“Taking Centre Stage in the World”

By

   Vice Adm. (Retd.) Vijay Shankar

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

Xi Jinping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Curious Case of USS McCain

By

Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South China Sea: China’s Double Speak and Verdict at The Hague

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

When Premier Xi rubbished the 12 July 2016 verdict of the International Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague on China’s claims over most of the South China Sea, what exactly was meant? For no international justice system had thus far ever called China to order for its expansionist strategy.

What the Hague had in fact done was not only to uphold the case filed by the Philippines in 2013, after China seized a reef in the Scarborough Shoal; but also condemned China’s conduct in the South China Sea over construction of artificial islands and setting up military infrastructure. In an unequivocal rebuke, it found China’s expansive claim to sovereignty over the waters had no legal basis, historical or otherwise. The verdict gives motivation to the governments of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan to pursue their maritime disputes with Beijing in the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). Small wonder then is Premier Xi’s fulmination.

The central issue before the PCA was the legality of China’s claim to waters within a, so called, “nine-dash line” that appears on official Chinese charts. It encircles 90 per cent of the South China Sea, an area of 1.9 million square kilometres approximately equal to the combined areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Myanmar put together. Philippines contention was that China’s claims were in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which both China and the Philippines have ratified. In its decision, the tribunal said any historic rights to the sea that China claimed “were extinguished” by the treaty. And its failure to be a party to the deliberations in no way bars the proceedings. The UNCLOS lays out rules for drawing zones of control over the world’s oceans and seas based on coastal orientation. While the concept of Historic Waters means waters which are treated as internal waters where there is no right of innocent passage.

As far as the “nine-dash line” (originally eleven-dash) is concerned; following the surrender of Japan in 1945, China produced a proprietorship chart titled “Position of the South China Sea Islands” that showed an eleven-dash line around the islands. This map was published by the Republic of China government in February 1948. It did not hold onto this position after it fled to Taiwan. The Chinese Communist Party, however persisted with this cartographic notion, modifying the 11 to 9 dashes when in 1957, China ceded Bailongwei Island in the Gulf of Tonkin to North Vietnam.

Map: The Nine-Dash Line  Slide1

Source: BBC.CO.UK

The PCA concluded that China had never exercised exclusive authority over the waters and that several disputed rocks and reefs in the South China Sea were too small for China to claim control of economic activities in the waters around them. As a result, it found, China outside the law in as much as activities in Philippine waters are concerned. The tribunal cited China’s construction of artificial islands on the Mischief Reef and the Spratly archipelago as illegal in addition to the military facilities thereon which were all in Philippine waters.

The episode has besmirched the image of Xi Jinping, his politburo and indeed the credibility of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Tolose their legal case for sovereignty over waters that they have heavily invested in must come as a rude shock to their global aspirations. A complaisant response may set into motion the unravelling of the CPC’s internal hold on the state as defence of maritime claims is central to the Communist Party’s narrative. Any challenge to this account is seen in Beijing as a challenge to the Party’s rule. But the die has been cast; it remains to be seen how more regions and neighbours respond to China’s unlawful claims wherever it is perceived to exist. An indication of the regional response was Vietnam’s immediate endorsement of the tribunal’s decision.

Thus far China has responded sardonically with a typical Cold War propagandist style avowal “We do not claim an inch of land that does not belong to us, but we won’t give up any patch that is ours. The activities of the Chinese people in the South China Sea date back to over 2,000 years ago.” said the front-page in The People’s Daily, which ridiculed the tribunal as a “lackey of some outside forces” that would be remembered as a “laughingstock in human history.” Such dippy doublespeak has no place in contemporary geopolitics. For China to do nothing about the matter will be difficult in the extreme. It does not take a political pundit to note that some form of immediate coercive military manoeuvre in the South China Sea is in the offing. Also, it would hardly be realistic to expect China to scurry away to dismantle the military infrastructure it has so far set up; more likely it is their revisionist policies that would be reviewed.

Towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, in 1976, China brought out a movie titled “Great Wall in the South China Sea,” it was not about the inward looking narrative of Chinese civilization but of “expansive conquests that would knit together all of South East Asia.” The Hague’s verdict has grievously injured the latter strategy. And if the free world is to rein in China’s bid to rewrite the rule books including the right to unimpeded passage in the South China Sea then, it would do well to convince her of the illegitimacy of her position. In the meantime Indian diplomacy should promote the littorals of the South China Sea to seek arbitration for their maritime disputes with China at The Hague.