BEIJING — China said Tuesday that it plans to extend its global military reach to safeguard its economic interests, while defending its territorial claims at sea against “provocative actions” by neighbors and “meddling” by the United States.
A policy document setting out China’s military strategy, issued by the State Council, or cabinet, underlined the dramatic growth of the country’s defense ambitions — especially its naval ambitions — in tandem with its rapid economic rise.
Beijing insisted in the document that its military is dedicated to “international security cooperation” and peaceful development. But it also said the navy will expand its focus from “offshore waters defense” to a greater emphasis on “open seas protection” as China aims to establish itself as a maritime power. The air force, meanwhile, will shift its focus from “territorial air defense to both defense and offense.”
Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, called the white paper “a blueprint for achieving slow-motion regional hegemony.”
“It asserts a confidence backed by growing capability on land and increasingly at sea,” he said. “While it calls for balancing China’s territorial ‘rights’ with ‘stability,’ there should be little doubt on the part of its neighbors that China is building a maritime force to assert the former.”
China’s officially disclosed defense budget was expanded by just over 10 percent this year, to $141 billion, marking two decades of nearly unbroken double-digit growth. The navy is reportedly building a second aircraft carrier and has invested heavily in submarines and warships.
“China has made it a strategic goal to become a maritime power,” Senior Col. Wang Jin said at a news conference Tuesday. “Therefore, we need to build a strong navy.”
He added that the development of long-range precision weapons means that the battlefield at sea is widening. “Offshore-waters defense alone can no longer provide effective defense of the country’s maritime interests,” he said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said the administration was aware of the paper and continued to monitor China’s military developments carefully. “We also continue to urge China to exhibit greater transparency with respect to its capabilities and to its intentions,” he said.
According to a Pentagon report released this month, China is developing missiles designed to “push adversary forces — including the United States — farther from potential regional conflicts.”
The Chinese military is mainly focused on readying for possible conflict in the Taiwan Strait but also is investing to prepare for “contingencies” in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, where it is engaged in several territorial disputes, the Pentagon report said.
Chinese officials say that the country’s declared annual defense spending is significantly below the global average when compared with the size of its economy. Its actual defense spending is almost certainly higher than the declared number but is still far lower than the Pentagon’s fiscal 2015 budget of $560 billion, experts say.
In a move welcomed by other nations, China sent a 700-strong peacekeeping force in December to South Sudan, where it has extensive oil interests, marking the first time it has sent an infantry battalion on a U.N. mission.
Beijing also is negotiating with the strategic port nation of Djibouti to open a military base there to support anti-piracy naval escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia, the Agence France-Presse news agency reported this month. The United States and France already have a military presence in the tiny Horn of Africa country.
“With the growth of China’s national interests, the security of our overseas energy and resources, strategic sea lines of communication and the safety of our overseas institutions, personnel and assets have become prominent issues,” Senior Col. Zhang Yuguo said at Tuesday’s news conference.
Zhang added, however, a note of outreach apparently aimed at the United States and other countries watching China’s military growth. “China will never seek hegemony or divide up spheres of power, nor will it engage in military alliances or expansion,” he said.
In addition to rattling its neighbors, China’s military growth has set the nation on a possible collision course with the United States.
This year in particular, the Obama administration has repeatedly condemned a program of rapid land reclamation and construction on disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea. A U.S. surveillance plane was warned to leave the area by the Chinese navy last week, with Beijing lodging a formal diplomatic complaint .
Senior Col. Yang Yujun, a Defense Ministry spokesman, on Tuesday likened China’s construction activities on the islands to “everyday actions” such as the building of houses, roads and bridges. But he acknowledged that the facilities being constructed, including an airstrip and radar stations, will have both military and civilian uses.
Rathke, the State Department spokesman, said the United States took a different view, saying that China’s land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea have “contributed . . . to rising tensions” and suggesting that other countries in the region share that view.
Yang said that the Chinese military was responding to increasingly frequent surveillance flights in a “legal and professional manner” but that the issue was being hyped up to “throw mud” at China.
“There’s no ruling out the possibility that some country is seeking an excuse for its potential action in the future,” he said. “I don’t think this is a new trick. It’s an old trick.”
On Monday, the state-owned tabloid the Global Times warned that war is “inevitable” if the United States tries to prevent China from finishing its reclamation and construction work. It said the risks would be “still under control” if Washington accepts China’s peaceful rise.
Although not necessarily fully reflecting official thinking, the editorial shows China’s determination to continue its projects in the South China Sea.
Yang said Sino-U.S. relations are generally good and noted that both militaries have signed agreements to govern air and maritime encounters and prevent crises.
But the policy paper expressed concern about the United States’ “ ‘rebalancing’ strategy,” which has led China to enhance its military presence and strengthen military alliances in the Asia-Pacific region and worry about more assertive military and security policies in Japan. The document accused China’s neighbors of provocative actions by reinforcing their military presence on “China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied.”
“Some external countries are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs,” it said, adding in a clear reference to the United States: “A tiny few maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China.”
Philippines President Benigno Aquino III was quoted as saying Monday that his nation will continue flying over disputed islands in the South China Sea, while Defense Minister Voltaire Gazmin said he was seeking a “stronger commitment” from the United States to help its ally, according to news agency reports.
China responded angrily.
“I would like to remind the Philippines that China will not bully small countries, but small countries must not ceaselessly and willfully make trouble,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a news conference. “We hope the Philippines can cease its instigation and provocation and return to the correct path of resolving the problem through negotiation and consultation.”
On Tuesday, state media reported that China had held a groundbreaking ceremony for the building of two lighthouses on the disputed Spratly Islands, a move that Hua said was meant to fulfill the nation’s international obligations but that is unlikely to ease concerns about Beijing’s expanding influence.
The military strategy paper also outlined threats emanating from instability on the Korean Peninsula, from separatist forces in its western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang and from forces attempting to instigate a “color revolution” to overthrow the Communist Party.
It also noted growing threats in outer space and cyberspace.
Xu Yangjingjing in Beijing and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.