14 February 2019

China - a dragon which does not swim in deep waters. Yet! (II)

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Image source: Mediafax

The moment which inaugurated the start of the fourth”modernization” of the armed forces speculated by Deng Xiaoping, was 2015 ● The temporary period, which allows the Chinese state to modernize its military field, without being under the pressure of a major conflict, is called „the strategic opportunity period”● China achives the global military power status through small steps policy● China  expects the future wars to take place outside its land borders, most probably involving the naval space.

For decades, the US, the West in general, but also Russia, India and Japan, Brazil, South Africa etc. have passively tracked China`s economic growth, sometimes attempting to follow some of the methods Beijing has discovered to increase its industrial, technological and agricultural power. The Chinese achievements were the effects of the first three of fourmodernizations` implementation, speculated by China`s modern inspirer, Deng Xiaoping. Analyzing the last evolutions, the competitors security structures from Pacific and the Euro-Asian space, firstly from the US, got to the conclusion that it is time for the fourth, the military power, its modernization, its transformation in a bridge to support the first three ones and deter the possible challenges and obstacles from the rival powers.

The emergence of the report CHINA`S MILITARY POWER/ Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win, produced by the Defence Intelligence Agency/ DIA, at the beginning of this year, responds to this approach of raising the warning alert regarding the security challenge that China represents for US`s global power status.

Hence, what does this report present?

From ”active defence” to „informatized war”

The change of China`s military doctrine happened at the beginning of the 90s, under the impact of the international changes at that time. It was all set by the analysis done by the Chinese military and political leadership over the way conflicts between 80’- 90 have developed, especially the British intervention from the Falkland Islands and US`s first war with Iraq. They have been studying their own experiences as well, not all successful, like the war in Korea, the border conflicts with USSR and Vietnam. The consequence was a switch from the active defence, which have dominated the Chinese military thinking in the previous decades, to a more flexible evaluation of the threats and their counteraction, considering that a future war would be local, under high technologized/ informatized conditions. 

Although the principles that have been dominating the Chinese army, in Mao Zedong period, were not all cancelled, the approach was new: the use of accurate armament (mostly cruise and ballistic missiles) to keep the potential enemy away and stop it from getting closer to East Coast`s highly developed regions. The war was going to have no direct contact, following the pattern from the first phase of the Gulf War. It was a major change compared to the model promoted by the Chinese revolutionaries who wanted to attract the enemy inside the territory, to fight him in a classic conflict type, with partisans fighting methods, relying on the millions of militaries and volunteers they were able to get inside China.

But for such a new conflict, the Chinese army had to change:

  • give up the non-military ballast, which has transformed it in an economic-military corporation, after the Cultural Revolution;
  • start a true internal anti-corruption war;
  • reduce its personnel, but increase the part of the air and naval forces and of the new created technological and cybernetic support forces;
  • raise its standards, by becoming a professional force.

The moment which articulated the start of the fourth modernization - of the armed forces - envisioned by Deng, was, probably, 2015, when president Xi Jinping launched a series of reforms, along with the Military Strategy of China draft, dedicated to make the Chinese army a force to perform joint operations and to compete, at a training, doctrinaire and technological level, with the US forces. The first step of these reforms, in all fields, including the personnel decrease with 300.000 militaries, will end in 2020.

China and the ”strategic opportunity period”

The transformations involve all fields, the most important being strategies and doctrines, modern armament endowment, militaries and units training for adequate operations to the contemporary development condition of a military conflict.

A first operation was the identification of the new international threats and those against China. It is a long list: new hegemonic threats, power policies and the fight for influence, new-interventionism, terrorist activities, territorial disputes, ethnical, religious, local and regional crises.

China`s Military Strategy from 2015, detailedly analyzed by DIA`s published report at the beginning of this year, says that a world war is hardly to take place in the forthcoming period, but China must be ready for the start of a local war. This temporary period, which allows the Chinese state to modernize its military field, without being under a major conflict, is calledthe "strategic opportunity period".

It is the time wherein the global center of gravity moves from the Euro-Atlantic area towards the Asia-Pacific one and wherein a parallel but temporarily shifted process happens across the military strategies of the main actors of this area, in forces re-locations, units, technologies.

States like China or India are rediscovering their military traditions and are trying, with the support of a quick economic increase, human resources and high technology in civil fields, yet with applicability in the military one too, to use the moment to claim a bigger military power status. 

Others, like Japan, are trying to get out of treaties and post-wars conditionings which offers it just a secondary military power role, including in this region.

The US and Russia are, each in its own format, reorienting towards this region. For Russia, the Far East/ East of Siberia has, for now, a more important strategic and military value, being the closest Russian territory to the American one. For US this region is the field wherein the other team, which competes for world`s economic power title, is situated.

But China wants more than dictating the yuan - dollar exchange rate in the years to come. And the"strategic opportunity period" offers it maneuver space.

In the report issued by the Defence Intelligence Agency are listed some of the decisions Beijing took to modernize its armed forces and to equip them. The document, made publicly is showing that Pentagon understood the challenge and it is conceptualizing it. One detail: at page 41, there is this specification about experimenting a Chinese kinetical weapon against a satellite target. Five years ago! Even before the promotion of its military strategy. And for China, five years represents a phase which already has passed.

There were identified the main missions of the Popular Liberation Army. In report`s vision, one of them is the most important.

Called according to the Chinese tradition, in an ad-hoc numerical symbolism, the eight strategic missions that the Chinese state`s army must accomplish are:

  • Defending China`s territory sovereignty;
  • Defending the national unification;
  • Defending China`s interests in the global and the cyber plans;
  • Upkeeping the strategic deterrence;
  • Participating at the international cooperation;
  • Upkeeping the political, social and security stability of China;
  • Developing rescue operations, in disasters situations, protecting the Chinese rights and interests.

Some of these missions are more classic, like the defence of the national sovereignty, the territory, the deterrence of a foreign attack. Others are purely historical, like the national unification mission. In this list stays also the mission which states that the armed forces should ensure the continuation of the political, social and security stability of China, which in the report is directed to China`s focus on army`s role for the protection of the current political system, its stability, the preeminence of the Chinese Communist Party over the entire Chinese political, social and economic life.

The dragon learns how to swim again. For the beginning, in riverside waters and in South China`s Sea

China receives the global military power status through small steps policy, yet oriented in the same direction and perfectly synchronized:

  •  it has created a system with political and military structures, regional and international, where China, as partner or leader, could promote its military and security interests, through military exercises and conceptual debates. Their number is not that small: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Defence Ministers Meeting Plus, the Regional ASEAN Forum, the Shangri-La Dialogue, the International Defence Dialogue from Jakarta, the Naval Symposium for the West Pacific, the Xiangshan Forum;
  •  it has upkept the military budget increase based on the economic growth, at a 1.2-1.4% level, which is in fact much higher thanks also to the exclusion of the armament acquisitions from foreign sources, some research-development programs, some financial allocations for the military personnel;
  •  it has continued the command and control military structures reform, by using some Western models, but also some lessons learned from their own military traditions;
  •             the Military Regions are transformed into Operation Theatres, numerically reduced and led by Joint Operations Commissions;
  •             the National Joint Operations Commission is a synthesis, through representation, of all force`s categories;
  •             the General Staff of the Army was replaced with a joint structure of departmental staffs, similar, in certain points, to US`s one;
  •             they are focusing on modernizing the command structure of the Popular Liberation Army in C4ISR architecture  (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) to allow it to manage a modern conflict;
  •              it was created the Strategic Support Force, for technological support in the electronic warfare, planetary and cybernetic space operations;
  • they have developed the first operations to impose the Chinese sovereignty over the conflictual sea areas and territories, outside its land sanctuary. Whether we are talking about the Spratly Archipelago from South China`s Sea, placed thousands of kilometers away from China`s territory, or the Senkaku Islands, which are closer to Taiwan`s rims, the used methods are different, gradual, alternating the military pressure with juridical and historical arguments, the development capacity of a security infrastructure vs other local competitors incapacity to face this challenge. These operations, reduced as magnitude, are foreseeing what the Chinese strategic documents calls working concepts:offensive air operations,long-distance mobile operations, special and cybernetic operations. In other words, China expects for the future wars to take place outside its land borders, most probably involving the naval space. The switch from territorial seas defence to opened seas protection is confirming this tendency. The inauguration of the Chinese military base from Djibouti, 10 km away from Camp Lemonier (US), 8 km away from Quartier Monclar (France) and 9 km (surprise!) from P-3 Orion Base (Japan) comes also as a confirmation;
  • they have developed military capabilities, which, without focusing on forces categories and personnel, are quite impressive. The land forces have the biggest number in the world, the naval forces occupy the third place globally, but each year, the Chinese industry is providing a big number of military ships, equal to the entire fleet of a medium European state, and the air forces stay also among world`s first three places. This year, they will start using the first aircraft carrier made in China, following the model of the one imported from Russia, Liaoning. The missile force was promoted, across a reform from 2015, to the main forces categories. The intercontinental ballistic missile, CSS-10 Mod 2/ DF-31A (Dong Feng 31), equipped with thermonuclear warheads, can strike targets placed a distance longer than 11.000 km, with a 100 meters accuracy. Also in 2019, it starts the construction of the first indigenous aircraft carrier, similar with the ones produced in the US. The submarines fleet increases each year with other five units. The Yuzhao type amphibian ships, whose construction started in 2005, reveals the expeditionary ambitions of the Chinese armed forces;
  •  they have developed defence industry`s capacities, China being capable to produce (the period when it was accused only for  reproducing is over) all military equipment categories, with some exceptions which would, probably, be soon history as well. From 2012 to 2016, the foreign sells were worth of $20 billion$, which places Beijing among world`s first five exporting states, especially in some niche fields, which means top fields, but also innovative equipment of the armies fighting a hybrid war. Beneficiaries of the still opened windows in military equipment trade`s regulations, the Chinese drones have dominated Middle East in last conflicts, being used in intelligence or combat operations by all sides involved;
  •  it has continued the space program whose first phases were established in 1992; from the cosmic flight with a human team from 2003, using the Shenzhou-5 internal capsule model, China being the third country in this field, to the world premiere made through the selenization of the Change-4 space vehicle on Moon`s unseen face, at the beginning of this year, Beijing showed that exploring space remains one of its priorities. A modular space station, with a permanent human team, Chinese or foreign, is speculated to become functional by 2022. A module could get to Mars in 2020. Following other international models, the Chinese astronauts / taikonauts are also militaries, and space is a territory of prestige, but also of confrontation.

But let`s get back to the sea, the large planetary ocean. In China`s Military Strategy, from 2015, it is mentioned thatseas and oceans bear on the enduring peace, lasting stability, and sustainable development of China. The traditional mentality that land outweighs the sea must be abandoned.

But a Chinese proverb says, at the same time, that ”there is no room for two dragons in one pond. However, for now, one of them does not swim in deep waters.