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China's defence 'white paper' and transparency

Publication Date : 22-04-2013


In China's eighth defence “white paper” published on Tuesday, titled “The Diversified Employment of China's Armed Forces”, for the first time, the coded numbers of all 18 army combined corps of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) were published. And through this gesture, it seemed to some that the Chinese government embarked - at least symbolically - on a new era of transparency. The development actually came in two steps, given that state media began revealing army designations in January.

Secrecy has long shrouded even the numeric designations of the PLA. For decades, whenever a military unit is mentioned, the word for “a,” or “one” in Chinese is the only determiner that is used by Chinese media.

Chinese commentators have pointed out that this may reflect the greater confidence China is presenting in strategic face-offs with other powers. Whereas secrecy was once the overarching concern with China's military announcements, perhaps the Chinese media is touting that their country no longer fears transparency.

It is true that the numerical designations of military units carry significance for their heritage of battles. A unit draws pride upon its combat experience, and the military uses history to exemplify particular units for illustrious performance to inspire an ideal. For China, the long years of shrouding even the most basic of military identifications indicates the extent to which the country has been anything but transparent.

The New York Times published an article on Thursday by James Acton, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, entitled “Is China relinquishing its position on nuclear weapons?” Acton draws attention to the absence of China's long-held “no first-use” pledge with regard to nuclear weapons, stating that since China's establishment as a nuclear power half a century ago, the “no first-use” pledge has been a cornerstone of its defence policy. He further calls for urgent attention on the part of Washington to negotiate with China to reissue the pledge because it is a measure of long-standing commitment to the containment of nuclear weapons.

“In 1964, immediately after testing its first nuclear weapon, China promised to “never at any time or under any circumstances be the first to use nuclear weapons,” Acton points out. Not only has the pledge been omitted in the white paper, Acton points to a speech by China's President Xi Jinping addressing the second artillery force last December in which he stressed the nation's nuclear capabilities as a buttress for the unit's strategic mission. Notably, the pledge was left unmentioned. Combined, the international relations expert states that the shift is almost certainly not a “bureaucratic error.”

For Taiwan and for the broader East Asian region, it is especially critical that China's nuclear weapons policy is one that is reined in by caution and strategic antiproliferation efforts. Any allusion to striking first, even in the context of a presumed imminent strike on China, is combustive, especially when it is directed at countries such as Japan and South Korea. The former is engaged in territorial disputes with China, while the latter has heard voices calling for redeployment of nuclear weapons in the face of threats from North Korea.

A feel-good news story about President Xi was published on Thursday by Hong Kong's Ta Kung Pao, in which the pro-Beijing newspaper ran a lengthy feature on a purported exchange between Xi and a taxi driver in Beijing. In the alleged 8.2-km trip that took Xi to a high-end hotel, Xi reportedly asked for the driver's thoughts on party policies and echoed the layman's concern about pollution. At the end of the 27 yuan (US$4.4) trip, Xi granted the star-struck cabby's request for an autograph.

Yet by the end of Thursday, the story was denied by official media. Ta Kung Pao retracted the story with an apology saying it was faulty reporting. The state-run Xinhua News Agency, which had confirmed the story earlier, agreed that it was false. As rumours continue to swirl over what actually happened that day, the story has become a case in point about the current state of Chinese transparency. The contrast with the white paper is striking. However far the government has come in achieving transparency, its media outlets have countered the progress of those steps.

So, perhaps the driver Guo can step forward and share his thoughts on the Chinese Ground Force's numerical designations as revealed in the white paper on Tuesday? Or, perhaps Ta Kung Pao can give a more detailed explanation of why the error was made - and whether the driver even exists at all.

*US$1=6.23 yuan


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