China’s State Council Information Office last week released the country’s latest defence white paper, outlining progress of the modernisation and reform efforts of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It notes that the world, and thus China’s defence, has entered a ‘new era’ – one of international strategic competition, allegedly driven chiefly by the US. While there are new elements to the white paper, China’s stance on how to address these challenges is hardly novel. Instead, Beijing indicates a hardening of its position on Taiwan and anti-terrorism, and skims over continuing instability in Asia’s flashpoint, the South China Sea.
Beijing’s Threat Perspective: The Alleged Rise of Western Assertiveness
The strategic landscape depicted in the white paper is one where the ‘international security system and order’ is supposedly engulfed by ‘hegemonism, power politics, unilateralism and constant regional conflicts and wars’. The US is chiefly blamed for undermining global stability, while NATO is alleged to encroach even further into Central and Eastern Europe. Interestingly, the paper notes that the EU is accelerating its security and defence integration in order to be more independent. The UK, France, Japan, Germany and India are identified as nations upgrading the structure of their military forces. Conversely, Russia’s military efforts are portrayed in more favourable terms as just seeking to ‘safeguard its strategic security space and interests’.
Beijing clearly lays out its threat perspective. What it calls its ‘comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination’ with Russia reinforces the image of a growing alignment of interests, despite the power imbalance between the two partners; Beijing is striving to portray this alignment as playing a significant role in maintaining global strategic stability. Predictably, the reverse is claimed to be the case for the US. Japan and Australia are further singled out and portrayed as dabbling in Asian security. As Beijing sees it, were it not for these ‘intrusions’, countries in Asia and their regional security architecture (such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation [SCO] and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN]) would be able to move towards joining Beijing in becoming a ‘community with shared destiny’. For Europe, Beijing limits its criticism to NATO, pointing to the potential of a future decoupling between the EU and US security policy.
The Need for Chinese-Led Security Architecture Reform
Through its long list of non-traditional security challenges, ranging from cyber security to piracy, maritime territorial disputes to counter-terrorism, Beijing sets out the need for new approaches and reform of existing structures. While regional security mechanisms have played a role, the process of developing a ‘balanced, stable, open and inclusive Asian security architecture’ continues. Europe, too, is mentioned as an arena for China’s engagement, targeting a partnership for ‘peace, growth, reform and civilization’. China’s armed forces are also slated a key role: they are tasked to actively participate in the ‘reform of [the] global security governance system’.
In the eyes of Beijing, a move away from a regional security architecture in North and Southeast Asia based on US security alliances is inevitable. China will likely prefer new forums and platforms where its voice is commensurate with its increasing political and military weight, and which will be helpful in delivering on its stated preference for dialogue and negotiation. The closed-door ASEAN–China negotiations on the South China Sea Code of Conduct, against a backdrop of continued tense stand-offs at sea, come to mind as a preferred Chinese model.
A Transparent, Defensive, Rational, Appropriate China – to a Point
A visible effort was made in the latest version of the white paper to justify Chinese defence spending, modernisation, reform and policy as a responsible, appropriate and professional response to China’s internal and external security threats. That message is reinforced by a mention of China’s alleged military shortcomings, such as the assertion that the PLA still lags behind the world’s leading militaries. Yet at the same time, the paper also points towards the greater professionalisation of the PLA and other Chinese security forces by way of showcasing relevant legislation and regulation. It paints a picture of a PLA and Chinese security forces that are constrained and confined within the precepts of the rule of law.
The paper’s emphasis on the international role of China’s security forces, and in particular the PLA, to protect Chinese interests, assets and citizens is not new, nor should it be viewed as wholly unacceptable. There are also the inevitable references to the contribution of the PLA in international security, be it in non-combatant evacuations, anti-piracy and UN peacekeeping operations. Beijing is right to highlight these contributions, and greater Chinese cooperation in tackling other global challenges could be envisioned. Unmentioned, for example, is how and whether China could work with international partners to help combat transnational organised crime at sea and further afield. Indeed, in a UN Security Council meeting February this year, China’s UN Envoy Ma Zhaoxu highlighted a need for greater international collaboration, citing a need for support to coastal states in improving their domestic legislation and establishing and strengthening maritime security forces.
However, while the white paper seeks to quell fears over the use of China’s growing military might, it falls short of being reassuring. The paper issues stark warnings against Taiwan by repeating Beijing’s insistence that it has the right to use force against what it sees as its renegade province, if it deems this necessary.
What Impact for the UK?
With the UK’s new prime minister focused on delivering Brexit, Beijing will likely expect the UK to place China policy lower on its list of immediate priorities. Moreover, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent comments that the UK is ‘very enthusiastic’ about the Belt and Road Initiative and ‘very pro-China’ will also have been music to China’s ears.
Still, while Boris Johnson will inevitably seek out economic opportunities with China to stave off criticisms over Brexit’s potential weakening of the UK economy, a return to the so-called ‘golden age’ of UK–China relations during the 2010–16 period looks uncertain. Indeed, British concerns over Chinese investment practices, military assertiveness in its immediate neighbourhood, and increasing domestic repression remain.
And the ambition for ‘Global Britain’ to engage more in Asia will grate with China. Beijing will be closely monitoring whether this still includes potential forward basing in the region by the UK, and if the UK’s continued participation in freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea will still be on the table.
The incumbent prime minister will need to carefully balance the UK’s relationship with China – opportunities exist, but challenges should not be ignored. Moreover, the UK’s ties to Asia include a multitude of important partners. They, too, will have read the white paper with some level of trepidation and formed their own opinion of how to stabilise the region. The UK should continue its engagement with them to understand how it can help in that process.