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A nation must think before it acts.
On Tuesday, China published its latest defense white paper. Unlike its’ eight predecessors, this document was the first time that China publicly unveiled parts of its military strategy. Even the paper’s title was changed from China’s National Defense to China’s Military Strategy. Rather than the opaque and retrospective generalities found in earlier versions, the new white paper offered details about China’s strategic intentions and the future development of its military.
One Chinese military official went so far as to state that the greater transparency of the new white paper was a sign of a more confident China. That said, many of the revelations contained in the document were hardly novel. It profiled China’s decades-old “active defense” strategy, which maintains that China would always remain strategically defensive–though perhaps not so at the operational or tactical levels. It also detailed the Chinese military’s primary aim: to prepare itself to fight “local wars under conditions of informationization”—in other words, regional conflicts in which command, control, communications, intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (C4ISR) would play major roles. That too was already known.
But other revelations in the white paper were more illuminating. It showed that China intends to focus its force development in four domains: cyberspace (it will boost its cyber warfare capabilities); outer space (it will take steps to defend its interests there, even though it is opposed to the militarization of that domain); nuclear forces (it will build a reliable second-strike capability); and finally the oceans.
That last domain is what currently worries China’s neighbors the most, given Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Seas. Indeed, the white paper highlighted Beijing’s intentions to further expand the Chinese navy and extend the range of its operations—shifting from “offshore waters defense” to “open ocean protection.” The white paper argued that China’s growing overseas interests have changed the country’s focus from being a continental land power to a maritime power. That has led China to prioritize its navy in its military modernization plans. In what once would have been heresy in the Chinese military, the white paper declared that “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned.”
That means that in the future China would not only defend its coastline from attack, but also its sea lanes of communications through international shipping routes, including those from the Middle East through which over half of China’s oil flows. That, in turn, means countries like India will have to get used to seeing more of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean. By the same token, Japan and the United States should expect more Chinese naval and air patrols in the Pacific Ocean and maybe one or two more Chinese aircraft carriers.
The white paper also listed China’s strategic concerns. Chief among them was America’s “rebalance” toward Asia, under which the United States has increased its military presence and strengthened its alliances in the region. The white paper also noted Japan’s push to revise its military and security policies, characterizing them as “sparing no effort to dodge the post-war mechanism.” China’s “offshore neighbors” warranted mention too for their “provocative actions [to] reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied,” no doubt referring to the Philippines and Vietnam in the Spratly Islands.
While the white paper’s greater transparency may be the product of a more confident China, it is still a country that has not escaped the classic security dilemma. As the white paper itself observes, China’s neighbors are rearming and helping the United States bolster its security alliances. So, even as China strives to improve its security, it has prompted its neighbors to seek ways to improve their security situations, thereby reducing the effectiveness of its own efforts. That is something that China’s military strategy probably did not intend.
 “China sticks to ‘active defense’ strategy,” interviewee Senior Captain Zhang Junshe, Vice President of the China Naval Research Institute, China 24, CCTV, Beijing, May 26, 2015, https://english.cntv.cn/2015/05/27/VIDE1432675208303328.shtml; “White Paper highlights ‘active’ defense strategy,” interviewee Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, China Ministry of National Defense, host Han Bin, China 24, CCTV, Beijing, May 26, 2015, https://english.cntv.cn/2015/05/26/VIDE1432614727198411.shtml.
 China’s Military Strategy (Beijing: State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, May 2015); “China’s defense white paper,” interviewee Senior Captain Zhang Junshe, Vice President of the China Naval Research Institute, host Wang Yizhi, Dialogue, CCTV, Beijing, May 26, 2015, https://english.cntv.cn/2015/05/27/VIDE1432668717544907.shtml.