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China's New Defence White Paper and the PLA's Possible Modernization Plan in 2007

Dr Jagannath P. Panda was Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 16, 2007

    The Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China released a White Paper titled "China's National Defence 2006" on December 29, 2006. It states that "to build a powerful and fortified national defence is a strategic task of China's modernization drive" and that "China pursues a three-step development strategy in modernizing its national defence and armed forces in accordance with the state's overall plan to realize modernization." But the topmost concern for countries impacted by the Chinese military's upgradation is whether its modernization plans represent "normal modernization" like that of other militaries or it is the most visible indication of China's future intention to establish itself as the "supreme military power" in the world.

    In recent times China has invested heavily in the People's Liberation Army (PLA), particularly in its strategic arsenal and power-projection capabilities. 2006 saw this trend being extended to all four services, and in aggregate terms, one can say that China's military modernization programme appears vast and relentless. Furthermore, the new thrust of this strategy is to emphasize on improved training to help prepare for modern, high-intensity, information-centric conflicts in the longer run.

    As explanation for the rationale behind the modernisation drive, the White Paper states:

    "China pursues a policy of coordinated development of national defence and economy. It keeps the modernization of China's national defence and armed forces as an integral part of its social and economic development, so as to ensure that the modernizations of its national defence and armed forces advance in step with the national modernization drive."

    Notwithstanding this systematic, ambitious and long-term military modernization programme, proposals and plans for the current year seem focused mainly on preventing any moves by Taiwan towards a declaration of independence with possible US support. In consequence, China has maintained all of its short-range ballistic missiles ready in preparation for an attack on Taiwan while building up its naval capabilities. It is expected that 2007 will see naval bases being equipped with modern missile technologies. As per the 2006 US Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR), China is likely to continue making large investments in high-end, asymmetric military capabilities, emphasizing electronic and cyber-warfare, counter-space operations, ballistic and cruise missiles, advanced integrated air defence systems, next-generation torpedoes, advanced submarines, strategic nuclear strikes from modern, sophisticated land- and sea-based systems, and theatre unmanned aerial vehicles.

    As part of these developmental plans, Chinese defence experts are keen to learn how to carry out joint military operations at various levels. The Chinese leadership has realized that countries such as the United States and Russia have superior military capabilities, and that it would be in China's interest to pace the modernization plan systematically and narrow the gap.

    In order to narrow the gap, particularly with the US military, Beijing's strategy is to focus on economic modernization and growth, which will generate a significant resource base from which it can direct sustained high rates of investment in the defence sector. According to new White Paper, in 2005 China's defence expenditure equalled 6.19 per cent of that of the United States, 52.95 per cent of that of the United Kingdom, 71.45 per cent of that of France and 67.52 per cent of that of Japan. It also highlights the fact that China's defence expenditure "mainly comprises expenses for personnel, training and maintenance, and equipment" and that "the increased part of China's defence expenditure is primarily used for purposes such as increasing salaries and allowances of military personnel and improving their living conditions, increasing investment in weaponry and equipment and infrastructure, supporting the training of military personnel, compensating for price rise" etc.

    After the US and Russia, China's defence spending is now estimated to be the highest in the world. In fact, since the 1998 Divestment Act, Chinese military spending has increased annually and, according to official Chinese information, more than doubled from US$14.6 billion in 2000 to 29.9 billion in 2005. What is more interesting is that in March 2006, China announced that its annual defence budget would increase by 14.7 per cent over that of the previous year, bringing the announced amount to approximately $35 billion, equal to about 1.5 per cent of GDP. If one looks at the 2006 increase in China's defence budget, it sustains a trend that has persisted since the 1990s of defence budget growth rates exceeding overall economic growth.

    It is expected that the coming year will see major purchases of aircraft from Russia. Various Russian newspapers report that China intends to purchase Su-33 Naval Flanker ship-borne fighters. As much was indicated by the head of Russian delegation at a recently organized air show at Zhuhai near Hong Kong when he said that "…each party has the right to purchase what it needs to protect its national interests, and the Chinese side intends to buy Su-33 aircraft… Russia is ready to supply all armaments and hardware its enterprises are developing." Though Chinese military officials have repeatedly denied plans to purchase or build an aircraft carrier from Russia or with its help, reports in the Chinese media have mentioned plans to buy the former Soviet carrier Varyag.

    Coming to China's missile technology plans, it is estimated that by the end of this decade, the PLA will have between 1,000 and 2,000 short range ballistic and cruise missiles. The 2007 Chinese plan is to upgrade radar and electro-optical navigation satellites to improve the mobility and targeting capabilities of missiles. The strategy is to place cruise missiles on the newly built long-range nuclear submarines. It is also expected that short-range ballistic missiles will become highly mobile either on wheels or by aircraft all over the country.

    Some observers contend that it will take until the end of this decade or later for China's military modernization programme to produce a modern force capable of defeating a moderate-size adversary. The PLA's current modernization encompasses the transformation of virtually all aspects of the military establishment, to include weapons systems, operational doctrine, institution building, and personnel reforms. This modernization trend is in its third decade and the speed and intensity of this ongoing process could not have been accomplished without the foundations established in the first 20 years of reform.

    From the perspective of the PLA leadership, much remains to be done to make the Chinese army at par with "advanced world standards" in equipment, personnel, and training. The theme that is still prevalent in PLA modernization is China's portrayal of itself as the "weaker" military force in future conflicts. Of a piece with the ongoing military modernization, the new thrust of the PLA leadership is to encourage its troops to develop new ways for the "weak to defeat the strong".