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5 Things America Needs to Know about China's New Military Strategy

On Tuesday, the Chinese Ministry of Defense issued its first policy document in two years, a white paper titled, “Chinese Military Strategy.” The document, released amid ongoing Chinese island reclamation and increasingly hostile warnings to U.S. Navy aviation assets operating in the South China Sea, outlines how the Chinese armed forces are expected to support Beijing’s geopolitical objectives.

In the white paper, a copy of which can be read online in English or Chinese, China vows to use the armed forces to create a “favorable strategic posture with more emphasis on the employment of military forces and means,” in order to guarantee the country’s peaceful development. The document also less-than-subtly indicts the United States (and other neighbors) for taking “provocative actions” surrounding Chinese reefs and islands.

Five major elements of the strategy worthy of American attention stand out:

1. Preserving the role of the Communist Party remains the People Liberation Army’s (PLA) number one priority:

The PLA’s most important task remains maintaining the power and authority of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The white paper makes it perfectly clear that the PLA first exists to protect the CPC and the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Notions of defending the Chinese homeland or the people of China take a back seat to preserving the legitimacy and efficacy of the CPC. After all, the PLA is an arm of the CPC—not the Chinese state—and thus the Chinese armed forces are tasked solely with defending the Party rather than the well-being of 1.3 billion Chinese people. Should economic, demographic, or social issues threaten CPC legitimacy, Xi has the option of utilizing PLA forces to quell political opposition and domestic unrest.

2. China is building a military to fight and win wars:

The Chinese military is focused on ensuring recent investments in the PLA translate into genuine warfighting capability. The white paper clearly states that the PLA intends to, “endeavor to seize the strategic initiative in military struggle, proactively plan for military struggle in all directions and domains, and grasp the opportunities to accelerate military building, reform and development.” The Chinese military desperately wants a military capable of going on the offensive and defeating any challengers. The white paper gives particular emphasis to Chinese naval ambitions of becoming a blue water force. A Chinese blue water navy will operate regularly beyond the “first island chain” separating the South China, East China, and Yellow Seas from the Pacific, to protect Chinese strategic interests.

For officials in Beijing, a blue water navy is a modernized force capable of defending territorial claims, conducting global operations, and perhaps most significantly,constituting a “real challenge” to the U.S. Navy. While the desire for a capable blue water navy is not surprising, it serves as a warning to other nations in the region, a warning that is unlikely to ease existing tensions with neighboring Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. A Chinese military that is built to fight and win wars is also a military that could show little reluctance in using force to assert sovereignty.

3. The PLA appears focused on perceived threats from the United States, Japan, Taiwan, South China Sea littoral states and the Koreas:

The white paper and its reworked strategic guidelines reflect a perception of “new” national security issues: the U.S. rebalance to Asia; Japanese revisions to military and security policy; external countries meddling in Chinese territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere; instability and uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula; and independence movements simmering in both Taiwan and Tibet. Beijing’s security interests now lie farther from home, and across regions requiring an active military presence. The PLA leadership is seeking to equip and train its forces to meet new perceptions of the Chinese security environment. In doing so, the latest white paper makes certain China has no qualms in upholding a military strategy of “active defense,” or what the document breaks down into a combination of strategic defense, self-defense, operational and tactical offense, and a willingness to counterattack.

4. The Chinese military knows it has some big organizational hurdles to overcome:  

The white paper examines necessary measures to overhaul the daily operations and internal structure of the PLA. These include: giving continued priority to ideological and political work, modernizing logistics infrastructure, establishing a military law system, and integrating military and civilian support efforts. Specifically at the domestic level, the white paper stresses the need to improve national defense education, boost public awareness of the Chinese military, and rethink processes for bringing on PLA enlistees. These initiatives all appear to be aimed at tackling existing weaknesses in organizational and human capital to yield a stronger military force.

5. The good news: China is interested in military-to-military contacts and relationships and the white paper is a sign of increased transparency:

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