External Affairs

With China’s Growing Regional Interests, a New Strategy of ‘Active Defence’

China’s latest defence White Paper (WP) – its ninth – has only confirmed trends  in Chinese military thinking that have been evident for some time. Themed “China’s Military Strategy”, it is a sign of China’s greater confidence, if not always of transparency, delivered in language that is a mix of boilerplate rhetoric and accusations against unnamed countries. That said, there is clearly a desire to better communicate to the United States and other potential rivals what China’s intentions and red lines are.

The latest WP displays a greater integration of foreign policy vision and military strategy as is obvious in the expression, a “community of shared destiny”, also used frequently by Chinese leaders in bilateral and multilateral exchanges and most significantly with respect to the “one belt, one road” (OBOR) initiative launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013. The document takes a big picture view and is a sign of China’s constant attention and adaptation to the “profound changes… in the international situation” brought about by “economic, scientific and technological” developments.

Rivalry with the US

Beijing’s claim that it “will never seek hegemony or expansion”, brings to mind American analyst Andrew Scobell’s concept of the “cult of defence”. Simply put, for the Chinese leadership, if China initiates military action, then it is entirely defensive in nature and it has acted so only in the last resort, but if others do so, then they are being hegemonic and expansionist. Since there is to the Chinese mind absolute certainty that the territories it claims in the South China Sea or elsewhere are Chinese, it is the Americans that are being hegemonic or the Vietnamese and the Indians that are being expansionist. Thus, a sense of self-righteousness minus any sense of irony or hypocrisy fits easily in Chinese official discourse as well as in the comments of its analysts and scholars to the extent that direct, pointed questions and doubts on these matters are simply ignored in discussions.

As accurate as the Chinese may be in saying that “[i]nternational competition for the redistribution of power, rights and interests is tending to intensify”, it is obvious also that the WP is shot through with ideological positions and undergirded by rivalry with the US.

The reference to the world “still facing both immediate and potential threats of local wars” in the context of specific references to “[t]errorist activities”, “ethnic, religious, border and territorial disputes” and the “new threats” from “hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism” also suggests greater thought being given to interventionist roles for the PLA abroad in the long term. Indeed, the first section of the WP makes the link explicit noting that “[w]ith the growth of China’s national interests, its national security is more vulnerable to international and regional turmoil”. The second section on the missions of the PLA also states clearly “the armed forces will actively participate in both regional and international security cooperation and effectively secure China’s overseas interests”.

Taking to the open seas

In this context, it might be noted that there is a special emphasis on the maritime domain, including what has been termed as “maritime preparation for military struggle”. The PLA Navy (PLAN) is expected to become more active through a combination of “offshore waters defense” with “open seas protection”.

Indeed, this maritime focus might be the biggest take-away from the current WP. For a country with some 14,500kms of coastline and marked by a rather ambiguous historical and cultural relationship with the sea, the WP makes an extremely significant declaration that “[t]he traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests”.

Schina_sea_88There are also indications that an enhanced PLA Air Force (PLAAF) role is in the offing with the declaration that China “will endeavor to shift its focus from territorial air defense to both defense and offense” as well as “build an air-space defense force structure…” Clearly, an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea will be announced sooner or later. The disputants in the South China Sea and other regional powers should take note. The reclamation and building of air strips in the South China Sea will naturally allow China to enforce both its territorial claims and the ADIZ better. This then creates potential for more frequent confrontations with the Americans on their military overflights over South China Sea waters.

Hidden deep in the text is the injunction “to effectively control major crises, properly handle possible chain reactions”, an admission – if ever there was one – that China’s actions might themselves be responsible in setting these off. The question then arises – has Beijing reached a stage where it is willing to face crisis and/or conflict instead of preventing these in the first place?

Role for PLA?

At a time when China’s OBOR initiative is a running theme of practically every major diplomatic activity, including meetings between Chinese and foreign heads of government, and of high-level academic national and international conferences organized by Chinese agencies, it is remarkable that the White Paper makes no direct mention of it. This then supports the contention that the PLA has not been very involved in the formulation of this strategic initiative and that at least for the moment the OBOR is largely an economic initiative albeit with important diplomatic goals and potential political consequences.

But if China’s style is anything to go by, then, as in the case of its gradual deployment of combat troops in UN peacekeeping operations, its movement from simple territorial claims in the South China Sea to active patrolling and construction activity there and, its ever-increasing length of the historical claim over Tibet (as evident in a recent White Paper on Tibet), justification will soon be found for the PLA to be involved in OBOR in the name of “safeguarding national security and development interests”. Expect prominent attention to OBOR in the next Chinese defence white paper that will appear about two years from now.

Challenges for India

From the Indian point of view, China’s constant emphasis on ‘civil-military integration’, high-tech warfare, cyber security, the PLAN, logistics modernization and the development of a “new-type military personnel” should be of particular interest.

While references to civil-military integration in the WP has a specific political context in China given that the PLA serves the Communist Party of China and not the state, it nevertheless underlines the importance of smooth civil-military relations in all instances. The relationship in India certainly leaves much to be desired and this state of affairs has been responsible for holding up much needed defence sector reforms.

Next, the Indian armed forces have largely focused on hardware acquisitions but not so much on improving the quality of personnel recruited or indeed, of human resources development across the ranks. There is much of the Raj that afflicts professional relations within the armed forces in India despite massive social changes in Indian society and they remain manpower-intensive, despite men and officers being increasingly capable of the use of technology.

Too many officers are leaving the fauj at the end of the 20 years it takes to earn a pension and this despite an already serious shortage of officers. There is almost no direct or targeted recruitment of capable individuals into the officer ranks for specialist tasks such as cyber security and warfare and that require foreign language competence as is the case with the PLA. And while border area infrastructure has improved in the last decade, there is still much to be done and logistics continues to be seriously hampered in remote areas, affecting, in turn, the use and quality of human resources available.

Finally, given the obvious and significant focus on the PLAN as well as the importance of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road under the OBOR initiative, it is time that a conscious and long-term promotion and modernisation of the Indian Navy (IN) be carried out. It is also high time that the capabilities of the IN to engage in military diplomacy, including intellectual and leadership exchanges, be exploited to the hilt. The Ministry of External Affairs should be working together with the Navy to expand engagements with the Indian Ocean Rim countries and other major maritime powers, not as a gatekeeper limiting or controlling the Indian armed forces’ diplomatic potential.

Further, the Indian armed forces at the moment, organize nothing equivalent to the PLA’s Track 1.5 Xiangshan Forum, nor does any Indian think-tank or government agency run an exercise similar to Singapore’s Shangri La Dialogue. Great power aspirations demand the humility to constantly learn from and engage with the outside world.

Jabin T. Jacob is Assistant Director & Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. His email address is  jabinjacob@gmail.com