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.

Coronavirus: Has Something Gone Eerily Wrong?

 

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar 

This article may be accessed at http://ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5668 on the IPCS Web Journal.

The history of armed conflicts is intertwined with the generation of diseases. From antiquity in 1155, when the German Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa poisoned water wells with human bodies in Tortona, Italy as he challenged the papacy, to 1763 when the British deliberately distributed small pox infected blankets to Native American Indians. In recent history during World War I the Spanish influenza caused a pandemic accounting for over 50 million lives. Now imagine a weaponized variant of the pathogen, genetically engineered for survival, binary in nature with artificial intelligence implants to disable or enable the virus, and you have a controllable doomsday weapon. Pathogens with manipulated physiognomies are the next generation of damnable biologic agents; China allegedly leads a covert programme of research in this field.

China’s Biological Warfare (BW) Program is both defensive and offensive in nature and functions as a civil-military amalgam. It is believed to be in an advanced stage that includes weaponization. Its current inventory comprises the full range of traditional biological agents. This, notwithstanding China having ratified the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1984 that prohibits the “development and stockpiling of bacteriological weapons” and decreed their destruction. In the absence of instruments for verification, the BWC has not translated to embargo.

A combination of geopolitical factors may have influenced Chinese leadership into embracing a BW programme. The first is of a historical nature; between 1933 and 1945 Japanese BW attacks and experimentation on Chinese populations killed 270,000 (Chinese news agency Xinhua, also recognised by Japanese scholars). Second, the Chinese belief that the United States conducted BW offensive operations in China and North Korea during the Korean War (1950–53); from 1950 onwards the US possessed an operational BW arsenal till sworn off in 1969. The final factor concerns the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Allegedly, towards the end of World War II, USSR conducted experiments with plague, diphtheria, anthrax and cholera pathogens (Hoffman, The Dead Hand) in Soviet-occupied Mongolia. China’s strategic cooperation in general, involvement with Soviet BW programme in particular and awareness of the goings on at the centre of Soviet research,  on the remote island of Vozrozhdeniye in the Sea of Aral would have, undoubtedly provided inspiration to China’s thinking on this mode of warfare. Strategic motivations were governed by their abstract reasoning of the nature and use of weapons of mass destruction in a life and death struggle. Today, as George Keenan had suggested in 1947, China needs the spectre of a permanent enemy to justify its security apparatus.

Under Chairman Mao, from 1949 to 1977, these sensitivities led increasingly to preparation for total war and an arsenal for waging it. By 1978, hamstrung by the terror of the Cultural Revolution and blinkered by its ideological obsession, Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping saw the quest for strategic dominance being stymied by the absence of development and direction. He presided over an end to street power and, in a radical veering from orthodoxy, sought from society the release of dormant capitalistic energies. This kicked off one of the most impactful economic reformations of the 20th century. By 1990, in the wake of the carnage of Tiananmen and the collapse of communism in Europe, China’s military policy was dictated by Deng’s “24 character doctrine”; importantly it mandated a watch, wait and build covert capacities approach. These capacities included the ability to wage BW. The Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao dispensations, from 1993 to 2012 quite steadfastly continued with Deng’s policies and path of Controlled Capitalism.

China’s BW strategy is a declaration of their resolve to make genetic weapons instruments of “bloodless victory.”  In 2016, the Chinese government launched the National Gene Bank, which is the world’s largest repository of genetic data. It aims to “use China’s genetic resources, safeguard national security in bioinformatics, and enhance China’s capability to seize the strategic heights” in BW (Kania & Vorndick Defense One August 2019)

The SARS Episode of November 2002 constitutes a testimony to the lack of transparency and raised suspicion of state involvement. The lesson to be learned was the need for unambiguity and information sharing where infectious diseases were concerned. This did not seem to be the case in the recent outbreak of COVID-19; an examination of the chronology will suggest that while China formally intimated the WHO of the outbreak on 31 Dec 2019, the first cases reported by the late Dr Li Winliang (a “casualty” himself) were on 01 December (or were they earlier?)

Circumstantial evidence suggesting China’s involvement in release (inadvertently?) of the COVID-19 virus is mounting. In March 2019, under mysterious circumstances a shipment of exceptionally virulent microorganisms (Ebola, Coronavirus, SARS etc.) from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) found their way to Wuhan. The event triggered a major scandal questioning how the lethal viruses were transferred to China. Following investigation, the incident was traced to Chinese operatives working at NML It led to their expulson.

The Group comprising Dr Qiu, Dr Cheng and a host of intermediaries had direct links with several BW civil-military fusion laboratories in China which included the Institute of Military Veterinary Sciences, Academy of Military Medical Sciences, Changchun Centre for Disease Control, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Hubei. While the nature of  Dr. Qiu’s research is not entirely known, what is alleged is that it was vital for the Chinese BW development particularly in weaponizing Coronavirus, Ebola, Nipah and Rift Valley fever viruses. The investigation is on-going and even suggests that earlier ‘artful’ shipments to China of other viruses took place from 2006 to 2018. Incidentally, the Wuhan Institute of Virology was held responsible for the leak of SARS virus in 2003 (Guizhen Wu). The SARS is an engineered synthesis of measles and mumps virus not found in nature (Sergei Kolesnikov Russian Academy of Medical Sciences).

Let us now examine the fatal relapse in China of the many who were considered cured and rid of  COVID-19. What if, it is in fact, a Chinese dual use BW research programme gone horrifically wrong? Reminiscent of the reported Soviet experiment with re-engineering pathogens within a pathogen (Hoffman); the first stage illness was carried by an innocuous fast spreading endemic microbe while the second pathogen would be genetic material that would cause the body to attack and breakdown its own vital systems.

In the midst of mutation theories of the pathogen from bats to pangolin to man and its probable leak in a bio-experiment; there are many not so convincing  allegations of cause and conspiracies with rumour mills working overtime and fake news clouding perceptions. What we do know is that COVID-19 originated in Wuhan from where it was inflicted on the world’s people. How, when and why remain unrequited questions. In this ambience it becomes increasingly important to closely monitor the Chinese military’s activities in BW. While it may be impractical to expect China to recompense for global disruption and mass casualties, what can be imposed is the demand for verifiable transparency in their BW programme and making their laboratories indubitably transparent.