“Taking Centre Stage in the World”

By

   Vice Adm. (Retd.) Vijay Shankar

            First published in the author’s column on the IPCS website on 28 Nov 2017.                                                                                                 

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping, “Let’s Party like it’s 1793.” The Economist May2013, https://www.economist.com/.

When Chairman Xi declared at the opening of the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China, “It is time for us to take centre stage in the world,” he may have drawn this deduction from two perceived shifts in the global strategic environment. Firstly, the sensed flagging of US interests in global pacts emblematized by the “America First” agenda that most resembled an impending abandonment of regional partnerships that did not recognise US pre-eminence; and secondly, apparent US distraction in providing decisive security leadership in the troubled parts of the world. Of course, the issue of whether any grouping of major nations wanted Xi’s leadership never entered the debate.

China in recent years has become a major funder of infrastructure in the developing world. Its arrival has challenged existing institutional lenders, particularly when Xi in 2013, announced a scheme to resurrect the medieval Silk Road through a vast network of roads, pipelines, ports and railways that connected China with Europe via Central Asia, West Asia and ports in South Asia and East Africa. China intends to provide proprietary financial support to the project. The innards of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are driven by ‘over the line’ issues such as client-government superintendence and financing on a scale not seen before or, remarkably, with such indistinct terms. Essentially, the scheme’s purpose is strategic influence of global connectivity; while at the same time, deploying close to 30 per cent of China’s substantial dollar reserves (over $3 trillion) that has hitherto held low yielding American debt, on more strategically beneficial ventures.

And yet restoring the lost grandeur of the Silk Route has many other challenges that may not be overcome by Xi’s ‘fiat.’ Beginning with internal corruption, since the entire programme is to be funded largely by state owned banks. In the instance, as a wit put it, “then, how does a barber cut his own hair?” The matter of an opaque dispensation attempting to break from its political roots to gain a mandate of the people must add to planners’ discomfort. The questionable economics of committing billions of dollars into the world’s most impoverished and unstable regions hardly instils confidence in the programme. Already falling prices of primary products and unhinged host politics have undermined some of the 900 constituent projects. Compounding matters is the cost of freightage by rail, which is as much as four to five times that of cargo movement by sea. Besides, the current state of the enterprise is unidirectional as rakes return largely empty on the east-bound leg. Chinese ideology is hardly welcome in the region. The recent use of trade as a tool of punishment, specifically in the case of Philippines from where banana imports were cut, while rare earth exports to Japan were curbed, tariff barriers raised unilaterally, and the general economic retaliation on South Korea, does not in any way serve the ends of free trade-flow or economic inclusiveness.

Chinese historians do not tire of reminding the world of its recent past that staggered between the collapse of an empire to humiliating colonization, from bloody wars to the civil anarchy of Maoism and now in the success of ‘Authoritarian Capitalism,’ some even perceive a return of the Middle Kingdom. But even if the old world order were to make way, slipping into a mire of lost belief, there remains the problem of a potentially bizarre future where not nearly-quite-dead Capitalism is controlled by a totalitarian regime fervently dependent on magnifying growth, perpetuity of dispensation and a disruptive brand of nationalism for stability; all of which echo a past not quite from the Orient but from a more recent Europe of the first few decades of the twentieth century.

In response, for Xi to turn to an even more assertive military-led foreign policy, brings to the fore the probability of conflict; specifically, on the Korean Peninsula, where China’s role as agent provocateur is becoming more and more undeniable. If the generalised theory of war suggests causes of armed conflict as introduction of weapons of mass destruction, a revisionist agenda stimulated by significant change in the balance of power, and lastly, a contrarian and often disrupted structure of order; then these are all eminently resident in the region. Yet global remedies adapted to date have neither generated a consensual course of action nor has the status quo been emphasised. In the on-going brinkmanship polity on the Korean Peninsula, the antagonists have, predictably provided partisan military support and embraced a skewed one-sided stoppage of financial and economic flows that fuel the causes of conflict (being the main donor to North Korea, Chinese leadership sees no reason to check continuance.) Similarly, dialogue has focused on little else than a dual-stance posture: delivery of military threats and a litany of in-executable demands.

The littorals of the West Pacific have, in the meantime, rediscovered the Trans-Pacific Partnership sans the USA; while on the security front the Quadruple Entente (an initiative involving Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) is averred for revival. These undercurrents suggest not just a hesitancy to endorse a China-led order, but also a push back on belt-and-road craft as well as Chinese blue-water ambitions.

In truth, much would depend upon the will to order, the universal repugnance to leaving centre stage untenanted, or the unlikely event of China’s amenability to sharing the stage.

 

 

Advertisements

The Curious Case of USS McCain

By

Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

Vulnerabilities of computerized warship systems to cyber-attacks: the albatross around the operational Commander’s neck.

On 21 August 2017, in the darkness of astronomical twilight, a destroyer USS John S. McCain bound for Singapore after a sensitive ‘freedom-of-navigation’ operation off one of China’s illegal man-made islands in the South China Sea, collided with a 30,000 ton, oil and chemical tanker ‘Alnic MC’, in the Eastern approaches to Singapore. Ten sailors lost their lives in the collision while the hull of the ill-fated McCain, was stricken by a large trapezium-shaped puncture on its port quarter abaft the after stack. The greater base of the trapezium was below the waterline and extended at least 40 feet along the hull to a height of 15 feet. Two months earlier a similar collision involving another Arleigh Burke destroyer could advance a more-than-accident theory.

Initial reports suggest loss of course keeping control caused the McCain’s fatal collision. That, and the computer aided nature of the ship’s steering and navigation system, has led to the conjecture that McCain’s manoeuvring system may have been “hacked” into and then manipulated to force a deliberate collision.

The Singapore Strait extends between the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea in the east. The strait is about 8 nautical miles (15 km) wide and lies between Singapore Island and the Riau Islands (Indonesia) to the south. It is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. The Port Authority of Singapore periodically warns mariners of the special rules applicable for safe pilotage in these waters. In its marine circulars (#20 of 14 November 2006) it draws attention to the traffic separation scheme (TSS) and the hazardous character of these waters. By law, the significant burden placed on vessels is: to proceed in the appropriate traffic lane in the general direction of flow; to keep clear of traffic separation lines or zones; cardinally, masters of vessels are warned to take extra precautions and proceed at a safe speed. In determining safe speed, experience advocates several factors be considered which in addition to traffic density include: state of visibility, manoeuvrability of the vessel, state of wind, sea and current, proximity of navigational hazards and draught in relation to the available depth of water. In the circumstance, the prudent mariner very quickly appreciates that the primary hazard presented by the narrows is not geography, but density of traffic and the perils of disorderly movement. On an average 200-220 ships transit this passage daily of which more than 100 are restricted in their ability to manoeuvre due deep draught.

The organisation on board a warship for negotiating such waters are the Special Sea Dutymen; a group of highly specialised and trained personnel charged with manning critical control positions involved in evolutions that potentially could endanger the ship, such as berthing, transiting pilotage waters and close-quarter manoeuvring. The key is the instancy of human judgement and failsafe control.

A standard fit on most USN warships is the Integrated Platform Management Systems (IPMS). It uses advanced computer-based technology comprising sensors, actuators, data processing for information display and control operations. Its vital virtue is distant remote control through commercial off the shelf elements (some may argue “its critical vulnerability”). Modern shipping, for reasons of economy and only economy, was quick to adopt the system. Warships systems, however, demand redundancy, reliability, survivability and unremitting operations; all of which militate against cost cutting expediencies. Incidentally, the Indian Navy, as early as May 1997, introduced the IPMS as a part of Project ‘Budhiman’ with the proviso that it would not intrude into critical control and combat functions.

It is not entirely clear the extent to which the IPMS had penetrated systems on-board the USS McCain but in the last two decades it is well known that USN has resorted to deep cuts in manpower and heavily invested in control automation. Inferences are evident.

On 21 August nautical twilight was at 0618h (all times Singapore standard) the moon was in its last quarter and moon rise at 0623h, it was dark, however, visibility was good and sea calm. Collision occurred at 0524h; USS McCain was breached on the port side causing extensive flooding. Examination of the track generated by the Automatic Identification System (AIS) video indicates the Alnic MC approaching Singapore’s easternmost TSS, about 56 nautical miles east of Singapore, at a speed of 9 knots when it suddenly crash stops and turns hard to port, which we may assume was the result of the collision. Unfortunately, military vessels do not transmit AIS data, so we do not have the track of the McCain. However, since the McCain was headed for Singapore it is reasonable to assume that she was overtaking the slow tanker from the latter’s starboard side when she lost steering control and effected an unbridled turn over the tanker’s bulbous bows. The trapezoid form of the rupture and elongation aft would suggest events as mentioned rather than a north south crossing by the destroyer at the time of collision (after all destination was Singapore).

Coincidentally, two Chinese merchantmen the Guang Zhou Wan and the Long Hu San were in close proximity through the episode; so, was that a chance presence? Or does it add to the probability of deliberate cyber engineering of the mishap? And, why else other than to damage the strategic credibility of the US Navy deployed in tense conditions in the South and East China Sea. Or was it, indeed, a case of gross crew incompetence? While, time and ‘sub-rosa’ inquiries could put to rest speculations, vulnerabilities of highly computerized warship systems to cyber-attacks may well remain the albatross around the operational Commander’s neck.

“The World is Not Peaceful”

By

Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

Addressing senior Communist Party and government officials in Beijing, at an event to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Premier Xi Jinping declared “We do not allow any individual, any organisation, any political party, at any time or by any means, to split any single piece of the Chinese territory. No one could expect us to swallow consequences that damage our sovereignty, security and developmental interests”. During the speech, Xi repeatedly emphasised that the “world was not peaceful and the military must forever stay unswervingly loyal to the Communist Party of China, as its absolute leadership over the armed forces is the PLA’s “unalterable soul and indispensable lifeline”. These comments came just two days after he addressed the PLA ground forces directly at Zhurihe in Inner Mongolia (was there symbolism attached since the geographic location was where Genghis Khan set off on his conquest of Eurasia in the year 1206 AD that cleaved political cohesion to the silk route). Here Xi announced “China must defeat all enemies that dare to offend”.

If now we were to establish who China’s enemies were, it would become amply clear who the target or targets are. No easy task this, as China has long been embroiled in a contest with Japan over the East China Sea island of Senkaku; with South Korea on rights over the submerged Socotra Rock; with Philippines on sovereignty over Spratly Island and Scarborough Shoal; Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei over the Spratly Islands; and Indonesia over control of Natuna Island. Beijing also threatens to use force to conquer Taiwan if peaceful enticements prove insufficient. And more importantly it has flouted the UNCLOS and conventions regarding establishing a new ADIZ in the East China Sea. China also demands title over nearly all of the strategically vital South China Sea through which $5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes and is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits. Its claim of possession over the waters within the so-called 9-Dash line (it was11-dash when relations with Vietnam were different) has brought it on a collision course with the USA and all the maritime stake holders of the region as the claim overlaps with those of ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan. And not forgetting, China was engaged in a two month-long border standoff with Indian forces over the latter’s security relations with Bhutan and its commitment to blocking a road being constructed across the Doklam Plateau (claimed by Bhutan) which could potentially act as a spring board to sever the strategically critical ‘Chicken’s Neck’ (the Siliguri corridor); it’s elites cogitated, that it would be a ‘Just-War’ to expel India. However, on 28 August 2017, the two governments announced that the crisis had been defused and troops were disengaging.

From the Indian stand point, solidarity of the Indo-Bhutanese security pact had weathered the crunch while China’s deployment of man and material for construction of the road was balked (it can hardly be a coincidence that China is to host the BRICS summit on 03 September, a dissolution of the conclave would have meant loss of face to Xi). While Indeed, China’s nuclear and strategic promotion of North Korea provides the context for alarming tensions in the entire region, the recent US and Japan imposed sanctions on a dozen Chinese companies and individuals accused of helping North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme; is perhaps, the first aggregation of a mounting series of strictures. So in near ‘epic’ terms, the question remains, who “dare offend Xi?”

Scholars in their wisdom have found three reasons for India earning the wrath of Xi. The first is India’s strategic snub to fall in line with Xi’s grandiose One Belt One Road (OBOR) scheme (never mind that it passes through disputed territory of Northern Kashmir). Secondly, the impending 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China provides a critical context for Xi to stamp his authority by “constituting his strategic policies”, in the mould of Mao when in 1964 he thrust his ‘Red Book’ and later used it during the Cultural Revolution to ram home ideological uniformity and to weed out adversaries; to have nations insouciant to Xi’s grand designs would tantamount to abasement at the highest political level. Thirdly, since sovereignty whips up the maximum nationalist emotions, it may provide some understanding to both the recent Doklam confrontation and the situation in the South China Sea. The three put together, may seem to an absolutist, such as Xi; ablation of the indices of his power.

An important symbol of political standing, clout and legacy of leadership since 1949; from Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, is to have their political theories written into the party constitution as guiding dogmas. Mao had his ‘Red Book’, Deng his ‘24 characters’, Jiang his ‘developmental dictatorship’ and even the bland Hu emblematized ‘pursuit of economic growth at the cost of legal and political reforms.’ But will Xi achieve the distinction – putting him in the same league as Mao – if his thoughts (conceivably titled, “Security, Development and Territorial Sovereignty on China’s terms) are accepted as the supervisory ideology while still in power? This, at the 19th Congress would give him the legitimacy and mandate, in a presumptive way, of the people to the exclusion of the politburo.

“The world is not peaceful” says Xi. Somehow, Chinese actions, Janus faced policies, coercive manoeuvres and rhetoric of recent times have only served to confound the script.