Has China taken a step towards a US-style pre-emptive strike policy?

  • New study suggests the PLA is moving from an ‘active defence’ footing to a ‘proactive’ one
  • But Chinese military experts say China will not change its policy of ‘not firing the first shot’

China’s shift towards joint operations in space, cyberspace and nuclear technology point to a “proactive defence” strategy that could include a pre-emptive strike, according to a new international study.

This more aggressive strategy could destabilise regional security as China gains strength but its similarities with the approaches taken by the United States and Russia could help the three powers better understand each other, and eventually encourage conflict prevention and crisis management talks, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

“Changes to China’s postures and technologies indicate that its concept and practice of ‘active defence’ may be converging with more forward-leaning and even pre-emptive ‘proactive defence’,” the report said.

An active defence involves preparing for a pre-emptive strike from an enemy while a proactive defence goes one step further to include plans for making a pre-emptive strike.

The report, released late last month, said China had displayed a wide range of military deterrence abilities, from anti-satellite weaponry to expanded intercontinental ballistic missile silos, and more weapon launch platforms.

It said China’s defences had been accelerated by President Xi Jinping’s proactive leadership style, China’s economic growth, and military and political pressure from the US.

China might increasingly employ space, cyberspace and nuclear strategies that were more like those of the US and Russia, which could undermine global security, it said.

“One key potentially destabilising outcome is that the US response to China’s shifts in posture and technologies could trigger an escalatory spiral of both arms races and crises that cut across space, cyberspace and nuclear domains,” it said.

But Chinese military experts said the People’s Liberation Army was still aiming to deter rather than take a pre-emptive strike.

“China’s actions have been for ‘defensive purposes’, meaning that the PLA will only fight back once someone else fires the first shot,” former PLA instructor Song Zhongping said.

“The military should not only be able to strike back, but also fully paralyse the enemy’s ability to cause further harm.

“In Chinese, the concepts of ‘active defence’ and ‘proactive defence’ are the same, with the latter highlighting more combat-ready preparation.”

Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology institute in Beijing, said China would not change its policy of “not firing the first shot” in any arena.

“China’s missiles, including the DF-21 carrier-killer and other weapons, were all designed for deterring and denying foreign military intervention in case of a Taiwan contingency, which will only happen if Taipei formally declares independence,” Zhou said.

“The PLA will not take pre-emptive strikes in peacetime.”

The SIPRI report said China’s recent spate of visible tests and deployments had also generated a level of de facto transparency that allowed for a better evaluation of its military trajectory.

“Most importantly, China’s postural and technological shifts place it on a better footing for participation in strategic stability dialogues with the USA, and even eventually in trilateral talks that include Russia,” it added.

Washington has called on Beijing to take part in three-way arms control talks with Russia, with the Pentagon forecasting that the PLA Army Rocket Force could have 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030.

But Beijing has been reluctant, claiming an asymmetric weakness with only 350 nuclear warheads, compared with 5,550 in the US and 6,255 in Russia.

There were an estimated 13,000-plus active nuclear weapons last year, 90 per cent of them operated by the US and Russia.

“Whether bilaterally or trilaterally, strategic stability talks would offer a pathway to moderating China’s, Russia’s and the USA’s employment of weapons during crises, reducing the risk of multidomain escalation turning a conventional conflict into a nuclear one,” the report added.

Author: Minnie Chan, SCMP

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