Hardnews Exclusive: The Rise & Rise of CHINA
What implications can China's military modernisation and strategic manoeuvers have on South Asia and the world?
Jayadeva Ranade Delhi
China's 'rise' - the prospect of which had prompted Napoleon two centuries ago to warn about its possible repercussions, is now accelerating and coincides with the profound transformation underway in the global geo-political environment. The 'rise' of India, China and Japan, simultaneously for the first time in history, each with its own aspirations, generates its own dynamics and latent potential tensions. At the same time, the existing world powers are naturally trying to ensure that the shift in global balance that could occur consequent to the emergence of the new centres of power, is so calibrated that it best serves their interests. China's effort to modernise and reach the level of an advanced developed nation is being shaped by these developments.
China's tremendous economic growth over the decades has been facilitated by aspirations harboured by successive leadership generations of the Communist Party of China (CPC). China's economic might can be gauged from its steadily increasing forex reserves which today total $2 trillion and, together with USA, accounts for 30 per cent of the world's GDP.
This economic strength enabled the modernisation of China's armed forces. China's leaders focused on military modernisation for the past 30 years and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is today a force to reckon with in the region. In the past couple of years, China has become more confident and assertive and has begun putting its military might on display. This development has aroused concern in many world capitals and countries, especially China's neighbours, who are trying to discern its ambitions and motives.
China's military modernisation is a huge task. It has inherent and major pitfalls. Chinese military strategists use the term 'transformation', acknowledging the enormity and protracted nature of the task which entails thorough overhaul of the entire military establishment, its thinking, doctrines, strategy and tactics, and ethos.
When China formally initiated the 'Four Modernisations' programme in December 1979, these were: agriculture, industry, science & technology and defence. Defence was listed last by Deng Xiaoping who assessed that China's military could be modernised gradually and only after the economy begins to grow a strong defence, science and technology establishment will develop. This priority was revised in 1993 by Chinese President Jiang Zemin when a stunned Chinese leadership witnessed the way in which US strategy and weaponry destroyed the Iraqi forces during the Americans' first Gulf War in 1991.
The second Gulf War and the wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan reinforced Chinese assessments of the overwhelming capabilities of US military technology and doctrine. Military modernisation was accelerated with double-digit increases for China's defence budget each successive year thereafter. Today, China's defence budget is conservatively estimated at approximately US$ 70 billion - a quantum jump from the approximately $5/6 billion through the 1980s - and it is projected to continue to increase proportionate to its economic growth.
Deng Xiaoping, who was the first senior leader to articulate that the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) structure, organisation, doctrine and tactics were unsuited to the times and required drastic overhaul, also questioned Mao's theory of the 'inevitability of war'. This signalled a major policy shift giving the PLA much-needed breathing space to examine doctrines and prepare for other types of war, besides global conflict.
Deng Xiaoping's objective was to prepare for "future conflicts", which, he said, at a Central Military Commission meeting in December 1985, were likely to be "localised, yet intensive". Chinese strategists and analysts assessed that such wars could be motivated by a variety of factors such as natural resources, boundary disputes, or to ensure local or regional 'hegemony'. By the late 1990s, this doctrine was refined to that of fighting 'local wars under modern high technology conditions on China's periphery'.
A quantum advance in military modernisation was initiated with current President Hu Jintao taking over as chairman of the Central Military Commission - the country's apex decision-making body for the military. Hu Jintao accelerated the on-going process and reoriented the PLA's focus to conduct integrated joint operations. He took substantive steps to ensure close coordination among the different services by inducting, for the first time ever, the chiefs of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Navy into the powerful Central Military Commission. Combined land-sea and air-sea military exercises began from 2006 and air-land exercises began subsequently with other targets in mind.
The ongoing two-month long Kuaye-2009 (Stride-2009) is the largest military exercise held so far and it is an air-land joint military exercise. It involves four divisions from four military regions, but the Chengdu Military Region that lies across India is not participating. The exercise, in which 50,000 troops move across 50,000 kms, in air and in over 60,000 vehicles, is intended to test the PLA's rapid deployment capability and ability to mass troops at a designated location in a short span of time. This and similar exercises suggest that the Chinese military leadership envisages a potential conflict on the country's periphery.
The quickening pace of modernisation and changing nature of warfare necessitated revision of the military doctrine. Chinese strategists, reflecting their understanding of the geopolitical situation, changed the strategy of 'winning local wars under ordinary conditions' to that of 'winning regional wars under hi-tech conditions'. Over the years, the geopolitical situation changed and China now anticipated potential conflagrations along its periphery. The doctrine underwent further modification in 2006 to that of 'winning short-duration local wars under hi-tech informatised conditions'.
An understated, but important, contribution to the shaping of military doctrine was a significant book published in February 1999, written by two PLA senior Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiaogui, titled Unrestricted Warfare. These PLA officers analysed US tactics and weaponry used in the Gulf Wars, Kosovo and Afghanistan and concluded that a nation would require resorting to unconventional methods in a conflict between unevenly matched adversaries. Qiao Liang declared: "The first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules and nothing is forbidden." This theory of asymmetric warfare contributed to the Chinese military leadership's decision to emphasise cyber warfare.
China's economy and its energy needs along with politico-strategic considerations had a significant input in the subsequent prioritisation of China's military modernisation and allocation of budgetary resources. China's growing commercial maritime interests were estimated to exceed $700 billion by the end of 2008 with over 60 per cent of its oil imports transported by sea.
Chinese commercial ships were also becoming vulnerable with almost 1,000 commercial ships passing through troubled seas each year. With the quantum of China's commercial sea-borne trade expected to escalate dramatically in coming years, it became vital for China to safeguard its cargo and the sea-lanes.
Political ambitions were also involved. China's leaders have been saying since the 1960s that the Indian Ocean is not India's Ocean and they have long harboured ambitions of possessing a blue-water capable navy. The PLA Navy was also tasked to protect and advance China's off-shore territorial claims, including the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland. These factors ensured that the PLA Navy received priority in China's military modernisation with a steady and generous budgetary allocation estimated at almost 30 per cent of the country's defence budget.
Modernisation of the PLA Navy has seen it play a silent, but effective role in furthering China's off-shore territorial claims. As part of its role, Chinese Navy vessels have been confronting US Navy ships. These confrontations send a signal to other countries in the region, and especially Taiwan, that it would be unwise to depend on the US for assistance in event of a conflict with China. By its actions, China has conveyed that it will oppose counter claims with muscle.
Other significant areas of military modernisation include the PLAAF, Second Artillery or strategic force and Defence Science and Technology. After decades of being viewed as merely an adjunct of the ground forces, the PLAAF evolved its own doctrine and drew up plans in the late 1990s to build state-of-the-art weapons systems, including early warning planes, electronic warfare warplanes and surface-to-air missiles. It is now assessed to be capable of waging high-level, long-distance combat, and an air defence that is able to provide assistance to the navy and ground forces.
Over the next few years the PLAAF will enhance its deterrent capability in the air, its ability to impose air blockades, its ability to launch air strikes, including deep inside enemy territory, and its ability to conduct joint operations with the ground forces and navy.
The secretive Second Artillery, or China's strategic intercontinental ballistic missile force, is essentially a retaliatory force as China's nuclear doctrine renounces the right to first nuclear strike. However, Chinese strategists are debating, prompted by the US' ability to successfully carry out long-range precision strikes with conventional armed ballistic missiles, whether China should adhere to this doctrine and not respond to conventional strikes on strategic forces with nuclear weapons. It has a range of SRBMs, MRBMs and ICBMs and is trying to develop multiple warheads to defeat the US missile defence structure. It is also developing advanced versions of the missiles in its inventory and a new class of manoeuvering re-entry vehicles.
A key feature of China's military modernisation programme has been the emphasis on development of indigenous defence, science and technology and armament production. This is noticeable in the range of weaponry that China produces and exports. Most of China's ships and submarines, tanks, armoured transport and other weaponry for the ground forces and aircraft and equipment for the air force are indigenously produced. These are supplemented by purchases from abroad, mainly Russia. What is noteworthy is that China's defence production industry achieved its current capability within a span of 15 years.
China's ambition to become a major world power is visible in its futuristic view of warfare and programmes to develop 'new concept weapons'. China assesses that weaponisation of space is inevitable and that strategic competition will take place in space and not earth. It is accordingly preparing for 'integrated space-air-sea-ground operations' and focusing on 'new concept weapons like laser, electromagnetic, infrasonic, genetic, biotechnological, nanotechnological etc'.
Space is another area of emphasis for China's military planners, with China assessing that an anti-missile system employing space, air, sea and ground-based platforms would be the most effective. The advances made by the country in Anti-Satellite Warfare were demonstrated in January 2007 when it achieved a 'kinetic kill' of one of its redundant meteorological satellites.
While China is presently building its 'offensive' military capability, its ambition to be a major global power is apparent. It also continues to view the US as its main threat. Combined with Beijing's reluctance to settle outstanding territorial issues with its neighbours and repeated assertions that China will secure its territorial limits and claims, this has contributed to arousing serious reservations. The demonstrated capability of the Chinese Navy to delay attempts at assistance by the US Navy, is an added factor of concern.
The writer is a former additional secretary, cabinet secretariat, Government of India