China's military shows growing confidence

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

China's newly released defence White Paper underscores the growing confidence of its modernising military force, even as it is tasked with protecting the country's globally expanding interests.

In laying out its military strategy in the paper for the first time, it can claim to be increasing the transparency of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to the outside world, while warning off those deemed to have ill intentions towards it, defence analysts told The Straits Times.

A policy document issued roughly once every two years, China's latest defence White Paper outlined a bigger role for the military in safeguarding the country's interests, which have spread around the world as its economic influence has grown.

"China now feels that the area it needs to defend has grown - and it is no longer held back by its military's limitations," said Dr Wang Xiangsui from Beihang University.

The military's budget has seen double-digit increases for years, as China seeks to modernise its forces. It added its first aircraft carrier in 2012 and is today the world's second-largest military spender, although it lags far behind the United States.

Now that China's forces are stronger, it is natural for it to increase its capabilities and area covered, said Dr Wang.

The White Paper also shows the Chinese military is more confident and assertive in its stance under President Xi Jinping, noted Shanghai-based analyst Ni Le- xiong. While the document has been issued regularly since 1998 - mainly to deflect criticism that the PLA is not transparent - it is only under Mr Xi's leadership that the White Paper has taken a thematic approach and sought to give more details on specific issues.

The last report in 2013 was titled The Diversified Employment Of China's Armed Forces and gave details of military manpower numbers, while this year's report is called China's Military Strategy and purportedly sheds light on the issue for the first time.

The latest White Paper also makes a reference to Mr Xi's "China Dream" of the rejuvenation of a great nation, saying that "the Chinese people aspire to join hands with the rest of the world to maintain peace, pursue development and share prosperity".

It also highlighted four "critical security domains" - the seas, outer space, cyberspace and nuclear force - while portending a shift in emphasis from land to sea.

This gives an insight into China's long-term priorities as well as the emerging domains of military rivalry, noted Dr Michael Raska from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Cyberspace, in particular, has frequently made the news, with China and the US accusing each other of hacking attacks.

"For the internal audience, the White Paper is a report card of what the PLA has done," said Dr Ni. "For other countries, it can be read as a warning as well, not to intervene in sovereignty or territorial issues."

The White Paper hit out at "provocative actions" of neighbouring countries on China's islands and reefs while outsiders are accused of being "busy meddling" in South China Sea affairs.

On a day when China announced the building of two lighthouses on the disputed Spratly islands, it suggests that tensions in the South China Sea will not go away any time soon.

"A White Paper is supposed to show transparency and mitigate concerns," said Dr Raska. "But China's actions on the ground speak louder than its words."

This article was first published on May 27, 2015.
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