Origin of a New Cold War

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

To be published in the IPCS Web Journal in my column the Strategist

Keywords: Containment, defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere, NATO Summit June 2021, growing speculation, the New Cold War.

George. F. Keenan, an American Foreign Service officer, in 1947 formulated the policy of “containment.” The continuity that this policy represented may be appreciated by its longevity; it remained at the foundation of the US strategy for fighting the Cold War (1947–1989) with the Soviet Union and the keystone of their foreign policy. “The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union,” Kennan wrote, “must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies and protection of global industrial centres.” To that end, he called for countering “Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world” through the “adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and manoeuvres of Soviet policy.” Such a policy, Kennan predicted, would “promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” He tailed off with the statement that “In the context of the present polarization of power, a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.”

It is an awkward strategic irony that Keenan’s words should find an improbable echo 84 years later, in 2021, at summit declarations of the G7 and NATO. With the difference that it is China’s territorial ambition, cyber manipulation of global centres of industries, commerce and financial institutions, violation of human rights and disregard of established international norms that has become the object of antipathy. The NATO summit of June 2021 in its concluding declaration underscored that China’s “stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order.” China’s repression of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and its “frequent lack of transparency and use of disinformation” has piqued the international community. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) leaders, earlier in their first summit also weighed in when they agreed to “meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China seas”.

 In summary China poses a ‘fourfold threat’ to the world; economic, ideological, geopolitically and an aggressive revisionism. China’s subjugation of Uighurs, its crackdown in Hong Kong, territorial excesses in the South and East China Sea and Ladakh region have drawn condemnation from the larger majority of the world community. Its massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has prompted concerns about Beijing’s unscrupulous influence over some European and developing countries along the route. Seeking to create a counterweight of democratic values and nations in response to Beijing’s growing economic, military and revisionist activities the G7, NATO and the Quad emphasised that they will “continue to respond to the deteriorating security environment by enhancing deterrence and defence posture.”

Are we witnessing the genesis of another Cold War? The first Cold War was marked by actions taken to face down the Soviet Union and its Communist allies whenever and wherever they posed a perceived risk of gaining influence. In fact, Kennan advocated defending above all else the world’s major centres of industrial power against Soviet expansion. The Cold War was characterised by three factors:

  • The threat of nuclear war and the ensuing arms race
  • Ideological quest for world domination
  • Victory through influence and proxy wars

  Today, this would develop into vigorous opposition to any belligerent geopolitical action initiated by China. On the ground, China’s every move is designed more to further its own rapacious designs than for any altruistic purpose. A master plan has been articulated in their July 2019 white paper on national defence titled “China’s National Defence in the New Era.” The paper offers insights into how Chinese leadership conceives a world order characterized by greater control over what it perceives to be a “community of common destiny (CCD).”  The paper, significantly, re-emphasises China’s intentions to revise the current global order to create a future more favourable for its interests. China makes a grand assumption that countries in the region are “increasingly aware of being members of the CCD” 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 “CCD for humanity” that provides a dangerous strategic underpinning.

The Covid-19 virus, originating in Wuhan, set into motion a pandemic of a scale and scope whose economic impact on the world has beggared belief; the statistics speak for themselves, total deaths: 3.94 million, number of cases: 182.07 million. The strange fact is that China, where the virus originated, has been left largely untouched; its economy is showing growth of a nature that is implausible while the health of its population remains robust. The curtain of opacity that China has shrouded itself in as to origins of the virus has only reinforced the growing speculation that the virus was man-made and its release, deliberate.

The pandemic has provided a springboard for China to plunge into the act of creating the “New Era.” This ambitious scheme comes unglued as control over civil society diminishes and the Chinese Communist Party loses appreciation of human nature that craves for what it does not have which, in the case, is democratic freedoms. Democracy in China is restricted to the local level in small cohesive communities. Leadership is chosen and ordained at this level to rise to the top echelons of authority with neither popular support nor with their feet on the ground. The flaws in China’s political system are obvious. The media is heavily censored and the Internet manipulated and periodically blocked. Leaders are unimpeded by the rule of law. More disquieting is the despotic trend that Xi Jinping has set in motion, suggesting that the regime is increasingly worried about its legitimacy. Despite economic growth being at the heart of political stability, incidents such as the crackdown on Jack Ma’s (the richest man in China, creator of Alibaba – China’s largest tech company – and The Ant Group, the largest Financial technology company in the world) assets, which have been stripped, shorn, chopped and distributed amongst incompetents, have been making international headlines. Reasons for this embargo are inexplicable since Ma’s enterprises had over the years contributed in good measure to China’s growth. Other leading entrepreneurs today are on thin ice.

Through the ages, human progression has been inspired by increasing empowerment of individuals and communities rather than a collective enslavement to abstract causes. Resentment of years of humiliation, as China’s leadership never fail to remind its people, can only lead to a society that is drawn to toxic authoritarianism. This has happened, and therefore our perplexity at civil society in China drawn to a ‘New Era’ must not come as a surprise. Uncomfortably, the era coincides with the start of a new cold war.

The South China Sea: Decadal Dynamics that Impact on its Geopolitik

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in the IPCS Web Journal and available in the authors column The Strategist at http://www.ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5757

Geopolitical trends are not “pop-up” events, what they represent is an evolved aggregation of implemented policies that manifests themselves as direction in a nation’s world view. And therefore as we set out to identify the critical trends that had an impact on the politico military dynamics of the South China Sea over the last decade, we would do well to note that trends evolve. The impact of Climate Change is a fact that is there for the world to perceive; it has not only set into motion migratory impulses but has compelled world governments to see the elite and the not-so-elite as a part of a shared destiny. While the pandemic, a one-of human event, has exposed the fragility of structures that we have erected that separate nations and societies. The social media on the other hand has democratised access without attaching accountability for actions; to an extent where the role of government is placed on a shaky footing. The events at Benghazi, Libya in September 2012 are a unique point in social media and international relations history.  

These three are no doubt seminal events of the last decade, but they are more in the nature of fractious and uncontrollable developments.

In this frame of reference one may identify three abiding trends that have ripened across decades to set in motion disruptive forces world over and in particular in the South China Sea:

  • The disintegration of Cold War alliances leaving in its wake absence of leadership and a breakdown of the balance of power that provided both context and substance to international relations.
  • Condition of sovereignty of states in the face of globalization of capital, labour and technology. While a surge of migrations has turned existing socio-economic conditions on its head.   All of which exposed the fragility of democracies.
  • The diminishing prospects of order as nations adopt aggressive military postures and doctrines with a view to change geography and existent political norms.

Disintegration of Cold War Alliances Leaving in its Wake a Breakdown of the Balance of Power

Elements that “Balance of Power” stoked were those devices that strengthened mutual forces such that no one State should be able absolutely to predominate and prescribe laws to the rest. And, since all were equally interested in this condition, it was held to be the common interest, the right, and the duty of every power to interfere, even by force of arms when any of the conditions of this settlement were infringed by any other member of the community. The concept grew in Europe as an instrument of survival of State which demanded that military strategy not be freed from political control. It was premised on two realities of the existent international system. First, the system was anarchic with no hegemon to dominate. Second, that nations are principle actors in the international system, as they “set the terms of collaboration” and devise balancing alliances. This theory with all its abstractions and many flaws lay at the heart of the system up to and beyond the Cold War.

Crumbling of the Soviet Union and the attendant power melt-down in Russia left the world in a unipolar condition. The US donned the mantle of the unchallenged global hegemon. It dominated international systems through time-established networks and indeed dispensed order over and including the South China Sea (SCS). The world, from an era of unipolarity and then multipolar uncertainty that dominated the last three decades between the breakdown of the Soviet Union and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has moved to what may be termed as “penumbric competition”—conflicts (Shankar, 2019) where lack of definition masks the nature of engagement which is rivalry between major powers over mercantile domination and the ability to tweak the ‘rule book’.

China has made palpably clear that the instruments of influence to further its aspirations are financial inveiglement, military coercion and leveraging instabilities. Since the first decade of the millennium, 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 Jinping 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. Further, Xi’s Thought and political theory, “on socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” has, in imperial fashion, been added to the Constitution as the new political doctrine. Central theme is the promise of national glory bound to the nation upholding his absolute leadership.  

But the problem is far more complex; existent international systems have evolved through an acceptance of economic laissez faire, Adam Smith’s views on state control is revealing and should put a dampener on China’s aspirations as he suggested “It is the highest impertinence and presumption in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expense.” In such circumstances an extant milieu is most unlikely to adopt a prejudiced revision coming from a society that neither promotes liberal values nor respects an unautocratic approach.

Sovereignty of States

Globalization of capital, labour and technology is redefining the very concept of a sovereign state; while a surge of migrations have turned existing socio-economic conditions topsy-turvy. The economic benefits of this ‘new world’ are there for those willing to embrace the change. Nations that have retreated within are left in a world of denial that fails to recognise what has structurally redefined the modern successor to the overwhelmingly antiquated Westphalian Order. But what of nations such as China that have selectively endorsed and embraced attributes of the globalised world without the ‘messiness’ of socio-economic changes?

The principal motive force underlying globalisation is the progressive integration of economies and societies. Driven by new technologies, new economic and financial relationships, international policies and the urge for wealth creation; globalisation provides the ultimate amalgamation that can potentially free societies from the constraints of autocratic control. These exchanges have led to interdependencies at all levels. It has also precipitated a conflict between markets and governments that tends to weaken and tear the very fabric that binds nations together.

But is this a condition that China’s authoritarian system can tolerate? And if it cannot, will it not result in unendurable stresses within society that may eventually bring about the dissolution of the regime?

Diminishing Prospects of Order

One of the awkward ironies of recent history is the ephemeral nature of American domination over global affairs. Uni-polarity was not only short-lived, but the US was actually instrumental in encouraging the rise of competing powers. China was catapulted to the forefront of world economic development to a great extent as a consequence of American actions to integrate the PRC into the larger global capitalist system. The result was the creation of a competitor and a threat to existing order.

It is not simply the rise of China’s comprehensive power that has given notice to the status-quoists, but also its determination to re-write the ‘rule book’ on its terms as apparent from its claims in the SCS and its flouting of international norms. The loss of confidence that the US has been confronted with by the stalemate in Iraq, the Levant, Afghanistan and the past inability to come to grips with the financial crisis of 2008 can hardly have helped to steel its geopolitical poise.

Even if China’s efforts to gain strategic  dominance in the region does not achieve the desired results, clearly, their efforts are symptomatic of defiance of existing international order. China’s vision of domination leans heavily on its grandiose ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative and the financial clout of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) created in 2016 as a counter to the US dominated World Bank and the IMF. The growing apprehension is that in the absence of a set of conditionality and a consensus that underwrites fiscal discipline, tax reform, deregulation of market dynamics and secure property rights; loans transforms to territorial lease or trade concessions as the Chinese have done in Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Pakistan or in Kenya where the port of Mombasa serves as collateral for the loss making  Nairobi-to-Mombasa rail corridor; in another ‘debt-for-equity’ swap.   

                  On the security front the Australia-India-Japan-US Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) aims to balance the revisionist ambitions of China. While it has neither announced itself as a military alliance, it would need to define purpose and should take the next step of enhancing military cooperation to signal intent to deter future Chinese attempts to further alter the status quo. This would take the form of improvements in interoperability, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and access to logistics and infrastructure for power projection. A Charter and a Fund to define mandates and develop strategic Indo-Pacific infrastructure are subsequent logical steps.

In the South China Sea, in the meantime, claims defined by China’s 9-dash line have been judicially de-bunked by an International Tribunal at The Hague in 2016. The Quad has the opening to institute measures that serve to contain China’s revisionist policies and aggressive territorial grab. The opportunity must be seized lest globalism be held to ransom by Chinese nationalism.  

An Improbable Prognosis

The three trends have seemingly opened the SCS to the arrival of a new hegemon. The apparent imbalance caused by the receding influence of the US and the absence of an alternative would appear to throw an invitation to China to fill the vacuum; and yet there remains a body of distrust. If domination of the region remains the aim then what becomes of the slackening terms of sovereignty one wonders? There is a discernable movement against an autocratic regimen, its imperial methods and its territorial ambitions whether in Taiwan, Ladakh, the South China Sea or elsewhere.

We have noted the Indo-Pacific presents an awkward anomaly to strategic thinkers. The question is, are there any basis for China’s quest for a reset to the status-quo other than a quest for power and glory in the colonial mode?

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.