October 02, 2011

Red storm rising


The People's Liberation Army's military modernisation drive represents a contrasting facet to the tall claims made by China, in so far as its ‘peaceful rise' campaign is concerned. What does it hold for the world, particularly its neighbours?

SATURDAY, 01 OCTOBER 2011 19:56

The incessant debate surrounding the military rise of the People’s Republic of China only seems to get more vociferous with each passing day. With exhibition of consistently higher stages of economic growth, the military spending power of China is only bound to increase, thereby implying rapid and expanding prowess and influence within Asia and beyond.

Robust Chinese investments in modern hardware and technology have resulted in the maturation of many state-of-the-art military systems that are likely to become operational in the near future. The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) stout military modernisation drive represents a contrasting facet to the tall claims made by China, in so far as its ‘peaceful rise’ campaign is concerned. It is difficult to reconcile these rather contrasting, yet equally reinforcing, ideas. Resultantly, the deliberations over the impending ‘China threat’ (Zhongguo weixie) theory have progressively gotten strengthened.

The Asian geo-strategic paradigm is perennially struck by security dilemmas flowing out of limited dissemination of military information by China and the ensuing lack of transparency. Beijing’s strategic outlook and its grand strategy remain shrouded in secrecy, even as the armed forces are modernising rapidly and preparing to extend, what traditionally used to be China’s areas of influence. Until and unless China is more forthcoming on matters military, its reiteration of a “peaceful rise” will continue to be received with scepticism and misgiving. Overall, the PLA continues to be an opaque institution given that its exact size, organisation, and, most importantly, its actual operational capabilities in the next decade are impossible to detail at this point with precision.

China has opted to downplay a growing sense of apprehension among nations within Asia and beyond by justifying its military modernisation campaign as a reasonable chain of actions undertaken by a nation that seeks to update antiquated weapons systems and equipment and, thus, rationalise an outdated military structure.

However, the modernisation drive undertaken by the PLA can be interpreted as a foundation of deterrence to attain the objectives of its military strategy. Contemporary Chinese military thinking interprets deterrence as the military conduct of a state or political group that could compel the enemy to submit to one’s volition.

The recent assertiveness in Chinese foreign policy behaviour could well be a reflection of the ongoing domestic discourse in China wherein the hard-power realist bloc is placing added emphasis on strengthening Beijing’s comprehensive national power (zonghe guoli). While breaking free from the manacles of what the Chinese term as their “Century of Shame”, the outlook of the political and military elites in the country appears to have been shaped with a view to building the nation towards achieving comprehensive large-scale military reach and further cement its stake in the direction of becoming a global power.

Today, the Chinese armed forces are preparing to fight small-scale, high-intensity, regional combat and military operations in the future. Preceding that, China seeks to successfully deter or prevent the outbreak of war decisively by means of possessing an adequate deterrent force and, more significantly, the determination to use that force.

The 2010 Defence White Paper released by China’s Information Office of the State Council, reflects a new-found confidence in the country’s ability to influence global events. Beijing announced its arrival on the global scene by stating, “The international balance of power is changing, most notably through the economic strength and growing international status and influence of emerging powers and developing countries.” The White Paper chooses to underline the connection between the fundamental interests of the Chinese people with the world, while simultaneously declaring that China would “pursue an independent foreign policy of peace… prudence on the issue of war, and (implement) the strategy of attacking only after being attacked”.

China’s national defence policy in 2011 would be “to build a fortified national defence and strong armed forces... a strategic task of China’s modernisation”. While the PLA has assimilated vigorous investments in sectors of military hardware and technology, the focus of the present decade would be towards systemic integration of these complex operational concepts and platforms.

There should not be a sense of complacency that China, as of today, lacks certain technological capabilities, owing to which it will be difficult for it to translate its ambitions into reality. The fact of the matter is that Beijing is circumspectly working towards bridging these existential gaps. In today’s day and age, the realm of warfare has stretched further to spheres that are not traditionally concerned with war. Bearing in mind the primary goal of accomplishing mechanisation and attaining major progress in ‘informationisation’ by 2020, the PLA foresees the former as the foundation and the latter as the driving force, to step up the composite and integrated development of the two.

The central premise in Chinese military thinking is that if the country ever has to defend itself, it should be prepared to conduct “warfare beyond all boundaries and limitations”. The arena of ‘beyond military spheres’ includes diplomatic, data network, intelligence, psychological, technological, simulated war, financial trade resources, economic aid, legal, sanctions and ideological war. Perhaps the most crucial among the ‘beyond rules’ criteria is manifested in the form of asymmetric warfare, guerrilla tactics (mostly urban), terrorist activities and cyber attacks directed against data networks. Beijing’s attempts to sharpen its campaign of ‘informationisation’ and asymmetric capabilities are visible as it has unleashed its cyber war and space potential. The primary idea is to strike in unexpected ways against vulnerable targets.

There has been a perceptible shift in the PLA’s posture from regional defence to “trans-regional mobility” — focussing on moving entire field formations among the seven military regions in China. The Chinese armed forces are being trained for “integrated joint operations” on future battlefield by gradually making its units small, modular and multi-functional in organisation through appropriate downsizing and structural reform.

China, in recent years, has also been giving priority to the development of tactical missiles, surface-to-air missiles and special operations forces, so as to increase its capabilities for land-air integrated operations, long-distance manoeuvres, rapid assault and special operations. Even the Chinese press has extensively reported about the PLA’s multi-mode movements — by ground, rail, water and/or air.

Over the span of the past two decades, the PLA’s ability to purchase, co-produce and absorb foreign weapons and military technology has been reflected in its growing strength. These developments indicate that as time goes by, the PLA is making substantial strides in boosting operational capabilities and increasing institutional capacities. Appearing all set to be etched as a momentous year in so far as mounting Chinese military prowess is concerned, 2011 witnessed the successful testing of two potentially offensive weapon systems. Among them is China’s fifth-generation J-20 radar-evading stealth fighter rolled out in January 2011, followed recently by Beijing’s first aircraft carrier, the Varyag, of Ukrainian origin in August 2011. Although both constitute as crucial pointers towards futuristic technology development, Chinese press is running caution not to “overly exaggerate to sensationalise” the event.

These successive technological demonstrators shall be instrumental in carrying forward the “new historic missions” for the Chinese armed forces as declared by President Hu Jintao in 2004. “We shall step up preparations for possible military struggle and enhance our capabilities to cope with crises, safeguard peace, prevent wars and win the wars, if any,” he asserted.

The Chinese leadership’s focus on economic, political and social priorities, along with internal stability, will be essential to ensure the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party. Nonetheless, as China’s power grows, the leadership will become more forceful in exerting influence globally.

Systematic placement of power projection capabilities would augment future possibility of China using its military, economic and diplomatic influence to be put to use in a coercive manner. Growing capabilities of the PLA Navy, for instance, would add a degree of credence to Beijing’s efforts towards reinforcing its maritime claims for the shoals, islands and islets in the South China Sea, particularly the Spratly Islands. In the near neighbourhood, China’s presence as a long-term strategic challenge to India would become even more pronounced. Beijing’s mounting military might is likely to provide it with a wide array of options for military coercion.

Chinese attempts at increasing its strategic inroads in the region include a deep-sea port at Gwadar, off Pakistan’s Makran Coast. Further, via the territory of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, up to Xinjiang, the energy flow sees a significant cut in freight costs as well as supply time. China has financed nearly 85 per cent of the $1.5 billion deep-water seaport and bunkering facility at Hambantota in Sri Lanka in the recently completed phase one. Located 10 nautical miles from one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, the Hambantota port will be instrumental for China in providing greater access and securing the sea-lanes of communication passing through the northern Indian Ocean and Straits of Malacca. The base in Bangladesh’s Chittagong port provides direct passage to Chinese mainland through Myanmar for its facilities in South Asia. Another port at Myanmar’s Sittwe may be used for berthing facilities.

The apprehension and unease, especially among Asian nations, are only bound to increase in the context of coercive diplomacy being pursued as a potent tool by China. As various tenets of Beijing’s military capabilities get illuminated, one cannot ignore the classic realist theory angle wherein the possibility of a high degree of Chinese belligerence looms large. Although China’s growing assimilation into the global economy could be taken in as an initial respite, its ever-increasing investments in military capabilities could well depose any/all regional and global calculations. Resultantly, the reverberations of an impending China threat theory will only get more clamant in the years ahead.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi, where she heads the China-study project and is the author of several books, including China: Military Modernisation and Strategy (2011) and Chinese WMD Proliferation in Asia: US Response (2009)

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