Balancing Politics and Power: Prognosis of China’s Military Build-Up
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Issue Vol. 32.3 Jul-Sep 2017 | Date : 29 Oct , 2017

So far we have attributed the PRC’s military build-up to its likelihood of turning into a regional tormentor. Indeed, it is wise to be circumspect. Besides, in the entire pan Asian region, there prevails an innate apprehension of Han highhandedness. Over a period of time thus, the incongruities in cultural make-up of rest of the Asian nations, including the people of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, with that of the Chinese methods of functioning, might surface. The Asians would, therefore, be wise to girdle up in any way they can to live through the times ahead that might be fraught with dangers of being pushed into subservience with occasional administration of small concessions and punitive measures reserved for the defiant.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” —Alan Kay

The Hans are endowed with great cultural traditions and are the inheritors of hoary wisdom that emanates from such traditions…

Equation of State Policy and Military Power

In the post World War II era, most of  the stable and mature states have, as far as possible, preferred to sequester the option of military intervention in pursuance of their international and domestic policies. Accordingly, the trend in the modern world has been to keep military power reserved for use as an instrument of ultimate and mostly reluctant, recourse for the preservation of their national interests against stubborn and intransigent enemies who might resort to intolerable armed provocation. In the case of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), however, traditional inclination enjoins it to derive a somewhat different equation between state policy and military force.

The Hans are endowed with great cultural traditions and are the inheritors of hoary wisdom that emanates from such traditions. More importantly, China’s ruling regimes have been rather rigid in nurturing such traditions and wisdom in matters of statecraft, both external and internal. In purport, a naturally ordained sense of ‘superiority’ is intrinsic to that statecraft when it enjoins China to sanction to itself unilateral authority to make its own rules and arbitrate over even universally recognised conventions according to its imperialist interpretations. Proclamations over China’s ‘lost territories’ and the self-promise of ‘recovery’ of these, description of its military aggression as ‘counter-attack in self-defence’, staking ownership over all of the China Seas and nonchalant display of double standards in bilateral issues of diplomatic, territorial or commercial contention are fallouts of that sense of superiority of the ‘nature mandated’ rulers of China. In that context, articulation of military power has to be an accessory to China’s imposition of hegemony, even if it causes much consternation in a sovereignty-sensitive international order.

The ruling establishment’s claim of nature-mandated ‘superiority’ is evident in China’s domestic realm too – in the forms of autarkic imposition of social, religious and even professional codes upon its ‘subjects’ as its people are viewed.

The ‘Barrel of Gun’ Experience

Having invested so much on building up military power, it is difficult for the Communist Party of China (CPC) to deny itself the accruing dividends of hard power…

After capturing power in 1949, Mao Zedong had famously declared, “Power flows from the barrel of gun.” Thus having tied China’s national interests with possession of robust military power, the Mao regime sought to wipe clean the ‘century of humiliation’ that imperialist China had the morbidity to suffer at the hands of the Western colonising powers and the Japanese aggressors. Chairman Mao and his coterie then proceeded to invest in conventional and nuclear military power even at the cost of putting the Chinese citizens through abject hardship and misery. Having invested so much on building up military power, it is difficult for the Communist Party of China (CPC) to deny itself the accruing dividends of hard power through which it upholds its ‘assertiveness’.1 Indeed, the CPC’s practice of military power backed governance stands vindicated by China’s subsequent rise against severe international rejection as also economic and technological sanctions, before finally elevating it to the status of a global power. For the CPC, China’s national power has really and comprehensively emerged from the ‘barrel of gun’ – not only in the external arena, but internally too. Therefore, there is every logic for the CPC to assign prominent roles to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the fulfilment of its ‘Chinese Dream’.

To elaborate, in the CPC’s policy articulation, military considerations have always been intrinsic to the pursuit of international relationships, domestic governance and commercial ventures. In consequence, while considering the profitability and advantages of civil, economic or industrial development schemes, accrual of military advantages get invariably factored into the PRC’s overall calculus. The ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) or the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI), the ‘Maritime Silk Route’ (MSR), territorial expansionism in the China Seas, arms and investment diplomacy and ambition in the Indian Ocean Region, all are evidently tested against that calculus. Thus when the consequential gains of military leverages are factored in, the statistically adjudged ‘debits’ of economic un-viability of such schemes turn into an overall long term profitability for a rising or already risen China.

Arguably, there may be much wisdom in PRC’s subscription to that kind of ‘policy-force equation’. As business grows and stakes rise, multilateral economic ventures stoke higher expectations, which in turn give rise to cut-throat profitability and political manipulations among the real and expectant stakeholders. History indicates that such instances come invariably sooner or later, when even ‘eternal friendships’ are liable to be vitiated. It is at that time when military power comes in to protect investments, distant assets and profitability of economic partnerships from usurpation or strangulation by dissent, even animosity. Britain’s rule over India, Japan’s pre-World War II ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, the erstwhile Soviet Union’s economic web and the United State’s Middle East leverages are just some manifestations of that theme.2

It needs no reiteration that the CPC nurtures a majestic ‘dream’ for China…

Notably, the aforementioned theme of backing policies with force applies in equal measure, to PRC’s policies of domestic governance too. Thus the entire gamut of technological, industrial, infrastructural and to some extent, even educational and health-related ventures has incorporated strong military components. The theme of militarisation is, however, best demonstrated in the manner PRC seeks to maintain its internal societal order and stability. In PRC, the usual leeway’s of citizen’s choice, voice, culture and calls, should these be in even remote contradiction to the official diktats, are ruthlessly and demonstratively suppressed in order to instil fear of the state. On the other hand, people are permitted to have a good time, even raucous ones, within the reasonable norms of conduct, thus encouraging the citizens to remain within limits set by the Party. The world is aware of Chinese highhandedness in Tiananmen, Xinjiang and Tibet, but there is no gain-saying that the state’s rule is equally testing in rest of PRC, the only difference being that people there have found expediency in amenability with the Party’s regime.

The salience of the ‘power of the gun’ in Chinese scheme of things, having been recounted thus, we may proceed to evaluate the indicators that emanate from the PLA’s modernisation schemes. Since military policies require decades of gestation period before fructifying, these indicators give a fair idea as to the course the PRC is likely to adopt in its journey to global stardom.

Military’s Role in the ‘Chinese Dream’

It needs no reiteration that the CPC nurtures a majestic ‘dream’ for China. That dream is to re-assume its rightful status as ‘The Middle Kingdom’ – arguably it is a legitimate and harmless intent. The CPC is also convinced that the dream can come to fruition only if the Communist regime continues to steer China’s destiny – by past evidence that conviction too seems to be quite right. Next, taking cue from historical lessons, the CPC accepts that finding economic satisfaction for its people is imperative for the continuation of its autarkic rule and that kind of perpetual economic progress cannot be sustained just by its indigenous resources – it would require access to the nature’s resources across the globe. Thus while the PRC takes laudable economic initiatives to rise to its rightful ‘high-chair’ and makes those initiatives attractive for potential stakeholders, it simultaneously prepares the PLA to stand by as an insurance should some event or some troublemaker, external or internal, threatens to derail the dream.3 It is so that the PLA is nurtured as a fallback instrument of the Party that overarches the Chinese state.

In the competition for self-interests, no nation gives way without being obliged to do so…

In linking the Party rule with furtherance of economic interests, it is expected that sooner or later, the PRC would encounter hurdles. In the competition for self-interests, no nation gives way without being obliged to do so. Therefore, even if by all past evidence it may not be a war monger per se, China believes that when intransigence of any satellite power goes beyond its limits of tolerance, a mild military nudge – a lesson, so to say – helps is bringing the trouble maker to its senses. At the same time, a military nudge could always escalate and that calls for possession of enough muscle to secure a satisfactory end state. Obviously therefore, PLA’s modernisation and re-structuring must conform to the creation of that capability which the PRC might need to advance its interests against any opposition that its policies might provoke.

As a corollary, since military structures take decades to build, it may be possible to postulate the kind of military opposition the PRC expects to be confronted with, say, a decade or more away. Inter alia, such an evaluation is likely to offer hints regarding the kind of policies that the PRC might propagate in the regional, global and internal arena, policies which it expects to trigger opposition.

Features of China’s Military Build-up

This is a sphere of deliberate examinations, astute analyses and professional foresight. However, for the purpose of this paper, it would suffice to identify the indicators which help in adjudging the goals of the PLA’s massive restructuring. To start with, let us first look at the force-structure of the PLA.

The modernised PLA Ground Force (PLAGF) is being organised into three categories. The first category consists of forces organised for modern conventional warfare against advanced militaries. It is based on manoeuvre brigades, modular combat units, combined arms and inter-services integration, joint command and control and rapid reaction capability. Concurrent retention of the ‘Line’, ‘Garrison’ or ‘Reserve’ divisional and regimental formations, duly upgraded with modern war paraphernalia to engage in third generation version of ‘active defence’, makes the second category. The third category consists of the ‘Category B’ units and formations that are meant to undertake moderate level operations while shaping the battle zone for the other two categories to exploit.

China believes that when intransigence of any satellite power goes beyond its limits of tolerance, a mild military nudge – a lesson, so to say – helps is bringing the trouble maker to its senses…

Conceptually on similar lines, key components of the modernised PLA Naval force-structure are to be its three carrier-based fleet, a naval air arm and a coastal defence force each five brigades strong. A marine corps of three amphibian marine brigades – that is slated to be expanded to a dozen or so – adds to that sea power. Corresponding to the other two services, the modernised PLA Air Force is organised into air regiments, divisions and corps of balanced composition, for it to be effectively packaged for strategic offensive air warfare in joint services battle spaces. That capability is bolstered by the grouping of an airborne corps of three parachute divisions and an air-lift capability of at least one division across a range of over two thousand kilometres.

Elevation of the PLA Rocket Force to an autonomous Service and bringing science, technology and industry of nuclear, missile, space and information warfare under the single umbrella of PLA Strategic Support Force are the other indicators of the PRC shaping its future international postures. Lastly, configuring the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF) into a distinct para-military organisation and placing its employment in internal conflicts as well as rear area military support under the CMC-PLA, offers insight into the manner the CPC plans to control any internal situation.

Notably, PLA dedicates all the above mentioned categories of its military machine to fight under what it describes as the ‘conditions of informationisation’. This description, in spite of its usual ambiguity, actually implies the harness of modern command, control, intelligence and communication systems in the prosecution warfare. Similarly, its description of ‘warfare under localised conditions’ cannot be, as usually inferred, an intent to cap operations to local and limited actions. It actually implies deployment of forces that are composed as relevant to the theatre-matrices of terrain, tactics and strategic objectives to be attained. In other words, war may be prosecuted in different theatres, simultaneously if necessary, with forces customised and deployed to the achievement of political objectives. Notably, the concept of deploying overwhelming force remains salient, the difference being a deliberate boost of military manpower through mechanisation and fire power.

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Delving further into the recent revamp of the military command and control set up in the forms of Headquarters Combined Corps, Headquarters Joint Theatre Operational Commands and the CMC with its direct control over PLA Rocket, Strategic Support, Reserve, Militia and People’s Armed Police Forces, we may proceed to translate the PLA’s force-structure into its force-capabilities.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Gautam Banerjee

former Commandant Officers Training Academy, Chennai.

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