It has been in the making for long but timed perfectly for delivery. China’s Annual White Paper, this time emphasizing on its national security strategy, and focused on a vision of China’s intent of converting from a continental power to a maritime power comes not a day late. The Paper deals with four major domains of modern military power – seas and oceans, cyber space, nuclear force and outer space but it is the first domain which is drawing maximum interest and is the main subject of this commentary. Seas and oceans have traditionally not been very high in China’s perceptions of security because of the insular policies, isolation and fragmented politics it followed through much of the Nineteenth Century.
The release of the White Paper was timed to perfection with two events/trends; first the wake of agreements to invest 46 bn USD on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CEPC) to give China access to the Western Indian Ocean through the Pakistani port of Gwadar; second the Shangri-La Dialogue at Singapore where the issues surrounding the future of the Pacific Ocean islands in the South East and East Asian region was to be under discussion along with the whole gamut of China’s rise as a military and economic power.
A background brief will put things in perspective and it goes back to 1978 when the father of modern China, Deng Xiao Ping, gave his famous guidelines for the progress of China from being a virtual Middle Kingdom to a modern nation state. The little that I know of this reveals that agriculture, industry, science and technology and national defense were made the priorities to refurbish China’s economy and security; actually the country’s comprehensive national power. National defense was the last priority because Chairman Deng’s wise counsel spoke only of stable borders for the modernization within. The modernization of the PLA therefore commenced much later and in that the PLA Navy virtually received a short shrift because land based security was perceived to be of higher significance. The importance of the oceans entered into China’s security calculus for three reasons.
First of these reasons was the dire shortage of hydro carbons needed for the sustenance of the racing growth brought on by the rush of manufacturing. The dependence on the Middle East necessitated the transportation of energy by sea across the breadth of the Indian Ocean through such vulnerable bottlenecks as the Straits of Malacca. This could be interdicted by powerful navies of nations which could turn inimical towards China’s growth or unwilling to see its rising power. 60% of China’s GDP is from sea borne trade and is therefore vulnerable from point of view of US Naval presence across the world and presence of other inimical navies.
The second reason was the disputed island territories in the East and South China Seas. The main adversaries in these disputes are Japan, Philippines and Vietnam the first two being strong allies of the US. In its desire to be seen as a responsible member of the international community and its huge stakes in globalization China knows that it cannot use force to secure its interests. However, the model of gunboat diplomacy that it was subjected to in the mid-19th Century can always be used against those who are inimical to its interests. For that it requires ‘gunboats’ of the PLA Navy plus a conceptual projection of its intent to use sea power through a finer understanding of the ‘seas and ocean’. China’s intellectual understanding of conflict is advanced right from the days of the legendary Sun Zu. In the course of the modernization of the PLA in the Nineties it expounded fresh doctrines in the form of the War Zone Strategy and the People’s War under Informationalized Conditions. This created hype among its potential adversaries and added much respect within the military strategic community. White Papers on security and strategy are essentially documents related to capability, diplomacy, projection and psychological warfare which are meant to give the adversary just enough to speculate and go into a spiral of strategic interpretation. The current White Paper will no doubt do the same.
The third reason for the timing is the fact that China too realizes that the US is desperate to dilute its forces in West Asia and refocus itself towards the Asia Pacific region which it perceives emerging as the strategic center of gravity. The paper just sufficiently projects the intellectual understanding of China’s strategic community about the US intent to balance China’s ambitions.
The fourth point in this narrative is the huge commercial empire straddling the world which China has built and continues to build across continents. Steve Levine, writing under Reuters tag describes it as – “a whole latticework of infrastructure which is growing into history’s most extensive global commercial empire”. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it is the British Empire which had similar ambitions and proportions. A powerful navy enforced its will; the power was also possible because of a similar latticework of ports, roads, and railroads. China’s ‘one belt one road concept’ is really an adjunct of the power projection by sheer weight of growth of infrastructure. However, it is the oceans and the seas that provide the flexibility and add on connectivity for the exploitation of land based infrastructure. Nothing exemplifies this better than China’s Maritime Silk Route. With Kunming as the hub in Southern China its overland connectivity with high speed rail and road networks in South East Asia can then be linked through Myanmar and Thailand with South Asia’s various ports in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan and even up to Seychelles and Mauritius. The MSR is more than just infrastructure; it is also about China’s soft power with which it hopes to bind strategic linkages and further trade.
“We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked,” the paper states. “China will never seek hegemony or expansion.” This is a projected protection against over reach because the rationale is not for an external audience alone but as much for internal consumption. However, China knows that to maximize gains in the Pacific where the disputes are about territorial waters and island territories it has to show robust intent. The current provocations in terms of Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ) and ramming tactics do not reflect the projected doctrine of restraint. Some may argue that at tactical levels such behavior is intended to convey a different behavior but at the strategic level China can ill afford to follow an aggressive posture. The tactical balances the strategic weakness.
The other doctrinal projection that the paper expounds is the intended transition of the PLA Navy from ‘open seas protection’ to ‘offshore waters defense’, while the PLA AF will shift its focus from ‘territorial air defense’ to both ‘defense and offence’. This essentially is another set of semantics for the shift from the more clichéd Brown Water to Blue Water capability and the air element moving into the integrated platform capability of carriers. In September 2013, it commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the 74,406-ton Liaoning. Obviously China does not require a carrier fleet for securing its interests in Taiwan; so the intent is obviously much larger. The rate of naval vessel construction in its shipyards is going on at an unprecedented rate but yet it will be some years before China has the necessary sea power to achieve its more muscular intent and not rely on others for freedom of seas for its commercial interests.
Singapore’s Strait Times, which pro-actively follows China’s developments in the security domain states – “in laying out its military strategy in the paper for the first time, Beijing can claim to be increasing the transparency of the PLA to the outside world, while warning off those deemed to have ill intentions towards the country”. While cyber space, nuclear force and outer space related issues also find mention in the White Paper these really are subsets of the larger issue of strategic security. Under President Xi Jingping China is obviously looking towards a far more expanded role in international affairs and the oceans and seas will form the core of this ambition. How much this will dilute attention from the continental issues and land based borders is something that will be under close observation by nations such as India. This will also create further dilemma for India’s strategic analysts and security managers who will be required to prioritize between emphases on land based borders where disputes abound and the high seas where China seeks to robustly pursue its interests. Will this mean an edge for the Indian Navy over the Indian Army’s ambitious projects such as the Mountain Strike Corps which has been already emasculated by the resource crunch?