The Resurrection of Xi Zedong

Fair is foul and foul is fair”  (Macbeth)

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar (to be published in the IPCS Web journal)

In 1981, five years after Mao Zedong’s death China adopted an official verdict on his life, it called Mao a great revolutionary whose contributions outweighed the cost of his mistakes (Zhisui Li). Literature and history of later years have, however, suggested otherwise. Mao through his purges, social upheavals and programmes during the “great leap forward” and  the “cultural revolution” was directly responsible for the death of 38 million people (Chang and Halliday) in the former while the latter accounted for 20 million (Ye Jianying , vice chairman CPC). The consequences of the two ill-advised policies was total collapse of  the economy that threw China back to primal conditions, socio-political anarchy, massacres and famines of monstrous proportions. These tragic episodes hardly qualify to be “light-weight” blunders. By the same logic that puts in balance ‘contributions against mistakes’, mankind could possibly take an alternate view of the Hitlers of this world! If at all there is a truism revealed, it is how excessive power, drives its wielder into an illusory world where grand visions forebear even more grand outrages.

Thirty-seven years later another event of great geopolitical significance passed into Chinese history endorsed by China’s rubber stamp lawmakers. The Constitutional provision that limited the President’s tenure to two 5 year terms was abolished as it paved the way for Xi Jinping to be anointed President for life, General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Commission also for life.  

The tenure system was created by Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping to prevent an encore of the excesses of Mao’s rule. Aim being to promote institutionalised collective leadership and peaceful transition of power. Both of Deng’s successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, were leaders who stayed the course of collective leadership. They further propagated the terms articulated by Deng of “hiding one’s strengths and biding one’s time”. The tenure arrangement paid off, at least until 2012; then Xi assumed office.

The international scene, has noted how China’s posture has been turned on its head from the Deng days, gone was the maxim to “hide capacities and bide time, to maintain a low profile and abjure leadership.” Xi, in his words, has sought to strengthen the party’s control over a modernizing society and restore China to what he considers its rightful place as a global power and, indeed, rejuvenate the nation. Further, Xi’s Thought and political theory, “on socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” was, in imperial fashion, added to the Preamble of the Constitution as the new political doctrine. Xi’s message encapsulated in “His Thought”, resonates with many urban entrepreneurs and the “money bags”. Central theme is the promise of national glory bound to the nation upholding his absolute leadership even while promising that people will run the country (Buckley). It is never clear whether his constituency is the worker and the peasant (which it certainly appears not to be) or the Chinese netizen; at which time there is an apparent cleavage in society which underscores the unreality of ‘His Thought’. Nevertheless, the propaganda mills link Xi not only to Mao Zedong, but to Confucius as well. Awkwardly, Mao’s thoughts were implacably in contradiction to Confucius’. History reminds us of Mao’s yearning to “smash the grip of Confucius on China and ignite revolution”.  

Xi has, in the meantime, initiated military measures to persist with  claims within the 9-Dash Line in the South China Sea (SCS), precipitate a territorial embroilment in the Ladakh/Arunachal region of India, begun a global infrastructure plan called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), drastically reorganized and modernized the military, beefed up domestic security and enforced ideological purity in schools and the media — all parts of his vision of a rejuvenated China on the world stage that stays faithful to its Communist and Confucian root. Willy Lam, Xi’s biographer in a rare admission declares “at any rate Xi is susceptible to making big mistakes because there are now almost no checks or balances, he has become emperor for life.”

           Xi’s hold on power is now implicit; even the big question of how he chooses to wield it is becoming apparent. In the SCS, claims defined by the 9-dash line have been judicially de-bunked by an International Tribunal at The Hague in 2016 and historically the claim’s ancestry has been discredited by the fact that Zheng He’s seventh and final voyage ended in 1433, significant as they must have been, all Chinese maritime activity in the region was thereafter banned by royal edict. Yet, Xi has ordained ownership of 3.6 million square kilometres of the SCS, and he has shown no qualms of using military power to make fast his hold.

In Ladakh, ever since the Doklam crisis of 2017, three factors would appear to have played on Beijing planners: First, the growing pugnacity of the “Quad” (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) and the coalescing fall-out it has amongst the littorals of the SCS. In addition, hindrance that Quad’s intrusive presence poses to progress of the maritime segment of the BRI must cause some misgivings. Second, the rapid pace of, long neglected, infra-structure development and Indian military build-up along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh and Arunachal is an augury of response to any military misadventure. Third, the BRI is critical to the generation of a Sino-centric global order, India’s steadfast rejection of the continental segment on grounds of sovereignty infractions undermines the very idea. The three seen together have, no doubt, aroused Beijing to use their military to test India’s resolve.

Is there a favourable presumption that may be made with regard to Xi’s motives, that, in fact total power in his hands (in a variant that may trouble Lord Acton) may be for the good of China? The turbulence that we are witness to in the SCS, the brinkmanship in Taiwan and Ladakh, strife in Hong Kong and Tibet, intentions to revise global governance, the Uighur atrocities, illicit trade practices, a cavalier approach to international conventions and an illusory security architecture predicated on a “community with a shared future” (China national defence in a new era white paper July 2019) are disconcerting and would suggest anything but making agreeable assumptions about intent.

As Xi mulls over his next power play – whether to falsify geography, misrepresent history, devise another “debt to lease’ mercantile trap, trample over one more international convention or even initiate a hot engagement; he would do well to fully understand Orwell’s words, that nations like human minds cannot so easily be torn to pieces and put back together again in new shapes of your own choosing. 

The Curious Wars of China

Never to be undertaken thoughtlessly or recklessly wars are to be preceded by measures that make it easy to win

                                                                      Sun Tzu, Art of War (Griffith, p 39)

By Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

Published on the IPCS website in my column “The Strategist” http://www.ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5715

Chinese Tradition of Warfare

In would appear that the Chinese tradition of warfare differs from contemporary conventional understanding. Instead of focussing on their own weaknesses, they seek to avoid exposing their flaws by instituting long-term measures to alter and isolate the environment before subversion and morale-breaking disinformation clutches-in to generate the advantage. This strategy uses every possible means to manipulate forces at play well before confrontation. In this context the significance of the clash neither constitutes the “moment of decision” nor would its outcome be the end of the engagement. And if conclusion is not to China’s terms, it is effectively delayed and kept animated in order to erode the will to resist. A favourable consequence is thus sought through an “Isolate-Subvert-Sap” strategy.   

            All of China’s recent actions must be viewed in the context of its larger geopolitical ambitions of attaining status of the pre-eminent global hegemon by 2049 (China’s National Defence in the New Era, July 2019). These include the militarisation of the South China Sea, build-up and assault in Ladakh, repression in Hong Kong, establishment of the East China Sea ADIZ,  incarceration of Uighurs in Xinjiang, and their delayed sharing of information around the Coronavirus pandemic.  

            The imbroglio in the South China Sea and the recent assault in Ladakh will be examined in a little more detail to try and discern the elements that hold sway in a Chinese military campaign.   

Militarization of the South China Sea

China has laid claim to all the waters of the South China Sea based on a demarcation they call the ‘Nine-Dash’ line. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled that the origin of the entitlement is bereft of  legitimacy and could not be used by Beijing to make historic claims to the South China Sea. The line, first inscribed on a Chinese map in 1947, has “no legal basis” for maritime claims, deemed the Court.

In brazen dismissal of the Tribunal’s ruling, China persists in its sweeping claims of sovereignty over the sea, its resources and de-facto control over the   trade plying across it amounting to USD $5.3 trillion annually.

Satellite imagery has shown China’s efforts to militarize the  Woody Island while constructing artificial Islands and setting up military bases, rejecting competing claims of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Most of the world along with claimant countries demand the rights assured under UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

 In  sum,  China’s  strategy  for  managing  its  claims  in  the  South China  Sea  has  emphasized  delaying  settlement  of disputes. And in time with swelling military capability, occupation of contested features, building artificial Islands and locating military bases for control of the waters within the nine-dash line. In the face of these aggressive moves the other claimant states are left in awe as they are handed down a grim fait accompli.

In the meantime in response, the US, Japan, Australia and India have formed the ‘Quad’ an emerging alliance to improve their maritime security capacity and to deter Chinese aggression.  The ‘Quad’ have initiated freedom of navigation exercises intended to affirm that Beijing cannot unilaterally seize control of the waterway.

Ladakh-High Place for a Showdown

China has in the last eight years attempted to put India in a strategically ‘benign’ economic-client slot. Beijing uses its proxy Pakistan to keep the Kashmir cauldron on the boil while it presses on with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in the UN it vetoes India’s efforts to become a permanent member of the Security Council and blocks its membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. All the while playing India at Wuhan and Mamalapuram; promoting its dysfunctional non-aligned policy or at least attempting to nudge India away from the US. (The Isolate-Subvert-Sap strategy at work).

Xi’s military assault in Ladakh has been underscored to assert that geography will not be allowed to come in the way of China’s strategic objectives; be it the CPEC , the BRI or the their arterial national highway 219 linking Lhasa to Xinjiang that cuts across India’s Aksai Chin.

India on its part has given a resolute and matching military riposte in Ladakh. It has quite boldly launched surgical strikes on Jihadi training camps   in Pakistan by air and land forces and robustly rebuffed kowtowing with either Xi’s BRI or his economic grand plans. On the Line of Actual Control (LAC), for more than half a century India has followed a decrepit and emasculated policy of infrastructure building along the un-demarcated LAC with China. Doklam changed all of that and today more strategic infrastructure has come-up than had in the last 5 decades. While the Coronavirus pandemic has provided opportunity for leadership to India to pin accountability.

All of India’s actions have left Beijing a trifle red-faced.

To Untangle Beijing’s Behaviour

China’s century of Humiliation (1839-1949) coincided with the start of the First Opium War and ceding of Hong Kong to Britain. The conflict provided other colonial powers, a blueprint for usurping territories from the crumbling Qing dynasty. So, northern China was seized by the Czar, Formosa was taken by Japan; while Germany, France and Austria carved out coveted  real estate through ‘loaded treaties’.

The period remains etched in Chinese institutional memory of a rapacious international system over which it had little influence. It has today shaped China’s thrust for controlling status in the very same system. More importantly, it provides a rallying point internally and a persistent reminder to its people of why the CCP.

Conclusion

Indeed, Xi’s declaration of 2017 that “…the world is not peaceful” is turning out to be an “engineered” self-fulfilling prophecy. When put on a strategic template the delaying actions to resolve simmering discords effected only to exasperate, Janus faced policies that serve to deceive and subvert alliances, coercive manoeuvres, lease-for-debt economic deals and flouting of international norms bear a bizarre semblance to the words of Sun Tzu: ‘The master conqueror frustrated his enemy’s plans and broke up his alliances. He created cleavages…He gathered information, sowed dissension and nurtured subversion. The enemy was isolated, divided and demoralized; his will to resist broken.” (Griffith, p 39).

Fortunately we are not in Sun Tzu times neither are strategies so opaque nor are Xi’s people with him. Yet China would do well to heed Sun Tzu’s sage words of avoiding a reckless path to an unintended war.

USS Theodore Roosevelt: Cracks in the Command Structure and the Demolition of its Captain

By Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Extracts from the Captain’s Journal INS Viraat, 2000hrs 1996 on deployment in the Arabian Sea:

“The Chicken-pox outbreak that began with four cases from the Seaman’s Mess two days ago has spread to seventy sailors. Infected personnel include Air Handlers, Mechanical Engineers and Seaman. Intentions: isolate all effected personnel in the vacant Amphibious troops Mess; make a South Easterly MLA at 20 knots for accomplishing night flying and surface attack Mission; close port of G… to 400 nautical miles for transfer of casualties along with sick bay attendants and a medical officer to consort at 0600h and onward to the base hospital at G… Intentions signalled to FOCWF info FOCinC West” (Command chain).

Occurrence of infections on board warships is not uncommon, but rarely is it allowed to jeopardise the mission at hand and even rarer is the occasion that a capital man-of-war steams “full ahead” into international headlines for want of decisiveness to control an internal situation. Indeed the infection and its context on board INS Viraat (see extracts from Captain’s Journal, above) bears little semblance to the USS Theodore Roosevelt (TR) and the Coronavirus episode, for in the former case not only was the contagion a known factor with a large percentage of the   crew having developed herd immunity (the varicella vaccine being available from 1995 onwards) and the scale of proportions being different (Viraat complement 1800, TR 4865); yet the operational imperative remains the same: primacy of the imminent task. And for an Aircraft Carrier Battle Group to put to pasture its main strike element is to recuse itself from the strategic dominance that it could have exercised in its area of responsibility.

The principal demand of naval war is to attain a posture that would permit control of oceanic spaces in order to influence the course of conflict. Elemental to this objective is therefore to provide the means to seize and exercise that control. The Aircraft Carrier’s intrinsic air power assisted by strike and denial forces provides the means to collar and assure security to maritime spaces of interest. Operational flexibility that the Carrier Group brings to bear include deterrence, support of amphibious operations, land attack missions, wide area domain awareness and domination and lastly command and control of large forces. The Carrier Group can also sustain conditions for long term offensive presence and power projection. The agility, firepower and suppleness that the Carrier Group bestows on a Commander is unmatched by any other maritime force. The removal of TR from its area of responsibility will have left a gaping hole in the US ability to exercise control in the Western Pacific region. Currently TR remains pier side in Guam “completing carrier qualification before returning to sea.”

From a philosophical standpoint the culture in the Navy demands of its leadership single point ‘responsibility’ for actions, ‘accountability’ for the impact of those actions  and then gives the leader the necessary ‘authority’ to drive towards his objective. The responsibility-accountability-authority nexus lies at the heart of leadership at sea. Above all else, the job of a naval leader is to prepare to fight and win wars. Too often in the daily grind of processing paperwork amidst misplaced career ambitions, leaders forget the reason the nation has a Navy and why they serve. From US naval tradition stands out Captain John Paul Jones who was hardly obsessing with daily drudgery when in 1778, he exhorted “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm’s way.” Those words which today form a part of maritime folklore contained the essence of leadership at sea, decisiveness.

Coming back to the TR case, the sequence of events that unfolded (salient excerpts only) tell its own ignoble story of wooliness:

  • 17 January 2020. USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, departs San Diego with 4,865 sailors aboard. Capt. Brett Crozier is in command. In company is its strike elements for deployment in the western Pacific. A special “preventive medical unit” is aboard.
  • 26 February. Defense Secretary Mark Esper directs combatant commanders to tell him before they make decisions about COVID-19.
  • 22 March. First sailor onboard diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • 26 March. TR begins testing entire crew for COVID-19.
  • 29 March. Washington Post report: Crozier and his superior officers are “struggling” to reach a consensus on a plan of action. Chain of command included Rear Adm. Stuart Baker, embarked strike group commander; Admiral John Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Both admirals favoured smaller mitigation efforts for fear of mission jeopardy.”
  • 30 March. Acting Secretary Modly, emphasizes “ that if [Crozier] felt that he was not getting the proper response from his chain of command, he had a direct line into his office. Crozier sends an unclassified e-mail comprising a 4-page memo to 20 or 30 Naval addressees, both within and without his chain of command. Crozier wrote: “The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating. Decisive action is required…We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die.
  • Wednesday 01 April. Crozier and his heads of department brief sailors on the evacuation plan, and begin to execute it. The plan, according to Modly, is: To leave 700 to 800 to 1,000 people on or near the ship to operate its nuclear reactors, guard weapons and keep the ship ready to sail. Modly calls Crozier directly and asks, “What’s the story?” and Crozier answered: “Sir, we were getting a lot more cases. I felt it was time to send out a signal flare.” About 4 p.m. at the Pentagon, Modly holds a joint press conference with CNO Adm. Michael Gilday, to address the situation onboard the Roosevelt. Modly suggests Commanders “should not be inhibited from telling us and being transparent about the issues that they see. But they need to do it through their chains of command. And if they’re not getting the proper responses from their chains of command, then they need to maybe go outside of it.”
  • 02 April. Modly asserts Crozier told him that he didn’t ask for permission to bypass his chain of command because he knew Admiral Baker wouldn’t give it. He reaches the conclusion that “Captain Crozier had allowed the complexity of his challenge with the COVID breakout on the ship to overwhelm his ability to act professionally… and sends word down the chain of command that Crozier is to be relieved of Command. The CNO in turn directs VCNO Burke, to “conduct an investigation into the circumstances and the climate across the entire Pacific Fleet to help determine what may have contributed to this breakdown in the chain of command.” In the meantime at the Pentagon, Modly in a press conference proclaims Crozier was “absolutely correct” in raising his concerns. The error was “the way in which he did it.”
  • 03 April 3. Acting Secretary Modly concludes, that “If Crozier didn’t think that information contained in his e-mail was going to get out into the public, then he was too naive or too stupid to be the commanding officer of a ship like this. The alternative is that he did this on purpose. And that’s a serious violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice”. Crozier’s memo was a “betrayal of trust” to me and to you, he told the crew. “What your captain did was very, very wrong. There is never a situation where you should consider the media a part of your chain of command because the media has an agenda. And the agenda that they have depends on which side of the political aisle they sit on.  By April 14 total crew members that tested positive: 589, remainder negative.
  • Captain Crozier has been washed ashore as the Special Assistant to the the Navy Air forces Chief of Staff; he is neither eligible for command nor to go to sea in any capacity as of date (24 June 2020).

The Sea is an unrelenting mistress; it brooks no dawdling and provides no quarter for exculpation. The author, having commanded an Aircraft Carrier and a Fleet, notes a host of disquieting points that stand out in this sordid affair: Firstly, the outrageous levels of incompetent and unsolicited political interference in the operational control of a warship and the willing compliance of the Naval hierarchy. Secondly, the appalling indecisiveness of the chain of command. Why was it that the first-response, a traditional function of the man at sea, took all of 8 days (22 Mar-30 Mar) to engineer? Lastly it is perplexing how readily the chain of command was violated and the Captain so brazenly annexed authority to second guess the reaction of his immediate superior Rear Admiral Baker. Of course, the Captain is responsible for the safety of his ship’s company and “sailors do not (indeed) need to die” so, what action did he take (for crying out aloud) other than release snivelling e-mails that  neither have the vitality nor the gravitas to stimulate a vigorous response.

Whatever became of the much cherished US naval chain of command? Was it sacrificed on the altar of the Supreme Commander’s view in the fall out of what he calls the “Wuhan Virus”… after all as reports suggest were the Presidents courtiers all too blind to the realities of command of an aircraft carrier.