Geo-strategic scenario has undergone unimaginable transformation from what existed as of 31st December, 2019. Evolution of new and/or more destructive weapons have not brought about this change. An unseen microscopic virus called COVID is presumed to be the cause. But is it truly so? Would China be as belligerent as it is today in August, 2021 without COVID having struck the world with such ferocity in early 2020? Linking China’s belligerence with COVID would, perhaps, be one of the greatest strategic blunder, the world would make.
Seeds of China’s offensive and belligerent approach were sown as far back as 2007, when China declared the following;
- China considers NINE DASH LINE drawn by themselves as the sole deciding factor with regard to demarcating China owned waters in South China Seas.
- China considers South China Seas as her sovereign territory.
- China will not allow/may not allow any military activity by any other nation in close proximity of its territory, which includes artificial islands.
- Sooner than later China will establish an ADIZ in South China Sea around the artificially created islands.
- After the end of current Typhoon season, China may position long range surveillance radar and few SAM units.
- Thereafter China will invoke existing provisions contained in UNCLOS and claim the 200 nm boundary as its sovereign territory around the waters surrounding the artificial islands to be her EEZ.
2016 was a landmark year. Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) gave a favourable judgement to Philipines against China. China reacted with utmost disregard and disrespect to the judgement given by a neutral international organization set up for resolving such issues among nations. Incidentally;
Permanent Court of Arbitration is neither a UN organ nor in any way affiliated with International Court of Justice at The Hague in spite of the fact that they are co-located in Peace Palace at Amsterdam. After PCA pronounced the judgement, President XI’s ‘threatening’ and politically inappropriate statement by a head of state is mentioned below:-
“The South China Sea Islands have been China’s territory SINCE ANCIENT TIMES. Our sovereignty and maritime interests in the south China sea will never be influenced by the so-called arbitral ruling under any circumstances. We refuse to accept any claims or activities based on arbitral ruling. China is firmly dedicated to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and to resolving disputes through direct negotiations with relevant countries on the basis of respecting historical facts and in line with international law.”
Incidentally the utterances of Chinese President were not made during a press conference. They were made during his meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk and European commission president Jean-Claude Junker at Beijing. To add fuel to the fire Chinese foreign ministry spokes person Lu Kang added:-
“We hope they (the USA Japan and other countries pressing China to accept The Hague Ruling) can treat international law seriously, not like playing a game, and not to distort and selectively abuse international law to serve their hidden political aims.”
Liu Zhenmin, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs said:- “If our security is being threatened, of course we have the right to demarcate a zone and China does not rule out the option of setting up an Air Defence Identification Zone. Other countries should not take this opportunity to threaten China or let it (South China Sea Issue) become the origin of war. China’s aim is to turn the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and co-operation.”
However the most damning comments made by Liu Zhenmin was when he openly accused the FIVE JUDGE bench of the tribunal appointed by PCA FOR HAVING RECEIVED MONEY FROM PHILIPPINES. He further added that may be other countries too gave the money, although without naming anyone/any country.
Chinese ambassador in USA Cui Tiankai categorically stated that “we will not yield to any pressure, be it in form of military activity, media criticism or some self-claimed legal bodies.” Chinese authorities have categorically stated that the tribunal comprising of five judges, four Europeans and one Ghanian, who was the chairman (a long time resident of Europe) had any wisdom to understand the complexities of South China Sea waters.
After perusing the statements made by the highest authorities in China, should anyone have had any doubts about Chinese intent and their utmost desire to create matching capabilities viz creation of artificial islands etc. Chinese activity to create artificial islands in South China Sea was too well known to everyone everywhere. Why then no questions were raised? Was the world waiting for ruling of the PCA on Filipino issue?
Reaction of international community ranged from deafening silence by major western nations to outright military jingoism by the USA. Indecisive diplomats advocated ‘strategic patience’; another term for moral and physical cowardice and indecision.
Before proceeding any further, background of China-Philipine standoff needs to be mentioned in brief. According to Chinese white paper the core issue relates to ‘supposed’ Philipino invasion and illegal occupation of NANSHA ISLANDS and REEFS. White paper further states that Chinese activity in South China Sea date back to more than 200 years and goes on to claim that Chinese were the first to discover, explore and inhabit the islands in surrounding waters. Trigger for Philipine to approach PCA for arbitration might have been forced occupation of Scarborough Shoal by Chinese in 2012.
China had also accused the former President of International Tribunal for the Law of Seas Mr Shunji Yanai, a Japanese, for manipulating the entire proceedings from, ‘behind the scene’. Notwithstanding Chinese allegations of incompetence of the tribunal and manipulations by a few, there appears to be at least one glaring error in the arbitration court’s judgement. The court mentioned that TAIPING ISLAND is a ROCK, whereas the fact is that the island has an airstrip, a hospital and several other buildings. Taiwan, too, had contested tribunal’s award on the grounds that Taiping Island, which is a part of NANSHA ISLAND GROUP, has serious implications on her rights and has further added that Taiwan does not accept tribunal’s ruling.
International opinion of a large number of nations also contended that the issue ought to have been resolved mutually rather than going to arbitration court and/or seeking third party mediation. China’s main leverage emerged out of a declaration signed in 2002 jointly by China and other Southeast Asian nation to resolve mutual disputes through negotiations and consultations.
In reacting the way China did, it was merely conforming to the legacy. Super Power USA and its ally UK too were responsible for disregarding PCA verdict against them in the past. Hence PCA’s adverse judgement on SCS islands ownership is the main cause of China’s belligerent stand. It has actually nothing to do with world blaming China for COVID-19 Virus creation and release. At best non acceptance by China of COVID having emerged from Wuhan lab be another irritant.
Yet another extremely important factor, which has caused China to react in the manner it has, is ongoing trade war with USA. Trade imbalance issues were always present as an irritant in Sino-US relations. However Trump presidency brought out the issues with much more ferocity than earlier US administrations.
In spite of these adverse reactions, China continued on its path to trap smaller nations in ‘DEBT TRAP DIPLOMACY’. Sri Lanka is the finest example. In order to compensate China, Sri Lanka agreed to lease out Hambantota port to China for 99 years. Underbelly of India has never been exposed to Chinese presence in this manner. It is a matter of time before China builds a military grade airstrip in the port region.
South China Sea
Currently activity in South China Sea region is the most widely discussed topic in strategic and diplomatic circles. Western nations viz USA and UK are sending Carrier Task Groups in South China Sea region claiming Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) right in international waters. While the turbulence created due to such actions and corresponding Chinese threat to attack Taiwan, Australia, Japan and so on, there is a need to analyse what establishments, if any, of military significance actually exist in man made islands in South China Sea (SCS).
Most prominent islands in SCS are Sprately and Paracel. Nearly all islands in SCS, man made islands in particular, are barely few meters above the mean sea level and are prone to flooding due to storms. In the unlikely event of a Tsunami caused due to any reason viz an earthquake, the islands might disappear altogether.
Most prominent military airfields exists in Sprately island region with operational runways at Mischief and Fiery Cross. Satellite photos show probable missile sites, helicopter operations facilities, radar units with supporting manpower. Several smaller islands serve as bases for SAM systems. Specific type of SAMs based has not been confirmed as yet. Airfields are capable of supporting fighter and large patrol aircraft operations. Woody Island is yet another major military island. Fighter operations, if operations from these airfields are sustainable, it will provide PLAAF and PLAN fighters extended range and will pose a formidable threat to foreign shipping.
However logistics to support operations from bases in SCS is going to be a monumental task, specially in the face of stiff opposition in the event shooting match begins. Hence Chinese presence in SCS is more symbolic than of any substantive military significance. Merely declaring SCS as Chinese Air Defence Interception Zone (ADIZ) is of little military significance.
Currently China does not have the capability to prevent and/or intercept an intruding aircraft in ADIZ. Satellite pictures do not indicate any large storage facilities for fuel, weapons etc.
Thus Chinese military installations in SCS are highly vulnerable to cruise missile and manned strike aircraft attacks because the infra-structure required to meet/neutralize the threat from US carrier based aircraft, strategic bombers simply does not exist. Exact details of secure communication with main land China and these ‘dots’ in SCS are not very clear.
Hence if these islands are actually under attack, Chinese capability to repulse the attack is highly doubtful. Islands in SCS are of political significance only and have little or no military value. China has embarked on creation of man made islands to exploit the provisions contained in UNCLOS.
China’s National/ Military Capability
Military strategists have granted China military capability, which it does not have. Pseudo Indian military strategists have been in the lead in granting China non existing military capability. Briefly existing Chinese military capability is as under;
Army. Chinese Army fought the last full blown war nearly 50 years ago. War with a tiny nation Vietnam (1965-69) destroyed the so called mighty PLA. China’s skirmish with Russia, too, was a stalemate. Chinese Army is equipped with obsolete/obsolescent weapons and weapon platforms. With existing equipment China cannot match NATO onslaught, if a hot war breaks out, most likely due to invasion of Taiwan. China cannot afford to attack Taiwan for one reason. Existence of TSMC, world’s biggest manufacturer of chips, will remain a major impediment to China’s military option. Taiwan, in all likelihood, will/may destroy the TSMC infra structure, if occupation by China becomes imminent. Destruction of TSMC will bring to grinding halt development of electronics in the entire world, USA and China in particular. TSMC is in the process of setting up production facility of 2 nano metre chip. TSMC branch in USA produces 5 nm chip and its branch in China 28 nm chip. Commercial production of 2 nm chip will revolutionalise the electronics.
Navy. PLAN has been riding the crest of the wave by advertising three aircraft carriers. Indeed the floating platforms exist but there is virtually nothing to man these and transform these ‘floats’ into a formidable weapon platform. PLAN does not have a suitable carrier borne strike aircraft. J-15 and FC-31 are at best failures with extremely poor performance and operational capability. Many strategists have called PLAN as the largest Navy in the world. If numbers decide the strength of Navy with more than 350 ships/submarines, PLAN is ahead of US Navy. But out of 350 odd ships/submarines barely 80 can be truly called ocean going vessels. PLAN with present equipment is a regional Naval Power. PLAN is unlikely to have an ocean roaming carrier battle group/s in foreseeable future. Unless a nation has a truly ocean going carrier battle group as USA has, it cannot claim to be a maritime power. And unless a nation is a genuine maritime power, it cannot be termed as global power.
Air Force. PLAAF is attempting to acquire fourth-fifth-sixth generation fighters. But it is still unable to sustain a barely fourth generation fighter, JF-17. Primary deficiency of PLAAF is non availability of suitable and reliable aero engine for its entire fleet. PLAAF Bomber fleet is of second world war vintage. PLAAF does not have a comparable bomber even in the class of B-52 of USAF, a fifty year old machine. Discussing weapon platforms under development is irrelevant while discussing existing capability.
ICBMs/IRBMs. China has formidable array of ICBMs/IRBMs. But these will come into play only if a nuclear war breaks out. In a conventional war these are merely a threat in being. China is known to concentrate on developing hundreds of silos to house these missiles.
Space. This is an area where China has surpassed even the USA. Establishing a dedicated Chinese space station, successful moon and mars mission, anti-satellite capability are major accomplishments.
Nuclear Triad. China does not have the proverbial nuclear triad due to absence of strategic bomber. China is unlikely to have an operationally proven strategic bomber before 2040, if at all.
Rare Earth Elements. China can and does hold the world to ransom in respect of availability of rare earth elements, which are absolutely essential for production and development of modern equipments.
No discussion on China in any fora is complete until Indo-China relations are discussed. In recent times India and China have had turbulent relations since September, 2019. It aggravated to killing of 20 Indian soldiers in Galwan Valley followed by matching Indian response in June, 2020. Sustained diplomatic efforts over the past 15 months along with 12 rounds of military commander level talks has resulted in embers dying down but still not fully extinguished. Undemarcated border will continue to remain a thorn in the flesh. However due to our extremely firm response China has clearly understood that arm twisting will no longer work with India. Clear and unquestionable supremacy of Indian Air Power has made China realize that conventional war in north and north-east cannot be won by China as happened in 1962. In all military cum diplomatic negotiations solutions/agreements are invariably arrived at by ‘give and take’ process. I guess that is what we have been able to accomplish without any further blood flowing in the highest cold desert region of the world. While peace may not have been accomplished but ‘uneasy’ calm has indeed been achieved for the time being.
Specifically in Indian context Chinese capability in Indian Ocean Region (IOR) must merit our attention. Suffice to say that while Chinese nuclear submarines can and will roam freely in IOR, PLAN surface ships with offensive intentions have no capability. Chinese aircraft carrier/s are for SCS region only, if at all.
China is neither a global power in 2021 nor is it likely to become one for at least next 30 years. A nation has to become a maritime power before dreaming of becoming a global super power. Hence what the world is witnessing is not ‘CHINA’s Global Offensive; it is ‘Chinese’ Global Theatrics’ to capture the market with cheap but unreliable goods. It would have happened anyway; COVID or ‘NO COVID’.