Assessing Security Threats:
China’s 2020 Defense White Paper
Chinese media rarely reports more than “a friendly exchange of views” on the phone conversations of its high dignitaries. Xinhua, the national Chinese media agency may, at times, indicate the phone calls between the Chinese leaders and their foreign counterparts were an indicator of the “friendly and cooperative relations” between the two countries. The inveterate China observer will clearly recognise this practice. The same inveterate China observer would have a surprise at how the conversation between the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, and his Russian counterpart, has been reflected in the national media.
Far from the well-established pattern of vagueness, the website of China’s executive arm (gov.cn) provided an almost verbatim reproduction of the “colourful” language used during the July 18 Wang-Lavrov conversation. We thus find that, in Wang Yi’s opinion, US “has lost its mind, morals and credibility” and adopted an “outdated Cold War mentality and intentionally stirred up ideological opposition.” In the end, Wang Yi’s proposal to increase strategic coordination with Moscow offers an insightful look into China’s future foreign policy direction.
While such language is seldom used in diplomatic talks, what is even rarer is that the conversation was – partially – uploaded on the Chinese government’s website. Needless to say, such assertive comments were displayed for a reason and most likely it has to do with China’s assertiveness and ambition or the “Chinese Dream of National Rejuvenation”, as the official narrative has it.
But the Wang-Lavrov phone call is not the only hint to a China that has long moved from the “taoguang yanghui” (“keeping a low profile”) view of Deng Xiaoping. Another apparently strong signal of China’s assertiveness came this month. As the Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China has accustomed its avid readers since 1995, July is the month when China’s defense white paper gets published. The practice was temporarily interrupted after 2015 and came back into practice since last year.
Such white papers normally expound China's military strategy, paying a special importance to the country's military missions and strategic task abroad. China's defense white paper similarly sets the tone for China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) priorities. For instance, the 2015 white paper indicated "the long-standing task for China to safequard its maritime rights and interests", while acknowledging that some of China's "offshore neighbors take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied." A new strategic task has been thus added: "To safeguard the security of China's overseas interests"
The importance of the 2015 China Defense white paper in anticipating the on going developments in the South China Sea cannot be denied. What is, then, the role of the 2020 Defense blueprint?
The document assesses the international strategic landscape in the same terms as the Wang-Lavrov conversation, yet without calling names. We thus find out that “international security system and order are undermined by growing hegemonism, power politics, unilateralism and constant regional conflicts and wars.” Specifically, we learn that the “US has adjusted its national security and defense strategies, and adopted unilateral policies.” NATO is also addressed, as it “stepped up military deployment in Central and Eastern Europe, and conducted frequent military exercises.”
However, in terms of security risks faced by China, we find out that the inner threats occupy a primary role. First listed are the “Taiwan authorities, led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)”, which are deemed as the “gravest immediate threat to peace and stability”. Right after come the <<separatist forces for “Tibet independence” and the creation of “East Turkistan”>>
“Land territorial disputes” and “maritime demarcation” are only listed after the inner threats. Such a view denotes the special importance China attaches to separatism and a growing importance to be attached to the inner security threats. Surprisingly, despite the recent riots in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and the controversial National Security Law, the case does not receive any attention in the white paper.
Yet, the inner security threat does not resume to the “Taiwan independence”, “Tibet independence” and “East Turkistan”, which occupy only the third and forth place among China’s national defense aims. While the primary goal of the Chinese Defense remains, traditionally, “to deter and resist aggression”, its secondary priority is to safeguard “national political security, the people’s security and social stability”.
It may come as a surprise, for some, that national defense sees “political security” or “social stability” higher on the priority list than, say, “national sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity and security” or “China’s maritime rights and interests”. But not for the attentive observer.
Rife with unequal treaties, political instability, foreign aggression and civil wars, China had its fair share of the evils of the 19th and 20th centuries. Since 1950s, however, the country has been peaceful, maintained its territorial integrity and sovereignty and did not fuel any major conflicts. Moreover, it became one of the largest contributors to the United Nations Peace Keeping Operations and a major provider of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. China flourished economically starting with the ‘80s, providing a unique example of tremendous economic success which lead to a massive increase in its citizens’ welfare. Many of them experienced a fantastic jump in terms of welfare; people who never had a TV, bought LCD flat screens as their first. My friend’s grandmother, who survived the great famine of ‘59-’61 by eating boiled tree bark, stayed in a four-star hotel when she first visited Beijing. People who never owned a car would buy mid-class Western brands as their first vehicle. But the memory of adversity remained and the recently-gained financial success was perceived as a direct result of the effective governance. It reinforced the political status-quo.
As welfare improved, so did education. China became an international educational hub with 492,000 international student visas being issued in 2018 only. Over 662,000 Chinese students went to pursue their degrees abroad in 2018. West’s expectations that engaging China in market-oriented reform will generate a political change has not been entirely misled. Talking with a 20-year old local for five minutes, will revolve around “Western lifestyle”, “Spotify” and “Facebook” (currently censored in China). The younger generation has little or no collective memory of the previous economic hardships China endured. The country’s fulminating economic development is no longer hailed in comparison with the previous scarcity, but viewed rather critically in comparison with the Western standard of living.
Appealing to a common security threat could only generate a feeling of unity among the Chinese people, young and old alike. While the collective memory of economic and social hardships varies according to age groups in China, a current threat applies indiscriminately. Using strong words in diplomatic talks (and reflecting them in media afterwards), hailing an assertive and ambitious discourse while pointing at common threats able to alter China’s welfare and individuals’ well-being is the fastest way to achieve a social cohesion that was fading away.
It is that vanishing social cohesion that constitutes China’s biggest security threat.
Dr. Nicuşor-Sever-Cosmin FLOREA*
Dr. Nicuşor-Sever-Cosmin FLOREA has over ten years of experience in the fields of Political Science, International Relations, Public International Law and Stakeholder Outreach in both academic institutions and corporate environments in China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Romania. He holds a summa cum laude PhD in International Law from China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL). His research focuses on China's engagement with International Law, China's Foreign Policy, CEE-China Cooperation Framework (the "16+1" mechanism) and the EU-China relations.
Dr. Florea published multiple articles, both in academic journals and popular periodicals, in both Chinese and English. He has been a Foreign Expert of People’s Republic of China between 2016 and 2019. Native Romanian speaker, he is proficient in English and Mandarin Chinese, while able to communicate in Indonesian, Malay and Italian.
* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the official policy, position or view of the Romanian Institute for Europe-Asia Studies - IRSEA or any of its partners.