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China’s military has undergone a massive modernisation in recent years but a Beijing white paper finds that more work needs to be done. EPA-EFE

Beijing’s military ‘lags behind’ other countries, but ‘still good enough to defeat separatists’

  • People’s Liberation Army faces major challenges in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, and needs more money to achieve its modernisation goals, white paper says
  • PLA must do more to match the technological advancements achieved by other countries, document says

The People’s Liberation Army lags far behind the world’s leading militaries but Beijing says it is still up to the task of defending the nation against those seeking independence for Taiwan.

In a 52-page white paper titled “China’s National Defense in the New Era” released by the State Council on Wednesday, Beijing said the PLA still had work to do to achieve its modernisation goals, and appealed for more reforms and greater investment.

The document highlighted the challenges faced by the military, including the threat from pro-independence forces in Taiwan, and separatists in Tibet and Xinjiang – two of China’s most restive regions – but said it would always defeat those fighting for Taiwanese independence.

“The Taiwanese authorities, led by the Democratic Progressive Party, stubbornly stick to ‘Taiwan independence’,” it said. “They have gone further down the path of separatism by stepping up efforts to sever the connection with the mainland in favour of gradual independence, pushing for de jure independence, intensifying hostility and confrontation, and borrowing the strength of foreign influence.”

It said also that while Beijing had not renounced the use of force against Taiwan, it was “by no means targeted at our compatriots in Taiwan, but at the interference of external forces and the very small number of ‘Taiwan independence’ separatists and their activities”.

The report also blamed “external separatist forces” for Beijing’s troubles in Tibet and Xinjiang, claiming they posed “threats to China’s national security and social stability”.

Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, said the phrasing was clearly intended to lay the blame for the unrest in the two regions on foreign interference.

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“It’s basically saying there are external forces that are trying to break up China,” he said.


On military reform, the white paper said the PLA would remain a “defensive” force whose primary goals were to safeguard national sovereignty, security and the country’s development interests.

Chinese National Defence Ministry spokesman Wu Qian (right) at a news briefing in Beijing on Wednesday after China released its defence white paper. Photo: Kyodo

Despite undergoing a massive transformation in recent years, the PLA had yet to complete its modernisation process and was in urgent need of improving its information warfare capabilities, it said.

“China’s military security is confronted by risks from technological surprises and a growing technological generation gap,” it said. “Greater effort has to be invested in military modernisation to meet national security demands. The PLA still lags far behind the world’s leading militaries.”

Ni said the phrasing underscored a sense of “paranoia” among China’s top brass who feared that other countries might make a “surprise breakthrough” or devise a new weapon capable of wiping out China’s military effectiveness.

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“Although people around the world are saying China is doing a lot to close the gap [in military terms] and is leading in some fields, the white paper says that isn’t enough and it [the PLA] needs to make a greater effort,” he said.


In an apparent effort to improve transparency, the document also included a comparison of China’s military spending with that of the United States, Russia, India, Britain, France, Japan and Germany, saying that the PLA had only a small budget compared with other countries’ armed forces, and that spending would continue to see “moderate and steady growth” in the future.

The situation in the South China Sea is “generally stable and improving”, the white paper said. Photo: EPA-EFE

Yue Guang, a retired PLA colonel, said the comparison was meant to allay fears linked to the “China threat”.


“We can see that the military expenditure was allocated evenly among the three areas of personnel, training and equipment,” he said.

“And the overall growth has been stable with no dramatic increases or decreases. This is meant to show that it [the PLA] has taken a defensive, stable and rational approach.”

The white paper is the PLA’s first since 2015 when it embarked on its massive overhaul. The latest document also included a chapter detailing the reforms adopted and explaining their objectives.

On the South China Sea – a matter of much interest and concern for Beijing’s neighbours and other countries around the world – the document said the situation was being managed.


“The situation in the South China Sea is generally stable and improving as regional countries are properly managing risks and differences,” it said.

“Steady progress has been made in building a coordinated counterterrorism mechanism among the militaries of the regional countries. A balanced, stable, open and inclusive Asian security architecture continues to develop.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: military ‘can tackle any Taiwan Challenge’