Category: China

China’s New Military Strategy

In a new article in the China Brief, I show that terminology in the 2015 defense white paper indicates that China has officially changed its national military strategy.  The goal of the new strategy is “winning informationized local wars,” with an emphasis on the maritime domain.

This marks only the ninth military strategy that China has adopted since the founding of the PRC in 1949 and will guide the PLA’s approach to modernization in the coming decade.

To read the article, point your browsers here



Conflict and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region

Last week, the Carnegie Endowment issued a strategic net assessment of the Asia-Pacific region that I and many others contributed to writing.

The report takes a long view, looking out over the next 5-25 years, and outlines five possible futures that range for more cooperative to more conflictual outcomes as well as recommendations for avoiding the most dangerous outcomes.

Read the Executive Summary here or the full report here.

The Myth of China’s Counter-intervention Strategy

Chris Twomey and I have just published an article in The Washington Quarterly on Chinese military strategy.

Increasingly, journalists, policy analysts and scholars as well as selected U.S. government documents describe China as pursuing a ”counter-intervention” strategy to forestall the U.S. ability to operate in a regional conflict.  Moreover, the concept of counter-intervention (fan ganyu) is attributed to the writings of Chinese strategits, as a China’s own version of an anti-access / area denial strategy

Nevertheless, as we show in the article, China does not actually use the term counter-intervention to describe its own military strategy, much less a broader grand strategic goal to oppose the role of the United States in regional affairs.  When Chinese sources do refer to related concepts such as “resisting” or “guarding against” intervention, they are describing as one of the many subsidiary components of campaigns and contingencies that have more narrow and specific goals, especially a conflict over Taiwan.

This misunderstanding or misreading of China’s military strategy is consequential for several reasons: it overstates the U.S. role in Chinese military planning, it can divert analysis from other aspects of China’s military modernization and it exacerbates the growing security dilemma between the United States and China.

The article can be downloaded here

U.S. Policy in the South China Sea

I recently published a short policy brief for the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University that examines the evolution of U.S. policy toward the disputes in the South China Sea since 1995.

Here’s the executive summary:

U.S. policy toward the disputes in the South China Sea has four features. First, the United States has altered its policy in response to changes in the level of tensions in the dispute. Second, U.S. policy toward the South China Sea has been premised on the principle of maintaining neutrality regarding the conflicting claims to sovereignty. Third, as its involvement in managing tensions has increased, the United States has emphasised the process and principles by which claims should be pursued more than the final outcome or resolution of the underlying disputes, especially conflict management through the conclusion of a binding code of conduct between ASEAN and China. Fourth, U.S. policy in the South China Sea has sought to shape China’s behaviour in the South China Sea by highlighting the costs of coercion and the pursuit of claims that are inconsistent with customary international law. Looking forward, the involvement of the United States in seeking to manage tensions in the South China Sea is likely to continue so long as the territorial and maritime jurisdictional disputes remain unresolved and states take declaratory steps and operational actions to assert and defend their claims.

Read the full report here.


China, Japan, and the U.S.—Will Cooler Heads Prevail?

I joined the conversation over the Asia Society’s ChinaFile on tensions between the China, the United States and Japan.

Specifically, I addressed a question “will China attempt to take the Senkakus by force?”

Let me pick up on Isaac’s first question, “will China attempt to take the Senkakus by force?”

Iain Johnston and I recently analyzed data on the frequency of Chinese Coast Guard patrols within the twelve nautical mile territorial waters of the islands. Since September 2012, China has used these patrols to challenge Japan’s sovereignty and administration of these disputed rocks.

For the past six months, however, China has reduced significantly the frequency of patrols it conducts within the island’s territorial waters. Before October 2013, it conducted a patrol roughly once per week, on average. Since then, it has conducted a patrol once every two weeks. In sum, the rate of patrols has dropped by half—and is statistically significant.

The reduced frequency of these patrols is noteworthy for several reasons. First, as Iain and I suggested, China may be signaling limits on its willingness to escalate, at least for now. Second, by reducing the number of patrols, China is also reducing the opportunities for an accident or incident to occur between Chinese and Japanese ships. Such an event, especially if it involved fatalities, could spark a much more intense crisis and greater incentives to use force on both sides.

Turning to Isaac’s question, the reduction in the frequency of these patrols is inconsistent with an escalation of pressure that might culminate in a decision by China to use force. Instead, China appears to have adopted a long-term view of dispute that does not involve taking them by force. Last summer, for example, a meeting of prominent Chinese government analysts concluded that China should “avoid an incident that sparks a war” over the islands. They also assessed that the dispute would persist for a long time to come and that it was therefore urgent to reduce the possibility and risk of a collision at sea.

Finally, a broader point. If China seized islands by force, they would be nearly impossible to defend from a counter-attack, as Gen. John Wissler noted; Moreover, a counter-attack to retake the islands would risk a much wider war, which China as well as the United States and Japan want to avoid.China’s leaders have quite likely anticipated such a scenario, which explains the emphasis on a long-term effort to challenge Japan’s control of the islands and surrounding waters with its coast guard and not its naval forces.

Hainan’s New Fishing Rules: A Preliminary Analysis

Hainan’s provincial government has become an increasingly prominent and active player in the South China Sea disputes.  In November 2012, Hainan’s People’s Congress issued new regulations on coastal border security that raised questions about freedom for navigation in the South China Sea (see analysis hereand here).

In November 2013, the same legislative body issued “measures” (banfa, 办法) or rules for the province’s implementation of China’s 2004 fisheries law.  These new rules, which took effect on January 1, raise questions about China’s efforts to exercise jurisdiction over all fishing activities in the disputed South China Sea.

Current concerns focus on Article 35 of Hainan’s new fishing rules. This article states that “foreigners or foreign fishing ships entering sea areas administered by Hainan and engaged in fishery production or fishery resource surveys should receive approval from relevant departments of the State Council.” As the news reportannouncing the new rules indicated, the “sea areas administered by Hainan” constitute 2,000,000 square kilometers, more than half of the South China Sea. If implemented, the measures would constitute an effort to control fishing in the entire region in a manner that is clearly inconsistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In assessing the potential implications of these measures for the disputes in the South China Sea, several points bear consideration.  All told, the new measures reflect part of a continuing effort to affirm and reaffirm China’s claims in the South China Sea, but are unlikely in the short to medium term to result in a sustained Chinese effort to control fishing in these vast waters.

To start, the new measures do not contain any new language regarding foreign fishing vessels in waters that China claims. In fact, the Hainan rules simply repeat almost verbatim Section Two, Article 8 of China’s 2004 fisheries law, which states that foreign fishing vessels operating in sea areas administered by China should receive approval from relevant State Council departments. That is, the new Hainan rules affirmed the application of the 2004 national law to Hainan’s waters (which were already covered by the 2004 law).  Importantly, the recent Hainan rules do not outline or articulate a new policy position regarding foreign fishing vessels in Chinese claimed waters.

In addition, the 2013 rules do not mark the first time that Hainan has sought to regulate the activities of foreign fishing vessels in its waters.  In previous editions of the implementing measures issued for China’s national fisheries law in 1993 and 1998, Hainan’s legislature also required that foreign fishing vessels receive permission to operate in the province’s waters.

Likewise, apart from Article 35, the other forty articles in the newly issued rules discuss rather mundane fishing issues and not the policing of Hainan’s waters. Various topics include fish-farming, fishing methods, the protection of fish stocks and so forth. One rule, for example, sets the minimum length for the catch of various species (e.g., 18 centimeters for lobsters). In other words, the main purpose of the implementing measures appears to be strengthening the regulation of fishing for an island province with a large fishing industry, not further bolstering China’s claims to fishing rights in the South China Sea.

Finally, the 2013 Hainan implementing measures do not state how the province intends to regulate the presence of foreign fishing vessels. Apart from stating that foreign fishing vessels must receive State Council approval to operate in Hainan’s waters, the measures do not discuss how the province will police foreign fishing vessels, including which agencies would be responsible for this mission or what rules of engagement would be used. The sheer size of the waters nominally under Hainan’s administration indicates that actual implementation of these new rules would be a daunting operational task, especially giving the various missions assigned to the newly-formed Chinese Coast Guard.

Any effort to implement these rules would also have to be balanced against China’s relations with other states adjacent to the South China Sea. In 2009, China aggressively policed foreign fishing vessels around the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam. In particular, China seized or detained 33 Vietnamese fishing boats with 433 Vietnamese fishermen. China’s assertive actions worsened ties with Vietnam, which subsequently improved after 2011. Clashes between the Chinese authorities and Vietnamese fishing vessels have declined significantly (though some still occur) and the two sides have established a hotline to deal with fisheries issues.

Looking forward, the reference to foreign fishing vessels in Hainan’s new fishing rules reflects a continued desire to affirm Chinese claims in the South China Sea and to do so in a way that is inconsistent with UNCLOS. Nevertheless, the key question is whether China is able – or even willing – to implement the new rules actively and aggressively throughout these waters.

[This originally appeared in The Diplomat.]

Xi Jinping and China’s Maritime Disputes

At the end of July, the Chinese Communist Party’s ruling Politburo held a special study session on the nation’s growing maritime power, which has helped cause controversy with several neighboring states. Official media reports about the meeting emphasized a speech by President Xi Jinping that repeated the main policy themes from the recent 18th Party Congress, calling for China to become a major maritime power by developing its maritime resources and protecting the ocean environment.

But Xi’s most interesting remarks have received scant attention. Under China’s system of collective leadership, speeches at Politburo meetings usually reflect the consensus of the participants – in this case, China’s top 25 leaders. Near the end of his address at the most recent study session, Xi discussed China’s ongoing maritime disputes and predictably repeated many now common talking points, such as “never giving up its legitimate rights and interests,” especially the nation’s core interests. Nevertheless, two other phrases he used may illuminate how Beijing may handle these disputes and therefore deserve greater attention. Xi’s remarks suggest that Beijing may be reconsidering the merits of its most assertive actions in the East and South China Seas—ones that have caused grave diplomatic problems with Japan and many Southeast Asian countries.

First, Xi repeated the late Deng Xiaoping’s 12-character guideline for dealing with territorial disputes over offshore islands such as the Spratlys and Senkaku/Diaoyu. In a series of statements between 1979 and 1984, Deng had outlined his more moderate approach, later summarized as “sovereignty remains ours; shelve disputes; pursue joint development.” In recent years, Chinese scholars and analysts have debated the merits of that approach, sometimes criticized for failing to prevent what have been perceived infringements of Chinese sovereignty. For example, just last year a prominent analyst at the China Contemporary Institutes of International Relations, Chen Xiangyang, called for a more assertive policy. In particular, he suggested that Deng’s guideline be replaced with a tougher approach: “sovereignty of course is ours; maintain the dispute stage; seize the initiative to pursue development; strengthen crisis management and control” (zhuquan dangran zaiwo, jieduanxing baochi zhengyi, zhuajin zizhu kaifa, qianghua weiji guangkong).

However, by repeating Deng’s 12-character guideline, Xi endorsed and affirmed Deng’s earlier position on behalf of the entire Politburo (including two of the People’s Liberation Army’s top generals, Fan Changlong and Xu Qiliang). By stating what the party line should be, Xi indirectly addressed the internal debate about Deng’s guideline. Of course, Deng did not offer a plan for resolving the underlying sovereignty disputes, but the Politburo’s affirmation of Deng’s approach indicates that Beijing will be patient, and pursue temporary measures to reduce tensions. It also undermines a growing belief overseas that China is becoming increasingly impatient at sea.

A few days later, Foreign Minister Wang Yi illustrated what Xi’s remarks could mean in reality. During a tour of Southeast Asia, Wang indicated that a final resolution could only be achieved through bilateral talks and would “take time,” while progress on a much-needed Code of Conduct for minimizing maritime problems could only be achieved without outside interference (read: the Philippine decision to seek international arbitration rather than direct diplomatic talks). Thus, Wang emphasized “actively” exploring joint development, though he failed to offer any specific details about how to do so.

Second, Xi said in his speech that China must “plan as a whole the two overall situations of maintaining stability and safeguarding rights” (yao tongchou weiwen  he weiyuan liangge daju), the first time such a phrase has been used by a top leader. This seemed to give equal importance to maintaining regional stability (weiwen) and safeguarding China’s “maritime rights and interests” (weiquan).

In past speeches by China’s top leaders, a reference to the “overall situation” (daju) typically described a primary national interest that Beijing should not allow to be harmed or undermined by specific state policies. In the 1990s, for example, speeches on military modernization asserted that increases in defense spending must be coordinated with the overall progress of economic reform – that is, spending should not increase at the expense of broader goals. More recently, in 2006, during a major speech on Chinese diplomacy, then-President Hu Jintao referred to the equal importance of managing the domestic and international overall situations (guonei, guowai, liangge daju). As Bonnie Glaser from the Center for International and Strategic Studies observed then, Hu’s statement reflected the judgment that Beijing’s domestic policy of urging enterprises to invest abroad had backfired by harming China’s image in the world.

In his speech to the Politburo, Xi thus highlighted the contradiction between China’s enhanced efforts to defend its claimed maritime rights and its desire for regional  stability. This matters for several reasons. First, it represents a recognition that Beijing’s maritime assertiveness has harmed its other interests, especially the role of other states in regional security affairs. Since 2010, for example, the United States has clarified its policy in the South China Sea, while deepening its alliance with Japan and underscoring its commitment to defend the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (which Japan administers) under Article V of their mutual defense treaty. Tokyo meanwhile has pursued greater maritime and security cooperation with Hanoi and Manila, among others, including by providing patrol boats.

Second, the stress on the need to balance these competing interests suggests limits to how either will be pursued going forward. On the one hand, China will not rule out reacting to perceived challenges simply to maintain regional stability. On the other hand, China’s defense of its maritime claims will also face hard constraints, lest they further worsen its position in the region. How these interests will be balanced may become apparent as a newly formed Chinese Coast Guard under a reorganized State Oceanic Administration shows how it plans to behave.

In sum, Xi’s remarks to the Politburo deserve special attention. They indicate China may not be as impatient about resolving the South China Sea disputes as some analysts have suggested. And they indicate China’s approach to these disputes may be more nuanced than expected by those who have labeled him as little more than a nationalist hardliner.

[This originally appeared in The Diplomat as “Xi Jinping’s Overlooked Revelation on China’s Maritime Disputes.”]

China Has Not (Yet) Changed Its Position on Nuclear Weapons

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, nuclear expert James Actonsuggests that China may be changing its nuclear doctrine.  The principal basis for his argument is the absence of a specific repetition of China’s “no first-use” policy in the latest edition of Beijing’s bi-annual white paper on defense.  Acton, however, misreads the recent white paper and draws the wrong conclusion about China’s approach to nuclear weapons.

First, no first use has been a core feature of Chinese defense policy for decades, having been decided by Mao himself in 1964.  If China abandoned or altered this policy position, it would reflect a major change in China’s approach to nuclear weapons – and a major change in China’s international image. This would not be a casual decision by China’s top leaders but rather a radical change precipitated by a major shift in China’s security environment. Although China’s concerns about U.S. missile defense policies that Acton notes are real, these concerns have existed since the mid-1990s and shape China’s current efforts to reduce the vulnerability of its nuclear forces.

To date, China has focused on building a small but potent nuclear force with the ability to launch a secure second strike if attacked with nuclear weapons – what I call “assured retaliation.”  The relatively small size of China’s nuclear arsenal and the doctrinal emphasis on survivability and reliability are consistent with a pledge to not use nuclear weapons first.  Moreover, if China were to abandon or alter the no first-use policy, it would surely want to reap a clear deterrent effect from such an action and likely do so clearly and publicly, not indirectly and quietly through an omission in a report.

Second, the absence of the no first-use policy in the 2012 white paper does not support Acton’s contention that China is changing its nuclear doctrine. Here, Acton overlooks that this edition of China’s bi-annual defense white papers is different from past volumes in one important respect.

According to Major General Chen Zhou, one of the white paper’s drafters and a researcher at the PLA’s Academy of Military Science, the 2012 white paper uses a thematic model (zhuanti xing) and not a comprehensive one. In the past, the comprehensively-oriented white papers all had the same title, suchChina’s National Defense in 2010.  The title of the 2012 edition, however, reflects the new thematic focus:Diversified Employment of China Armed Forces.  By discussing in more detail the structure and missions of China’s armed forces, the 2012 white paper dropped a chapter found in all previous ones entitled “National Defense Policy.”  In the past editions, this chapter contained the references to China’s no first-use policy (as well as many other defense policies).  Applying Occam’s razor, the lack of a chapter on China’s national defense policies can account for the absence of a reference to the no first-use policy.

In addition, the white paper’s discussion of the use of nuclear weapons is consistent with the no first-use policy.  The white paper refers to “the principle of building a lean and effective force,” repeating language from the 2006 white paper that officially detailed China’s nuclear strategy for the first time.  Second, it states that China’s nuclear weapons will only be used under one condition: “If China comes under a nuclear attack, the nuclear missile force of the [Second Artillery] will use nuclear missiles to launch a resolute counterattack (jianjue fanji).”  Here, the 2012 white paper uses the exact same sentence as the2008 white paper, which did contain a reference to the no first-use policy.  More generally, a nuclear counterattack is the only campaign for China’s nuclear forces that has been described in authoritative Chinese doctrinal texts, starting with the 1987 edition of the Science of Strategy (Zhanlue Xue).

Acton also cites a speech that Xi Jinping gave to party delegates from the Second Artillery in December 2012.  In public reporting of his speech, Xi stated that the Second Artillery provides “strategic support for our great power status.”  Xi also did not mention the no first-use policy.  But Xi did not mention any other elements of China’s nuclear policy, either, or anything related to when and how China’s nuclear forces would be used.  Instead, the absence of the no-first use policy in this speech was likely another “false negative” regarding a change in China’s nuclear doctrine.

Furthermore, Xi in his remarks praised the Second Artillery for “resolutely carrying out the policies and instructions of the party center and Central Military Commission.”  Given that Hu Jintao re-affirmed no first use at the April 2012 nuclear summit in Seoul, these “policies and instructions” would have included the no first-use policy.

To be clear, Chinese strategists have debated the merits of dropping or altering its no first-use policy.  The debate was especially intense during the mid to late 2000s.  Some participants in the debate suggested that no first use might not apply in certain situations that would be seen as equivalent of a “first use,” including conventional strikes on China’s nuclear forces or facilities as well as strikes on strategic targets like the Three Gorges Dam or the top Chinese leadership.  In the end, however, a high-level decision was made to maintain the no first-use policy and the internal debate concluded without any change to China’s position.

Nevertheless, although no first use remains a central part of China’s approach to nuclear weapons, a certain and perhaps growing ambiguity surrounds the policy.  As the Chinese debate indicates, under some set of extreme but nevertheless not implausible conditions, the policy might not serve as a constraint on first use even if China overall postures its forces primarily to deter a nuclear attack.  Likewise, in the heat of a crisis, actions taken to deter a nuclear strike against China, such has placing forces on high alert levels, might be seen as indicating a preparations to launch first and invite a pre-emptive strike.

Thus, I agree with Acton’s policy recommendation about the need for a U.S.-China dialogue on nuclear weapons even though I disagree with his argument about China’s nuclear doctrine.  More dialogue on strategic issues is needed at the highest levels between the United States and China, an area is prone to misperception and miscalculation.  The ambiguity and uncertainty about the no first-use policy should be discussed.  Indeed, General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should the issue of nuclear dialogue when he visits China this week.

[This first appeared in The Diplomat.]