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.
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.
PLA Force Capabilities
According to its own admission, “China faces no threat.” It is, therefore, a matter to consider as to why China requires such a massive military establishment, a humungous power-bank which, even if intrinsic to its ‘barrel of gun’ ideology, far exceeds its reckonable defence needs – unless it is to provoke, dominate or impose over other nations’ sovereignty. Besides, there are the other considerations.
The PLA Navy is fast configuring to be active over a vast and distant operational beat…
Firstly, military force-capabilities are organised based on four factors, namely, Aim, Terrain, Enemy and Objective. Notwithstanding that, field forces organised for one set of factors do adapt albeit with some compromise with capability, to varying conditions of terrain and opposition. It is, therefore, a matter of consideration that the manoeuverable-mechanised-informationalised category of the modernised PLAGF would have to be optimally modified to fight across the terrain that obtains along the Indo-Tibet, Sino-Myanmar, Gilgit-Baltistan or Sino-Afghan Borders. That would require some preparation and practice exercises to strengthen operational confidence. More suitably, this category of forces are better deployed for engagement along Sino-Russian, Sino-Mongolia, Sino-Central Asian States or the East Coast terrain or even the hinterland areas of Manchuria, Xinjiang and Greater Tibet. When connected with the build up of air and sea borne transportation capability, these forces assume further applicability in the sub-continental and out-of-area context. Coming to the second and the third categories of the PLAGF, when duly bolstered with additional combat power of the first category, these are best suited to undertake invasion across the rugged mountainous terrain that separate the PRC with some of its neighbours.
Secondly, the structure of the PLA Navy is definitive of its overwhelming domination over the blue waters of the ‘First and ‘Second Island Chains’, even to the extent that the superpower, the United States, would be circumspect in its indulgence over these waters. Further, the brisk build-up of PRC’s naval power is unambiguously aimed at registration of not just a bona fide presence, but its leverage across the Malacca Strait, beyond the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, further across the Indian Peninsula and right up to the East Africa Coast and the two Gulfs, may even be across the African continent where much of Chinese investments are coming up.
In this context, it is too obvious to reiterate that whatever shape the Chinese footholds over port facilities all across the waters of the China Sea-Indian Ocean might assume in the coming days, in the forms of operational halts, harbours, hubs or bases, the PLA Navy is fast configuring to be active over a vast and distant operational beat. Thus having secured its space within the Sea of Japan, Taiwan Strait, Yellow Sea and East and South China Seas, the second and the third stages are clearly aimed at domination over the South East Asian island chain, followed by acquisition of naval power projection capability in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Indeed, it will require a couple of decades’ gestation before the PLA Navy can flex its muscles in the Indian Ocean. But what is certain that it will definitely achieve that end.
The theme of militarisation is, however, best demonstrated in the manner PRC seeks to maintain its internal societal order and stability…
Thirdly, corresponding to the other two Services, the PLA Air Force is being built up for joint operations across a regional arena that extends through the Sea of Japan, the China Sea and to the chain of islands on the Eastern periphery of the Indian Ocean. By the creation of far away naval-air operating and logistic bases as also composition of an airborne corps of three parachute divisions, the strategic reach of China’s air power is expected to be further extended across the Indian Ocean to the Malabar and the East African Coast and to the Chinese economic acquisitions of faraway lands. Even among the five Joint Theatre Operational Commands, the inter-theatre air transportation capability would boost the deployment and redeployment of forces as necessitated by localised-theatre war situations.
With a formidable conventional force at its disposal, PRC needs no nuclear-missile cover, unless it is to deter the super power from ‘meddling’ in its sphere of hegemony or to prevent a victim of its aggression from retaliating too hurtfully. Fourthly therefore, reconfiguration of the Service status as well as command and control over the PLA Rocket Force and the PLA Strategic Support Force are clearly aimed at – one, political posturing to impose threat and two, employment in distinct stand-alone mode, not necessarily as a part of military campaign.
Lastly, unstated though, the CPC remains anxious of internal opposition to its autarkic rule. The Han state’s instinctive reaction to internal uprisings in the past has been to suppress these in a ruthless manner. Indeed, re-configuration of the PAPF addresses that concern regarding outbreak of people’s revolt against the regime, occurrence of which is not difficult to visualise. Designation of the reconfigured PAPF as a ‘police force’, but with para-military characteristics and the CMC-PLA’s control over it are indicative of a well-deliberated policy of decimating challenges against the regime without having to invite a Tiananmen Square kind of universal abhorrence of its military highhandedness. Besides, suppressing internal disturbances, this force would also be well utilised in low intensity and rear area tasks during hot wars and out-of-area policing duties.
Based on the above discussion, we may now examine as to how the PRC might wield the PLA’s force-capabilities in order to back its political articulations in the coming decades.
The Chinese leadership believes that economic progress fosters internal stability…
Application of Military Force Capabilities
The Chinese leadership believes that economic progress fosters internal stability, which by implication ensures the continuation of the CPC regime. Furthermore, it is also believed that progress and stability are best catalysed by the possession of strong military power that would favourably arbitrate over inter-state differences which are bound to crop up against China’s march to the status of global leadership – read hegemony. However, in deference to its hoary wisdom, it is to be appreciated that China, by nature, seeks to secure its inter-state claims and demands, arbitrary and hurtful as these are wont to be, through the offer of minor concessions and incentives to the extent that the quarry finds it expedient to give-in. PRC’s ‘settlement’ of border disputes with its ‘lesser’ neighbours is an example of that policy.
Like many hegemonic powers, China too detests war and would like the objects of its consternation to submit to its will without a fight in tune with the oft-quoted Sun Tzu’s concept of ‘winning without fighting’. But when that policy does not work, the next step in an escalatory situation is to isolate the ‘recalcitrant’ and then subject him to threat, arm-twisting and punitive measures to come without having to actually jump into war – instances of Taiwan and Mongolia, for example.
Finally, should the adversary remain obdurate and war becomes unavoidable, military action cannot just be to achieve a one-time victory, but a ruthlessly administered lesson in perpetuity. The consternation that seizes the Americans’ memory of the Korean War and the trepidation that the Indians suffered on account of the 1962 debacle, are fruitions of this policy.
China’s military build up is organised to immobilise any regional opposition against the Chinese Dream…
Thus within the concept of winning without having to fight, China’s articulation of military power may be postulated along the following steps:
- One, diplomatic demonstration of a powerful military and the political will to unleash it. The pugilistic approach to United States’ South East Asian engagements and implied admonition of Taiwan are examples of this step.
- Two, undertaking of ‘push actions’ with Category B and militia forces – violation of the Indo-Tibet Border and occupation of South China Sea Islands, for example.
- Three, sharp ‘trailer actions’ with overwhelming strength to incentivise accommodation of the demands – of the kind displayed during invasion of Tibet and the Sino-Russian confrontation on the Uri River.
Four, demonstrative military build-up to offer a final opportunity to the adversary to back-off before launching well planned, meticulously prepared and competently executed ‘counter-attack in self defence’. The purpose here is to gain negotiated settlement from a dominant position, as it was in the case of the Korea and Vietnam Wars.
Concerns Regarding PLA’s Capabilities
A huge empire in possession of formidable military establishment, deep in a sense of humiliation at the hands of imperialist powers and consternated by the peripheral nations’ repudiation of what it claims as its naturally ordained superior entitlement, is a neighbour to be wary of. The wariness is exacerbated when that empire happens to be a revisionist and claimant power who declares that it faces no threat, is known to be militarily aggressive and commits to humungous military build-up.4
A new chapter of colonisation might be in the offing…
In general terms, China’s schemes of military build-up are indicative of the following possibilities:
- Establishment of firm and unchallenged sovereignty over all waters and territory that China claims. China’s military build up is organised to immobilise any regional opposition against the Chinese Dream into helplessness before hurling military power at them.
- Naval and air power put together serves the PLA’s intent to prevent the superpower and its allies from coming to the rescue of the targeted trouble maker at a cost that they would not like to suffer.
- Establishment of effective control over the Japan-China Sea waters in a manner that the island or coastal states in the region are obliged to let China have her way as the first claimant over the region’s natural resources. Besides military usurpation, swarming the islands with civilian stakeholders – the Militia actually – would be one of the ploys.
- To bind the neighbouring nations into an economic monopoly in a manner that these nations are obliged – with expedient reasons, under compelling circumstances, to link their survival to economic interdependence with the PRC.
- Projection of military power as an insurance in favour of economic colonisation of the Indo-Pacific Region, the rest of Asia and Africa.
- Finally, assumption of the role of regional hegemon to replace the US which many political analysts believe to be on the decline.
China and the Asian comity of nations have to work together to see that another era of internecine conflict does not interfere with the universal path of progress…
In more regional-specific terms, it may not be beyond the realm of reckoning that (exaggeration of worst case scenarios is intended):
- In the coming years, passage of lesser powers across the China Seas might need China’s custom clearance, while the Indian Ocean Region, including the East African Coast and the Arabian Sea Gulfs could come under China’s Navy-Marine baton-beat.
- As for Taiwan, the PRC is apparently sanguine that given the latter’s vulnerability to blockade, gradual isolation from the American guarantee and strong economic bindings, it is a matter of time before ‘Hong Kong’ is replicated without having to shed much Han blood.
- Over the years, through incremental and innocuous ‘civil activism’, duly backed up with military ‘protection’, the claimed islands and territories could be dissolved into Chinese sovereignty. In that usurpation, the policy would be to apply incentive and persuasion of the opponent with the backing of implied military threat or even demonstration and skirmish actions.
- As the China Pakistan Economic Corridor assumes the Central Asian centre stage, there would develop intra-state linkages between the fiercely autonomous and deeply conservative indigenous societies habiting in the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir-Gilgit-Baltistan-Baluchistan regions and the Chinese conglomerates. It would be a matter of time before such linkages would morph into stiff competition into the entitlement of profits. Situations of that kind have the potential of triggering internecine disturbances and eventual Chinese arbitration of political and military kind. A new chapter of colonisation might be in the offing.
…rise to superpower status requires mutual accommodation, solidarity with justified international causes and the benign use of power. The Chinese know that well.
China and the Asian comity of nations, therefore, have to work together to see that another era of internecine conflict does not interfere with the universal path of progress.
Super Power Attributes
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.
Conversely, Providence might come to the rescue of the weaker, particularly when either better sense prevails over the hegemon or its torment causes the coalescence of a coalition of the oppressed. On the positive side, rise to superpower status requires mutual accommodation, solidarity with justified international causes and the benign use of power. The Chinese know that well.
- The PRC’s hapless quarries prefer to use that softer euphuism for ‘aggressiveness’, to avoid provoking the imposing hegemon.
- Notably, there have been many exceptions when military back-up has failed to protect economic interests against popular uprising against exploitation.
- It is altogether a different matter that to a reckonable extent, the PRC itself sows the seeds of such opposition when it asserts its ‘entitlement’ to have the first pick of all that the region has to offer, and then acting magnanimous, as a show of grace, in ‘allowing’ its lesser partners to partake in residual benefits. In the domestic front too, the CPC stokes misgivings among its citizens by their absolute exclusion from voicing opinions or participating in any matter of governance.
- China’s outlandish claim over the seas enclosed by the so called ‘nine-dash line’ is unparalleled in its brazenness. Similar is the case with its claims over ethnically, culturally, linguistically, geographically – indeed, by every yardstick of nationhood – different regions of Tibet, Xinjiang and Arunachal Pradesh (India). To make matters worse for its intended victims, China reiterates often its stance of having already ‘given up’ much more, and that it will not compromise with the ‘rightful’ claims any more!