The author initiates his discourse on Chinese strategy by recalling foremost the core imperatives that drive the Communist Party of China and its stated core national interests. Geopolitics, the Admiral explains is largely am amalgam of geo-economics and geo-strategy.
The article is being presented in two parts. In this part, the article explores China’s dependence on crude, though coal remains a primary raw material for energy requirements, that mostly traverses across the oceans to feed its growth. In fact, only 15 percent of its crude imports are through the pipelines. The circumstances entail China developing its naval forces since its greater security concerns are in the oceans.
THE CONCEPT OF ‘REACH’ IN GRASPING CHINA’S ‘ACTIVE DEFENCE’ STRATEGY – PART 1
Much thought needs to be given to possible politico-military circumstances under which the Government of India might realise and decide that a given Sino-Indian military build-up, stand-off or confrontation was no longer a mere skirmish between their respective armies, whether or not supported by their respective air forces, but one in which the Republic of India in its entirety was engaged in armed conflict against the People’s Republic of China. Within the context of these circumstances — themselves a matter of both conjecture and debate — this article seeks to initiate an analysis of contemporary Chinese military strategy, using the concept of ‘Reach’.
In common with many such analyses, China’s White Paper of May 2015 forms the basis of our understanding of China’s Military Strategy i.e., the plans by which that country’s military seeks to achieve national objectives at the strategic level.
The core imperatives that drive the Communist Party of China’s relationship to the State and the State’s relationship with the world at large may be enumerated as:
(1) Regime-Survival (2) the maintenance of ‘Face’ and, by corollary, the avoidance of ‘loss-of-face’ (3) Domestic Stability and (4) Territorial-Integrity.
These resonate well with the more formally-stated six core national interests of China, namely
(1) State sovereignty, (2) National security, (3) Territorial integrity, (4) National reunification, (5) China’s political system established by the Constitution and overall social stability, (6) Basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development.
However, it is important to understand that the commonly-used term ‘core interest’, as used by the Chinese leadership, does not have direct correspondence with the same term used by India, or, for that matter, by almost all other nation-states. The People’s Republic of China uses the term “to signal a more vigorous attempt to lay down a marker, or a warning, regarding the need for the United States and other countries to respect (indeed, accept with little if any negotiation) China’s position on certain issues”; in other words, “issues it considers important enough to go to war over.” Along with the exponential growth of China’s ‘outward-leaning’ economy in recent decades is an equally meteoric increase in the geopolitical clout that China wields. Geopolitics is, after all, largely the sum of geo-economics and geostrategy. Consequently, as China’s geo-economic power impacted and dwarfed other regional and State economies, its asserted-geostrategy incorporated an incremental increase of geographically-specific regions as its ‘core interests’.
Examples include Xinjiang, the Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR], the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea (which technically belong to Taiwan!), and, very nearly the whole of the South China Sea.
China’s geo-economy has not only generated a much more aggressive geostrategy, but also a marked inclination for other nation-states to simply acquiesce to whatever China propounded to be its latest ‘core interest’. Within the Chinese state-apparatus, this acquiescence appears to have been understood as tacit acknowledgement of China’s intrinsic and inherent superiority to all other geo-political entities and peoples. This self-concept is driven by the millennia-old Chinese belief that China is the ‘Middle Kingdom’, at the very centre of global civilisation, surrounded by barbarian vassals. It is a view that largely defines China’s sense of national identity. Thus, amongst the Chinese power-elites within the CPC and the CMC, the lack of any ‘pushback’ from other global and regional powers to China’s assertions has led to a sense of disdain bordering upon hubris.
In analysing China’s military strategy, it is essential to understand three central features of the People’s Republic. The first is the criticality of continuity and supremacy of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The second is the Chinese economy. The third is the uniquely Chinese concept of ‘Face’. All three are fairly closely linked. If the economy should falter or fail, the continuity of the CPC (regime-continuity), or, at the very least, its continued supremacy, will become quite uncertain. Likewise, the Chinese sense of identity is inextricably linked to this concept of ‘face’ and a national loss of face is likely to be far less acceptable than a mere ‘temporary’ loss of territory or military assets. This is a critical feature, for it offers India several military-strategic options in dealing with China.
The 2015 White Paper also clarifies that China characterizes outer space and cyberspace as the “new commanding heights in strategic competition among all parties.” It likewise declares China’s intent to focus upon the building a reliable second-strike capability. However, the sharpest thrust has been reserved for the oceans. This is quite understandable, given the prominence that the 2015 White Paper accords to the contemporary strategic concerns of the People’s Republic.
These include America’s pivot towards the Indo-Pacific, Japan’s recasting of its military and security policies, and the resistance being offered by Philippines and Vietnam to China’s 9-Dash Line and its assertive activities in the Spratly Islands.
The Chinese Armed Forces are charged with the preservation and protection of the country’s core interests and this tasking determines China’s military strategy. As war evolves towards ‘informatization’, a key strategic task of China’s armed forces is safeguarding China’s security interests in new domains such as Global Positioning systems, Electronic Warfare (EW) and Cyber/Information Warfare. The latest White Paper has also reaffirmed the centrality of ‘active-defence’ as the guiding strategy for China’s military forces. Thus, offence at the tactical and operational levels is consistent with an overall defensive orientation at the strategic level. By this logic, cyber-attacks are integral elements of the Chinese military’s efforts to “resolutely safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and development interests” in cyberspace. Indeed, in the cyber and maritime domains alike, Beijing consistently rationalises assertive activities as justified responses to prior provocations.
However, despite the inevitable hype that has accompanied analyses of the 2015 White Paper, this is a Chinese
strategic concept that predates the People’s Republic itself. Its first articulation within China may be attributed to Mao Zedong, the CPC’s founding chairman, who codified it in a much-studied 1936 essay on the “Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War”, which outlined “the strategy that the Red Army used in order to overcome stronger Nationalist and Japanese opponents — right from the Party’s inception in 1921 until its greatest triumph in 1949.”
“Active-defence may be accurately described as a strategically ‘defensive’ posture that a big, resource-rich but (militarily) weak combatant assumes to weary and turn the tables on a stronger antagonist. Such a combatant needs time to tap its resources — natural riches, manpower, martial ingenuity — so it protracts the war. It makes itself strong over time, raising powerful armed forces, while constantly harrowing the enemy. It chips away at enemy strength where and when it can.
Ultimately the weaker becomes the stronger contender, seizes the offensive, and wins. It outlasts the foe rather than hazarding a battle early on — a battle where it could lose everything in an afternoon.”
Obviously, a nation needs physical and strategic manoeuvring-space to work this strategy. Originally, this was confined solely to the geospatial imperatives of the land-war fought by the Red Army, wherein Mao’s peasant-troops had the luxury of withdrawing into the remote interior of China. This forced the enemy forces to choose between breaking contact — and ceding the initiative — and giving chase and overextending themselves. In the latter case, Red Army units, operating closer to their own logistic base could raid and harry the overstretched enemy, cut supply routes, and fall upon and annihilate isolated units. It was a strategy that the Russians, too, had used a century earlier, when, in 1812, they seduced Napoleon deep into the Russian interior, leading to military disaster for France.
The term ‘active-defence’ remains contemporary in militaries other than those of the People’s Republic of China. The US Department of Defence, for instance, also uses the term, albeit predominantly (if not solely) with distinctly tactical connotations, and defines it as “The employment of limited offensive action and counterattacks to deny a contested area or position to the enemy.” The Chinese, however, apply this as a general strategic principle applicable across all levels; from the tactical to the strategic. At the level of geostrategy, the required ‘manoeuvre-space’ shifts from the hinterland to the largely maritime-expanse of the Indo-Pacific.
Here, the concept of ‘strategic manoeuvre’ has intimate linkages with geo-economics, much of which, as a result of the geographic element within that term, is maritime in nature. As the renowned Chinese Professor Lexiong Ni put it, “When a nation embarks upon a process of shifting from an ‘inward-leaning economy’ to an ‘outward-leaning economy’, the arena of national security concerns begins to move to the oceans. This is a phenomenon in history that occurs so frequently that it has almost become a rule rather than an exception.”
Perhaps a good way to understand the application of this strategy at the grand-theatre level is to simply abandon the lexicon of the standard Western approach to ‘active-defence’, which in Indian analyses, is all too frequently simply ‘copied-and-pasted’, and instead, to examine this stated-strategy through a different prism. This is the prism of what I would like to call ‘Reach’. We need to consider ‘Reach’ as an overarching ability, with internal (i.e., political/societal) as well as external (geopolitical) facets, and with spatial as well as temporal dimensions.
‘Internal Reach’ may be considered to be the ability to tap into the intrinsic sources of China’s strength — its people (including its global diaspora) — their conditioned-sense of identity, their value-system with the centrality that it gives to the concept of ‘face’, their industriousness, their innovativeness, their ability to reverse-engineer everything from contemporary and evolving concepts to cutting-edge and state-of-the-art military-hardware, their fierce determination to regain the ‘face’ that was lost in the ‘Century of Humiliation’ and to not lose it ever again, etc. This is, in effect, the contemporary re-creation of the Chinese people as a roughly homogenous mass — the ‘peasant army’ in a modern, sophisticated avatar — no longer peasants, but retaining the quality of ‘mass’ all the same.
At the geo-economic level, ‘Economic Reach’ is the ability of China to build its own economy and sustain its economic growth by gaining and maintaining access to geographically diverse external sources of economic wealth (whether by way of access to raw materials from foreign lands or by way of markets for Chinese products in foreign lands). China’s geostrategy translates economic reach into geographical reality over a timeframe that is predetermined by the state.
In other words, at the geo-strategic level, ‘Strategic Reach’ is the ability to shape the probable battle-space by enabling access and logistic-support to Chinese commercial and State entities (including military entities) throughout China’s areas of geopolitical interest, so as to enable and/or facilitate ‘economic reach’ while avoiding placing all geo-economic eggs in a single basket.
In some cases, this geo-economic reach can be realised within a purely land centric (continental) frame of geographic access. For instance, Mongolia, which has substantial reserves of high quality coking coal, is an important focus of China’s overland strategic reach. Likewise, Russian overland exports of oil, gas and minerals (especially iron ore) increasingly feed the voracious economic appetite of China and have catapulted it into becoming Russia’s largest trade partner, ahead of Germany. In the case of Vietnam, too, where the principal exports to China are oil and coal, a significant amount of the trade is overland, since the 1,300 km border is shared between the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi and eight provinces of Vietnam. Both China and Vietnam have invested billions in highway and railway infrastructure to facilitate their bilateral overland trade. China’s significant imports of refined copper and copper ore from Laos, too, move predominantly along overland trade routes.
However, to meet the ever-growing demand for mineral-resources and petroleum-based energy that are required to sustain China’s economic growth, the bulk of China’s imports of these resources are being drawn from increasingly distant areas that are either accessible only by sea or where seaborne transit offers the most cost-effective movement in terms of volume, time and space. In fact, the maritime component of her geostrategy is so large that China is being increasingly forced to venture into the uncertainties of becoming very nearly a pure maritime power. There is in China today, widespread recognition that a competent and well-balanced blue-water navy is the only military instrument that can obtain and sustain a favourable geopolitical situation in all the dynamic shifts that characterise international relations between China and the nation states upon which her geo-economy depends. Indeed, the economy is simultaneously China’s greatest strength and its greatest vulnerability and, therefore, it is the centrepiece of the country’s policy and strategy. This is, of course, true of India, as well.
An ever-increasing demand for energy fuels China and India’s economic growth. Although the share of coal is still the largest in the energy-basket of both countries, oil consumption is growing so rapidly that it is driving the foreign policy and security perspectives of both China and India. In 1985, China was East Asia’s largest exporter of oil. In 1993, China became a net importer and, in 2015, she became the largest importer of crude oil on the planet. By April 2015, China was importing a staggering 7.4 million barrels per day (bbd) and by 2020, China will be importing something like 9.2 million bbd of crude-oil!
For all their marvellous engineering, the three main crude-oil pipelines into China (the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline [ESPO], the Kazakhstan-China oil Pipeline and the Myanmar-China oil pipeline) taken in aggregate, can cater for a mere 15% of China’s crude-oil imports.
The fact is that almost all of the enormous quantity of crude-oil that China imports either lies within, or must travel across the Indian Ocean and must transit one or more of the choke-points that connect the Indian and the Pacific oceans. These are: the Malacca Strait, the Sunda Strait, the Lombok strait, and, the Ombai-Wetar strait.
Of these, the Malacca Strait and the Lombok Strait of are particular importance to China and, considered generically, constitute what Chinese leaders term the ‘Malacca Dilemma’.
It is prudent to remember that the terms ‘energy-security’ and ‘security-of-energy’ are not mere semantic variations. ‘Energy Security’ is the degree to which the available or assured and affordable energy exceeds the demand. The ‘security-of-energy’, on the other hand, is the physical security of the energy as it flows on or under the sea or over the land. Consequently, China, as a country, concerns itself with ‘energy security’, while the Chinese Navy concerns itself with ‘security-of-energy’.
Conscious of all this, China is executing a geostrategy that will enable her to assure her geo-economic needs. As in the famous Chinese game of ‘Go’, the People’s Republic is putting in place the pieces that will shape her desired geopolitical space.
This is what the second part of this article will explore further…… watch this space.
Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan (Retd)
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BharatShakti.in)