Under President Xi Jinping, combat readiness has been elevated to a strategic priority.
For those in India wondering how things would pan out with China, post-Doklam, the unmistakable message was given by President Xi Jinping himself: Military power will play a big role in China’s foreign policy.
In a symbolic gesture, as is China’s wont, Xi, wearing military fatigues in his capacity as commander-in-chief addressed over 7,000 combat troops standing in front of 400 tanks, guns and missiles in Hebei province on new year day. The event was simultaneously broadcasted to troops assembled at 4,000 places across China. According to People’s Daily newspaper, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, Xi, in the history of China, became the first chairman to directly address troops on the importance of combat training to win wars.
By doing so, Xi sent out two messages. One, combat readiness had been elevated to a strategic priority, implying that military goals to achieve the ‘China Dream’ by 2049 must be met. This is to be accomplished in two phases: completing military modernisation by 2035 and becoming a world power militarily by 2049. And two, by protecting Chinese interests, assets and people abroad, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will be at the vanguard of ‘China Dream’ through the ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR).
To be sure, Xi’s actions of January 1, or his 2015 military reforms, or even the need to bring the PLA onboard the foreign policy did not begin with his anointment. The ground-work for progressive military role in foreign policy was done years in advance, during the term of China’s fourth generation leadership under President Hu Jintao from 2002 to 2012. Chinese think-tanks, both civilian and under the PLA (especially the National Defence University) were prolific in debating various facets of military power. These included subjects like technology in building of military power, form and essence of modern wars, need for military reforms or doctrinal ideas to optimise revolution in military affairs — evolutionary or transformational, essence of military diplomacy, role of military power in foreign policy to name a few. To garner outside opinion on security and defence issues, China, under the aegis of the PLA started the Xiangshan Forum in 2006; it became an annual 1.5 track (military and civilian experts) diplomacy event in 2015.
It was at the sixth Xiangshan Forum held in Beijing in October 2015, at the height of the tensions in the South China Sea, that China unveiled its oxymoronic doctrine of ‘combative cooperation’ for its peaceful rise through the OBOR. Addressing the audience (this writer was present), vice-chairman, Central Military Commission, General Fan Changlong said, “We will not recklessly use force even when the issues affect our sovereignty.” Except for issuing warnings about deteriorating Sino-US ties, China did nothing to curtail US’ Freedom of Navigation patrols. It instead continued with its reclamation and militarisation activities in the South China Sea, while creating fissures within the ASEAN by dangling the Code of Conduct negotiations and by distributing economic largess. Over time, most of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) reasoned that they could not seek prosperity from one power (China) and security from another (the US).
The unsaid messages emanating from China’s unique military doctrine was that the military power would be used for diplomatic and military coercion. This explains why China is comfortable with the use of force alongside negotiations. War or even a skirmish (since escalatory ladder is unpredictable) is not a good option for China until completion of the China Dream by 2049. Given this, Chinese Colonel Liu Mingfu, a professor at the National Defence University, had in his 2010 book, The China Dream advocated the need for a long-term perspective on military power and strategic thinking for the ‘duel of the century’ with the US.
What does all this mean for India? Numerous analysts, including the chief of army staff, general Bipin Rawat, have cautioned about China’s probable land-grab strategy on the disputed border. The army – oblivious to military coercion and what it takes to stop it – believes that local war on the border is possible. The military leadership’s consistent claim that 1962 will not be repeated suggests that the transformational dynamics of modern war are not well understood.
This is where the Indian think-tanks have been unable to deliver. For India, which perceives itself as a major power and has two disputed borders with neighbours which give importance to military power, not a single think-tank has ever debated the role of military power in foreign policy.
If this was discussed at high-profile discussion forums – the New Delhi-based Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses and Observer Research Foundation which figure among the top 150 think-tanks in the world – the people and the media would have known why military reforms matter more than increasing defence allocations; why indigenous defence industry is critical for a strong and autonomous foreign policy; why the defence services (especially the navy) should have an independent mandate for military diplomacy; why defence services should lead security and defence talks when confidence-building measures are discussed with neighbours; why the three services’ chiefs should be inside the policy-making loop; why the military lines and not terrorism is the external threat to India; and, most importantly, why India needs to make peace with Pakistan and China for its peaceful rise.
Pravin Sawhney is the editor of FORCE newsmagazine.