NY Times: "China, Updating Military Strategy, Puts Focus on Projecting Naval Power"

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BEIJING — China intends to project naval power in the open ocean in coming years, and not just defend the country’s coastal waters, according to a strategy paper released on Tuesday.

[by Andrew Jacobs | May 26, 2015 | NY Times]

The paper, the first policy document issued by the Chinese military in two years, comes at a time of growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. China’s efforts to enforce its disputed claims to vast stretches of the sea by building up artificial islands and structures on reefs and outcroppings have drawn the Philippines and its ally the United States into a test of wills in the region.

The Pentagon said earlier this month that it was weighing whether to send warships and aircraft into what it says are international waters, but China says are within its zone of control.

On Tuesday, in an act of defiance likely to further inflame tensions in the region, China’s state news media announced that construction work had begun on two lighthouses in the Spratlys, adding to a growing array of Chinese-built structures that have been identified in satellite photos, including radar facilities and a runway capable of handling military aircraft.

The policy document, released by the State Council, lays out China’s military ambitions, a central element of what its leaders call a “national rejuvenation,” as Beijing moves to counter what it sees as American efforts to contain its rise.

It extends beyond naval policy to emphasize the continued modernization of the Chinese military in general, and it describes cyberwarfare as a “grave security threat” that requires the development of a cybermilitary force. But Western analysts said the document’s emphasis on improving naval capabilities and projecting force far from China’s coastline was the most striking facet of the paper.

Col. Steve Warren, a Defense Department spokesman, said that the Chinese government had informed the United States about the strategic paper almost a year ago.

“We have repeatedly called on the Chinese for transparency, and frankly, this is an example of transparency,” Colonel Warren told reporters on Tuesday.

“Their strategy is their strategy,” he added. “What we want to focus on is the fact that they released the strategy publicly, which is exactly the type of thing that we’ve been calling for.”

Jeff Rathke, a State Department spokesman, said on Tuesday that the Obama administration would “continue to monitor China’s military developments carefully.”

Dennis J. Blasko, an Asia analyst at CNA Corporation who studies China’s armed forces, said the paper formally enunciated a transformation that the military had been going through for some time, and that had gained pace in recent years.

“This basically confirms everything that the vast majority of analysts have seen developing: the trends toward a greater maritime force, a stronger air force and improved missile forces,” said Mr. Blasko, a former Army attaché at the United States Embassy in Beijing. “Still, even if it’s something we’ve been expecting, it’s a new statement and a big statement.”

Although the strategy paper mentions the United States only in passing, it leaves little doubt about whom China perceives as its opponent, blaming “some external countries” for “meddling in South China Sea affairs.”

At a news conference discussing the strategy paper, Yang Yujun, a Defense Ministry spokesman, made clear that China regards those affairs as no one’s business but its own. “Looking from the angle of sovereignty, China’s development of construction on its islands is no different at all from all the other types of construction going on around the country,” he said.

Chinese military strategists have long signaled their intention to improve the nation’s naval strength and reduce its reliance on its land forces, which have been dominant since the 1940s. In recent years, the People’s Liberation Army, which takes in all branches of the military including the navy, has invested in new submarines, launched the nation’s first aircraft carrier and announced plans to restructure the armed forces, although it has released few details.

According to Mr. Blasko, the navy accounts for about 10 percent of the P.L.A.’s 2.3 million members, while about 17 percent serve in the air force; nearly all the rest are in the army.

Analysts said the tensions in the South China Sea were one factor accelerating Beijing’s efforts to build up its naval and air strength. But events elsewhere have also played a role, prompting Chinese leaders to abandon long-held policies discouraging overseas military engagement.

In 2008, during the height of Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden, China sent two destroyers and a supply ship to the region, the first time it had dispatched battle-ready warships beyond the Pacific. In April, it sent three naval vessels to Yemen, where it evacuated hundreds of Chinese and other foreign nationals from the conflict-torn country.

“The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests,” the strategy paper said. “It is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security and development interests.”

Xu Guangyu, a retired major general who is now a senior counselor with the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said the emphasis on “open sea protection” was a sign of China’s spreading economic and diplomatic footprint abroad.

“As China continues to rise, it has enormous interests around the globe that need protection,” he said, “including investments, trade, energy, imports and the surging presence of Chinese living abroad.”

Still, he noted that the document stressed Beijing’s resolve to deter foreign aggression and to win a war started by others.

“China will actively build up its military capability and deterrence, just to make sure no one dares fight with us,” said General Xu, whose institute advises the Chinese Foreign Ministry. “The United States cannot expect China to back off under pressure. It needs to know that the consequences would be unthinkable if it pushes China into a corner.”

The United States has not taken a position on the overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, parts of which are claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei as well as by China. Washington says the disputes should be resolved through diplomacy.

But the Obama administration says none of the claimants should interfere with international navigation in the area, and in recent days, Pentagon officials have said they have no intention of halting American reconnaissance flights near the contested islets.

Bernard D. Cole, a professor at the National War College in Washington, said the strategy paper suggested that there was little chance that China would relinquish its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, which is rich in oil, gas and fishing resources.

“I think China has been feeling pretty confident as it pushed ahead, trying to feel the threshold where the U.S. reaction would be,” Dr. Cole said. “We may be seeing that threshold now, but I see absolutely no evidence that China is going to stop its island construction.”

Michael R. Gordon contributed reporting from Washington. Yufan Huang contributed research.

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