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.

The Chanciness of Squirming Back from the Brink

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(The article may be accessed at http://ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5647 in the IPCS web journal, where it was first published)

Stanislav Yefgrafovich Petrov, Colonel Second Rank of the Soviet Strategic Air Defence Forces, stood as watch in charge at the Oko nuclear early warning surveillance system at the Top Secret Serpukhov-15 complex in a South Moscow suburb. His duty was to monitor remote sensing data coming in from the “Molinya” satellite for early warning of ballistic missile launch from the  North Dakota plains, the location of Minuteman III ICBMs of USA’s 455 Strategic Missile Wing and should launch be detected targeting the USSR, to alert the Kremlin for release of a retaliatory strike. The process was rigid and beyond recall.  At civil twilight (US Central Time) on 25 September 1983, the system reported launch of multiple Minuteman missiles. Allowing for a flight of 25 minutes and decision making cum retaliation time of 20 minutes, Petrov had less than 5 minutes to sound the alarm and set in motion the chain of a possible nuclear holocaust. There was neither time for a re-check nor the luxury of second source validation. Given the gravity and tensions intrinsic to the situation, it must have taken enormous fortitude to make the judgement that he did. Petrov classified the six sequential ‘missile attack warnings’ as false alarms even though he had no authority to do so. This decision prevented a possible retaliatory nuclear attack and escalation to full-scale nuclear war. Investigation of the Molniya system later determined that it had malfunctioned.

The Stanislav episode occurred amidst three seemingly unrelated geo-political events that sent the Soviet Union and the USA hurtling to the brink of a nuclear war. Firstly, the deployment of US Pershing II IRBMs in Europe in the autumn of ‘83 heightened fears in the Kremlin of an accelerated (6 minutes) decapitation nuclear strike, drumming hysteria of imminent war. It was briskly followed by NATO war manoeuvres “Able Archer ‘83” intended to validate concepts for transition from conventional to strategic nuclear war. Sandwiched between these two events was the shoot down of Korean Airlines 007 on 01 September in Soviet air space, the run-up to which was marred by tensions caused by three US Carrier Battle Groups aggressively patrolling the North West Pacific. The background noise of Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative stoked a distressing strategic restlessness. Stanislav was an exceptional symptom of what went fortuitously right despite the paranoia that pervaded super-power relations.

The sub-continental nuclear context hardly echoes the scenario of 1983; however when enquiring into relations between nuclear armed states there are three points which bear notice. First,   a high operational state of military alert in a strategic fog of mistrust tends to generate a combative stimulus that places weaponry on a hair-trigger. While this may be unavoidable in the case of conventional ordnance, it must be sworn-off when it comes to the nuclear arsenal; the fact that it took one ‘sane’ man, ironically not in the chain of command to avert a nuclear holocaust is a chilling reminder of the hazards of a hair-trigger. Second, states possessing nuclear weapons, are faced with an awkward paradox; that of vulnerability of both weapon-systems and their Command and Control and therefore the continuous infusion of technology. With tactical nuclear weapons, there is strong motivation to counter vulnerability by sub-delegation of release authority; enhancing the likelihood of an unintended nuclear exchange. Third, the probability of a successful decapitating nuclear first strike is not only low on account of redundancies in the target state, but also ill founded in its premise that it can annihilate leadership all together. These considerations are a vexing part of the sub-continental milieu.

Contemporary nuclear politics is also under stress for the want of, stability in Pakistan’s body polity, clarity in command and control of the nuclear arsenal and unambiguity in doctrinal underpinnings. These must be unwavering and transparent. Inconsistencies of any nature will result in unpredictability and increase the temptation to take pre-emptive action. Even in a crisis, conventional or sub-conventional, the propensity to ‘reach-for-the-nuclear-trigger’ must be abhorred: at the same time recognition of having arrived at a threshold, must be conceded. Against this backdrop, no attempt has been made to reconcile the predicament caused by intrusion of technology into the nuclear calculus and its impact on the arsenal as it compresses readiness and enhances lethality. From this standpoint or from any, the significance of a policy of No First Use remains irrefutable.

No meaningful scrutiny of the sub-continental nuclear situation can avoid looking at either the tri-polar nature of the playing field or internals of Pakistan. China has provided intellectual, material, technological and motivation for the Pakistan nuclear programme. Its purpose is singular; to keep Indo-Pak nuclear relations on the boil despite the internals of Pakistan exposing the use of terror organizations as instruments of their misshapen military policies in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The fear that elements of their arsenal could fall into extremist hands is real. State involvement in terror activities such as their damnable hand in the 26/11 Mumbai assault, sanctuary provided to Osama Bin Laden and AQ Khan’s proliferation networks remain alive and inspires little confidence of Pakistan’s intent.

The iconic Doomsday Clock has ticked its way to 100 seconds to midnight – the closest to disaster it has ever been in its 73-year history. It signals that the world faces an unprecedentedly high risk of nuclear catastrophe caused not only by the dismal state of global nuclear relations and uncontrolled proliferation but also by the menacing presence of jihadists. Military collaboration with a potential adversary is not a concept that comes naturally. Nonetheless it is nobody’s case to argue that political objectives can be subsumed to military destruction and when nuclear armed, destruction would be of the very purpose of polity.

We stand today on the cusp of an extremely dodgy situation, in part caused by reluctance to control the manner in which technology and political events are driving nuclear arsenals. Knee-jerk politicking of the moment shapes the arsenal of the future while barriers to a nuclear exchange are lowered and political will to prohibit nuclear war erodes. This is the predicament that is faced by nuclear planners. There does not appear to be any other answer than to readjust postures and re-tool doctrines with the aim of holding back on nuclear weapons as primary instruments of military strategy; we can hardly expect a Stanislav Petrov to make his appearance on-call.