By Bhaskar Roy
The contents of the defence White Paper titled “China’s National Defence in 2010” released by China’s State Council on March 31 should not have surprised military analysts. It was as anodyne and opaque as ever. In fact, the Chinese official media appears to have revealed more in many areas than this official paper does.
A senior Chinese official visiting New Delhi with a joint Communist Party and Discipline Inspection Commission delegation had remarked during a discussion session that one should not only see what China says but also what China does. That was a good hint on how to analyse China’s national papers, at least.
Discounting the self-praise as the most benign, friendly, constructive and positive country in the world that runs throughout the paper, and the typical repetition that are the hallmark of Chinese reports, there are indications of policy and thinking as well as concerns.
Digressing from some earlier editions, this paper recognized from the very outset that the international situation had become more complex, international strategic competition had intensified, regional conflicts and flashpoints were a recurrent theme, and stated that “world peace remains elusive”. It must be noted that China has moved away from its earlier theme of peace as the dominant trend, to politely state that some conflicts may be inevitable. Certainly, conflicts have increased around the world so has China’s vital interests and position. In spite of an effort to reemphasize Deng Xiaoping’s doctrine of keeping a low profile and building strength late last year in the face of international concerns, China has gone ahead to demonstrate its strength as the world’s second largest economy with a fast growing military machinery that is fearsome to all neighbours. Beijing has begun to show increasing confidence its becoming a player to intervene militarily in the global arena despite it stated policy to the contrary.
As a Permanent-5 member of the UNSC, China has political power which it has exercised effectively for its own interest. But for military intervention in its own interest, China will require western partners. Therefore, on over all consideration, China has always opposed military interventions, especially of foreign troops on the ground in a sovereign country. And like the USA, dictatorships in small third world and developing countries have been its preference. China’s economic strength at the moment, analysed by experts within and outside the country, is the driving force in garnering support among countries generally ignored by the developed world. When China gives aid to these countries, human rights violations, factional or tribal wars and internal ruinations are not tied. What are of importance are primarily natural resources especially oil and gas exploitation, voting for China in international organizations on human rights and religious intolerance, and allowing China’s overflowing workers population to work on China aided projects in those countries depriving indigenous workers of jobs.
The paper brings out the following challenges, imperatives and natural rights for China:
i) Concerns about the developments in its immediate active neighbourhood i.e. North East Asia (Korean Peninsula and Japan), South East Asia (ASEAN), and significantly, Afghanistan.
ii) Sovereignty and territorial issues where Taiwan lists at the top of Beijing’s core interests, and territorial claims with Japan and in South China Sea (and border/territorial issue with India).
iii) Securing maritime interests – securing sea lanes for natural resources imports (more than 70% of its energy imports traverse the Indian Ocean), security of its overseas assets and security of its citizens abroad (and evacuating them in times of crisis).
iv) The crux – ensure leadership of the Communist Party, demolish any liberation opposition, maintain stability at any cost and, most importantly, counter and defeat the Uighur separatists of China’s western Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region (XAUR), and the Tibetan movement. All these combine to pose the greatest challenge of Beijing.
The goals and tasks of China’s national defence in the new era was defined as follows:
Safeguarding national sovereignty, security and interests of national development. China’s national defence is tasked to guard against and resist aggression, defend the security of China’s lands, inland waters, territorial waters, and air space, safeguard its maritime rights and interests, and maintain its security interests in space, electromagnetic space, and cyber space. It is also tasked to oppose and contain the separatist forces for “Taiwan independence”, crackdown on separatist forces for “East Turkistan independence” and “Tibet independence”, and defend national security and territorial integrity.
In order to implement these tasks including economic tasks, the paper gives a theoretical account in detail without going into any specifics of armament, cyber and information warfare capabilities or asymmetric warfare philosophy. It makes an omnibus statement of defence development which corroborates what is already known about the PLA Navy (PLAN), PLA Air Force (PLAAF), PLA Army (PLAA) and Second Artillery (Missile) Force (SAF).
The emphasis was on full mechanization of the PLA and integration of all arms for joint force projection by 2020, attaining major progress in informization as a driving force. It was stated that new weapons platforms are being developed, but no indications were given on types and capabilities.
The maximum emphasis was on the air force and the navy. The Chinese military planners have realized that advanced aircrafts are required not only for defence of China’s air space but to try and establish relative supremacy in the outer fringes of its air space. They are particularly concerned over US spy planes on intelligence collection flights around China’s airspace, and the lessons of 2001 when a Chinese air force aircraft collided with a US spy plane.
The newly unveiled JF-20 Stealth fighter aircraft was expected to be an attack aircraft, but some Chinese officials have opined that it will perform roles in protecting the sovereignty of China’s airspace. This is a possibility, but the JF-20 could play a key role in area denial. The real problem will start when China begins transferring the JF-20 to front line allies like Pakistan.
There is a clear indication that the spine of the PLAAF in the immediate future will comprise of surface-to-air, air-to-air, and air-to-ground missiles along with enhanced radar and electronic counter measures (ECM) capabilities.
A close look at the paragraphs on PLAN leaves no doubt that the Chinese naval force is on the path to a major expansion, and the force is shifting quickly to aircraft carriers. The carriers are not only required for its coastal defence and recovery of its claimed maritime territories starting with Taiwan as the core, but also for overseas projections. China has taken seriously the prophesy of famous naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan on the critical importance of the Indian Ocean.
The paper emphasized that overseas role of the PLAN was for Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW). It exemplified the PLAN’s anti-piracy role in the Gulf of Aden and evacuation of Chinese workers from Libya. But with one aircraft carrier scheduled to go into service sometime this year, and a total of five to be in service by 2020, the objectives are clearly different than those stated.
To maintain China’s sustainable development the critical inputs are energy and raw material, and consolidate overseas employment for its growing jobless workers. The $100 billion African fund instituted by China in 2008 was specifically for this purpose. As the world’s “factory”, China’s huge economy is export dependent. It has hardly any substantial deposit of oil and natural gas as well as minerals like iron ore and copper among other things. Seventy percent of its oil imports come from the Gulf, West Asia and Africa. It makes a double benefit when mostly Chinese workers are employed in mines in the undeveloped countries the produce of which also comes to China. Therefore, if these centres of import are threatened, the very foundations of China’s economy will be shaken.
This could make for the most dangerous recipe for global stability and China knows it, and wants to avoid it as far as possible. It is, therefore, intensifying its civil and military diplomacy which the paper discussed quite extensively.
Very little was discussed about the second Artillery force except that it possessed both nuclear and conventional missiles. Separately, there have been several reports about new 4000 plus km missile under development. It may be the long awaited DF-41 or a variant. This missile could have both nuclear or conventional warheads. Another long range missile deployed along the Fujian coast according to the Taiwanese intelligence, is the DF-16. The development of DF-16 was widely known, but not the specifics of its deployment.
Conventional warhead long range missiles serves the particular purpose of an attack on a non-nuclear country and/or avoiding a nuclear war. But “no first use” policy of nuclear weapons though stated in the paper as a routine exercise have been examined and interpreted even by Chinese experts in different ways. It does not mean China will wait for a nuclear strike to retaliate. It will examine the intention of its nuclear adversary and can logically launch a preemptive strike. For example, reports by the Indian media reducing any nuclear missile test by the DRDO as aimed at China could be reason enough for Beijing to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against India in case of a major India-China conflict.
Returning to discuss China’s challenges, imperatives and natural rights mentioned earlier in this assessment, an examination of China’s core interest in terms of territorial sovereignty is important. After China’s unofficial approach to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year to recognize the South China Sea as its core interest, serious concerns arose in the region. Clinton declined to accept the Chinese proposal and the Chinese denied having made any such proposal. The Chinese denial, however, does not make any material difference to the truth.
The most recent clarification of China’s core interests came in an explanation in an article by Da Wei, research professor at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a Chinese official think tank. Da Wei made it clear that the Chinese Communist Party’s and the government’s policies had not changed, and made it abundantly clear that all territorial issues comprise China’s core interests.
Prof. Da Wei should know, as he is a high ranking member of the CICIR which, in turn, is attached to the State Council and the Ministry of State Security.
PLA, People and Party
Although the PLA was always called upon to meet domestic crises like the 1989 Tienanmen Square students uprising, the March 2008 Tibetan uprising or the July 2009 Uighur anti-Hans riot in Xinjing, this paper and developments around it speak of a much bigger role for the armed forces in safeguarding the Communist Party’s supreme command over the nation.
It is highly arguable if the Chinese people are ready for a revolution. There are two basic reasons for it. One, Tienanmen spirit appears to have dissipated and making money has become a driving force. As the father of China’s reform and opening up policy, Deng Xiaoping said in 1992 during his famous Shenzen tour, one of the three criteria to test the success of socialism was whether the people’s living standards had improved. Notwithstanding the growing income disparity in the country, those who can lead a revolution are busy in profitable economic activities. Two, according to some Chinese intellectuals the spirit of the Chinese people has been so bludgeoned by the party, that living has become the only issue.
But with more than 100,000 anti-government protests every year for the last several years, the debate on political reform and democracy initiated by outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao, and demand for democracy spreading in West Asia and North Africa along with some similar views within the country, the party just cannot take any chance.
In addition, the Xinjiang separatist issue and the Tibetan movement for genuine autonomy which the Chinese still see as a pro-independence movement in spite of the Dalai Lama’s assurance to the contrary, the Chinese leaders remain highly concerned. The leadership launched the “strike hard” campaign in the late 1990s which is still continuing, but the results are not commensurate with the efforts. It has only caused bitterness.
In an unprecedented move in the history of the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese leadership under President, Party General Secretary, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) Hu Jintao, , an all encompassing internal security initiative called “Wei-Wen” was launched at the March NPC annual meeting. The Wei-Wen initiative was given a budget of $ 95 billion, over $ 3 billion more than the defence budget which itself increased by 12.7 % over the previous year, amounting to $ 91.5 billion.
The mammothness of this initiative is mindboggling. The PLA has a major role. The public security apparatus expanded hugely since the 2008 Tibetan uprising. A huge number of civilians, more than one hundred thousand in Beijing and other important cities have been recruited to report on friends, acquaintances and neighbours. It appears like an Orwellian nightmare.
It is difficult to forecast how the Wei-Wen initiative will ultimately work out. But one fear is that it can create a nation of programmed nationalism and another section waiting for the infamous knock at the door in midnight.
The paper underscored the importance of political work of the PLA. It made clear that the PLA must guarantee politically, ideologically and organisationally-the nature of the People’s army under the absolute leadership of the party. On the one hand, the emphasis was to reign in the adventurism that sections of the PLA had exhibited in 2010 to act as a player independent from the party. Now the army is being brought back to serve the Party which includes the Wei-Wen initiative. The Chinese military’s mouthpiece, the PLA Daily (March 29) made it emphatically clear that there was no question of bringing the armed forces under the government, but must remain under the party. This is a retraction from the Deng Xiaoping’s policy to make the armed forces apolitical and professional. Ideology re-emphasized on loyalty to the party, love the people, and serve the country. But the new ideological return does not mean that military development will be relegated to second place. The aim is to integrate a powerful armed force with the political, ideological and social imperatives of the country.
Reunification of Taiwan with the mainland remains the top priority in Beijing’s core interest, yet it is the most difficult one. In fact the Chinese leaders feel if Taiwan was to declare independence Xinjiang, Tibet and even Hong Kong would be difficult to control. And if Taiwan decided to do so, Beijing would not hesitate to switch to the military option. That would open the proverbial Pandora’s Box with a global impact not seen post-world war-II. China is also cognizant of this.
The above of course, is an unlikely scenario. Taipei”s main protector, the United States, has kept it on a tight leash. The US military assistance is very cautious, just enough to keep some kind of military balance across the Taiwan strait. The $ 18.6 billion US military assistance to Taiwan in 2009, did not include submarines which this island entity requires badly. Yet, China suspended military exchanges with US for almost a year.
While deploying more than one thousand nuclear and conventional missiles (range 280 to 300 Kms) covering Taiwan, supplementing this with the new DF-16 long range missiles, and the aircraft carrier killer DF-21D missile to be deployed soon, Beijing adopted a more friendly approach after President Ma Ying-jeo’s KMT came to power two years ago. Economic relations across the strait forged ahead, tourism increased and contacts have become more frequent.
Encouraged, the paper suggested a potential military exchange at an appropriate time. This is something the KMT can even think of at this moment. While the Taiwanese people are divided between full independence and retaining the status quo, reunification has no takers. The Taiwanese defence and security sectors are emphatically opposed to such contacts as they sense danger. China’s worry is that the de-facto status of Taiwan may in time become dejure. There is the factor that indigenous Taiwanese are taking over governance and the influence of the old KMT mainlanders is waning. Beijing will have to live with this uncertainty.
With an eye to the rising “China threat” syndrome in the international community, especially after China’s threatening behaviour in 2010, the paper devoted considerable space to military confidence building. It tried to hide the real purpose of border roads building and erecting permanent, sophisticated military structures as just defensive, and mentioned establishment of friendly contacts with the military of the other side as China’s efforts to be friendly.
The paper described military confidence building as an effective way to maintain national security and development, and safeguard regional peace and security. It listed establishment of mechanism of defence and security consultation and dialogue with 22 countries, initiatives with ASEAN countries, Japan, Mongolia, India, and Pakistan to ensure Asia-Pacific security and diffusing flash points. It also listed confidence building measures with several countries including India and Bhutan,. China’s contribution to the UN peace keeping force, anti-piracy activities and MOOTW were also highlighted.
The paper, however, failed to address questions on its skirmishes with Japan and countries like Vietnam and the Philippines over the Spratly Islands’ sovereignty, trying to control the sea lanes of the South China Sea, and reluctance to discipline North Korea for its military offensive against South Korea which threatened to spin dangerously out of control last year.
The paper reserved one paragraph to detail the several confidence building agreements China had signed with India from 1993 to 1996. Separately, it also mentioned China working to “advance Sino-Indian military relations”.
The remarks are significant. With so many contentious issues in the open across its Asian Pacific seaboard, stability with a large neighbour with which it has serious differences on boundary and territorial issues, this is good publicity.
On the other hand, India must assess very carefully the Chinese desire to resume military-to-military relations. India suspended military relation when China refused to give Lt. Gen B.S. Jaswal, GOC-in-C of the Northern Command a normal visa as he was in command of Kashmir. Beijing’s position was that it was their considered policy. If India agrees to resume military relations with China, it would have accepted China’s position. The negative impact on India will be massive, and weaken India’s sovereign position.
China has given no indication to suggest that it was considering reversing its position on the visa issue. Very recently, the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan strongly reiterated China’s position. During his visit to India this January, Premier Wen Jiabao said he understood India’s concern, and suggested Beijing would revisit the issue. He was less than honest. China’s activities in India’s neighbourhood must be included in India’s policy calculations.
The paper was very circumspect about Japan and the two Koreas. The reason is not difficult to understand. The threatening stand-off between China and Japan over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands last year, and more recent spooking of Japanese ships by Chinese aircraft and ships along Japanese waters are indicative of China’s hard-line position. Following the recent earthquake and tsunami devastation of Japan, the Chinese official media (and of course officials) are trying to ease relations, saying Japan’s future lay with China, and the US be expelled from the region. Most importantly, the official Global Times wrote in the Japanese context that it was already decided that China was the number one country in Asia. Sadly, the Chinese authorities see opportunity when disaster and bad luck strikes another country. China remains committed to North Korea, and its leadership and the Workers’ Party of Korea (WKP) and believes that on the one hand, it sees the collapse of the North Korean regime and the WKP may have a domino effect on the Chinese communist party. North Korea also remains Beijing’s strongest card against Japan and the USA. But there is a growing voice inside China, even among intellectuals facilitated to the government, that North Korea was becoming a liability for China. The paper was silent on these issues.
The Defence White Paper circumvented serious issues across the board. There was hardly any celebration of China’s strategic relations with Pakistan, showed some concerns over Afghanistan, and played down strategic contentious issues with the US. Just nothing was revealed in specific terms of its weapons and systems development or apportioning of its defense budget. To foreign observers it was an exercise in public relations.
China’s propaganda that its military development is purely defensive must be seen in terms of what it wants to defend. Securing its core interests, defending its economic interests overseas, and its political interests in the international fora by military means, requires a huge offensive military capability including no-contact and asymmetric warfare. China is well on the way to achieve these including protecting its self-assumed status as Asia’s only pole.
It will be a major error of judgement if Indian strategists measure China’s growing military power in terms of American and NATO assessments. China is now trying to dominate the BRICS, having already penetrated the SAARC and kept India outside the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) unless Pakistan was included. China’s use of the Pakistan card against India has been elevated to a higher level with Beijing’s new policy on Kashmir. Its latest political and military diplomacy in Sri Lanka and Nepal have found powerful centres in these countries to counter India. The BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh remain dedicated to Chinese partners to counter India. The Chinese “string of pearls” theory to encircle India is a no longer a figment of imagination of some Americans. It is real. At the same time, China is quickly acquiring the reputation of being the most untrustworthy big power. Hawks in China’s political and military establishments are bursting at the seams to demonstrate their power action. Concurrently, sane voices are rising to restrain the combative power centres.
Indian policy makers must remember that to conduct relations with China (which is a must) with dignity requires to openly hold sovereign positions and convey in no uncertain terms that India can stand alone. Power ensures peace and respect.