow
National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies

1. Introduction

A well-known Chinese proverb says, "Two great rivals cannot coexist." Thirty years after the end of the Cold War with the downfall of the Soviet Union, the United States and China are now confronting one another as the world's number one and number two powers in terms of economic power and military expenditures. The former Soviet Union was not an economic threat to the United States, for it had, unlike China, not been deeply involved in the global economy. From today's vantage point, it would have been unnecessary for the United States to "contain" the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, as the current US-China confrontation is often described as a "trade war," China has emerged as a formidable economic competitor for the United States. The US government regards China as a revisionist nation that, along with Russia, attempts to create a world consistent with its own authoritarian model.1 Approaches and methods employed by China are more sophisticated than those by the former Soviet Union, and the "New US-China Cold War" is quite different in nature from the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

This paper is intended to discuss the future of China's security strategy. As long as it discusses the topic based on analyses of the current situation, it is bound to refer to the current US-China relations. Furthermore, since this paper deals with the topic based on analyses made from a perspective of Japan as a US ally, it will not be free from being affected by US views of China.

Therefore, this paper will begin by giving some comments on the US perception of China, then take up China's recent defense white papers to consider China's security strategy, and lastly suggest some remarks on China's military systems.

2.The US Perception of China

(1) History of the open-door and equal opportunity policies

It is almost a habit for the US government to mention The Empress of China's call to the port of Guangdong in 1784, when it recounts the country's long history of its relations with Asia, especially China. For the United States in its early years after Independence, China was not important as a market, because, in the first place, Americans did not have much to export. But Americans learnt in their colonial days from the British that overseas trade and shipping would accumulate national wealth and contribute to the security of a country. They came to believe that independence from Britain would guarantee unrestricted trade. Prior to the start of the agriculture-oriented westward movement, people in the eastern states had cast a long glance beyond the American continent's agricultural zones toward China --- faithful to the ways of the British colonizers. Although The Empress of China episode was not an important one for China, it was meaningful for Americans, especially for people in the port towns of New England.2 This still lies in the background of the US government's repeated references to such early encounters with China in its official publications and statements, e.g. the 1995 US Department of Defense report "United States Security Strategy for the East Asia-Pacific Region" (so-called EASR)3 and the remarks by Vice President Mike Pence in Port Moresby in November 2018.4

In those early days, the United States held to its idealism that it was its mission to liberate the old dark Asia that had been stagnant and declining, thereby freeing Asian peoples and putting them on the course of human progress. China, unaware of the American idealism, had been clinging to trade through the port of Guangdong. Both countries dreamt different dreams. Unless the United States attempted to destroy the China-centered order in East Asia, China did not take heed of the intentions of the United States.5 In the process of the spreading of the modern sovereign state system and international law derived from Europe, China met the United States with no affinity with each other.

At that time, American traders become incorporated into the Chinese system, and a commercial relationship between the two countries was established.6 Such a situation is, needless to say, completely different from today's.

Vice President Pence stated in an address at the Hudson Institute in October 2018 that the United States once supported the open-door policy to create a free trade relationship with China and to preserve its sovereignty.7 Yet, the United States and China differ in their perceptions of US policies of those days, including the open-door policy. It is uncertain whether Vice President Pence put The Empress of China episode in his speech, well aware of the perception gaps between the two countries. Unlike other imperial powers, the United States did not have territorial ambition in China. Although Vice President Pence touched on it, the United States did not try to prevent other imperial powers from dividing Chinese territories. It did not go beyond demanding to other great powers that US traders and products should not be discriminated in the spheres of influence of other great powers. Consequently, the Chinese side knew better than to believe that the United States was not an accomplice of other imperial powers, and therefore, Americans were not thanked by the Chinese despite their endorsement of the open-door and equal opportunity policies.8 It is uncertain whether US government officials, including Vice President Pence, are aware of these historical facts. They should not cherish any illusion about the influence on the Chinese of such LIBERAL words as open-door and equality of opportunity.

What is mentioned above cannot be overlooked when considering the relationship between the United States, which has played a central role in the international order that has been formed over the past decades, and China opposing the US domination of the world.

(2) Premises of the US engagement policy toward China

After the end of the Cold War, "engagement" became the keyword of US policy toward China of the Clinton and succeeding administrations. The United States government encouraged US corporations to enlarge investments in China, in the hope that China would achieve economic growth and move toward liberalization. The United States also expected that China would come to take internationally coordinated actions by participating in various international institutions.9

The US engagement policy was predicated on two premises. One is the modernization theory that society moves toward democratization and liberalization through economic development. This theory which was endorsed by the examples of South Korea, Taiwan and South Africa, gained some credibility in those days. The democratic peace theory may also have pushed the back of US China policy from those days. The other premise was the overwhelming military and technological power of the United States. It would have been unimaginable for the United States that had achieved the most advanced technological innovations, one after another, to think of the day when China could catch up with it in technological power and military capabilities supported by technical superiority.

The current US perception is that these premises have been abandoned. In his speech at the Hudson Institute, Vice President Pence said, "Heady with optimism, at the turn of the 21st Century, America agreed to give Beijing open access to our economy, and bring China into the World Trade Organization. Previous administrations made this choice in the hope that freedom in China would expand in all forms – not just economically, but politically, with a newfound respect for classical liberal principles, private property, religious freedom, and the entire family of human rights… but that hope has gone unfulfilled."10 This statement reflects such a perception. Vice President Pence toward the end of his speech emphasized, "China's rulers can still change course, and return to the spirit of ‘reform and opening' and greater freedom. The American people want nothing more; the Chinese people deserve nothing less."11 About a month later, he offered language to the same effect in his Port Moresby address.12 It is uncertain whether these remarks are his real conviction or just a lip service. What is certain is that the US' attitude toward China is becoming stricter.

(3) Recent public opinion polls

According to a recent public opinion poll, American sentiment toward China has worsened rapidly --- the worst in the past 14 years. About one fourth of American citizens look upon China as a threat in the future --- the ratio has grown two-fold since 12 years ago. The number of Americans having a sense of vigilance against China is almost the same with that of Americans vigilant against Russia, or is twice greater than that of Americans who regard North Korea as a threat. To a question whether China's economic growth is good or bad for the United States, 50% of respondents answered good, while 41% bad. But when asked if China's growing military power is good or bad for the United States, 81% answered it is bad, and only 11% replied good.

A majority of Americans are confident that the United States will continue to remain the world economic leader. Meanwhile their feelings toward China are worsening without distinct partisan differences. Incidentally, a majority of Americans do not trust Xi Jinping, on which point partisan differences are not observed.13 Another opinion poll reports that there are partisan differences surrounding the three issues of immigration, climate change, and the development of China as a world power. However, there are not so large partisan differences on the question of China as on the other two issues.14

In other words, the incumbent US government's confrontational position toward China may well reflect the atmosphere of American society as a whole rather than President Trump's or the Trump administration's policy.

3. "China's National Defense in the New Era"

China issued its defense white paper "China's Military Strategy" in May 2015. Until then, China had in principle released a defense white paper every two years, and therefore a subsequent publication was then expected to come out in 2017, but it failed to appear. In July 2019, after an interval of four years, "China's National Defense in the New Era" was published. Comparing the English versions of the two recent defense white papers, the 2015 edition15 contains 25 pages, with no numerical data available, and is scanty of specific explanatory accounts. Meanwhile, the 2019 edition16 contains 52 pages with an appendix including ten tables and an abbreviation list. Its text also contains six diagrams and some specific numerical data. The two white papers are different in style. China is generally considered to achieve deterrence by making calculations as complicated as possible for its adversaries.17 As far as the 2019 white paper is concerned, such a Chinese intention may be visible under the disguise of ostensible transparency.

By the way, Bonji Ohara of Sasakawa Peace Foundation points out that China's failure to reach a domestic consensus on the assessment of US politics provides a reason why China suspended the publication of the newest edition of its defense white paper until July 2019.18 Certainly, the year of 2017, when the newest Chinese defense white paper had been expected to appear, was the year when the Trump administration was inaugurated, and it would have been difficult for China to provide an assessment on the new US administration. Furthermore, China's military reform may also have affected some way or other the publication of the defense white paper. It was in March 2018 that the Chinese Ministry of National Defense announced the completion of the troop reduction of 300,000, which had been declared suddenly in September 2015.19 It was also early in 2018 that the People's Armed Police Force (PAP), which had been under the dual command of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and the State Council, was placed under the direct and single command of the CMC; and that the China Coast Guard (CCG) came under the command of the PAP.20 In other words, that China's military reform has recently got on the right track may have helped to make possible the publication of the delayed defense white paper.

Comparing the 2019 and 2015 editions, the situational awareness of the 2019 edition is much more severe than that of the 2015 edition --- the 2019 edition contains more specific references to the United States and Taiwan.

When comparing the two editions by focusing on Chapter 1 of each edition on security situation, the 2015 edition refers to the United States only once, while the 2019 edition five times. The 2015 edition cursorily states, "As the world economic and strategic center of gravity is shifting ever more rapidly to the Asia-Pacific region, the US carries on its ‘rebalancing' strategy and enhances its military presence and its military alliances in this region."21 On the other hand, the 2019 edition intensifies its accusing tone stating, "The US has…adopted unilateral policies. It has 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"; or "The US is strengthening its Asia-Pacific military alliances and reinforcing military deployment and intervention, adding complexity to regional security."22 Thus, China's negative and strong attitude toward the United States is explicit in these expressions. China, as Ohara points out, is blaming the United States for having "undermined global strategic stability," arguing that "the current confrontation is taking place not between the United States and China but between the United States and the international society."23 Another point to note in this connection is that a notable statement found in the 2015 edition --- "In the foreseeable future, a world war is unlikely, and the international situation is expected to remain generally peaceful." --- is missing in the 2019 edition.24 To realize the troop reduction of 1,000,000 in 1980s, Deng Xiaoping rejected Mao Zedong's viewpoint that world war is unavoidable, and propounded instead and propagated his views that world war is not inevitable.25 Given that China's recent troop reduction of 300,000 is said to have also been largely completed, China may have deleted the above statement, because it has come to consider the present US-China confrontation as an antagonism of a severe, global nature.

Meanwhile, in Chapter 6 "Actively Contributing to Building a Community with a Shared Future for Mankind" of the 2019 edition, the text reads as follows: "China actively and properly handles its military relationship with the US in accordance with the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation. It strives to make the military-to-military relationship a stabilizer for the relations between the two countries and hence contribute to the China-US relationship based on coordination, cooperation and stability."26 This description is followed by a strong criticism against the United States, "China resolutely opposes the wrong practices and provocative activities of the US side regarding arms sales to Taiwan." Yet, the description soon resumes its conciliatory tone and says, "in China-US relations, the military-to-military relationship remains the generally stable one."27 China's stance here is not necessarily one-sidedly confrontational. It is reflective of China's "diplomatic battle" that Ohara points out.28

Another highlight of the 2019 defense white paper is Taiwan. The 2015 edition refers to Taiwan ahead of the East Turkistan and Tibet issues, but its description of Taiwan does not go beyond the following: "The Taiwan issue bears on China's reunification and long-term development, and reunification is an inevitable trend in the course of national rejuvenation. In recent years, cross-Taiwan Straits relations have sustained a sound momentum of peaceful development, but the root cause of instability has not yet been removed, and the ‘Taiwan independence' separatist forces and their activities are still the biggest threat to the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations."29 At that time, Taiwan was under the pro-mainland Ma Ying-jeou administration. Today, China's attitude toward Taiwan under the Tsai Ing-wen administration is much more severe.

The 2019 edition features more references to Taiwan. Taiwan is the foremost of "diverse and complex security threats and challenges" that China faces. "The fight against separatists is becoming more acute. The Taiwan authorities, led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), stubbornly sticks to ‘Taiwan independence' and refuses to recognize the 1992 Consensus, which embodies the one-China principle. They have gone further down the path of separatism by stepping up efforts to sever the connection with the mainland in favor of gradual independence, pushing for de jure independence, intensifying hostility and confrontation, and borrowing the strength of foreign influence. The ‘Taiwan independence' separatist forces and their actions remain the gravest immediate threat to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait."30 Unlike the 2015 edition, the 2019 edition specifies that China's national defense aims to, among other objectives, "oppose and contain ‘Taiwan independence.'"31 "To solve the Taiwan question and achieve complete reunification of the country is in the fundamental interests of the Chinese nation." Furthermore the defense white paper adds, "We make no promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures." However, "This is by no means targeted at our compatriots in Taiwan, but at the interference of external forces and the very small number of ‘Taiwan independence' separatists and their activities." Nonetheless, the text continues, "The PLA will resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China and safeguard national unity at all costs."32 Distinguishing "our compatriots in Taiwan" from "separatists," the defense white paper warns that the PLA will resolutely "defeat" the latter. According to Ohara, "Contrary to its determination to, if necessary, resort to the use of force, the 2019 defense white paper adopts restraining expressions to avoid giving the impression that China is aggressive."33 But "defeat" in this context is quite an aggressive word. It seems that the expression aims rather at demonstrating China's adamant will against "Taiwan Independence."

As already mentioned, the 2019 white paper refers to "the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation" in the context of China's military relationship with the United States.34 This is a favorite wording the Xi Jinping administration employs whenever discussing the "new big power relations." More emphasis is placed on "non-conflict, non-confrontation" than in the Hu Jintao administration era.35 However, the 2019 white paper does not contain the Chinese military principle of striking "a balance between rights protection and stability maintenance,"36 which is found in the 2015 edition. A look at China's behaviors in the real world, such as the South China Sea and the East China Sea, would suffice to understand that China is now becoming more inclined to "rights protection" than to "stability maintenance."

4. The Future of China's Military Power (Some Points)

The Communist Party of China has made it one of its missions to implement "The Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era." The Thought makes clear among other things that major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics aims to foster a new type of international relations and build a community with a shared future for mankind.37 According to Chinese experts, one of the notable points of the 2019 defense white paper is that Chinese military's contribution to building a community with a shared future for mankind is treated as a vital part of China's national defense and military construction in the new era.38 The 2019 defense white paper states that "the service of building of a community with a shared future for mankind" is "the global significance of China's national defense in the new era." "A strong military of China is a staunch force for world peace, stability and the building of a community with a shared future for mankind."39 "A community with a shared future for mankind" is a counter-concept of the so-called "rule-based liberal international order" that the United States and others have advocated so far. The construction of China's military power serves as an instrument for realizing the international order advocated by China. In line with the political report of Xi Jinping delivered at the 2017 National Congress of the Communist Party of China, China will endeavor to "basically complete the modernization of national defense and the military by 2035, and to fully transform the people's armed forces into world-class forces by the mid-21st century."40

The following will discuss the future of China's military power focusing on nuclear capability, military reform, and maritime advancement.

(1) Nuclear capability

The primary purpose of China's national defense is to "to deter and resist aggression."41 Nuclear capability, along with outer space and cyberspace, is regarded as one of the vital security fields for the Chinese military, and "is the strategic cornerstone to safeguarding national sovereignty and security."42 The 2019 defense white paper also states in this context, "China's armed forces …enhance strategic deterrence capability to protect national strategic security and maintain international strategic stability."43

China is now expediting the modernization of its nuclear capability. According to analyses by the US Department of Defense, "the PLA Rocket Force continues to enhance its fixed ICBMs and is adding more survivable, mobile delivery systems. China's ICBM arsenal to date consists of 90 ICBMs, including the silo-based CSS-4 Mod 2 (DF-5A) and multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV)-equipped Mod 3 (DF-5B)… Development of the CSS-X-20 (DF-41), a new MIRV-capable, road-mobile ICBM, continued in 2018. China appears to be considering additional DF-41 launch options, including rail-mobile and silo basing."44 Sugio Takahashi argues, "If the DF-41 be actually deployed, …and if the missile boast a precision as high as a conventional warhead ballistic missile already deployed, China would be able to carry out anti-military attacks that have so far been monopolized by the United States." According to Takahashi's calculations, "If the deployment of DF-41 actually starts, 100 DF-41s or fewer will enable China to destroy, with its first strike, the US ICBM system."45 Based on such analyses, Ken Jimbo opines that China's nuclear strategy is developing from a minimal deterrence to an assured retaliation strategy.46 China is not articulate about its nuclear strategy, but the 2019 defense white paper states that the PLA Rocket Force "is enhancing its credible and reliable capabilities of nuclear deterrence and counterattack, strengthening intermediate and long-range precision strike forces, and enhancing strategic counter-balance capability, so as to build a strong and modernized rocket force."47 Here China's strategic changes may be discernible.

In any case, coupled with the rapid improvement of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capacities, China is threatening the US advantage in the balance between nuclear capability and conventional forces. This will have some impact on Japan's defense force buildup. At the end of 2018, Japan reviewed and worked out a target level of defense force buildup which was to have a 10-year term of validity, but the speed of China's future military buildup would claim its review before the end of the term.

(2) Military reform

According to the 2019 defense white paper, China's military reform aims at "removing institutional barriers and solving structural and policy-related problems to adapt to the trends of worldwide RMA (revolutions in military affairs) and the demands of national security."48 The focus of military reform promoted by Xi Jinping can be epitomized into "the party leadership in military management and combat force building." It is a pursuit of two things at the same time --- a party army faithful to the CPC and a strong military to address new wars.49 The principle of China's military reform is "the CMC exercising overall leadership, the TC(Theater Command)s responsible for military operations and the services focusing on developing capabilities."50 It is up to Xi Jinping's leadership whether or not such "world-class forces" can be created as he outlines in his 2017 political report.

Chinese experts pay particular attention to the fact that the 2019 defense white paper has first introduced the whole picture of China's wide-ranging military reform.51 Out of many topics related to China's military reform, this paper will discuss only one topic in relation to "the reform in the leadership and command system." It is concerned with the position of the CCG (China's Coast Guard) playing a major role in the gray zone warfare against Japan and others in the East Asian waters.

The CCG under the leadership and supervision of the State Oceanic Administration has been transferred to the PAP. The 2019 defense white papers states, "the basic duties and nature of the PAP (will remain) unchanged. The PAP is not in the force structure of the PLA." Nonetheless, now that "China has adopted a CMC-PAP-Troops leadership and command system,"52 the CCG has come under the command of the CMC. The US Department of Defense analyzes that the incorporation of the CCG into this command system was completed in July 2018, and that the CCG's incorporation into the military command system will promote cooperation between the CCG and the PLA Navy.53 Undergoing a rapid buildup and modernization, the CCG is expected to take a further assertive attitude in the South China and East China Seas.

Incidentally, Ohara points out that the influence of some power struggle in China may have delayed the organizational reform of the PAP to as late as 2018. The 2019 defense white paper's statement ("The PAP is not in the force structure of the PLA.") can be construed as a conciliatory remark taking into account anti-reformers in the PAP.54

(3) Maritime advancement

"To safeguard China's maritime rights and interests" is one of China's national defense goals.55 The 2019 defense white paper emphasizes the safeguarding of maritime rights and interests in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, etc., and makes reference to unit operations in the safeguarding with some specific figures.56

Hu Bo, director of the Center for Maritime Strategy Studies at Peking University, argues that the motives and necessity of the expansion of China's naval power are: (1) to acquire strategic predominance in the East Asian waters for safeguarding China's sovereignty, security, and political and economic interests; (2) to maintain an effective military presence in the western Pacific and the northern part of the Indian Ocean to secure national security and sea lanes of communication, and (3) to play an important role in the world's seas.57 According to the same author, the missions and roles expected of Chinese Navy as of 2049 will include: (1) a relative predominance and sea control in the waters near the first island chain, so that it can respond to potential challenges from any country or group (Control); (2) an effective presence in the western Pacific and in the northern part of the Indian Ocean to strike a balance of power with Japan, the United States and India, while promoting cooperation with Japan, the United States, Russia and other countries to protect the freedom of navigation (Equilibrium), and (3) the immediate exercise of influence in other world seas, through a small-scale deployment of military forces; military activities other than war, and military diplomacy (Exercise of Influence).58

Hu Bo predicts that the world maritime politics as of 2049 will feature a trend toward multipolarization among the United States, China, Russia, the EU, India, and third world countries, and that China will occupy a cardinal position.59 The likelihood of such a multipolarization apart, this prediction seems to be fairly correct. But another prediction of his is disputable: China will participate all-out in different international cooperative mechanisms in coastal regions of the Indo-Pacific, and will safeguard peace and stability of the western Pacific in cooperation with the United States, Russia, Japan and South Korea, while emerging as a main partner of the United States, the EU and India in the Indian Ocean region.60 Many people may be inclined to accept his additional prediction that China's commitment will be essential in such areas as the Arctic, the Eastern Pacific, and the Atlantic Ocean, and that China's cooperation will requested by many countries.61 Whether or not it is because China's actions can be evaluated as contributing to the maintaining and strengthening of the international order will depend on the actual actions of China in the future.

The foundation of Hu Bo's idea is based on the notion of a joint maritime management between the United States and China, a notion that assumes that the United States should respect China's core interests in the west Pacific and make certain policy compromises.62 The United States will not accept the idea, and nor will Japan. If so, it would be even more necessary for the parties concerned to build an integrated maritime crisis management system with China.

(This paper was translated into English by Tsutomu Inuzuka, SSDP Associate)

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