China released its first white paper on military strategy at the end of last month. Issued by the State Council Information Office, the white paper outlines China’s strategy of “active defense,” and highlights four critical security domains: the ocean, outer space, cyberspace, and nuclear forces. For the states of Southeast Asia, China’s outlined military strategy for the ocean is going to be of particular interest, and is likely to elicit much concern. A number of regional states have been engaged in maritime territorial disputes with China.
In recent years, China has become more assertive in its claims that the whole South China Sea falls under its control. China’s white paper will have a number of implications for these regional states, and for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which to date has had little success in bringing an end to the maritime conflict. With ASEAN essentially moribund, the states of Southeast Asia will increasingly engage in both internal and external balancing to counter the Chinese threat. This will manifest itself in increased regional defense spending, and enhanced security commitments with external powers.
Although China’s white paper outlines four critical security domains, it is likely that China’s military strategy with respect to the ocean will elicit most concern for the states of Southeast Asia. According to the white paper, some of China’s “offshore neighbors” have taken “provocative actions” in the South China and East China seas, and have established their presence on China’s islands “illegally.” The paper also highlights how “some external countries are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs; a tiny few maintain close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China.” While the U.S. is not named explicitly, there is little doubt as to which country China is referring to here. Faced with these territorial threats, the report states, “in line with the evolving form of war and national security situation, the basic point for PMS [preparation for military struggle] will be placed on winning informationized local wars, highlighting maritime military struggle and maritime PMS.” To counter new threats, “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned.” China will therefore develop “a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security and development interests [and] safeguard its national sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.” The PLA Navy will enhance its capabilities for “open seas protection,” including deterrence and counterattack. In accordance with its policy of “active defense,” the paper claims that China “will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked.”