China's defense policy is evolving

By Chong-Pin Lin 林中斌  / 

Tue, Jan 16, 2007 - Page 8

In December last year, Beijing unveiled its biennial defense white paper entitled China's National Defense in 2006, the fifth since it began issuing them in 1998. Just as in the first white paper, the Defense Expenditure chapter in the latest report only reveals the total budget amount and amounts for the three major items; namely, personnel, training and maintenance and equipment, but lacks further detail. No wonder the outside world continues to suspect that China's defense budget is underreported and that its actual military spending is at least three times higher than officially reported. Over the years, these white papers have seen notable changes, and we should pay attention to one major and four minor aspects of the most recent report.

First, downplaying of the Taiwan issue. The 2004 report mentioned the phrase "Taiwan independence" 12 times, while the white paper published last month only mentioned the same phrase four times. Each report between 1998 and 2004 mentioned "One country two systems" and "peaceful unification" but did not do so in last year's report. The part about the campaign against Taiwan independence in the second chapter -- National Defense Policy -- was 253 Chinese characters long in the 2004 report but only 15 characters in the latest report.

However, Beijing's decision to refrain from bringing up the issue doesn't mean it has stopped thinking about it. It is at least an indication that Beijing has now adjusted its approach and has soft-pedaled the significance of Taiwan independence.

The white paper released in 2000 criticizes former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) while the one released in 2004 slams President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), but no Taiwan leader is targeted in the 2006 report.

Last year's defense white paper for the first time states China's opposition to de jure independence for Taiwan, a tacit acceptance of Taiwan's de facto independence. The first time the Chinese leadership aired its opposition to de jure Taiwan independence was when Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) addressed the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) on its 55th anniversary in late September 2004. Hu had just taken over the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) but not the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission of the People's Republic of China. It seemed inappropriate or impossible to include opposition to Taiwan's de jure independence in the 2004 white paper.

The 2004 defense white paper says that Beijing will "stop (zhizhi, 制止)" Taiwan independence but that is modified to "contain (ezhi, 遏止)" in the 2006 report. According to the dictionary, zhizhi means "to end forcefully" while ezhi means "to block and to prevent." Zhizhi is more direct, immediate and forceful, while e'zhi is more indirect and flexible and implies deterrence. That is, Beijing is aware that to "stop Taiwan independence" will not work and runs counter to Hu's overarching guiding principle of "winning over the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people."

To sum up, compared with the 2004 defense white paper, the one published last month indicates that Beijing is tending toward a calmer and softer approach to the Taiwan issue.

Second, is Beijing's confidence in its overall security environment. In the first chapter -- The Security Environment -- the report released in 2004 sets off a long section discussing the Taiwan Strait and says that: "The situation in the relations between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits is grim," while the one released last month places the discussion about cross-strait relations in the section discussing overall security challenges, and the evaluation of the situation as being grim no longer exists. This implies that Beijing is no longer as nervous as it used to be over the situation in the Taiwan Strait. Not only that, the latest report also includes many positive and self-confident assessments of China's overall security environment, a phenomenon that was not present in any of the previous defense white papers. For example, the report says that: "World peace and security face more opportunities than challenges" and that: "China's overall security environment remains sound."

Third, an overall strategy to integrate non-military means. Since 2002, Beijing has worked to integrate military with non-military means and to reduce conflict among its diplomatic, defense, economic, cultural and Taiwan policies, thus achieving a result where the sum is greater than the parts. I have termed this "Beijing's new grand strategy" since 2004. But the Chinese government seldom puts this ongoing strategy into words in its official documents.

However, in Chapter 2, the 2006 white paper states that the People's Liberation Army will "work for close coordination between military struggle and political, economic, diplomatic, cultural and legal endeavors." This statement, which appears here for the first time, once again shows that the defense white paper transcends military issues.

Fourth, increased formal transparency. The latest white paper contributes five chapters to defense organizations and work, and four of them are new, including Chapter 3, China's Leadership and Administration System for National Defense; 4, The People's Liberation Army; 5, People's Armed Police Force; and 7, Border and Coastal Defense. Chapter 6, National Defense Mobilization and Reserve Force (Building) is covered in both the 2004 and 2006 versions.

In fact, the contents of these chapters are mostly common knowledge to outside observers. Still, the increased formal transparency of Beijing's defense should earn it a good name in the international community.

Fifth, downplaying China's threats. In Chapter 2, National Defense Policy, of the 2004 white paper, China once declared that it would "take the road of composite and leapfrog development," but this has now disappeared. It may be a result of Beijing's worry that such leapfrog development would make the world uneasy about China's growing strengths. In terms of nuclear weapons, previous versions only talked about arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation.

In the latest version, however, Beijing says that nuclear arms are meant to provide means of self defense, that it remains firmly committed to the policy of no first use and that it exercises great restraint in developing its nuclear force. These are official statements which have remained unchanged since China's first nuclear test in 1964, but they now appear in the defense white paper for the first time. Moreover, the latest version makes a new statement: "China pursues a road of peaceful development, and endeavors to build, together with other countries a harmonious world of enduring peace and common prosperity." However, "the development of peaceful cross-strait reconciliation" which Beijing had often mentioned by fall of 2006 is not mentioned, which is consistent with the comments made by recent Chinese visitors to Taiwan.

In short, the 2006 white paper carries greater diplomatic than military significance. It transcends both the military dimension and Taiwan Strait concerns.

Chong-Pin Lin, a former deputy defense minister, is president of the Foundation on International and Cross-Strait Studies.

Translated by Daniel Cheng and Eddy Chang