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The limits of transparency: China releases 2010 Defense White Paper

By Dean Cheng - posted Tuesday, 12 April 2011

On March 31, the Chinese Ministry of Defense released the 2010 edition of China's National Defense. As Chinese officials have emphasized, the biennial Chinese defense white paper is intended to serve as a mark of China's steadily growing transparency in military affairs. It provides an inside look at China's military establishment, including its national defense strategy, the missions of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), and such aspects as Chinese mobilization planning and arms control policies.

But Chinese transparency has its limits. For those who hope to find out details on some of the most controversial and worrying developments in China's military modernization-the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile system that threatens U.S. aircraft carriers or the new J-20 stealth fighter-the new white paper will prove disappointing.

Nonetheless, a careful examination of the document provides some indications of Chinese thinking on key international security issues-even as it also raises questions.


Ground, Air, and Naval Modernization

According to the new white paper, key tasks for the PLA in the coming year include:

  • Supporting "national economic and social development";
  • Defending Chinese land and maritime territories and supporting Chinese security interests in outer space and cyber space; and
  • Helping to maintain world peace and stability.

These tasks closely mirror the "new historic missions" of the PLA as outlined by Hu Jintao in 2004. The duty of supporting and preserving the Chinese Communist Party is not explicitly mentioned as part of national defense policy. But the paper notes that new PLA regulations on political work expressly stipulate that the political work of the PLA must guarantee-politically, ideologically, and organizationally-the nature of the people's army under the absolute leadership of the Party.

In support of these missions, the paper provides explicit official overviews of Chinese military modernization efforts. As the paper notes, the PLA is focusing on transforming itself from focusing on quantity, scale, and manpower to quality, efficiency, and technology. This rejects the old image of a PLA that relied on mass and numbers to overwhelm an opponent; tomorrow's PLA will be fielding high-tech weapons and be a smarter, more agile opponent. In this regard, as the paper notes, the PLA is emphasizing "informationization"-the integration of information systems into combat, combat support, and combat service support functions across all the services.

The paper also provides some glimpses into key areas of development within each of the services. The Chinese intend to expand the capabilities of combat engineers and army aviation, put more emphasis on "distant waters"-which likely equates with blue-water naval operations-and expand air defense roles from the defense of Beijing to establishing air superiority over the coasts and borders, including in the electromagnetic realm.


The paper explicitly acknowledges that the Second Artillery is responsible for both nuclear and conventional missiles. It also notes that the Second Artillery, like the navy, will enhance its strategic deterrent missions, signaling growing emphasis on its nuclear roles. There is also reference to Second Artillery "defensive operations," which may be an allusion to an interest in ballistic missile defense capabilities. (One Chinese exo-atmospheric test in 2010 was described at the time as an anti-missile interception.)

For the three services (ground, air, and navy), there is also repeated references to the growing importance of "military operations other than war." This includes disaster relief efforts as well as activities such as anti-piracy patrols.

Other Security Issues

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About the Author

Dean Cheng is Research Fellow in Chinese Political and Security Affairs in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Dean Cheng

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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