China's defence strategy


WHEN CHINA unveiled a $91.8 billion defence budget for 2011 earlier this month, up 12.7 per cent on 2010, it confirmed a return to double-digit increases in spending on the 2.3 million-strong People’s Liberation Army that has marked a significant military build up in recent years.

The publication yesterday of China’s biennial national defence White Paper set out some of the rationale involved, notably the country’s perception of an increasing regional vulnerability as others – particularly the US – enhance their strategic presence and manifest increasing suspicions of China’s own intentions. It singled out Taiwan, the Korean peninsula and Afghanistan as of particular concern.

“Profound changes are taking shape in the Asia-Pacific strategic landscape,” the paper warns. “Relevant major powers are increasing their strategic investment. The US is reinforcing its regional military alliances and increasing its involvement in regional security affairs.”

But, the paper insists, “China pursues a national defence policy which is defensive in nature. China will never seek hegemony nor will it adopt the approach of military expansion now or in the future, no matter how its economy develops.”

All well in theory, but China’s growing strength, more aggressive posture and the qualitative upgrading of its defensive capabilities is seriously worrying neighbours – its pursuit of sophisticated “anti-carrier” ballistic missiles, satellites, cyber-weapons, stealth jets and its hopes of deploying an aircraft carrier. Both India and Japan have recently sharply questioned its purpose. Relations have been particularly strained between China and the latter over disputed islands in the East China Sea and after collisions in disputed waters in September between two Japanese coast guard boats and a Chinese fishing vessel sparked a major row.

China also raised tensions early last year when it suspended high-level defence contacts with the US over Washington’s sale of more than $6 billion in weapons to Taiwan. Its refusal to criticise client state North Korea over its nuclear prevarication and its provocative attacks on the South last year is also a cause of concern.

Yet China insists in the White Paper on its peace intentions and that it wants better ties with the US, despite the latter’s backing for Taiwan. Following a visit by defence secretary Robert Gates to Beijing in January, army chief of staff Chen Bingde will visit Washington in May. A diplomacy, as Theodore Roosevelt put it, of “speaking softly and carrying a big stick”.