The Sometime Pickle of Civilizational Connects

By  Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar.

Published in the IPCS Web journal in the author’s Column The Strategist  and may be accessed at: http://ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5629

The Peloponnesian War (431- 404 BCE), was a significant event of the ancients as it reshaped the Hellenic world. A hegemonistic Athens and its trading vassals, on one side was challenged by Sparta backed by the xenophobic Peloponnesian League. In the end, the Spartan side came on top. But the central question that emerged was, what made like peoples (civilizationally) fight a long and debilitating war?…explanations rarely go beyond Graham Allison’s “what made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta”; and yet what remains unexplored is the ‘invidiousness of civilizational hook ups’.

Through history, as many wars have been fought as there have been civilizationally connected peoples. The Mauryan campaigns of the 4th century BC began with war and conquest of the Nanda Empire; interestingly the protagonists shared a common progenitor. . The Crusades (1096-1291 AD) began with Pope Urban II’s for a war to recover the holy land from Muslim rule. It degenerated to a riot of pillage ending in the fall of Jerusalem and victory to the Muslims. The war ironically was fought between peoples of the “Word”. The interminable wars in Europe waged between 12th and 17th centuries AD were largely fought over family rivalries, prestige and succession. The Colonial Wars that found roots in piracy before expanding into a world-wide feuding network of discriminatory trade practices, was a confrontation between practitioners of ‘western civilization’ that culminated in the World Wars of the 20th century, fought for domination and imperial glory.

The farther back we look the more we note that despite there being civilizational ties nations went to bloody wars, rather than find alternatives. Was it because they knew each other too well? Or were causes due to the nature of nation-states involved, their creation, development and quest for self-sufficiency? What is clear is that no modern nation can lean on a unique history that is in itself self-explanatory. Because a civilization in its life span is faced by a succession of challenges that often fragment the whole resulting in each element providing solutions as best as they may. It brings about self-sustaining divisions that live, work and fight to the dictates of traditions common to them to the exclusion and often in conflict with the other elements. Against this backdrop how relevant and to what effect is the current government in India backing its civilizational ties with China to build a mutually beneficial relationship?

Colonial exhaustion and defeat of imperial powers in the 20th century gave rise to Communism in China and its evolution to a “centrally controlled market economy that tolerated political activity only by the Party”; it is the antithesis of development of a parliamentary democracy in India. Ironically, history attributes the entry of Mahayana Buddhism in 3 BCE from its home in India for the part it played in developing Chinese civilization and it’s implanting amongst the Sinic people. These civilizational bonds over the millennia grew as human interaction and trade flourished, first over land and then by sea.

Imperial competition in the 18th and 19th centuries spurred by search for resources, increasing demand and lure of easy wealth marked the advent of colonial empires and the breakdown of traditional linkages. Awkwardly, trade networks now were routed through the parent colonist. An unintended fallout of this disruption was nationalistic fervour that neither had the experience of managing affairs of the state nor could they see beyond the coloniser and his reviled formula of trade-settlement-conquest. The artificially stretched geography had effectively fragmented civilizational bonds and replaced it by concepts that came unstuck rather than coalesce.

In this milieu it must come as no surprise that China and India opted for self-government so profoundly different and with such a varied interpretation of what and who was the ‘self’ to be governed. While the former claimed exclusive authority of people freed of feudal and capitalistic exploitation and holding membership of the Chinese communist party, the latter derived its authority from a more abstract interpretation of what represented the will of the nation under one constitution. There are inconvenient anomalies to both concepts. That being as it may the reality is that China and India share borders that extends over 3500 kilometres ridden by “cartographic incongruities”. Concurrently historical events such as the invasion of Tibet, flight of the Dalai-lama to India, stoking of Maoist insurgencies in India, the lack of a consensual basis for boundary resolution be it the ‘Johnson, MacDonald or McMahon’ lines, a border war and the underlying looming strategic competition; have all served to stress relations.

Even the approach taken by the two nations to development and growth cannot be at greater odds. China since the mid-seventies has become the manufacturing hub of the world; while India since the mid-nineties has become the favoured destination for outsourcing of a range of services from software development and call centres to “back-room” services and sophisticated research reports for analysts and decision makers. India’s primary aim is of being a dominant knowledge power. But tensions remain, not just caused by legacy. For China it is the inability to reconcile a free market economy with a repressive authoritarian regime. She has chosen to distract her people through whipping up nationalistic passions and implementing aggressive revisionist policies; while for India it is her very population and the nature of its polity that tends to retard. Both have a common quest, to achieve and sustain great power status. China’s striving for dominance in the political arena is backed by a first-rate military power; challenged by the international system, it has turned a competitive face to relations with other powers. While India would appear to have chosen a cooperative slant, its exertion of power is through international bodies, its success at the Financial Action Task Force and to win support at the UN on its stand on climate change, renewable energy and terrorism are issues that have not gone unnoticed.

Given this state of play and the harsh fact that the principle of nationalism is almost always intimately linked to the idea of war it will take an act of great statesmanship between the two diverse Asian giants to bury their differences and build upon their hoary civilizational bonds. But even if this were to be so, the question that begs to be answered is: to whose benefit and to what end?

China: National Defence in a New Era

                                              Linking Dreams with Reality

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

This article is forthcoming in the September 2019 issue of Geopolitics http://www.geopolitics.in/

The Chinese news agency Xinhua announced on 24 July 2019 that China had issued a white paper to “expound on its defensive national defence policy in the new era and explain the practice, purposes and significance of China’s efforts to build a fortified national defence and a strong military.” Titled “China’s National Defence in the New Era,” the paper was released by the State Council Information Office with a view, as the Council suggested, to helping the international community better understand China’s national defence. It is the tenth white paper on national defence that the government has issued since 1998 and the first comprehensive one since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012.

At a macro-level the Paper responds to a perceived shift in global strategies, as major players retract from a focus on counter-terrorism and extremism to an acute slant on competition, rivalry, and friction. It flags the fact that China in its bid to revise the global order on its terms is now a contender for regional dominance. Its ascendancy is backed by military forces that are developed to the point where they will be able to challenge any adversary that may attempt to deny its interests. The document describes Taiwan, Tibet, and Turkistan as separatists that threaten national unity and underscores the dangers of territorial conflicts erupting should there be intervention of any nature on this account. It notes in cavalier fashion “countries from outside the region conduct frequent close-in surveillance by air and sea, enter China’s territorial waters and the airspace near China’s islands and reefs undermining China’s national security.” Through all this, China remains quite oblivious to the legality of their newly established but discordant Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) of 2013, the 9-Dash (10-Dash after 2013) line delineating their claim over most of the South China Sea, contravening major tenets of the United Nations Conventions on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) and breaching of international law.

Unlike Chinese White Papers of the past which focused blandly on China’s questionable “peaceful” intent and not very convincing views of ‘win-win’ cooperation, the 2019 edition highlights China’s military development as a national riposte to what it considers as the challenges that it is faced with. The main body of the white paper is divided into six thematic sections:

  • The international security situation
  • China’s defensive national defence policy in the new era
  • Fulfilling missions and tasks of China’s armed forces in the new era
  • Reform in China’s national defence and armed forces
  • Reasonable and appropriate defence expenditure
  • Actively contributing to building a community with a shared future for mankind.

Some statistics are featured in the 27,000-character document, 10 tables on topics such as a cursory breakdown of China’s defence expenditure have been attached and listing of international cooperation activities is included in the appendices.”

International Security & Visions of a New Global Order

The paper offers insights into how Chinese leadership conceives a world order characterized by greater multi-polarity and its aspirations to exercise control amongst what it perceives to be a “community of common destiny.” It also outlines its strategic objectives, in the quest for which Beijing will neither accommodate nor soften its position. The paper, significantly, re-emphasises China’s intentions to revise the current global order to create a future more favourable for its interests.

“National Defence in a New Era” is a continuum on the official narrative of China’s emergence as a great power with global influence. In discussing the security situation in the Asia-Pacific, China makes a grand assumption that countries in the region are “increasingly aware of being members of a community with shared destiny” and then deduces that they are therefore in harmony with Beijing’s ideological make-up. While the questionable nature of the ‘grand assumption’ throws up a flawed deduction; what comes next is disquieting. It is the illusory context of the document linking China’s defence directly to the notion of a “community of common destiny for humanity” that provides a dangerous strategic underpinning for that very community. The question being, is the new era envisaged by China an emerging reality? And is its model of governance acceptable and appropriate for this reality? For if not (as it seems most likely) the prospects of friction and disruption loom large.

China’s Defensive National Defence Policy

The Document links the creation of a new world order with Xi Jinping’s discourse on the “China Dream,” which urges the People’s Republic to push forward the “great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” and strive to achieve the  dream of “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation to the status of the world’s dominant power. The narrative is now expanded in the White Paper to argue that a more powerful Chinese military is essential to this global dream. The paper attempts to reframe the trajectory of Chinese military modernization by claiming: “A strong military of China is a staunch force for world peace, stability and the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.” This assertion is intended to reassure China’s neighbours about the rise of Chinese military power, which has progressed at a speed and scale that have often provoked concerns, arguing that this instead is a boon for the region. What is apparent is that the construct and its strategic linkages are short on specifics and niggardly on how to put the dream into practice.

Although  China’s aspiration to exercise a leading influence in global governance and contribute to reforms of that system are hardly surprising, this is for the first time that the military has been so directly and officially connected to the agenda of revisionism. However, declarations to “build  a security architecture  through partnerships rather than alliances”  become confusing when one attempts to situate the deepening  Sino-Russian defence linkages in the scheme of things. Nevertheless, this partnership is starting to take on certain features of a military alliance, involving “the development of exchange mechanisms at all levels, expanded cooperation, military training and technology transfers.” Military cooperation had notably extended to the People’s Liberation Army’s participation in Russia’s Vostok exercise in September 2018. It will be recalled that the war-game is Russia’s annual strategic exercise spread over two months and across vast regional spaces to develop the ability to conduct large-scale combined arms war that correlate doctrines and coordinate Command and Control. To fully appreciate the scale of operations the 2018 edition involved over 300,000 personnel.

Fulfilling New Missions, Signaling of Red Lines and Resolve

“China’s National Defense in a New Era” is clearly intended to send strong signals to a global audience. However, communication of redlines and resolve often stand in stark contradiction to the discourse on China’s commitment to “world peace,” and claims of its policies and strategic intentions being purely defensive. On Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and its territorial claims in the South China Sea the Paper states “We make no promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures that target adversarial alliances, interventions and  intimidating deployments”.  These threats are awkwardly juxtaposed with the assertion that China will “never seek hegemony, expansion, or spheres of influence.” From Beijing’s perspective, the notion of “reunification” and defending national sovereignty may be justified and described so, but such an objective is inherently offensive, unilateral and disruptive of the status quo.

Reforms and China’s Concept of National Security 

The Document notes that for this new era, concerns of political security remains critical to the Communist Party of China (CPC). It highlights the imperative for China’s national defence to “assure political security, people’s security and social stability” and in terms of national priority it is listed second only to “deter and resist aggression.” In this context, the introduction of the concept of “people’s security” which is seen as the “soul” and core purpose of national security, alludes to the factors required for improvement of the “people’s well-being,” reflecting underlying connections between national defence and continued development. Increasingly, there are also concerns about threats to social stability in new domains, especially cyberspace. The security and survival of the regime is an absolute imperative for the CPC, and China’s armed forces are required to pre-empt and neutralize such eventualities.

As far as nuclear forces are concerned, its form and content have largely been consistent over the years. China has reaffirmed its commitment to a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones. China does not engage in any nuclear arms race with any other country and keeps its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security. It pursues a nuclear strategy of self-defence, the goal of which is to maintain national strategic security by deterring other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China.

Defence Expenditure: Reasonable or Unfathomable?

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the paper is a relatively more detailed treatment of the defence budget than the 2010 edition (statement on defence budget was absent from the 2013 and 2015 versions). The 2010 paper stated, China’s defence expenditure mainly comprises expenses for personnel, training and maintenance, and equipment; with each budget group accounting for roughly one third of the total”. In the 2019 Paper, subcomponents of the three groups of expenditure  are updated slightly, but significant changes in distribution is apparent. Since 2015, as the PLA has reduced personnel, retired old equipment, and purchased new weapon systems, “equipment expenses” amount to over 40 per cent (approximately $62 billion) of the total budget of $151 billion while personnel expenses have fallen to about 31 per cent ($47 billion), and training and maintenance to 28 per cent ($42 billion). The reasons cited for budget increases are five-fold: enhanced salaries and troop welfare; equipment modernisation; support reforms (which include personnel and unit transfers); improved training; and conduct of peacekeeping, constabulary, humanitarian and disaster relief operations. This order appears consistent with the budgetary allocation, as the PLA has downsized by roughly 13 per cent. The reduced allocation for training may suggest that the PLA has cut back on ‘mass’ manoeuvres, concentrating on developing specialised task oriented battle groups and small-unit proficiencies. However what remains opaque is a breakdown of the budget for Capital, Revenue and Strategic expenditure.

As China compares itself with the other major powers in terms of defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP; at 1.3% it likens rather well from a pacific stand-point. However, what remains obscured is the expenditure on military related infrastructure, defense production and strategic programmes.

Xi’s anti-corruption campaign in defence deals is hailed specifically as, “the struggle having won an overwhelming victory, establishing a positive environment of political and moral correctness.” Pointedly calling out and cracking down on Generals Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou, Fang Fenghui, and Zhang Yang for their “grave violations of Party discipline and state laws.” However, it is hard to judge whether these generals were purged for corruption or for being potential challengers to Xi’s authority.

Building a Community with a Shared Future

While the Paper attempts both to articulate a vision of global security in which China is a driving force for “world peace,” and to establish unambiguous red lines as to what threatens China’s sovereignty, security, and development; what is significant, nuanced or otherwise,  is the absence of any details of separatist activities as indeed the nature and condition of ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang. One wonders, what Xi’s “new era” holds in terms of the shared future for the over 11 million Muslim Uighurs in China’s restive western province of Xinjiang.  According to un-verified reports over two million Uighurs and other minorities, including Islamic Kazakhs and Uzbeks, have been detained since April 2017. Outside of the internment camps, the eleven million Uighurs living in Xinjiang have continued to suffer from a decade-long ethnic cleansing and re-culturing by Chinese authorities. While inside the camps, having no legal avenues to challenge their detention, there is no way of assessing the extent of brutality or brain washing that they are subjected to including behaviour modification in exchange for a dim and doltish rehabilitation . The reasons that may bring about incarceration, according to media reports, include traveling to or contacting people from any of the twenty-six countries China considers sensitive, such as Turkey and Afghanistan; attending services at mosques; sending texts containing Quranic verses and often the inmate’s only crime is being Muslim. One puzzles if this is the new era?

The Paper takes an aggressive no-compromise stand on the integration of Taiwan to the extent of the use of unequivocal military force with the ominous call that Taiwan “will and must merge and consolidate with the People’s Republic of China (PRC)”. Prominent is the strident nationalist bellow for the integrity of the country as a foundational interest of the Chinese nation essential to realizing national rejuvenation. Additionally the on-going disruption in the financial capital Hong Kong do not in any way inspire either success in assimilation or the idea of  “one-nation-two-systems”.

The White Paper makes much of China’s contribution to UN peacekeeping operations and even goes on to declare that it is the largest troop contributing country among the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). However it must be remembered that the other four permanent members have been rather artful in their choice of engagement and have hardly ever committed  their troops in UN sponsored peace keeping missions unless their interests were directly involved or threatened; the United Nations Command established in 1950 to prosecute the war in Korea was led and comprised almost entirely of US forces , the US and Canada supported forces in Eygpt in the 1956 Suez crisis, the 1992  NATO involvement in the wars in Croatia, Bosnia Serbia and Herzegovina , France in Senegal and the Ivory Coast in 2013 or Britain in Afghanistan and Cyprus. All these examples are suggestive of permanent members being selective about their involvement. And so it is with China and therefore no surprises that their focus is on Africa where it has invested heavily and the Middle East for its energy security.

Conclusion

This “new era” of China’s national defence is characterized by change and continuity in China’s global outlook and expanding interests. At a time when the lone super power strategizes for a new era of great power rivalry, the 2019 Chinese posture may in parts appear to present a conciliatory picture. However, intentions to reform global governance, persistence with its claims in the South China Sea, a cavalier approach to international conventions and an illusory security architecture predicated on a “community with a shared future” revealed in the document are nonetheless disconcerting. China may soon be confronted by a rude awakening as this vision for a revised order, self-promotion and security is met with intense internal and external stresses. And all the while since 1998 when the key theme of China’s defence policy was cooperation, Beijing’s military today is inexorably being drawn into, what appears to be, an inevitable clash with forces that uphold the status-quo.

Shangri-La Dialogue 2019: The Shadow of China

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar 

Published in the author’s column, “The Strategist” on the IPCS Web journal, and may be accessed at: http://ipcs.org/comselect.php?articleNo=5609

The Shangri-La Dialogue is an Asian security summit held annually at Singapore; this year the eighteenth summit was held between 31 May and 02 June. And in a grand affirmation of design, its director general declared, “it is a unique meeting where ministers debate the region’s many pressing security challenges, engage in bilaterals and come up with fresh solutions together.” Yet the central and perhaps the only theme that loomed over the 2019 edition was the strategic road taken by China over the years: from ideology, mass and foment to growth, revision and regional domination. China’s participation was remarkable not just for the level of its delegate–the defence minister General Wei Shenghe, but also for the resolve to hold sway in the region that he so candidly declared. Unfortunately, it was not debate that defined deliberations but the impending pay-back for a “hundred years (since the opium wars) of humiliation” and the probability of a breakdown of the status-quo without an alternative.

That China’s stunning growth had shifted the strategic centre of gravity of the world, is a reality; however, what startled was China’s unabashed announcement that the world will now have to “adapt to its success” and it can no longer be subjected to the “iniquities” of the past. A clear statement of disaffection with the current order and a burial of Deng’s strategy to “hide-power-and-bide-time”

What is emerging is an international order on China’s terms that would amount to little else but a “monocracy” since China has taken no step to convince through actions that its objectives are directed towards a more even-handed order and its methods are neither authoritarian nor mercantilist. Their dealings in Sri Lanka, Kenya, Guinea, or for that matter engagement with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) since 2001 are stark reminders of just the opposite.

It may be recalled that in 2001, China’s trade accounted for 4% of world trade. Those were times when much of the developed world was and today continues to reel under the impact of high cost labour, an aging and low-productive demography. Today, China’s share of world trade has almost tripled to 11.8%. Concessions negotiated when it joined the WTO are no longer politically tenable; neither for those that bestowed this largesse nor for others in competition. A regime more consistent with present-day China’s state of development would appear the order of the day. Indeed, it may be argued that the fall-out of the petrodollar system that boosted the US Dollar as the globally accepted reserve currency creates an immediate and persistent artificial demand for it. This, quite unfairly, benefits only the US and the oil cartel. Making it a distressing paradox that calls for reforms to the WTO.

In the context of military power, China’s defence expenditure is the second-largest in the world; its policies carry weight, often provoke, arouse suspicion and invariably acted upon from a security perspective. China’s “right to build infrastructure and deploy defensive capabilities on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea,” is emphasised in the latest iteration of its Defence White Paper (22 Jul 2019). So, its strategies of Anti-Access-Area-Denial, developing the “Assassin’s Mace,” creation of confounding Air Defence Identification Zones and activities in the South China Sea to create a “maritime great wall” are symptomatic not just of safe guarding its interests, but to dominate the region with no legitimacy. Friction is mounting in these waters and China is not inclined to resolve these disputes with other stake holders. Neither  international law nor the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) seem to evoke any reverence whether it be their  “9-Dash line,” military bases on the Mischief Reef (EEZ of Philippines’), artificial islands along the way or the dispute over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Nevertheless, China insists that the situation in the South China Sea is stable citing, intriguingly, the “100,000 ships” that sail through  every year as evidence that there is no threat to trade plying there while denouncing “countries outside the region that have come to the South China Sea to flex muscles in the name of freedom of navigation.” Such power-declarations hardly lend itself to the idea of a China that can be relied and respected to support a durable regional environment. China, however, remains ostensibly oblivious to the fact that the strategic pivot of the world has long shifted to the Indo-Pacific, making stake holders in these waters from far beyond the region.

Meanwhile, global stresses have built up over multiple issues relating to cyber espionage, human rights and to the seduction of 5G technologies (in dealing with the last, future generations will no doubt wonder with what ease nations gave in to technologies that hold the potential of creating Orwellian control). China, which has aggressively been spearheading 5G would appear to have regressed in terms of political openness, military bullying, creation of a Sino-centric economic bloc and a disdainful approach to international law. This strategic orientation will probably augur well for China’s aspirations but hardly so for global prospects.

China’s proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is ambitious and comes with its share of controversies. It has also rapidly increased China’s overall risk profile. Added to China’s internal debt, excess capacity, increasing labour costs and high ratio of investment to growth; the prospects of increased recurrence of a “Hambantota” are portentous. The Centre for Global Development (CGD) has, in no uncertain terms, concluded that Beijing, encourages dependency using opaque contracts, rapacious loan practices, and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt to undercut their sovereignty; their infrastructural dealings with Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, the Maldives, Mongolia, Montenegro, Pakistan, and Tajikistan are stark reminders of how predatory economic policies work (CGD Policy Paper 121 of March 2018). In the meantime the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir had in 2018 announced the shelving of two major projects, part of China’s signature BRI to avert falling into an obsequious debt trap. And as we speak the Business and Financial Week, a Pakistani periodical (Dawn) reported on 15 July that China has reminded the government, of the grave consequences of reneging on the earlier signed China Pakistan Economic Corridor contractual obligations; now what could that mean?