The January Storm


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Mao launched his ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ on 16 May 1966. It unleashed furious and complex internal armed struggles driven essentially by a struggle for power between Mao’s status quoists and Liu Shaoqi’s impulse to reform. Recognising the catastrophic failures of Mao’s economic policies, his deep seated paranoia towards change and his very brittle interpretation of what conformed to Marxism and more dangerously what did not; Liu set about staging a coup d’état through manipulation of the internal mechanism of State power. Mao used more direct methods. He urged “bombard the headquarters and overthrow those in authority taking the capitalist road” and charged, in a mass of contradictions that “things can be Left in form but Right in essence”. Government and the State machinery, Liu’s instruments were thrown into paralysis and a bloody inner cleansing of opposing leadership began. The revolution combined “elements of a witch hunt, a crusade, an inquisition and cutthroat palace politics” (William A Joseph, Politics in China: An Introduction. 2014). A destructive decade on unprecedented scale was the outcome.

In January 1967, a year after the Cultural Revolution had taken root another seismic event occurred. Mao’s estranged wife Jiang Qing along with three cronies who included Wang Hongwen a second vice chairman of the Party, Zhang Chunqiao head of the Shanghai revolutionary Committee and Yao Wenyuan a party mass media manipulator formed what infamously came to be known as the “Gang of Four”. It was under Wang’s leadership as the head of the Maoist faction that he seized power from the ‘capitalists’ in Shanghai; to Mao, this was his ‘January Storm’. It became the archetypal model for the Cultural Revolution in the other provinces.

More critically to the Gang of Four, Mao’s favours at a time of his failing health gave them access to the levers of power over the remains of the purged Liu. In the event the power struggle ended with a dying Mao, supreme after a heap of Liu’s cadres had been overthrown. While the Gang consolidated their sway through their slogan “suspect all, overthrow all” (Chi Hsin, The Case of the Gang of Four, Cosmos Books, Hong Kong 1978, Pgs 1-50). They mobilized over half a million Red Guards to besiege state organs, usurped control of Government and stifled all opposition. In the mean time large scale poverty, external security anxieties and growing disenchantment of the long suffering people forced the Party to opt for a government of stability that could end the anarchy let loose by the power struggle. The key was, support and unconditional backing of the Peoples Liberation Army, which was denied the Gang.

Marshal Ye Jianying (Marshal of the PLA), Deng Xiaoping, Hua Guofeng and reform economists Chen Yun and Li Xianian formed the core of the next party leadership which in the interest of stability included four serving Marshals and seven Generals, they animated the party and challenged the Gang. Within a month of Mao’s death on 09 September 1976 this latter group led a successful coup d’état. The Cultural Revolution came to formal closure in October 1976 with the downfall of the Gang. Four features of the unsettled decade are significant to our study. Firstly, power politics that pervaded Mao’s brittle authoritarian rule. Second, the continuing distress and disenchantment of the people who had suffered famine, displacement and death on the scale of millions during Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” now being subjected to a thinly veiled power tussle in the garb of a Cultural Revolution. Third, mass hysteria that the revolution generated aroused sentiments akin to religious worship of Mao; while creating power centres such as the Red Guard that surpassed law and even challenged the PLA. Lastly, violence that sought destruction of “Old Thought”.

In this period Chinese Government poster titled, Destroy the old world; build a new world , a Red Guard of heroic proportions places his boot on a statue of Buddha, a  Crucifix and traditional books and crushes them with a sledge hammer. Image source:

In this period Chinese Government poster titled “Destroy the Old World; Build a New World,” a Red Guard of heroic proportions places his boot on a statue of Buddha, a crucifix and traditional books, and crushes them with a sledge hammer.

More than half a century after the ‘January Storm’ China has seen two decades of dazzling economic growth. This too during a period of general global economic slowdown, strife in West Asia, the rise of radical Islam, an inward looking EU and a frenetic Russia intent upon rising from the debris of empire. China’s growth story has been accompanied by ambitions of global leadership. This has in turn has spurred an unparalleled military growth. But the real alarm is, China seeks to dominate international institutions and rewrite the rule books without bringing about a change of her own morphology. China’s claims on the South and East China Sea; handling of internal dissent; proliferatory carousing with North Korea and Pakistan are cases in point.

When Xi Jinping took over reigns of general secretaryship of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in November 2012 he also took over the top offices of the Party and the Military when he had the Central Committee of the CPC anoint him as the President of the PRC as well as Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) making him, informally, the ‘Paramount Leader’. Announcing deepening reforms his declared opening move was to crackdown on state corruption at all levels. His first target was the political grouping (coincidentally also called the Gang of Four!) of Zhou Yongkang (former security chief), Xu Caihou (former Vice Chairman CMC), Bo Xilai a “princeling” and former Chongqing party chief seen as a threat to Xi’s power base, and Ling Jihua former advisor and confidant of the erstwhile Premier Hu Jintao. Whether the blitz was on account of political anxieties or indeed corruption-related offenses is not entirely clear, but they were rising stars in the CPC firmament and were deposed. Their followers, however, remain on edge. In the meantime economic growth has slowed down (<7%) while sustained illegal capital flight out off China has strained China’s financial system; globalisation and the arrival of the middle class (petty bourgeoisie) have raised unreal material expectations; there is restiveness amongst minorities particularly in the South West where radical Islamic influence is strong and mass incidents of social unrest caused by large scale migrations from the rural to urban regions is on a steep upward slope. All the while a brooding military finds itself shorn of its traditional CMC Chair and without a seat in the Standing Committee of the Politburo. The aggregate of these seemingly unrelated episodes leaves a question mark on whether the State apparatus can reconcile the nation’s aspirations with growing internal stresses peaceably or will reconciliation take the form of another “January Storm?”

Tocqueville, in 1858 suggested the most critical moment for authoritarian governments is the one which witnesses their first steps toward reform. Mao lived the axiom; the question is how will Xi receive this truism?

A Faltering Return to Reason: ‘Global Zero’ Less of an Illusion


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

            Since August of 1945 when two nuclear weapons destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and unimaginable horrors visited over 199,000 of its inhabitants, the world has lived with the implicit fear of widespread annihilation. The Cold War that rapidly shadowed the mass killings of World War II was marked by a persistent threat of a nuclear holocaust, placing in jeopardy the very existence of mankind. The two power blocs, in ‘Strangelovesque’ logic, amassed over 70,000 nuclear warheads, with the fatal knowledge that the use of a nuclear weapon would set into motion an uncontrollable chain reaction. Their arsenals contained enough to destroy the world many, many times over and then again. All the while irrational and often outlandish doctrines of intent-to-use were hatched in the opaque corridors of power in Washington and Kremlin. ‘Nuclear mysticism’ of the period embraced Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), hair trigger arsenals, Launch on Warning (LoW), war-fighting with nuclear weapons, and the idea of flexible response encompassing the prolific use of tactical nuclear weapons, almost as if the resultant escalation could be controlled. Influenced by these very dangerously opposing concepts, the idea was that deterrence would prevail and strategic stability would be the outcome.

The Cold War, in a debilitating conclusion, saw the break up of the Soviet bloc, emergence of a multi-polar world, proliferation of nuclear weapons, emergence of a clandestine nuclear black market and the rise of Islamic radicalism; the aggregate of it all was strategic uncertainty. In this wobbly milieu an international movement was launched in 2008 with the improbable purpose of eliminating all nuclear weapons. Central to the concept is to check the spread of nuclear weapons and associated technologies, account for and secure all fissile material, eradicate the threat of nuclear terrorism and abolish nuclear weapons. Most world leaders including those of the USA, Russia, China, Europe and India have endorsed Global Zero.

The plan envisages achieving a global zero accord by 2023 and complete nuclear disarmament by 2030. Implementation visualizes a four-phased action plan. Phase1 proposed a bilateral treaty between the USA and Russia to reduce arsenals to 1000 warheads each. Phase 2 conceives a further reduction of arsenals by the USA and Russia to 500 warheads each, while a multilateral framework called for all other nuclear weapon nations to freeze their stockpiles until 2018 and enjoins them to put in place verifiable safeguards and enforcement systems to prevent diversion of fissile material towards weapon production. Phase 3 requires these nations to negotiate a global zero accord by 2023 for the proportional reduction of all nuclear arsenals to the zero level. The final Phase is reduction to zero and the continuation of the verification, safeguard and enforcement systems.

Till recently, the problem with the entire scheme was lack of clarity of what measures would need to be put in place, in order to establish a multilateral structure that addresses immediate nuclear risks. These immediate nuclear risks are presented by nations adopting a posture of intent to use nuclear weapons first; absence of transparency in strategic underpinnings; development and deployment of tactical nuclear weapons and its corollary of decentralizing control; and lastly the hazards of terrorists gaining access to nuclear weapons. During a meeting of the Global Zero Commission in Athens on 30-31 March 2015 a draft report was presented, its aim was to reduce the risks of deliberate or unintended use of nuclear weapons through the instrument of establishing a multilateral norm that de-alerts nuclear forces. Refreshingly encouraging was a suggested paradigm shift from intention-to-use to that of intent-to-avoid the use of nuclear weapons.

Addressing the Commission, as one of the Indian participants, the author underscored that the nation’s nuclear posture was founded on its declared policy of No First Use (NFU), which formed the basis of operationalizing the arsenal. Intrinsic to its nuclear orientation was the separation of the custodian of nuclear weapons from controller, achieved not just in word, but by robust technological systems supported by stringent procedures and redundancies at every stage. Central to control was supremacy of polity. In this framework there was no room for conflict between operational goals and strategic policy. On matters of hair-trigger state of alert of nuclear forces with intent-to-use, the author suggested that de-alerting of nuclear forces without a commitment to NFU did not in any way assuage the situation since there were no apparent restraints to reverse transition from the de-alerted to the alert stage. The Indian and Chinese NFU posture provided a first step towards stability and the final goal of disarmament. On tactical nuclear weapons, the author was unequivocal on India’s stand of being unwilling to distinguish between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons on grounds that control of escalation was not possible once the weapon was used. The hazards of non-state actors gaining access to nuclear weapons as a real danger, was highlighted, primarily because jihadists are an integral part of Pakistan’s military strategy, making subversion of their nuclear establishment an existential threat. The narrative was rounded off by re-emphasizing that de-alerting of nuclear forces was a natural hand-maiden of a policy of No First Use of these weapons.

Despite the doubts expressed by the Russian participants over the credibility of NFU, what was surprising was the traction that the twin ideas of de-alerting and NFU generated amongst the Commission. Equally surprising was the Japanese reservations of how such a policy would affect extended deterrence, perhaps this was more on account of the inability to see a time when the need for nuclear deterrent forces would be a thing of the past.

State of Play: Non-Proliferation, Fissile Material Cut-offs and Nuclear Transparency


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

 Tools that promote a stable nuclear relationship between nations are characterized by a congruence of views on non-proliferation of weapon and vector technologies, fissile material control and strategic transparency; the last makes clear the strategic underpinnings that motivate weapon programmes. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was negotiated in 1968 and entered into force in 1970, is the cornerstone of all international efforts to provide stability within the bounds of a globally ‘iniquitous’ nuclear regulatory system by limiting access to nuclear weapons. The impetus behind the NPT was a stated concern for the safety of a world with many nuclear weapon states. It was recognized that the cold war deterrent relationship between just the United States and Soviet Union was fragile. Having more nuclear-weapon states would reduce security for all, multiplying the risks of miscalculation, accidents, unauthorized use of weapons and the hazards of regional tensions escalating to nuclear conflict. The concept of the NPT process was formulated by Frank Aiken, Irish Minister for External Affairs, in 1958. A total of 190 states have joined the Treaty, though North Korea, which acceded to the NPT in 1985 but never came into compliance, announced its withdrawal in 2003. States that have never joined the NPT are India, Israel and Pakistan.

The NPT is, unfortunately a flawed treaty, while its origins pre-dates the Cuban crisis, it was the fragility of the existing fraught relationship between the two super powers that pushed leadership towards a pact that restricted possession of nuclear weapons. Based on a ‘bargain’ that traded denial of nuclear weapons for peaceful use technologies, it distinguishes between three categories of states: nuclear-weapon states (the US, Russia, the UK, France, and China), non-nuclear weapons states and thirdly states that are not signatories of the Treaty in possession of nuclear weapons (India, Israel and Pakistan). Many of the non-nuclear weapons states agreed to forego nuclear armament because the nuclear-armed states made a promise that in return they would work towards nuclear reductions with the ultimate aim of abandoning all nuclear weapons and because the nuclear have-nots had been promised support in making strictly peaceful use of nuclear energy. The system has not evolved to find a status for the last category of players whose security needs was neither addressed nor any remission given.

Western thinking (by which is implied the nuclear Haves) on the matter is, regrettably, dominated by only two issues: how best to retain the power exclusivity of the ‘Nuclear Club’ and the situation in the Middle East. Questions related to nuclear proliferation, hazards of non-state actors gaining access to nuclear weapons and stability of nuclear relations; on the other hand, have taken a back seat. The US and Russia, as the states with by far the biggest nuclear arsenals, have neither shown the imagination nor the will to formulate a new dispensation that holds nuclear stability as a function of enforceable transparency and an acceptance of No First Use as an inviolable first step towards disarmament.

On the ground, the US accuses Russia of violating the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) treaty that commits both sides to abolishing their intermediate-range nuclear arms; there is no progress in matters of multilateral nuclear disarmament; the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty is a distant illusion as the US has still failed to ratify the treaty; there are no negotiations or an agreed agenda over stopping the production of fissile material for military purposes; the Geneva Conference on Disarmament that is intended for this purpose cannot agree on the principles that will govern the Treaty. While transparency in arsenals and doctrines has been rendered opaque as nuclear weapon states have found new reason to enlarge and modernise. In this mileu ‘Global Zero’ remains a Utopian ideal.

The ‘cardiac’ arrest in the nuclear disarmament agenda is more symptomatic of the growing perception that in an uncertain world, nuclear weapons provide a persuasive argument for strategic stability. During the Cold War, strategic doctrines relied heavily on nuclear weapons for their deterrent effect; it resulted in a veritable freeze in the probability of war in Europe. Today, while the picture may have changed due to tensions of the multi polar and the competitive tyranny of economics, the need to underscore the boundaries of interstate behaviour remains an imperative. In the absence of globally accepted regulatory regimes not only are conflictual situations likely to arise and have indeed arisen, but there is also a necessity that these conflicts remain restrained; this is where the deterrent value of nuclear weapons play a role till such time that an alternate disincentive can be devised. It is also for this reason that nations are increasingly demanding reliable extended nuclear deterrence. The escalating friction in the South and East China Sea; the war in Ukraine where a nuclear-armed Moscow has arrogated Crimea (and parts of eastern Ukraine) in defiance of the December 1994 Budapest Memorandum; the seemingly irrational nature of North Korea’s nuclear threats; the continued existence of nuclear black market networks of AQ Khan notoriety; the appearance of non-state actors into the equation and China’s programme of nuclear proliferation which has nurtured and continues to sustain and enlarge Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, are all demonstrative of the current apocalyptical state of play. For many nations, this has reinforced the impression that possession of nuclear weapons adds-up-to strength, protection, and inviolability; while foregoing nuclear weapons can threaten the very existence of the State. As the importance of nuclear weapons increases in a geopolitical environment of uncertainty, the prospects of stability becomes bleaker.

An appraisal of the contemporary universal state of nuclear affairs will suggest that the three pillars of global nuclear stability, namely, non proliferation, control of fissile material production and transparency of nuclear arsenals are wobbly for lack of foundational support. And in the truancy of global foundational support the answer may well lie in establishing a regional framework of détente.