The Korean War, a Cracked Mirror for the Times


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

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.

The Resurrection of Xi “Zedong”

Fair is foul and foul is fair”  (Macbeth)


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(published in the IPCS Web journal at

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.

To the God “Well Known”!

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”

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.


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.