USS Theodore Roosevelt: Cracks in the Command Structure and the Demolition of its Captain

By Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Extracts from the Captain’s Journal INS Viraat, 2000hrs 1996 on deployment in the Arabian Sea:

“The Chicken-pox outbreak that began with four cases from the Seaman’s Mess two days ago has spread to seventy sailors. Infected personnel include Air Handlers, Mechanical Engineers and Seaman. Intentions: isolate all effected personnel in the vacant Amphibious troops Mess; make a South Easterly MLA at 20 knots for accomplishing night flying and surface attack Mission; close port of G… to 400 nautical miles for transfer of casualties along with sick bay attendants and a medical officer to consort at 0600h and onward to the base hospital at G… Intentions signalled to FOCWF info FOCinC West” (Command chain).

Occurrence of infections on board warships is not uncommon, but rarely is it allowed to jeopardise the mission at hand and even rarer is the occasion that a capital man-of-war steams “full ahead” into international headlines for want of decisiveness to control an internal situation. Indeed the infection and its context on board INS Viraat (see extracts from Captain’s Journal, above) bears little semblance to the USS Theodore Roosevelt (TR) and the Coronavirus episode, for in the former case not only was the contagion a known factor with a large percentage of the   crew having developed herd immunity (the varicella vaccine being available from 1995 onwards) and the scale of proportions being different (Viraat complement 1800, TR 4865); yet the operational imperative remains the same: primacy of the imminent task. And for an Aircraft Carrier Battle Group to put to pasture its main strike element is to recuse itself from the strategic dominance that it could have exercised in its area of responsibility.

The principal demand of naval war is to attain a posture that would permit control of oceanic spaces in order to influence the course of conflict. Elemental to this objective is therefore to provide the means to seize and exercise that control. The Aircraft Carrier’s intrinsic air power assisted by strike and denial forces provides the means to collar and assure security to maritime spaces of interest. Operational flexibility that the Carrier Group brings to bear include deterrence, support of amphibious operations, land attack missions, wide area domain awareness and domination and lastly command and control of large forces. The Carrier Group can also sustain conditions for long term offensive presence and power projection. The agility, firepower and suppleness that the Carrier Group bestows on a Commander is unmatched by any other maritime force. The removal of TR from its area of responsibility will have left a gaping hole in the US ability to exercise control in the Western Pacific region. Currently TR remains pier side in Guam “completing carrier qualification before returning to sea.”

From a philosophical standpoint the culture in the Navy demands of its leadership single point ‘responsibility’ for actions, ‘accountability’ for the impact of those actions  and then gives the leader the necessary ‘authority’ to drive towards his objective. The responsibility-accountability-authority nexus lies at the heart of leadership at sea. Above all else, the job of a naval leader is to prepare to fight and win wars. Too often in the daily grind of processing paperwork amidst misplaced career ambitions, leaders forget the reason the nation has a Navy and why they serve. From US naval tradition stands out Captain John Paul Jones who was hardly obsessing with daily drudgery when in 1778, he exhorted “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm’s way.” Those words which today form a part of maritime folklore contained the essence of leadership at sea, decisiveness.

Coming back to the TR case, the sequence of events that unfolded (salient excerpts only) tell its own ignoble story of wooliness:

  • 17 January 2020. USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, departs San Diego with 4,865 sailors aboard. Capt. Brett Crozier is in command. In company is its strike elements for deployment in the western Pacific. A special “preventive medical unit” is aboard.
  • 26 February. Defense Secretary Mark Esper directs combatant commanders to tell him before they make decisions about COVID-19.
  • 22 March. First sailor onboard diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • 26 March. TR begins testing entire crew for COVID-19.
  • 29 March. Washington Post report: Crozier and his superior officers are “struggling” to reach a consensus on a plan of action. Chain of command included Rear Adm. Stuart Baker, embarked strike group commander; Admiral John Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Both admirals favoured smaller mitigation efforts for fear of mission jeopardy.”
  • 30 March. Acting Secretary Modly, emphasizes “ that if [Crozier] felt that he was not getting the proper response from his chain of command, he had a direct line into his office. Crozier sends an unclassified e-mail comprising a 4-page memo to 20 or 30 Naval addressees, both within and without his chain of command. Crozier wrote: “The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating. Decisive action is required…We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die.
  • Wednesday 01 April. Crozier and his heads of department brief sailors on the evacuation plan, and begin to execute it. The plan, according to Modly, is: To leave 700 to 800 to 1,000 people on or near the ship to operate its nuclear reactors, guard weapons and keep the ship ready to sail. Modly calls Crozier directly and asks, “What’s the story?” and Crozier answered: “Sir, we were getting a lot more cases. I felt it was time to send out a signal flare.” About 4 p.m. at the Pentagon, Modly holds a joint press conference with CNO Adm. Michael Gilday, to address the situation onboard the Roosevelt. Modly suggests Commanders “should not be inhibited from telling us and being transparent about the issues that they see. But they need to do it through their chains of command. And if they’re not getting the proper responses from their chains of command, then they need to maybe go outside of it.”
  • 02 April. Modly asserts Crozier told him that he didn’t ask for permission to bypass his chain of command because he knew Admiral Baker wouldn’t give it. He reaches the conclusion that “Captain Crozier had allowed the complexity of his challenge with the COVID breakout on the ship to overwhelm his ability to act professionally… and sends word down the chain of command that Crozier is to be relieved of Command. The CNO in turn directs VCNO Burke, to “conduct an investigation into the circumstances and the climate across the entire Pacific Fleet to help determine what may have contributed to this breakdown in the chain of command.” In the meantime at the Pentagon, Modly in a press conference proclaims Crozier was “absolutely correct” in raising his concerns. The error was “the way in which he did it.”
  • 03 April 3. Acting Secretary Modly concludes, that “If Crozier didn’t think that information contained in his e-mail was going to get out into the public, then he was too naive or too stupid to be the commanding officer of a ship like this. The alternative is that he did this on purpose. And that’s a serious violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice”. Crozier’s memo was a “betrayal of trust” to me and to you, he told the crew. “What your captain did was very, very wrong. There is never a situation where you should consider the media a part of your chain of command because the media has an agenda. And the agenda that they have depends on which side of the political aisle they sit on.  By April 14 total crew members that tested positive: 589, remainder negative.
  • Captain Crozier has been washed ashore as the Special Assistant to the the Navy Air forces Chief of Staff; he is neither eligible for command nor to go to sea in any capacity as of date (24 June 2020).

The Sea is an unrelenting mistress; it brooks no dawdling and provides no quarter for exculpation. The author, having commanded an Aircraft Carrier and a Fleet, notes a host of disquieting points that stand out in this sordid affair: Firstly, the outrageous levels of incompetent and unsolicited political interference in the operational control of a warship and the willing compliance of the Naval hierarchy. Secondly, the appalling indecisiveness of the chain of command. Why was it that the first-response, a traditional function of the man at sea, took all of 8 days (22 Mar-30 Mar) to engineer? Lastly it is perplexing how readily the chain of command was violated and the Captain so brazenly annexed authority to second guess the reaction of his immediate superior Rear Admiral Baker. Of course, the Captain is responsible for the safety of his ship’s company and “sailors do not (indeed) need to die” so, what action did he take (for crying out aloud) other than release snivelling e-mails that  neither have the vitality nor the gravitas to stimulate a vigorous response.

Whatever became of the much cherished US naval chain of command? Was it sacrificed on the altar of the Supreme Commander’s view in the fall out of what he calls the “Wuhan Virus”… after all as reports suggest were the Presidents courtiers all too blind to the realities of command of an aircraft carrier.

A Strategic Perspective for Change in the Navy

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(This article is forthcoming in the December 2019 issue of Geopolitics available at http://www.geopolitics.in)

The Act of Passage on the Sea

World change has set in motion a shift that will affect security of the Indian nation. In this churning, the context of revision and how the involved actors must relate to it is critical. Each step towards change will illuminate facets that will reveal the reality of their purport, challenges they characterise and the threats that they hold. In addition strategic thought in the Navy must transcend the temptation to consider these as a continuing current of the past. The question really is, how can we best recast the Navy without having to wait for the full exposure of the new world and not having to play catch-up-if-you-can?

Students of maritime history will not forget that at the turn of the 20th century it was thinkers like Mahan and Julian Corbett who set ablaze the maritime spirit of that century. The former identified principles that influenced naval forces during the first half of the twentieth century; he believed that national greatness was inextricably associated with the commercial use of the sea in peace and its control in war. Sea power was seen as the handmaiden of imperial expansion. This vision, although uncontroversial in his day, lost its strategic flavour in the post-war age of decolonisation. Corbett, on the other hand, believed naval influence to be a part of national policy and saw the fleet not merely an instrument of destruction of the enemy fleet but as an accompaniment to assuring the “act of relative passage on the sea.” It was from this critical tenet that concepts of Sea Denial, Sea Control and Power Projection evolved. In 1915, his essay titled “The Spectre of Navalism” underscored the hazards of arms restructuring when attitudes considered “all power that was not one’s own was a menace that force alone could remove” (a belief amongst Germanic people in the run-up to the First World War and may today be found to thrive in the region). Perhaps his abiding legacy to contemporary naval thought was the idea that “freedom of the seas was an irreducible factor in sane world politics” for in his outlook the sea was not territory that could be conquered; nor were the oceans defensible. What it constituted was a substantial factor in the growth of a nation and prosecution of war. He suggested, “…great issues of nations at war have always been decided … either by what your army can do against your enemy’s territory, or else by the fear of what the fleet makes it possible for your army to do.”

Context of Change

Within an international system that hovers between a facade of order and anarchy, variegated pace of growth among states engenders rivalry over access to resources, control of technology, flow of commerce and entry to markets; resulting in friction amongst competitors. At the same time, abstractions of national honour, prestige and other sovereign interests that separate the state from its citizenry are often at odds with the violence of the “Language” of war (Clausewitz). Experience of the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, East Pakistan, West Asia and Afghanistan will suggest that perceptions of the people that come face-to-face with the “language” of war learn to abhor it and eventually prevail. Add to this the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction with their intrinsic menace of ending political purpose and we have the coming of indirect, relatively scaled down version of conventional wars albeit with high destructive potential and brutality fought under the overhang of a nuclear holocaust.

A Short Primer of Maritime Warfare

A fourfold classification of maritime forces has dominated naval operations since 1945. The grouping is largely task oriented. It comprises of aircraft carriers, denial forces, escorts and auxiliaries (the last include logistic and other support elements such as shore based aircrafts, landing ships, mine layers, tenders, space and cyber assets). In addition contemporary thought has given strategic nuclear forces a restraining role to define and demarcate the limits within which conventional forces operate. The principal demand of the theory is to attain a strategic posture that would permit control of oceanic and littoral spaces for a designated period of time in order to progress and influence the course of conflict, generally, on land. Upon the escorts depends our ability to accomplish control; while on the Aircraft Carrier and its intrinsic air power assisted by strike and denial forces depends the security of control. Control and security of control is the relationship that operationally links all maritime forces. If the doctrine of destroying the enemy’s armed forces asserts itself as the paramount objective then, our maritime exertions would concentrate on the singular aim of dealing that knockout punch. However, the vastness of the hydrosphere is of a nature that encourages dispersion, at the same time the antagonist may hardly be expected to expose his main forces in unfavourable circumstances. As Corbett so eloquently put it “the more closely he induces us to concentrate to face his fleet, the more he frees the sea for the circulation of his own forces, and the more he exposes ours.”

India’s armed forces have traditionally evolved and trained to cope with operational scenarios. But the operational canvas (inexplicable not to have been apparent), is a transient that eschews futuristic force planning. So it was every-year-after-five years the planner was condemned to an exercise that perceived possible threats and/building forces that attempted to cope with those threats. It was, therefore, the instantaneous intimidation that drove plans which unfortunately is a pretender that serves to fill the strategic space and struggles to keep pace with a future that the planner neither sought to shape nor forecast.

The War in Shadows

Corbett’s formulation, adapted for the present, of ‘control-for-causes’ is far more sophisticated and finds application in an era when calibrated escalation of power, coercive diplomacy and sanctions as opposed to a destructive and economically debilitating conflict; finds favour as a political tool. The current situation in Crimea, Syria, Iran, West Asia, North Korea, weaponising of space, access denial strategies, disruptive control of cyber space and indeed the South China Sea imbroglio are marked by just such a ‘War in Shadows’ where the principal tools are persuasive in their threat to dent the adversaries comprehensive power. Three factors play a disproportionate part in evolving such a strategy. First is generation of strategic capability in all dimensions. Second, is the resolve to power of national leadership.  And lastly, is the state’s ability to cope with and manipulate strategic outcomes. This blend of the abstract with the realist’s point of view characterizes the ‘War in Shadows’. The reader will no-doubt note shades of the South Asian Regional situation in this plot. It is against this canvas that the future development and structuring of Indian maritime power must be gauged.

Challenge of China

Of all the uncertainties, it is China, a stated revisionist autocratic power that will impact regional stability; particularly so, in the maritime domain. The planner must in the circumstance examine in some detail the challenge of China. Of significance is the shift in global balance to the Indo-Pacific intricately linked to the stunning growth of China as a contender for regional dominance. Its ascendancy is backed by military forces that are developed to the point where they expect to challenge any adversary that may attempt to deny its interests.

China’s latest defence white paper of July 2019 describes “Taiwan, Tibet, and Turkistan as separatists that threaten national unity. While drumming the theme of “people’s security” it persists with its re-education camps in Xinjiang revealed recently. It hammers home the brutal repression of Muslim ethnic minorities, mainly Uighurs, and their mass incarceration. The paper warns of the dangers of territorial conflicts erupting in the South China Sea and hazards of strategic competition for resources and control of the seaways.”

The consequences of China enabling its Anti-Access and Area Denial strategy and moves to establish proprietary sources of raw materials, domination of sea lines of communication euphemistically called the “maritime silk route” and working to realise the String of Pearls (currently a patchy network of Chinese military and commercial facilities along its silk route). These manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Region evoke increasing anxieties and resistance by players in the same strategic settings. Debt traps that have been set by China to inveigle some of the hapless littorals of the Indian Ocean of their maritime facilities are symptomatic of a new form of colonial venture. The paradoxical effects of China’s actions are to undermine its own strategic standing, hasten counter balancing alignments and urge a global logic of cooperative politics over imperial strategies.

Through all this, China remains quite oblivious to the legality of their discordant Air Defence Identification Zone, the 9-Dash line delineating their claim over most of the South China Sea, contravening the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea   and breaching international law by constructing and militarising artificial islands. China appears to be challenging not just today’s economic orthodoxy, but the world’s political and security framework as well.

Defining the Strategic Space

With uncertainty driving geopolitical dynamics, the first imperative for India is to bring about policy coherence between strategic space, growth and security interests. It must factor regions from where trade originates, energy lines run, sea lines of communication pass, narrows therein and potential allies. The Oceanic body encompassing the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific provides the back-drop. It is dominated by ten important choke points and narrows. In essence the theatre gives to global trade efficient maritime routes and sea lines of communication that power the region’s growth. It accounts for over 70% of global trade, 60% of energy flow and is home to more than 50% of the world’s population; it also provides the context within which Indian maritime strategy must operate.

Determinants of Future Force Planning

The quest for strategic leverage in the maritime domain is inspired by policy declarations such as the ‘Look East (and now) Act East Policy’, the ‘India Africa Forum Summit’, and formation of alliances. Current membership of the original ten ASEAN grouping plus 6 is symptomatic of the shift in strategic centre of gravity to the East. From a security angle, the inclusion of India, USA, Russia, Japan and South Korea in addition to China provides the rationale for balance. India and China along with ASEAN are set to become the world’s largest economic bloc. The grouping is expected to account for about 27 per cent of Global GDP and will very quickly overtake the EU and USA economies. The buoyancy of the Indo-ASEAN relationship (despite the RCEP) is backed by surging trade slated to hit USD 100 billion. With such burgeoning stakes strategic rebalancing in the region comes as a natural consequence. The expansion of the ASEAN and the creation of the ASEAN Regional Forum are also suggestive of the littoral’s aspirations to counter poise the looming presence of China.

Having thus brought about a modicum of coherence between security dynamics, strategic space and growth, it would now be appropriate to derive the broad contours of our strategic objectives and how they may be achieved.

A Denial Strategy

Denial seeks to contest and discredit the ability of regional or extra regional countries to unilaterally engage in destabilizing activities. The instrument to achieve denial is by convincingly raising the cost of military intervention through the use or threat of use of methods that are asymmetrical in form and decisive in substance. To ‘contest and discredit’ would suggest a clear understanding of where the centre of gravity of the intervening forces lie. In China’s case, it is the triumvirate of the Aircraft Carrier; nuclear attack submarine and security of the narrows and of its ‘string of pearls’; these would have to be checkmated.

Leadership and Doctrines

Leaving aside, for the moment, material aspects of generating capabilities, the most critical issue is one of timing, that is, what would be the enabling circumstances that would trigger operationalizing (say) the Indian anti access denial strategy? While the short answer may be “when national interests are threatened” this does not in any way assist in formulating a doctrine empowering operational level leadership to plan and act. Leadership will note two considerations. First, initial moves must be so calibrated that the intervener is unequivocally made aware through diplomacy and notices from allies that a threshold is being approached and that the next rung in the escalatory ladder could well be a ‘hot’ exchange. This may take the form of ‘marking’ and surveillance. Second, initiating demonstrative action which may disrupt and disable operational networks or even measures instituted in some other theatre where correlation of forces would suggest Indian superiority. Under this order of things, we may in general terms define our ‘red lines’ as follows:

  • Any large scale military attempt to change the status quo in our territorial configuration.
  • Large scale military build-up either at Gwadar or on any of the “string of pearls” with the explicit purpose of threatening India.
  • Aggressive deployments that disrupt our own energy and resource traffic or dislocate command networks.
  • Any attempt to provide large scale military support, covert or otherwise, to promote an internal war against the State.

For obvious reasons details of ASAT batteries and cyber warfare teams along with NCA controlled strategic forces will remain discreet.

Technology Plan

The next issue that requires our attention is what nature of technologies would have to be fielded to realise the strategy. In developing a technology plan two considerations will influence our approach; the first being an incremental approach to adapt and modernize existing tools, skills and hardware, while the second is to develop new technologies. Viewed in this perspective areas that would need the notice of our scientific community are identified below:

  • ASAT deployment.
  • Development & Deployment of seabed sensors for tracking attack submarines.
  • Development of non-lethal devices to disable merchant ships.
  • Deploying cyber warfare teams for both defensive and offensive tasks.
  • Development of high speed networks with failsafe firewalls for command and control and information sharing.

 The Quadrilateral Cooperative Security Dialogue (Quad)

The Quad has evolved in response to increased Chinese revisionist trends and the need to lend stability in the Indo-Pacific. The founding countries United States, Japan, India and Australia driven by a concept of co-operative security, launched the idea in 2007. With early withdrawal of Australia the Quad almost “miscarried”. It has been recently revived to counter China’s unrelenting thrust for an exceptionable proprietary mercantile empire stretching across the region. The alliance, however, remains fragile. The only historical parallel to the Quad is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Established to contain Soviet expansionism; three remarkable articles are at the core of its Charter:  Article 2, lays the under structure for non-military cooperation. Article 3, provides for cooperation in military preparedness while Article 5, the allies agreed “an armed attack against one or more of them be considered an attack against all”. The Charter of the Quad is yet to be fleshed out; but conceivably it may follow the NATO template. It may have three objectives. First, to reinforce a rule-based regional Order that rejects nationalistic ‘Navalism’ of the kind that has emerged. Second, to promote a liberal trading regime and freedom of navigation. Third, to provide security assurances.

As the Quad pushes to get their initiative to fly, success will likely hinge on how they face pressure from China, nature of  security architecture and an understanding of the peril-to-the-whole.

Conclusion

The reality of the international system is the place that power enjoys in the scheme of assuring stability. Uncertainty in international relations queers the pitch, in view of the expanded space of possibilities. India’s relationship with much of the world is robust. India has shown itself, through restraint, pluralistic and popular form of governance to be a responsible State that upholds the status quo yet invites change through democratic forces. Its rise, in the main, is not only welcomed but is seen as a harmonizing happening that could counterpoise China.

China on the other hand is a declared revisionist autocratic power that will impact globally; particularly so, in the maritime domain where it appears to be challenging not just economic orthodoxy, but geo-political and security order without bringing about a change within. This cannot be allowed to pass without a strategic riposte.

China: National Defence in a New Era

                                              Linking Dreams with Reality

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

This article is forthcoming in the September 2019 issue of Geopolitics http://www.geopolitics.in/

The Chinese news agency Xinhua announced on 24 July 2019 that China had issued a white paper to “expound on its defensive national defence policy in the new era and explain the practice, purposes and significance of China’s efforts to build a fortified national defence and a strong military.” Titled “China’s National Defence in the New Era,” the paper was released by the State Council Information Office with a view, as the Council suggested, to helping the international community better understand China’s national defence. It is the tenth white paper on national defence that the government has issued since 1998 and the first comprehensive one since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012.

At a macro-level the Paper responds to a perceived shift in global strategies, as major players retract from a focus on counter-terrorism and extremism to an acute slant on competition, rivalry, and friction. It flags the fact that China in its bid to revise the global order on its terms is now a contender for regional dominance. Its ascendancy is backed by military forces that are developed to the point where they will be able to challenge any adversary that may attempt to deny its interests. The document describes Taiwan, Tibet, and Turkistan as separatists that threaten national unity and underscores the dangers of territorial conflicts erupting should there be intervention of any nature on this account. It notes in cavalier fashion “countries from outside the region conduct frequent close-in surveillance by air and sea, enter China’s territorial waters and the airspace near China’s islands and reefs undermining China’s national security.” Through all this, China remains quite oblivious to the legality of their newly established but discordant Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) of 2013, the 9-Dash (10-Dash after 2013) line delineating their claim over most of the South China Sea, contravening major tenets of the United Nations Conventions on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) and breaching of international law.

Unlike Chinese White Papers of the past which focused blandly on China’s questionable “peaceful” intent and not very convincing views of ‘win-win’ cooperation, the 2019 edition highlights China’s military development as a national riposte to what it considers as the challenges that it is faced with. The main body of the white paper is divided into six thematic sections:

  • The international security situation
  • China’s defensive national defence policy in the new era
  • Fulfilling missions and tasks of China’s armed forces in the new era
  • Reform in China’s national defence and armed forces
  • Reasonable and appropriate defence expenditure
  • Actively contributing to building a community with a shared future for mankind.

Some statistics are featured in the 27,000-character document, 10 tables on topics such as a cursory breakdown of China’s defence expenditure have been attached and listing of international cooperation activities is included in the appendices.”

International Security & Visions of a New Global Order

The paper offers insights into how Chinese leadership conceives a world order characterized by greater multi-polarity and its aspirations to exercise control amongst what it perceives to be a “community of common destiny.” It also outlines its strategic objectives, in the quest for which Beijing will neither accommodate nor soften its position. The paper, significantly, re-emphasises China’s intentions to revise the current global order to create a future more favourable for its interests.

“National Defence in a New Era” is a continuum on the official narrative of China’s emergence as a great power with global influence. In discussing the security situation in the Asia-Pacific, China makes a grand assumption that countries in the region are “increasingly aware of being members of a community with shared destiny” 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 “community of common destiny for humanity” that provides a dangerous strategic underpinning for that very community. The question being, is the new era envisaged by China an emerging reality? And is its model of governance acceptable and appropriate for this reality? For if not (as it seems most likely) the prospects of friction and disruption loom large.

China’s Defensive National Defence Policy

The Document links the creation of a new world order with Xi Jinping’s discourse on the “China Dream,” which urges the People’s Republic to push forward the “great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” and strive to achieve the  dream of “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation to the status of the world’s dominant power. The narrative is now expanded in the White Paper to argue that a more powerful Chinese military is essential to this global dream. The paper attempts to reframe the trajectory of Chinese military modernization by claiming: “A strong military of China is a staunch force for world peace, stability and the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.” This assertion is intended to reassure China’s neighbours about the rise of Chinese military power, which has progressed at a speed and scale that have often provoked concerns, arguing that this instead is a boon for the region. What is apparent is that the construct and its strategic linkages are short on specifics and niggardly on how to put the dream into practice.

Although  China’s aspiration to exercise a leading influence in global governance and contribute to reforms of that system are hardly surprising, this is for the first time that the military has been so directly and officially connected to the agenda of revisionism. However, declarations to “build  a security architecture  through partnerships rather than alliances”  become confusing when one attempts to situate the deepening  Sino-Russian defence linkages in the scheme of things. Nevertheless, this partnership is starting to take on certain features of a military alliance, involving “the development of exchange mechanisms at all levels, expanded cooperation, military training and technology transfers.” Military cooperation had notably extended to the People’s Liberation Army’s participation in Russia’s Vostok exercise in September 2018. It will be recalled that the war-game is Russia’s annual strategic exercise spread over two months and across vast regional spaces to develop the ability to conduct large-scale combined arms war that correlate doctrines and coordinate Command and Control. To fully appreciate the scale of operations the 2018 edition involved over 300,000 personnel.

Fulfilling New Missions, Signaling of Red Lines and Resolve

“China’s National Defense in a New Era” is clearly intended to send strong signals to a global audience. However, communication of redlines and resolve often stand in stark contradiction to the discourse on China’s commitment to “world peace,” and claims of its policies and strategic intentions being purely defensive. On Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and its territorial claims in the South China Sea the Paper states “We make no promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures that target adversarial alliances, interventions and  intimidating deployments”.  These threats are awkwardly juxtaposed with the assertion that China will “never seek hegemony, expansion, or spheres of influence.” From Beijing’s perspective, the notion of “reunification” and defending national sovereignty may be justified and described so, but such an objective is inherently offensive, unilateral and disruptive of the status quo.

Reforms and China’s Concept of National Security 

The Document notes that for this new era, concerns of political security remains critical to the Communist Party of China (CPC). It highlights the imperative for China’s national defence to “assure political security, people’s security and social stability” and in terms of national priority it is listed second only to “deter and resist aggression.” In this context, the introduction of the concept of “people’s security” which is seen as the “soul” and core purpose of national security, alludes to the factors required for improvement of the “people’s well-being,” reflecting underlying connections between national defence and continued development. Increasingly, there are also concerns about threats to social stability in new domains, especially cyberspace. The security and survival of the regime is an absolute imperative for the CPC, and China’s armed forces are required to pre-empt and neutralize such eventualities.

As far as nuclear forces are concerned, its form and content have largely been consistent over the years. China has reaffirmed its commitment to a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones. China does not engage in any nuclear arms race with any other country and keeps its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security. It pursues a nuclear strategy of self-defence, the goal of which is to maintain national strategic security by deterring other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China.

Defence Expenditure: Reasonable or Unfathomable?

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the paper is a relatively more detailed treatment of the defence budget than the 2010 edition (statement on defence budget was absent from the 2013 and 2015 versions). The 2010 paper stated, China’s defence expenditure mainly comprises expenses for personnel, training and maintenance, and equipment; with each budget group accounting for roughly one third of the total”. In the 2019 Paper, subcomponents of the three groups of expenditure  are updated slightly, but significant changes in distribution is apparent. Since 2015, as the PLA has reduced personnel, retired old equipment, and purchased new weapon systems, “equipment expenses” amount to over 40 per cent (approximately $62 billion) of the total budget of $151 billion while personnel expenses have fallen to about 31 per cent ($47 billion), and training and maintenance to 28 per cent ($42 billion). The reasons cited for budget increases are five-fold: enhanced salaries and troop welfare; equipment modernisation; support reforms (which include personnel and unit transfers); improved training; and conduct of peacekeeping, constabulary, humanitarian and disaster relief operations. This order appears consistent with the budgetary allocation, as the PLA has downsized by roughly 13 per cent. The reduced allocation for training may suggest that the PLA has cut back on ‘mass’ manoeuvres, concentrating on developing specialised task oriented battle groups and small-unit proficiencies. However what remains opaque is a breakdown of the budget for Capital, Revenue and Strategic expenditure.

As China compares itself with the other major powers in terms of defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP; at 1.3% it likens rather well from a pacific stand-point. However, what remains obscured is the expenditure on military related infrastructure, defense production and strategic programmes.

Xi’s anti-corruption campaign in defence deals is hailed specifically as, “the struggle having won an overwhelming victory, establishing a positive environment of political and moral correctness.” Pointedly calling out and cracking down on Generals Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou, Fang Fenghui, and Zhang Yang for their “grave violations of Party discipline and state laws.” However, it is hard to judge whether these generals were purged for corruption or for being potential challengers to Xi’s authority.

Building a Community with a Shared Future

While the Paper attempts both to articulate a vision of global security in which China is a driving force for “world peace,” and to establish unambiguous red lines as to what threatens China’s sovereignty, security, and development; what is significant, nuanced or otherwise,  is the absence of any details of separatist activities as indeed the nature and condition of ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang. One wonders, what Xi’s “new era” holds in terms of the shared future for the over 11 million Muslim Uighurs in China’s restive western province of Xinjiang.  According to un-verified reports over two million Uighurs and other minorities, including Islamic Kazakhs and Uzbeks, have been detained since April 2017. Outside of the internment camps, the eleven million Uighurs living in Xinjiang have continued to suffer from a decade-long ethnic cleansing and re-culturing by Chinese authorities. While inside the camps, having no legal avenues to challenge their detention, there is no way of assessing the extent of brutality or brain washing that they are subjected to including behaviour modification in exchange for a dim and doltish rehabilitation . The reasons that may bring about incarceration, according to media reports, include traveling to or contacting people from any of the twenty-six countries China considers sensitive, such as Turkey and Afghanistan; attending services at mosques; sending texts containing Quranic verses and often the inmate’s only crime is being Muslim. One puzzles if this is the new era?

The Paper takes an aggressive no-compromise stand on the integration of Taiwan to the extent of the use of unequivocal military force with the ominous call that Taiwan “will and must merge and consolidate with the People’s Republic of China (PRC)”. Prominent is the strident nationalist bellow for the integrity of the country as a foundational interest of the Chinese nation essential to realizing national rejuvenation. Additionally the on-going disruption in the financial capital Hong Kong do not in any way inspire either success in assimilation or the idea of  “one-nation-two-systems”.

The White Paper makes much of China’s contribution to UN peacekeeping operations and even goes on to declare that it is the largest troop contributing country among the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). However it must be remembered that the other four permanent members have been rather artful in their choice of engagement and have hardly ever committed  their troops in UN sponsored peace keeping missions unless their interests were directly involved or threatened; the United Nations Command established in 1950 to prosecute the war in Korea was led and comprised almost entirely of US forces , the US and Canada supported forces in Eygpt in the 1956 Suez crisis, the 1992  NATO involvement in the wars in Croatia, Bosnia Serbia and Herzegovina , France in Senegal and the Ivory Coast in 2013 or Britain in Afghanistan and Cyprus. All these examples are suggestive of permanent members being selective about their involvement. And so it is with China and therefore no surprises that their focus is on Africa where it has invested heavily and the Middle East for its energy security.

Conclusion

This “new era” of China’s national defence is characterized by change and continuity in China’s global outlook and expanding interests. At a time when the lone super power strategizes for a new era of great power rivalry, the 2019 Chinese posture may in parts appear to present a conciliatory picture. However, intentions to reform global governance, persistence with its claims in the South China Sea, a cavalier approach to international conventions and an illusory security architecture predicated on a “community with a shared future” revealed in the document are nonetheless disconcerting. China may soon be confronted by a rude awakening as this vision for a revised order, self-promotion and security is met with intense internal and external stresses. And all the while since 1998 when the key theme of China’s defence policy was cooperation, Beijing’s military today is inexorably being drawn into, what appears to be, an inevitable clash with forces that uphold the status-quo.