On July 24, the Chinese government released “China’s National Defense in the New Era.” The Defense White Paper, Beijing’s first major military policy document in four years, basically summarized or expanded the main ideas and slogans that China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping, previously said in his key domestic and international speeches in recent years.
In many ways, this White Paper could be called “Xi Jinping’s White Paper in Xi Jinping’s New Era.” Like many of his major addresses, the paper portrayed two main – indeed conflicting – pictures of the Asian power. One is dovish and the other is hawkish.
As its primary target was the international audience, much of the paper focused on painting China as a peace-loving nation and a vital force for world peace. Such a benign and responsible picture of China was vehemently painted by Xi – the head of the ruling Communist Party (CPC), the People’s Republic (PRC) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – in many of his major international homilies.
For instance, in his keynote speech at the United Nations Office in Geneva in 2017, titled “Work Together to Build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind,” he claimed “China was never engaged in aggression or expansion” and “remains unchanged in its commitment to uphold world peace.”
Quoting Confucius, who said, “Do not do to others what you do not want others to do to you,” Xi vowed, “No matter how strong its economy grows, China will never seek hegemony, expansion or sphere of influence,” adding, “History has borne this out and will continue to do so.”
China’s latest defense paper reasserted that the country “has always loved peace” and since its founding 70 years ago, the PRC “has never started any war or conflict.” It then stated that China “stands against aggression and expansion, and opposes arbitrary use or threat of arms.… History proves and will continue to prove that China will never follow the beaten track of big powers in seeking hegemony. No matter how it might develop, China will never threaten any other country or seek any sphere of influence.” What’s more, it declared, such a peaceful stance “is the distinctive feature of China’s national defense in the new era.”
To portray the PRC as a benign and altruistic nation, which deeply cares about world peace and humanity, the document, which says China’s defense policy “is defensive in nature,” even claims that the development of China’s national defense aims not just “to meet its rightful security needs” but also “to contribute to the growth of the world’s peaceful forces.” According to the paper, China’s armed forces make “a positive contribution to building a community with a shared future for mankind.”
According to the paper, China’s armed forces make ‘a positive contribution to building a community with a shared future for mankind’
“Building a community with a shared future for mankind” is, of course, a catchphrase that was omnipresent in Xi’s speeches at international forums, such as the UN Office in Geneva or the Davos-based World Economic Forum. That’s why it’s unsurprising that the White Paper dared to declare, “A strong military of China is a staunch force for world peace, stability and the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.”
To depict China as a dovish country, if not the most benign and responsible nation on Earth, the paper also denounced what it called “growing hegemonism, power politics, unilateralism” and name-checked the United States as well as other countries, including regional American allies, such as Australia and Japan, and their actions and policies.
It accused the US of, among other things, “engaging in technological and institutional innovation in pursuit of absolute military superiority” and provoking “[military] competition among major countries.” The 50-page (in English) paper observed that “Japan has adjusted its military and security policies and increased input accordingly, thus becoming more outward-looking in its military endeavors,” while noting, “Australia continues to strengthen its military alliance with the US and its military engagement in the Asia-Pacific, seeking a bigger role in security affairs.”
Yet those for which the paper reserved the strongest criticisms were what it called the “‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces,” “external separatist forces for ‘Tibet independence’” and “the creation of ‘East Turkistan.’” According to the paper, those “separatist forces” are “posing threats to China’s national security and social stability” and “the fight against [them] is becoming more acute.”
Other major threats facing China identified by the document are existing disputes “over the territorial sovereignty of some islands and reefs, as well as maritime demarcation,” extra-regional countries’ conduct of “frequent close-in reconnaissance on China by air and sea” and their “illegally [entering] China’s territorial waters and the waters and airspace near China’s islands and reefs.”
That’s why the text stated that “resolutely safeguarding China’s sovereignty, security and development interests … is the fundamental goal of China’s national defense in the new era” and listed a number of China’s national defense aims, which included: safeguarding “national sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity and security” and its “maritime rights and interests.”
Again, none of this was new. It appeared in many of Xi Jinping’s earlier addresses, notably those aimed at Chinese audiences. His speech at the CPC’s 2017 National Congress plainly stated that the Asian power “must put [its] national interests first” and “will resolutely safeguard [its] sovereignty, security, and development interests” and warned, “No one should expect China to swallow anything that undermines its interests.”
Addressing the 2018 National People’s Congress, the PRC’s rubber-stamp legislature, he swore that China would protect “every inch” of its territory and was ready “to fight bloody battles” against its enemies.
Like those nationalistic speeches by Xi, Beijing’s 2019 Defense White Paper portrays another – indeed opposing – image of China, which is very nationalistic and forceful.
In stating that “China resolutely safeguards its national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the paper claimed, “The South China Sea islands and Diaoyu Islands are inalienable parts of the Chinese territory.” It also asserted, “China exercises its national sovereignty to build infrastructure and deploy necessary defensive capabilities on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea, and to conduct patrols in the waters of Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.”
But other disputing countries, most of the regional countries and the international community at large oppose or disagree with such maritime claims and conducts by China.
For instance, no other countries, let alone any of the South China Sea nations, publicly accept Beijing’s so-called “nine-dash line” – a controversial line it uses to claim historic rights to virtually all waters and seabed in the resource-rich and strategically vital waters, including the areas that lie within the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and continental shelves of other claimant states, such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.
Indeed, in 2016, a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) arbitral tribunal found that “there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources” within this U-shaped line. Despite such a legally binding verdict, China continues to use the line as the basis on which to force its smaller neighbors to stop their rightful activities, including gas and oil operations, in their EEZs or continental shelves.
To many people, China has carried out many illegal and aggressive actions, including reclamation and militarization of disputed outposts, in the South China Sea in recent years.
China’s recent sending of its survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 and other heavily armed coast-guard vessels to an area within Vietnam’s EEZ is a case in point. During the last few weeks, not only Vietnam but also the US and many international observers stated that China clearly violated Vietnam’s EEZ, as established in the 1982 UNCLOS.
On July 20, the US State Department expressed its concerns over “China’s interference with oil and gas activities in the South China Sea, including Vietnam’s long-standing exploration and production activities” and called on Beijing to “ease its bullying behavior and refrain from engaging in this type of provocative and destabilizing activity.”
At a press conference with Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai in Bangkok last Thursday, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo “conveyed to the foreign minister what the US is asking of all our Indo-Pacific partners … [among other things] to speak out against Chinese coercion in the South China Sea.”
A report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative on July 16 said, “China’s actions off both the Malaysian and Vietnamese coasts since May show that Beijing is increasingly willing to employ coercion and the threat of force to block oil and gas operations by its neighbors, even while pursuing its own energy exploration in disputed waters.”
All in all, when it comes to the South China Sea, it is right to say that it is the hawkish China – not the dovish one – that guides not just Beijing’s deeds but also its words. Indeed, as argued previously, the Asian behemoth is acting like a bully in this sea.