Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar
(Article published in the author’s column The Strategist in the IPCS Web Journal and is available at the following site http://ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5733)
Portents of Victory in the South China Sea
An intriguing editorial appeared in the Chinese government mouth piece “The Global Times” of 01 October 2020 titled “China Should Effectively Enhance Ability to Fight and Win Wars”. Marking the PLA’s 70th anniversary of “victory” over US forces in Korea, the analysis, rather economical with facts, suggests that strategic wisdom, will, Chinese character, superiority of the socialistic system, just nature of China’s cause and leadership won them victory. The report concludes that these very same factors today portend another resounding triumph for China in any conflict that may break out in the South China Sea.
Major changes have taken place in the international strategic landscape since the Korean War, today China’s security is, ironically, challenged by the same dynamics that advanced its rise and pampered its ambitions of global leadership. The alarm is, China seeks to dominate and revise international institutions with neither an alternative nor after changes within. What significance revisiting China’s strategic decision-making during the Korean War and deriving strategic will, wisdom and spiritual strength from it to achieve victory in a contemporary struggle is baffling. So when Xi told the UN in September that Beijing “will never seek hegemony, expansion, or sphere of influence”; history, however, advises that China will use force or coercion against countries that contest her power.
Lesson of History
The history of North and South Korea began as a fall-out of the surrender of Japan in 1945. The undivided Peninsula for centuries was ruled by dynastic kingdoms with an interregnum of annexation by Japan in 1910. An early casualty of the Cold War, the Soviets set up a communist regime north of the 38˚ parallel. While, south of that latitude, a military government was established and supported by the United States.
The Korean War broke out in June 1950. The world hardly understood the character of this new war that turned the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’ into a battlefield and yet the war not only had military dimensions but would also play out on an ideological and social plane. Meanwhile in neighbouring China, allied victory over Japan did not bring peace. The civil war between Chiang-Kai-shek’s nationalist army and Mao’s communists once again erupted (it had been quiescent during the war with Japan 1937-45). But by 1949 Mao, controlled all of China while the nationalists withdrew to Formosa.
Mao perceived that without Korean ‘lips’ to protect them, the Chinese ‘teeth would be adversely affected. Korea was the northern pressure point that could cripple China’s objective of communist dominance in East Asia. As a bulwark against western incursions, he signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of February 1950 committing the two sides to mutual support in conflict. War broke out on the peninsula when Communist forces of the Democratic Republic of Korea invaded the Republic of Korea. By the end of 1950, China actively entered the war. In the event, the armistice that ended that conflict in 1953 left the peninsula divided much as before along the 38th parallel. Never mind that nearly 5 million people died. There is still no peace and however impatient China may be to outline templates, the one lesson of history is never to claim a wisdom that provides guidance; particularly if we attempt to re-create a past that is linked to the present rather tenuously.
Making Strategic Assumptions
Can we today, make a strategic assumption that the factors that influenced the Korean War will influence the outcome of the current situation in the South China Sea? After all neither is the PLA the same battle hardened Mao’s people’s army, nor is its leadership and motivations as intense. Most importantly the character of the current developing conflict is vastly different in terms of the medium within which it is to be fought, technologies involved, social conditions and other factors that change with time, geography and adversaries. Therefore the answer to the question must be “no”.
However, in a system that has, to an extent, perfected the art of feeding its citizens “alternative facts” there is little stopping China from resorting to sensational cyber disruption of global networks; state-sponsored terrorism or even a limited armed conflict in another theatre whether Taiwan, Tibet or India. China’s military forces are already in support of an indirect strategy as they ‘nibble ’ away in the Ladakh region of India. Xi’s attempts to alter the existent Line of Actual Control and to push it deeper into Indian territory to add depth to its illegally constructed Aksai Chin highway that links China across the peripheries of Tibet and Xinjiang through the occupied plateau; is well underway. If a pattern is discernable, clearly, China perceives the gnawing aggression to be below the threshold of war. While these manoeuvres continue as a smoke screen, the focus remains on their strategic centre of gravity – the Indo Pacific.
As China plays on its delusions of rejuvenation, revision and world domination the danger lies in the challenged parties adopting a counter strategy that is at first over cautious and then conciliatory. The hazards of steering across this precarious armed “peace” on-board a ship made of beliefs rather than hard estimates of intentions and how best to contest and confront is fraught with prospects of China’s grand vision becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.