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Separatism, space and security: China’s newest Defence White Paper

In July this year, China released its 11th national defence paper, titled ‘China’s National Defence in the New Era’, in which it explicitly recognised its immediate and potential security threats - while explaining its strategy to "resolutely safeguard China's sovereignty, security and development interests.”

The 51-page paper provides insights into China’s domestic and regional security vision as well as its threat perceptions, objectives, and key structural and technological developments taking place within its PLA forces.

While it isn't intended to be treated as a verbatim directive for China's armed forces, the White Paper is designed for external consumption and is highly instructive in assisting Australian policy-makers and China-watchers to anticipate and interpret China's defence strategy on the full gamut of issues that might arise. 

Topics covered therein range from the unilateralism of USA defence policies and NATO expansion towards Eastern Europe to terrorism and extremism and even a potential conflict between Russia and China. This article will only focus on several key issues.


In addition to the aforementioned external threats, the 2019 paper places considerable emphasis on domestic threat perceptions - notably the demands for independence concerning Taiwan, Tibet and the formation of 'East Turkistan'. Accordingly, the white paper stressed China’s territorial sovereignty and integrity as being of paramount importance in its current defence strategy.

Maritime Delimitation

As one of the most pressing global impasses, maritime delimitation issues were included prominently in the range of security risks - explaining China's need to develop the necessary capabilities to safeguard its territorial claims, including its "important waters, islands and reefs in the region". While the specific locations are not mentioned by name, and the rival claimants are also omitted, we can reasonably assume that these refer to the 'Nine-Dash Line' and man-made islands dotted across the South China Sea, East China Sea and the Yellow Sea.

Looking West

The white paper sheds light on Beijing's strategic concerns directed towards its neighbours along the western border, including deterring and combating border encroachment from neighbouring states, including India (with whom China shares an unresolved border). China hopes to simultaneously stop terrorist infiltration from Afghanistan, stem the overflow of Myanmar's civil war along the south-western border, and stamp-out transnational crime networks.

The Future Armed Forces

China's current military doctrine, as outlined in the report, is oriented towards making its armed forces more technological advanced, with fewer personnel, and with integrated command structures. President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign has also gained traction in the PLA, with the paper outlining the establishment of auditing committees tasked with eradicating corruption and improving governance.

In contrast to the reduction in the number of PLA personnel, the number of personnel in the PLA Air Force will remain steady. Reflecting the importance of maritime threats, the PLA Navy has reportedly increased - while PLA rocket forces and PLA combat forces are also tipped to expand and develop increased competencies in amphibious assault and strategic projections.

A Leader in Regional Cooperation

Challenging the USA-led regional security architecture in Asia, the paper advocates for China deepening its bilateral and multilateral security partnerships with neighbouring and regional countries. In recent years, China has participated in bilateral and multilateral joint military exercises, in addition to providing humanitarian assistance and conducting disaster relief exercises. Further, the paper expresses China's willingness to deepen its participation in UN peacekeeping operations - reflecting an eagerness to lead, arrange and influence humanitarian efforts.

"A Shared Destiny"

Australian policy-makers should pay particular attention to the White Paper's declaration that Asia-Pacific countries are “increasingly aware that they are members of a community with shared destiny” - invariably drawing Australia into its orbit. This phrase has not been clearly defined in the paper and as such, its ambiguity raises questions concerning Australia's role will be in fulfilling this 'shared destiny'. Despite the communal tone of the phrase, the paper blames “major country competition” as a major current and potential source of disruption to regional security. How China seeks to reconcile such "competition" within a "community" of regional players is yet to be seen.

The White Paper delivers the prevailing message that China's military ambitions, for now, are primarily focussed on crafting a lean and technologically-advanced force to protect its territorial and maritime claims. While the paper emphasises China's emphasis on self-defence, it makes "no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve all options of taking all necessary measures", and it is with this resolve in mind that Australia and other key regional players must engage with China.

Heath Sloane is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. 


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