'Active Defence': China’s Body Language is Aggressive
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 16 Jun , 2015

China released its tenth biennial White Paper on National Defence in the last week of May 2015. Entitled “China’s Military Strategy”, this is the first White Paper that focusses on a specific aspect of national security unlike the previous ones that were about objectives, force levels, training and military modernisation.

According to the 2015 White Paper, China will follow a strategy of ‘active defence’. Clarifying the meaning of the term active defence, Senior Colonel Zhang Yuguo, from the General Staff Department of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), said at the press conference during which the White Paper was released, “Some countries adopt pre-emptive strategies, emphasising preventive intervention and taking initiative in attack… Being ‘active’ is only a kind of means and ‘defence’ is our fundamental purpose.”

China Talks of Peace, but its Body Language is Aggressive

Four ‘critical security domains’ have been highlighted in the Paper: the ocean, outer space, cyberspace and nuclear deterrence. Emphasis will be laid by the PLA on ‘winning informationised local wars’. To this end, the development of the ‘cyber force’ to tackle ‘grave security threats’ online will be expedited. Several governments have already felt the power of the cyber fangs of China’s one million ‘laptop warriors’.

Active Defence

Though the White Paper calls active defence a strategy, military strategies are normally more specific and are a combination of ends, ways and means; hence, doctrine is perhaps a better term. The PLA’s warfighting doctrine has evolved from Mao’s “people’s war” to “people’s war under modern conditions” through a “limited/local war” phase to the current doctrine introduced in 1993. The new doctrine is more assertive than previously and is not bound by any restrictions to confine and limit future conflict to within China’s national boundaries.

Underpinning the new aspirations of the PLA is the basic doctrine of “active defence” (jiji fangyu) that seeks to conduct “people’s war under modern conditions”, or “local wars under hi-tech conditions” (gaojishu tiaojian xia de jubu zhanzheng). The PLA’s active defence doctrine envisages fighting future wars away from China’s territory. The doctrine emphasises firepower through integrated deep strikes – a concentration of superior firepower that is to be utilised to destroy the opponent’s retaliatory capabilities through pre-emptive strikes employing long-range artillery, short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and precision guided munitions.

… PLA Navy “will gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defence’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defense’ with ‘open seas protection’,” the Paper says.

The new doctrine has been influenced by the lessons of Gulf War-I of 1991 and the Iraq War of 2003, both of which have been extensively studied by Chinese scholars. The doctrine requires the creation of a capability to project force across China’s borders through rapid deployment, conventional SRBMs and cruise missiles, information warfare, electronic warfare, precision-guided munitions, enhanced night fighting capabilities and other advanced military technologies.

China also follows ‘anti-access and area denial’ (A2AD) strategies to deny the adversary access to his planned launch pads in an endeavour to prevent the initial build-up of forces and logistics. Planning for A2AD strategies flows from the apprehension that if superior, well-equipped forces (like the US and its allies) are allowed to arrive in the war zone with the force levels and in the time frame planned by them, they are bound to prevail.

Developing Cyber-warfare Capability

The PLA expects to fight the next war under conditions of what it calls “informationisation”. PLA analysts have called the revolution in military affairs (RMA) an “informationised military revolution”. According to General Liu Huaqing, former Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, “Information warfare and electronic warfare are of key importance, while fighting on the ground can only exploit the victory. Hence, China is more convinced (than ever) that as far as the PLA is concerned, a military revolution with information warfare as the core has reached the stage where efforts must be made to catch up and overtake rivals.” The PLA has adopted what it calls a “double historical mission” and a “leapfrog development strategy” – accelerating military informationisation while still undergoing mechanisation.

Developing cyber-warfare capabilitiesis seen is presenting a level playing field in a David versus Goliath scenario. Recent cyber-attacks directed against India, Taiwan, the US and others are indicative of the efforts to develop new techniques, viruses and logic bombs. Information warfare will play a crucial role in the opening phases of a future border conflict with India as China will consider it important to knock out India’s communications infrastructure. A private army of ‘laptop warriors’ – young net-savvy civilian hackers on whom the state can bank during crises – is being developed for cyber-warfare besides the employment of regular PLA personnel.

The PLA expects to fight the next war under conditions of what it calls “informationisation”. PLA analysts have called the revolution in military affairs (RMA) an “informationised military revolution”.

China’s Body Language is Aggressive

Amid tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, mostly of China’s making, the White Paper repeatedly professes the theme of ‘peace and development’. “In the foreseeable future, a world war is unlikely, and the international situation is expected to remain generally peaceful,” but “the world still faces both immediate and potential threats of local wars.” In the light of the ‘rebalancing’ plans of the US – to shift focus from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indo-Pacific, Japan’s robust military posture and what it calls other provocations in the South China Sea, the PLA Navy “will gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defence’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defense’ with ‘open seas protection’,” the Paper says.

Compared with China’s historically reactive stance of luring the enemy in deep and destroying him through strategic defence, the present doctrine is essentially pro-active and seeks to take the battle into the adversary’s territory. The aim is to catch the enemy unprepared in order to inflict substantial damage on strategic targets and disrupt logistics to gain psychological ascendancy. Clearly, the Central Military Commission has decided to discard Deng Xiaoping’s famous 24-character dictum to “hide your capacities and bide your time”.

According to Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, “China’s lips say they have no expansionist ambitions. But their body language says, ‘Get out of the Way’.” The White Paper on “China’s Military Strategy” makes it clear that the Chinese are coming.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Brig. Gurmeet Kanwal

Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.

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