July 6, 2015 | Issue Brief on National Security and Defense
In 1998, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) released its first defense white paper. Since then, every other year the PRC has released a new white paper discussing various aspects of Chinese defense issues. These papers provide an opportunity for the PRC to explain various aspects of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Chinese security concepts and perspectives. In the new 2014 Chinese defense white paper, the Chinese appear to be signaling that a fundamental shift is underway in their security perspective, specifically that China assesses its security environment as increasingly threatening.
All previous white papers have generally held the same broad assessment of the international situation. The overall “tenor” or “theme” of the times remains one of peace and development (i.e., little prospect for war among the major powers or a nuclear conflict). Despite this, there remain “factors of instability,” including unresolved borders, some degree of tension with neighbors, and the perennial concern about separatists, especially on Taiwan. Different specific concerns are aired in different years, including terrorism and concerns about South Asia. The past several white papers have implicitly accused the United States of exacerbating regional instability. For example, the 2012 white paper notes:
Some country has strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser. On the issues concerning China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, some neighboring countries are taking actions that complicate or exacerbate the situation, and Japan is making trouble over the issue of the Diaoyu Islands.
In the 2014 white paper, the threat assessment goes significantly further. It not only raises the usual concerns about the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the United States, but states that “China faces a formidable task to maintain political security and social stability.”
The threat, moreover, explicitly stems not only from separatist forces in Xinjiang and Tibet, but also from the “anti-China forces [that] have never given up their attempt to instigate a ‘color revolution’ in this country.” This is an enormously important statement, because the “color revolutions” toppled the governments where they occurred. Beijing, it seems, believes that it is facing efforts not only to fragment China, but also to actively dislodge the government, and the party, from power. In short, for the first time the authors of a defense white paper are suggesting that the PRC, more specifically the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), confronts an existential threat. A China that might suffer a “color revolution” is a China where the CCP might lose power.
Against this backdrop, the rest of the white paper then discusses China’s defense strategy, including the “Strategic Guideline of the Active Defense.” While “active defense” has long been part of Chinese military strategy, rooted in the writings and decisions of Mao Zedong, this chapter is one of the more extended explanations of the concept.
As the white paper notes, although the active defense has been a staple of Chinese defense thinking since the Second World War and Mao Zedong, it has been modified over the intervening decades to accommodate advances in the technology of war and broader political, social, and economic changes. Thus, in 2004, the strategic guideline “was further substantiated, and the basic point for PMS [preparations for military struggle] was modified to winning local wars under conditions of informationization.”
In the 2014 white paper, the “strategic guideline” seems to have evolved further. Whereas in the 1990s and early 2000s there was established the “strategic guideline of the new period,” this has now apparently become the “strategic guideline of active defense in the new situation (xin xingshi xia jiji fangyu junshi zhanlue fangzhen).” As one Chinese assessment noted, the “military strategic guideline of the active defense in the new situation” embodies three key points:
These changes are primarily attributed to changes in the technology of modern warfare, especially the growing importance of information and information technology. Other PLA writings have noted that the rise of “informationized warfare” means that the beginning of modern wars is no longer marked by kinetic operations, but by political warfare efforts and intelligence collection.
Yet the view that the PRC—and the CCP—now face an existential threat suggests the possibility that the “strategic guideline of the active defense under the new situation” might embody a much more fundamental change. From Mao to now, the concept of the active defense has emphasized assuming the strategic defensive, while securing the operational and tactical initiative, including preemptive actions at those levels if necessary. As Chinese writings have often noted, the “active defense” restricts the PRC to reacting to an adversary’s actions. In other words, China will not strike first at the strategic level.
However, more recent Chinese writings have suggested that a reassessment has been underway. For example, the most recent edition of the PLA Encyclopedia suggests that, if an adversary initiates offensive action, the PLA will undertake strategic, operational, and tactical actions, conditions permitting it to “gain mastery by striking first.”
Similarly, General Chen Zhou, one of the key architects of the past several Chinese defense white papers, suggested in a discussion of the 2010 Chinese defense white paper that views are evolving. Chen emphasized that Chinese military thinking is grounded in a reactive mode and reiterates that the Chinese military remains committed to “gaining mastery by striking only after the enemy has struck.” However, he goes on to note that while the PLA will be strategically defensive, not only does this not preclude operational and tactical offensive actions, but the PLA has unified the concept of the strategic defense with the strategic counterattack and the strategic attack (zhanlue fangyu yu zhanlue fangong he jingong de tongyi).
If the PRC believes that it now faces forces intent on toppling the CCP, it may conclude that it is already operating under conditions of the strategic defensive. Chinese actions in defense of its security, including activities in cyberspace, may therefore not violate the concept of “active defense” and may even be seen as wholly consistent since China is already under threat.
In this situation, it is essential that the United States pursue a course of action that simultaneously makes clear that it is willing to cooperate with the PRC, in order to reassure Beijing, but that the U.S. will deny the PRC the ability to fight and win a conflict (including an informationized one) if Beijing chooses to pursue a military course of action. To this end, the United States should:
 People’s Republic of China, State Council Information Office, “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces,” April 2013, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-04/16/c_132312681.htm (accessed July 2, 2015).
 People’s Republic of China, State Council Information Office, “China’s Military Strategy,” May 2015, http://news.usni.org/2015/05/26/document-chinas-military-strategy (accessed July 2, 2015).
 It is important to note that these minor changes of terminology often embody major changes in meaning.
 China Newsnet, “China Implements Military Strategy of Active Defense, Focuses on Maritime Military Preparations for Struggle,” May 26, 2015, http://news.workercn.cn/610/201505/26/150526102551092.shtml (accessed July 2, 2015).
 Yuejin Sung, Command and Control Warfare (Beijing: National Defense Industry Press, 2012), p. 57.
 People’s Republic of China, National Defense University, Research Department, China Military Encyclopedia, Strategy (Beijing: Encyclopedia of China Publishing House, 2007), p. 236.
 Zhou Chen, “Adhering to the Defensive Defense Policy of Guaranteeing National Peace and Development—An Interpretation of China’s National Defense in 2010,” China Military Science, No. 3 (2011), p. 70.