China on Tuesday said it would boost its maritime presence as part of an "active defense" strategy in the wake of growing regional tensions surrounding disputed island chains, while upgrading its technology to prepare for "counterattack."
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) navy will extend its reach, shifting focus from defending its coastal waters to the protection of Chinese interests farther afield, the government said in a 9,000-word white paper issued by the country's cabinet, the State Council.
"PLA Navy ... will gradually shift its focus from 'offshore waters defense' to the combination of 'offshore waters defense' with 'open seas protection,'" the paper, issued in full by the official Xinhua news agency, said.
The navy, it said, would "build a combined, multifunctional and efficient marine combat force" as well as enhance naval strategic deterrence and counterattack capabilities while engaging in maritime maneuvers and joint operations at sea.
The white paper comes amid a war of words between Beijing and Washington over China's controversial land reclamation projects and airstrip-building on disputed island chains and atolls in the South China Sea.
U.S. officials have expressed concern over a "great wall of sand" in the South China Sea as analysts say the PLA seeks to extend its military reach in the hotly contested region with what they describe as an unsinkable aircraft carrier for its military planes.
China's defense ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said on Tuesday that the country's controversial island-building was no different from ordinary construction work like road-building.
Yang's comments came after Beijing lodged a formal diplomatic protest over a U.S. surveillance flight over one contested site at Fiery Cross Reef last week, which was warned off by the Chinese military.
According to Wu Fei, director of the International Strategic Communication Research Center at Guangzhou's Jinan University, the strategy seems to be a direct response to the U.S. State Department's "pivot to Asia" policy of continued security focus on the region.
"China and the United States are likely to see further clashes in the wake of China's construction activities on island chains in the South China Sea," Wu said.
"The U.S. will likely continue to implement the pivot to Asia strategy, regardless of who gets elected president, and there is a likelihood of military clashes between the U.S. and China, as well as between China and the Philippines and Vietnam."
He said the white paper was likely also a response to U.S. complaints of a lack of transparency around Beijing's military strategy.
"The Chinese military actually wants a strategic dialogue with the U.S., and so it is trying here to explain some of the technology around its military strategy, because there is no way to predict right now how intense any U.S.-China standoff will get."
"They are testing the waters, I think, not just to test public opinion at home, but also to test the response of the U.S. military. They want to see how they react."
A sense of crisis
Macau-based Chinese military analyst Wong Dong said the paper also refers to "overseas resistance," a veiled reference to the U.S. and Japan.
"During the [pro-democracy] Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong ... we saw the use of such language ... as 'hostile foreign forces,' and in a military context, this is known as 'overseas resistance,'" Wong said.
"It is plain for all to see that [China's government] hasn't renounced its confrontational habits, and now believes even more that other people are trying to subvert and overthrow them," he said.
"We can intuit that there is a sense of crisis in the background of this white paper, and a Cold War mentality."
On Monday, the Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, warned that Washington should not test Beijing's restraint further following the surveillance flight incident, adding that China would have "no choice but to engage."
A more assertive stance
The white paper picked up the theme of counterattack in greater detail on Tuesday, outlining the PLA's attitude to national defense.
China "will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked," the paper said.
At the same time, the PLA's air force has shifted to a more assertive stance, the white paper said.
"The PLA Air Force ... will endeavor to shift its focus from territorial air defense to both defense and offense," the policy paper said.
The PLA will also "strengthen its capabilities for strategic deterrence and nuclear counterattack, and for medium- and long-range precision strikes," it said.
China will also actively develop its cyber capabilities, the paper said, so as to boost its cyber defenses and "stem major cyber crises, ensure national network and information security, and maintain national security and social stability."
The announcement follows the indictment last May of five members of the PLA by the U.S. Justice Department on charges of hacking into computers and stealing trade secrets from leading steel, nuclear plant, and solar power companies.
The Chinese government has repeatedly denied any involvement in cyber attacks, saying it too is a target, but U.S.-based security researchers said last month that Beijing had deployed a powerful new cyber weapon they dubbed the "Great Cannon," which "weaponized" unsuspecting Internet users who visited the Chinese portal Baidu.
The users unknowingly unleashed code that launched a massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack against the GitHub coding website, which was hosting tools to help users circumvent online censorship.
Researchers said at the time that the attack was engineered so that it couldn't have taken place without the agreement and full knowledge of China's central Cyberspace Administration.
The white paper also outlined possible sources of military tension in the Taiwan Strait, pointing to "splittist forces and Taiwan independence as potential flashpoints threatening peace and stability in the region."
Growing tensions predicted
Taiwan military affairs commentator Zheng Shaoru predicted growing multilateral tensions in the region as the U.S. seeks to return military focus to the Asia Pacific region amid ongoing political changes in Taiwan.
"The relationships between mainland China, the U.S., and Japan are getting more and more complex, with a lot of friction," Zheng said.
"We can't rule out the possibility that [Taiwan independence] will become a more and more pressing issue in the next few years," he said.
Democratic Taiwan has been governed separately since the Nationalist KMT government fled to the island in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communists on the mainland.
However, Beijing insists the island is a province awaiting reunification, and has refused to rule out the use of military force, should Taiwan seek formal independence.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Pan Jiaqing and Wei Ling for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.