China’s National Defense White Paper: How to Look Tough, but Not Too Tough

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For Beijing, managing perceptions of the country’s military modernization program is no easy task. On one hand, it is important for China’s leaders to show, both to citizens at home and potential rivals abroad, that they are cultivating a capable and powerful fighting force. At the same time, too enthusiastic a display of armed might, as in the parade that marked the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic in 2009, hardly sends a message of harmony to the neighborhood.

Those dueling impulses—the need to look tough but not too tough—can each be found in China’s latest national defense white paper. The document released Thursday seeks to present a responsible and growing military power that is prudently responding to a complex set of challenges. While not specifically addressing military spending, which has seen double-digit percentage increases for most of the past two decades, including 12.7% this year, it did portray the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army as in-line with the overall economic growth of the country.

The report lists threats from terrorism, separatist movements in the regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, “intermittent tension on the Korean Peninsula” and a “serious” security situation in Afghanistan as ongoing concerns. “International military competition remains fierce,” the report said, adding that in the Asia-Pacific region, “the United States is reinforcing its regional military alliances, and increasing its involvement in regional security affairs.” The report also criticized U.S. sales of military hardware to Taiwan, the self-governed island that China considers part of its territory that must eventually be reunited. Previous arms deals have led to difficult periods in Sino-U.S. relations, most recently last year when President Barack Obama’s approval of a $6.4 billion arms package led China to cut of military ties for months.

Those ties only got back on track in late 2010, likely because China’s President Hu Jintao wanted to smooth over potential disagreements before his first state visit to Washington in January. But even that process was fraught. When Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Beijing shortly before Hu’s trip, a prototype of China’s new J-20 stealth fighter took its first test flight over an airfield in southwest China. The stealth fighter didn’t merit a mention in the white paper, nor did the anti-ship ballistic missile or aircraft carrier China is developing. “Suspicion about China, interference and countering moves against China from the outside are on the increase,” the report noted. And too much news about the country’s new military hardware might only add to that.