In December 2004 China released its latest and fourth Defence White Paper. It is important to examine it, as it reflects the developments and provides a glimpse inside the largest armed forces in the world. It is also an Army which is regularising and transforming itself rapidly. Though not yet acquiring the latest weapons and equipment, it is modernising under the euphemism to develop a "capability to win local wars under informationalised conditions". Next only to the US, China's defence expenditure has been growing more rapidly than any other country in the world. From a Chinese perspective this Defence White Paper is an attempt both at transparency and to justify the theory of its "peaceful rise'. Does the White Paper succeed in this task? Does it provide any useful additional information on the direction the PLA is heading? What should India note from these developments?
The last Defence White Paper was issued in 2002. It too was reasonably comprehensive and was in seven chapters. The newest one has ten. The difference is mainly in how the information has been restructured. Additional information provided now includes chapters on 'Revolution in Military Affairs with Chinese Characteristics', the 'Military Service System' and 'Defence Expenditure and Defence Assets'. China, unlike other nations such as say India, has yet to standardise the Report, which does not allow easy comparison with earlier versions.
This is the only second time that we have a reasonably comprehensive statement of defence policy from China, unlike the first two that provided information on specific issues only. The Report sees greater trend towards multi-polarization and economic globalisation and an 'intertwining of traditional and non-traditional security'. This emphasises once again China's perception of security as 'comprehensive' in nature, an idea, which it has consistently articulated over the years. Comprehensive national security is aimed at securing China from political, economic, military and social threats. The PLA's role encompasses all these areas and its subordination to the Party is reiterated as before.
Regarding external threats, it is concerned about the situation in the Taiwan Straits, which it sees as "grim". The verdict overall though is that the international security environment has improved for China. This is something of an understatement. After 9/11 there was a dramatic turn around in US policy towards China. From a likely future peer competitor and a challenge, Beijing has emerged as a strategic partner in the 'global war on terror'. In the other principal concern of the US, to prevent the 'axis of evil' countries from acquiring nuclear weapons, China has transformed its role from being the most likely proliferator to a key partner, as reflected in its role in the North Korean six party talks. What is China likely to make of this opportunity? Is the White Paper's highlighting of the Taiwan 'crisis' an attempt to resolve the issue favourably once and for all when the US remains distracted?
In the operational arena, the emphasis is on two areas; preparation for 'informationalised' warfare and jointness. The modernisation of the PLA will concentrate on creating what is termed an all round 'informationalised' force. This is understood in other armies to include enhancing war capabilities through better command and control, intelligence, electronic capabilities, psychological operations, cyber warfare and network centric warfare. Each is a distinct area of specialisation, there is little clue in the Report as to what has priority or what specific issues are to be addressed. Except that developing an 'automated command system' for the PLA has been cleared and guidelines for its implementation have been issued. The emphasis on modernisation, education and training pervades through much of the Report, particularly higher education for the officer corps, which has been a traditional weakness. An integrated tri-service logistics support system is being implemented in the Jinan Military Region since July 2004 to promote jointness.
Like in all armies, modernisation has to be accompanied by reduction in numbers. PLA strength is projected to go down by 200,000 soldiers to 2.3 million by the end of 2005. This is in continuation of other reductions initiated since the late 1980's reflecting its improved strategic environment. Even then it will remain substantially larger than any other army in the world. Service wise priority in modernisation will remain the Navy, the Air Force and the Second Artillery with land forces coming last.
The section on the Military Service System provides clear information for the first time on the service conditions in the PLA. Conscripts provide the rank and file for the Force with minimum service for two years. NCOs and above are all volunteers, each serving for a fixed number of terms of varying periods each depending on rank. Officer ranks are in ten grades in three categories. Maximum age for each rank has been laid down, which is substantially lower than in the Indian Army, a key command advantage that the PLA enjoys and which can be a battle wining factor.