Beijing's paranoid worldview

DOD photo by D. Myles Cullen

U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, right, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Chinese Gen. Fang Enghui, center, Chief of the Gen. Staff, inspects a Chinese honor guard during an honor cordon in Beijing, April 22, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • A larger, more powerful and more influential China still sees itself at odds with the world.

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  • According to China, Beijing's actions have played no role in destabilizing the region or eroding mutual trust.

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  • Beijing readily cuts off military ties over political issues such as arms sales to Taiwan

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When Beijing released its defense white paper on Tuesday, official Chinese media hailed the document as a milestone in government transparency. The report, the first of its kind since 2011, is certainly clarifying—but not just because of its dry recitation of China's defense activities and structure.

Written by the Ministry of Defense, the white paper is China's equivalent of the U.S. National Defense Strategy, spelling out security priorities and giving basic information about China's military programs. Aimed primarily at a foreign audience, this year's report included for the first time personnel figures for China's main armed forces. The total headcount of 1.4 million, while formidable, was below what international organizations have calculated. This is possibly because paramilitary and police forces, which often act as a national guard, were excluded from the count.

Nevertheless, outsiders can safely view the white paper as about the clearest public statement available of Beijing's strategic worldview. And what a worrying statement it is. The white paper's excoriation of the U.S. and Japan, as well as its unapologetic promise to protect territorial claims by "all necessary measures," should convince U.S. leaders that President Xi Jinping will do little to improve relations between Beijing and Washington. A larger, more powerful and more influential China still sees itself at odds with the world.

Nowhere is the gulf between reality and Beijing's aggrieved worldview more apparent than in the white paper's discussion of the U.S. The report claims that U.S. President Barack Obama's so-called "pivot" to Asia "makes the situation tenser," by "enhancing military deployment and also strengthen[ing] alliances." In Chinese eyes, the U.S. pivot is not responding to nearly two decades of double-digit Chinese defense budget increases and Beijing's aggressive security stance. Instead, Washington is finding a new bogeyman for a post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan world.

According to China, Beijing's actions have played no role in destabilizing the region or eroding mutual trust. Only U.S. policies have. This blame-Washington view ignores longstanding U.S. provision of public security goods such as freedom of navigation, which China has benefitted from more than any other nation.

The white paper also ignores unending attempts by the American military to forge closer relations with China and to be as transparent as possible about U.S. defense capabilities, relationships and operations. Hoping to create a working relationship with the People's Liberation Army, the Pentagon has given senior Chinese leaders extraordinary access to U.S. defense installations, including tours of command centers and pilot training schools. Next year, China will participate for the first time in a major international naval exercise called Rimpac that is largely comprised of U.S. allies.

For these efforts the U.S. military is repaid with little reciprocity from its Chinese counterparts. Beijing readily cuts off military ties over political issues such as arms sales to Taiwan, and China provides far less access for visiting U.S. military leaders. What's more, China has shown no interest in crisis management initiatives such as installing a direct military hotline between the Pentagon and China's Ministry of Defense or signing an incidents at sea agreement to reduce the chance of accidents between navies.

Lest the U.S. feel alone in facing China's ire, the defense white paper also accuses Japan of "making trouble over the Diaoyu [Senkaku] Islands issue." In truth, Tokyo's purchase of these islands, however ham-fisted, has resulted in dozens of incidents in which Chinese maritime patrol vessels have trespassed into Japanese-administered waters, forcing the Japanese Coast Guard to confront them. In January, a Chinese naval vessel fixed its fire-control radar on a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces ship. Chinese fighter jets have also reportedly crossed into the islands' airspace.

Tuesday's defense report also fails to mention that Japan is just one of many countries that China's navy has recently riled up. Last month Chinese ships entered Malaysian waters in order to conduct military drills close to Strait of Malacca. Elsewhere in the South China Sea, Beijing's patrol vessels regularly face off with Vietnamese and Philippine ships over fishing rights and natural resources exploration. In almost every case, smaller nations have backed down in the face of China's willingness to send more ships and maintain pressure. The national defense report gives no indication China will alter this approach.

China's defense white paper does, however, boast of a budget that increased to more than $100 billion in 2012, up 11.2% on 2011. While this strength should give Asian countries further reason to fear China, it has evidently not eased the Communist Party's paranoid view of the world.

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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

    Follow Michael Auslin on Twitter.

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