China's Threat Perception
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Ancient China, was unparalleled in matters of strategic thinking, defence technology and organisation of Armed Forces, but became extremely inward looking by the 16th century, and was thus bypassed by the Industrial Revolution. Nevertheless, the guiding principles with regard to statecraft, strategy and warfare enunciated by Confucius and his contemporary, Sun Tzu, endured through the ages and continue to be instructive in many ways. The isolation of China was engendered by the fact that it became smug because of its economic self-sufficiency and sense of superiority.

Civilisations, however advanced, have declined or perished when they ceased to be interactive and China was no exception. It is ironical that ancient China, which is credited with invention of the gunpowder, could not develop upon it further and was in the 17th century bedevilled with illegal imports of muskets by Japanese pirates.

…the only redeeming feature in the modern history of China was its relative success against nascent independent India in the War of 1962. Chinas initiation of war against Vietnam in 1978, on the specious plea, “to teach it a lesson” turned out to be a miscalculated adventure.

All through history, China’s strategic thinking has been land oriented except during the Han Dynasty, Song Dynasty (960 AD to 1279 AD) and in the initial years under the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 AD). In fact, during the latter’s rule, the Chinese fleet went as far as to the east coast of Africa. Internal threats from warlords and frontier tribes precluded any growth of maritime traditions. All maritime advances had been reversed during the rule of the Ming Dynasty itself.

Therefore, when the western maritime powers i.e. the Portuguese, the Spanish, the British and the French arrived in the 16th century on the southern coast of China as traders, missionaries and soldiers; it was found floundering for an appropriate response. The Chinese empire could not correctly evaluate the nature of the new challenge, which eventually resulted in the demise of the Manchu Dynasty and the collapse of the historical framework of dynastic rule. Even after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, maritime issues continued to be ignored. It is only now and rather belatedly that there is a focus on the development of the People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLA– Navy). The lag however, is substantial and not amenable to quick solutions.

Modernisation Processes

‘Ism’ has been an important factor in China and the various isms have evolved and adapted. Mao Zedong, who debunked most of the early Chinese philosophers, was no less influenced by them. Many of his writings and diktats resonate with the theories and teachings of Confucius and Sun Tzu. Mao’s own ism was full of contradictions and led to disastrous experiments like the Great Leap Forward (1958-60) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Despite the heavy interference by Mao and some other communist leaders in Chinese historiography, China’s historical moorings remain as strong as ever. Even the modernisation programme ushered in by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s has historical parallels. After the disastrous defeat of Chinese forces by Britain in the first Anglo-Chinese War, better known as ‘Opium War’ (1839-1842), the Qing rulers realised the need to strengthen China by assimilation of western education and science, and adoption of western models of development. Students were sent abroad by the government and special schools based on the western pattern were established in larger cities, factories, and shipyards. The effort to graft western technology onto Chinese institutions became known as the ‘self-strengthening movement’. This movement did not yield much results as the Chinese leaders failed to recognise the significance of political institutions and the social theory that had fostered western advances and innovations. This historical experience should be instructive to the current Chinese leaders, while they pursue the modernisation of the country.

Military Defeats

China, which had brought under control or established its hegemony on most of its neighbouring states like Vietnam, Korea, Burma and parts of Central Asia, was a humiliated empire in the 19th century, and hemmed in from all sides. In 1850, Tsarist troops had invaded Manchuria. In 1864, France had colonised Cochin China (Southern Vietnam). In 1884-85, Britain took Burma and the Russians penetrated into Chinese Turkestan (modern day Xinjiang-Uygur autonomous region).

In 1894-95, Japan defeated China and forced it to cede Taiwan and Penghu Island. The British had sought further territorial concession (99 years lease) in Hong Kong in 1898. The foreign settlements in China had become sovereign pockets of territories with menacing presence of warships and gunboats. Internally too, China was bleeding in the later half of 19th century. The Taiping Revolution, which was led by Hong Xiu Quan and lasted for 14 years (1851-64), had claimed 30 million lives. Such was the debilitation of China that the Manchu ruler had to seek the assistance of British and French forces to crush the revolution.

The story of the military humiliations of China, which began with the first Anglo-Chinese War, better known as the Opium War (1839-1842), continued well into the first half of the 20th century i.e. till World War II. The Boxer Revolution in 1900 in which many western missionary facilities were burnt and thousands of Chinese Christians killed provoked an Allied military expedition, and China was comprehensively defeated. In 1932, Japan had annexed Manchuria, which finally resulted in a full-scale war in 1937 and lasted till the end of World War II. In this series of military humiliations, the only redeeming feature in the modern history of China was its relative success against nascent independent India in the War of 1962. China’s initiation of war against Vietnam in 1978, on the specious plea, “to teach it a lesson” turned out to be a miscalculated adventure.

Ideology and Reforms

Historically, every ism in China at some point or the other has fallen victim to disaffection, corruption, cronyism, and ideological degeneration. These were invariably followed by attempts at sweeping reforms. In 1898, there was a bold attempt by the Chinese Emperor Guangxu to root out corruption and introduce fundamental changes in a broad range of activities and areas like academics, civil services exam system, agriculture and industry.

China has become pragmatic to the extent that the Communist Party of China, despite all the rhetoric, appears to be just another political party engaged in the preservation of power.

The life of this reform process was only a hundred days and is therefore referred to as the ‘Hundred Days Reform’. It failed because of opposition from conservatives and gradualists. This has strong resonance on the present day reform and modernisation in China. However, in the current reform efforts the opposition has been effectively neutralised, as the reform process has yielded encouraging results. If it were to fail, communism may be rendered as ineffective a glue as in the case of the erstwhile USSR.

To its credit, China has been throwing up bold reformers with unfailing regularity, who battle against robust odds to steer the country through the morass. One such leader was Deng Xiaoping, the harbinger of the current reform and modernisation process. The impetus that Deng provided to modernisation continues to gather momentum. China, therefore, presently stands at the most momentous station in history. If the ideologically illiberal Communist Party of China could throw up such radical reformers, it can be inferred that within the Chinese populace, there would be segments, which hold independent political and social views despite all the indoctrination.

The Tiananmen Square incident in 1992 and the rise of the Falun Gong, bear testimony to this inference. Another factor that has an increasing bearing on the future evolution of China is the huge Chinese Diaspora, which is of different political orientations but is becoming increasingly active after the ushering in of the modernisation process. In its conduct of diplomacy, present day China has not been hostage to any ideology but has been ruthless in its pursuit of national interest and security. China has become pragmatic to the extent that the Communist Party of China, despite all the rhetoric, appears to be just another political party engaged in the preservation of power. Therefore, when the Chinese leaders talk of union of China and Taiwan based on ‘one country two systems’, it may not be entirely a ploy.

Military Reforms

Historically, a great deal of importance has been accorded to the army in China. The army in the view of Chinese philosophers was not only an instrument of force but also an institution for nation building. The Chinese philosophers propounded the idea of scholar generals and scholar administrators. When the ‘self-strengthening movement’ was initiated in the first half of the 19th century, the army was one of the high priority areas for development on western lines.

China is emerging as an economic centre of gravity in Asia. In 2003, China stood as the second largest economy in the world after the US, although in per capita income, the country is poor.

The biggest champions of these reforms were two scholar generals Li Hongzhang (1823-1901) and Zuo Zongtang (1812-1885). A substantial portion of the Banner Forces were demobilised and reconstituted into specialised military units, which were officered by professionals, who had received training in newly established academies or in military colleges abroad. However, the army still remained fragmented because of regionalism and political affiliations. Even the rebel Koumintang (KMT) Government, which at that time included the communists, had opened an academy based on Soviet lines (Bolshevik Academy) in 1923 at Whampoa (outside Guangzhou). Chiang Kai-Shek was the head of the academy and Zhou En-Lai was a senior instructor in the political department.

In the past, therefore, all military reforms and military modernisation programmes did not succeed due to warlordism, regionalism and factionalism. Subversion and switching of loyalties by the military has also not been uncommon in the past, whenever conditions deteriorated.

The Red Army, under Mao had swelled in the decisive years by inducing defections in the KMT Army. Crisis creates leaders, and Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao led from the front. Mao’s epic Long March covering some 12,000 km from Fujian to Shanxi in which only 5,000 members survived out of 100,000; served as a powerful ideological tool and benchmark for sustaining the PLA’s (People’s Liberation Army) ideological fervour in subsequent decades. Mao never grew out of it.

The PLA had become unwieldy and archaic during his lifetime. It was totally out of sync with modern methods of warfare. Therefore, the ongoing modernisation of the PLA should be viewed more as corrective measure, which in any case was long overdue. It must also be appreciated that there has been a generational shift and a substantial percentage of the present day PLA cadres do not share the same ideological fervour as their predecessors. Since, the ideological moorings of the PLA are getting diluted, there has to be a concomitant flux in its politico-military orientation.

Strategic Importance

China shares 76 km land boundary with Afghanistan; 470 km with Bhutan; 3,440 km with India; 1,533 km with Kazakhstan; 2,185 km with Myanmar; 1,416 km with North Korea; 858 km with Kyrgyzstan; 423 km with Laos; 4,677 km with Mongolia; 1,414 km with Nepal; 523 km with Pak Occupied Kashmir; 414 km with Tajikistan; 1,281 km with Vietnam; 3,605 km and 40 km with Russia in the northeast and northwest respectively. In addition, China lies at close proximity to Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. It also has a maritime interface with Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, and to an extent with Indonesia. China, therefore, is pivotally positioned in a ring of nations formed by South Asia, Central Asia, Russia, Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, and the Asia Pacific region.

China’s sheer size and economic growth are already altering the contours of Asian security, international commerce, and the global balance of power.

China is emerging as an economic centre of gravity in Asia. In 2003, China stood as the second largest economy in the world after the US, although in per capita income, the country is poor. Even discounting the Chinese propensity for exaggerating figures or statistics, the economic growth by its own previous standards is rather phenomenal. Some sources maintain that the economic growth of the smaller Region-States comprising cities like Shanghai, Dalian, Tianjin, Shenzhen, Xiamen, Qingdao, and Suzhou – are experiencing an economic growth of 15-20 per cent a year, which is much faster than that of the ASEAN Tigers like Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and South Korea. Even the mega regions like the Yangtze Delta, the Northeastern Tristates area (formerly known as Manchuria), the Pearl River Delta, the Beijing – Tianjin corridor and Shandong – would rank among Asia’s 10 largest economies, if they were separate country entities.

China is pursuing its economic agenda with such single-mindedness that it has kept its other strategic priorities like Taiwan, and South China Sea at a diplomatically manageable pitch. Going by the proclivities displayed by it in the past two decades, it appears that it shall not let any ideology or other global distraction derail its present economic agenda. Apart from the pressing necessity of improving the living conditions of its people, the desire to acquire economic leverage against other countries in its neighbourhood is also an equally strong imperative.

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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

RSN Singh

is a former military intelligence officer who later served in the Research and Analysis Wing, or R&AW and author of books Asian Strategic and Military Perspective, The Military Factor in Pakistan and The Unmaking of Nepal. His latest books are Know the Anti-Nationals (English) and Know the एंटी-नेशनल्स (Hindi).

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