Less than a month remains until the next summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which will take place in Qingdao, China on June 9 and 10. The event is already being touted by the media and official figures of the participating countries as one of the most important international events of the year. All the more so because it will mark the first time that the six member states (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) are joined by India and Pakistan. Journalists and analysts were quick to point out that the participants account for a sizeable share of world’s population, territory, natural resources and economic potential. The impressive figures suggest that the SCO will inevitably become a key “load-bearing structure” of the future world order.
There is no denying the strides made by the organization in terms of its institutional development since its inception at the turn of the century. And, of course, it would be bad form to look down on the diplomats, officials and experts who have invested so much energy in building the SCO over the past two decades. However, it is also true that now is not the best time for high fives and victorious statements. The SCO has obviously entered adulthood, but it has not yet emerged as a fully mature international institution. Furthermore, it runs the risk of becoming an “eternal teenager,” with its numerous transition problems and frequent changes in hobbies and attachments, but without any particular occupation or specific purpose in life.
Choosing the Priorities
At the turn of the century, Russia and China were extremely concerned about the growing global and regional instability. On the one hand, the growing threat of international terrorism, political extremism and separatist movements was already quite evident. On the other hand, the reaction of the West, primarily of the United States, to these challenges raised many questions and objections. It is no coincidence that the first substantive SCO document, adopted by the six member states in the summer of 2001, was the Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism.
However, in the very first years of the SCO there was a significant disparity in the interpretations of the “three main evils” and ways to counteract them. Not only did these differences persist, but in many instances they even grew over time. For example, the SCO member states backed the Russian counter-terrorist operation in the North Caucasus in the early 2000s, but Moscow’s decision to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 was not met with similar support, for obvious reasons. And the reaction of the SCO member states to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was an even more clear signal of the diverging approaches to separatism.
The interpretations of the other two “evils” have also diverged on a number of occasions. These differences would come to the fore every time a conflict emerged, such as in the case of Uzbekistan’s relations with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. What some SCO members viewed as political extremism or downright terrorism others perceived as the legitimate struggle of ethnic minorities for their rights. As for the settlement of complex territorial disputes between China and the post-Soviet states of Central Asia, these problems were mainly resolved through bilateral negotiations, rather than with the help of multilateral SCO mechanisms.
Unfortunately, the SCO cannot as yet boast any significant contribution to solving the Afghan problem, one of the most burning security problems in the region. The SCO Afghanistan Contact Group was established in 2005, and Kabul received observer status within the organization in 2012, but the situation in that country has hardly improved over the past 10 years. It would be wrong to blame the lack of progress exclusively on the SCO, but the organization’s current status of cooperation with Afghanistan is hardly cause for celebration either.
Trying to Diversify
To be fair, the SCO’s work to coordinate efforts in countering international terrorism, separatism and extremism has already brought some practical results and acquired certain positive dynamics. The new Programme of Cooperation among the SCO Member States on Counter-Terrorist, Counter-Separatist and Counter-Extremist Measures for 2019–2021 is expected to be approved at the Qingdao summit. The organization’s anti-drug strategy is in the final stage of development. Other plans include intensifying operations of the SCO’s regional anti-terrorist structure.
Yet it would be an exaggeration to say that the SCO serves as a framework for a common security strategy of its member states. Just like before, the main efforts aimed at developing cooperation are focused on bilateral relations, primarily relations between Russia and the other SCO member states. The SCO itself remains largely a “geopolitical showcase” intended to demonstrate the effectiveness of “non-Western” approaches to multilateral cooperation, and to the world order in general.
At some point, China attempted to shift this focus to less sensitive areas of potential cooperation. In particular, Beijing proposed strengthening the economic dimension of the SCO’s activities, up to and including setting up a free trade zone and fostering economic integration among the member states. Though nobody objected to this proposal, China’s partners proved predictably unprepared for such a development. They all were seriously concerned about Beijing’s possible economic expansion, and none of them was particularly enamoured with the prospect of becoming an economic appendage of China.
Moscow had its own concerns about the Chinese proposals. Russian experts believed that intensified economic cooperation within the SCO aimed at a future free trade zone would eventually lead to that organization replacing the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) as the key driver of Eurasian integration, thus depriving Russia of the central role in this process.
As a result, the idea of a free trade zone was only actively supported by Kazakhstan and has not yet resulted in any detailed expert evaluations. China was eventually forced to shift the focus of its economic strategy in Eurasia from the SCO to the One Belt One Road Initiative, and the free trade zone idea is hardly ever mentioned in the latest SCO documents.
In practice, the role of the SCO was reduced to that of bringing bilateral or tripartite sub-regional economic projects together under one roof. This umbrella organization may have done something to conceal China’s economic domination in the region, but it did not change the essence of the ongoing processes.
With all its teething problems, the SCO’s two potential development trajectories remained relatively open. Until recently, that is. The organization could continue with its attempts to reach a new level of multilateral cooperation on security while trying to expand the scope of this cooperation by tackling unconventional threats and challenges head-on. Or it could strengthen its economic component consistently, gradually nearing the establishment of a free trade zone, albeit not as fast as Beijing would like.
The Development Strategy of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Until 2025 adopted at the July 2015 summit in Ufa was presented in an oversimplified way and allowed for various priorities to be set and various scenarios for the further development of the SCO to be implemented. However, the expansion of the organization that followed two years later changed its prospects significantly, narrowing the once-ample scope of opportunities. By embracing India and Pakistan, the SCO passed an important point of no return in its institutional development.
It is not about the expansion per se. Had the SCO accepted Mongolia, Turkmenistan and Belarus – or even Vietnam or a post-UN sanctions North Korea – as full members, for example, the power balance within the organization would not have change in any significant way. The SCO’s political foundations would also have remained the same. Just like the original six SCO member states, the aforementioned countries are believed to be communist or post-communist; they share many “generic features” and a long history of interaction with one another in a variety of formats. Not all of these countries can be viewed as convenient partners, but it is unlikely that many current members, such as Uzbekistan, can be treated as such either.
The expansion of the SCO through the addition of India and Pakistan presents fundamentally different problems. These two new members radically change the geographic, demographic, strategic and political balance within the SCO. More importantly, they bring the burden of bilateral conflicts, severe political differences, territorial disputes, historical grievances and mutual suspicions to the organization. There are conflicts, territorial disputes and mutual suspicions among the original SCO members, but nothing close to the Kashmir problem when it comes to longevity, intensity and the loss of life.
In addition, neither India nor Pakistan belong to the (post-)communist world: the two countries share the British colonial legacy and have a completely different experience of statehood and political development (incidentally, the SCO’s official languages have always been Russian and Chinese, not English). The SCO must also contend with the complicated relations between India and China.
At the present time, it is difficult to predict how the SCO’s expansion will affect its operation. Most likely, it will now be much more difficult to find a common point of contact on the most pressing strategic, political and economic problems. And there is a new potential complication on the horizon: Iran and Afghanistan are planning to join the organization and will thus bring their own views on global politics and strategic stability and their own ambitions and interests with them.
As has been repeatedly demonstrated by other intergovernmental associations, attempts to expand an organization while trying to deepen ties within it carry significant risks. As a relatively young and not completely developed structure, these risks are particularly high.
One opinion has it that Eurasia is suffering from an “institutional deficit” – a lack of complementary multilateral development and security institutions found in abundance in other regions. This suggests that there should be as many such institutions as possible.
The idea is correct, in a sense: Eurasia is not yet fully formed as an independent region; until recently, its various parts belonged to other geopolitical and civilizational entities. Yet we must remember that a number of inter-regional and global structures gravitate towards Eurasia in one way or another. This means that the SCO is still facing institutional competition, albeit in an implicit and relatively mild form. We have already mentioned the SCO’s rivalry with the EAEU, but this is not the only possible scenario.
For example, the BRICS organization (which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) is based on the Eurasian triangle of Russia, India and China (the “RIC” part of the acronym). Now that India is a member of the SCO, the latter has come to reproduce, somewhat belatedly, the Eurasian triangle of BRICS; this implies potential rivalry between the two structures, which the SCO is likely to lose in the end. Even though BRICS was established five years after the SCO, institutionally it is more developed in a number of aspects. Suffice it to compare the New Development Bank (NDB), which is operating successfully under the auspices of BRICS, and the numerous SCO Development Bank and Development Fund projects that have yet to materialize.
In terms of security, much has been said about the dangers of competition between the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Even though the functions of the two organizations do not overlap entirely, and the composition of their participants is different (the CSTO comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), the two entities have obviously similar missions. This could actually have come in handy had they competed in resolving the very serious 2010 Kyrgyz crisis, for example. However, both organizations preferred to disassociate themselves, or at least minimize their intervention.
It would be fair to note that, despite the CSTO’s numerous shortcomings, its future as the key security organization at the centre of Eurasia appears to be more favourable than that of the SCO (especially considering the fact that the latter has now been joined by the strategic antipodes of India and Pakistan). In fact, many of the security issues in the region will continue to be resolved bilaterally rather than multilaterally.
So, it turns out that the continuing institutional weakness of the SCO, coupled with its extremely broad mandate and the erosion of the Russia–China core through the adoption of new members can transform the organization into a suitcase without a handle: something too unwieldy to carry but too precious to abandon. It is, of course, true to say that the SCO remains useful as a discussion platform for global and regional problems, with all its ministerial summits and meetings. But can ceremonies and non-specific political declarations remain a sufficient justification for the organization’s existence in the long run?
The European Experience
The solution can often be found in the same place as the problem. It is in the institutional weaknesses of the SCO that its unique role in the Eurasian space can be found. The inclusion of India and Pakistan suggests the direction for the organization’s further development. It is clear that, with India and Pakistan on board – and even more so if Iran and Afghanistan join the club – the SCO will never again be the same group of like-minded countries it was supposed to be two decades ago. Nevertheless, it can become a platform for communication between potential or actual opponents, a tool for developing uniform standards and rules of conduct within the multi-directional and potentially highly conflict-prone Eurasia of the 21st century.
History offers examples of international institutions that were created (and operated successfully) not as alliances united by common goals and values, but rather as mechanisms for the interaction of opponents. Perhaps the most well-known example of this was demonstrated by Europe from the 1970s to the 1990s. Following two years of hard work, the summer of 1975 saw the signing of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (the Helsinki Accords), which postulated the fundamental rules of the game as applied to the continuing division of the European continent.
The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) was established as a permanent international forum of all European countries, as well as the United States and Canada. Unlike the OSCE, which superseded it in January 1995, the CSCE was created at a time when any unification of Europe under the umbrella of common values and coinciding interests was out of the question.
1970s Europe and present-day Eurasia are obviously very different. For example, back then, Europe was rigidly bipolar, whereas Eurasia of today is seeing multi-polarity grow in the absence of clearly defined political and military alliances. In 1970s Europe, the pressure of global problems (climate change, the scarcity of resources, migration) was still almost imperceptible, whereas today’s Eurasia is suffering from them more and more each year. Europe was mostly focused on conventional security, whereas Eurasia needs to respond to unconventional challenges, from international terrorism to cybercrime. In Europe, first they agreed on the principles and then they created an appropriate international structure. Something completely different may happen in Eurasia – the existing structure may have to come up with new principles and rules of the game.
But the main thing is that in Eurasia, just like in Europe in the 20th century, there is an urgent need to define the general parameters of interaction in the context of profound differences between the continent’s countries on many fundamental issues – differences that are unlikely to be overcome in the foreseeable future. Managing competition is no less important than developing cooperation in this context. And the SCO could play a very important role here.
The Way to the Future
What does this mean in practice? First, now that the SCO has started expanding, it must continue with this process. The more members there are, the more legitimate the organization will grow. The prospects for further expansion are very good. At the moment, in addition to the eight full members, the SCO includes four observers (Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia), 10 candidate observers (Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Maldives, Qatar, Syria, Ukraine and Vietnam) and six dialogue partners (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey). In other words, almost 30 Eurasian countries are already in the SCO orbit. In the first years of the SCO’s existence, considerable work was done to develop the criteria and specific provisions, first for obtaining observer status and then for obtaining the status of dialogue partner.
Second, just like in Europe of the 1970s, the SCO might become a platform for discussing and devising the fundamental principles of relations in situations of differing or conflicting interests. New Helsinki Accords for Eurasia? Why not? Not in the format of the original document, of course: the world has changed since then, so too have global politics. The “10 Helsinki principles” should be amended for Eurasia in the light of what has happened over the past four decades.
Third, we must abandon the idea of seeking a “narrow specialism” for the SCO; in fact, the organization’s existing specialisms should be expanded further. As is known, the CSCE was built on the basis of “three baskets” or chapters: 1) “questions relating to security in Europe” – arms control, conflict prevention and confidence-building measures; 2) “cooperation in the fields of economics, of science and technology, and of the environment” – trade and economic aspects of cooperation, as well as environmental security; 3) “cooperation in humanitarian and other fields” – the protection of human rights, the development of democratic institutions, and the monitoring of elections.
In modern Eurasia, the three most important dimensions of international life (security, economic development and the humanitarian dimension) develop primarily in parallel. They are managed by various bureaucratic structures, their budgets rarely overlap, and experts tend to concentrate on one of the three dimensions. The SCO’s updated mechanisms could be instrumental in integrating these three dimensions into uniform multilateral projects.
The future of the SCO may consist not only in successful competition with other Eurasian organizations, ad-hoc coalitions or continental international regimes, but also in the role of integrator for the efforts of numerous players in the Eurasian political arena. If the SCO fills this niche, it will complement other regional and inter-regional structures such as BRICS, the CSTO, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the EAEU, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the G20, etc. Moreover, the SCO already has cooperation agreements with most of these organizations. Now it needs to implement those accords in practice.
This will turn the SCO into a cornerstone which, while scornfully rejected today by many ambitious builders of new Eurasian security and development structures, will sit at the heart of the building yet to be erected.
First published in our partner RIAC
22 Years of Nuclearization of South Asia: Current Doctrinal Postures
May 2020 marks the 22nd anniversary of the overt nuclearization of South Asia. The evolved nuclear doctrinal postures of both India and Pakistan have been a key component of their defence and security policies. During this period; India has undergone gradual shifts in its nuclear doctrinal posture. The Indian posture as set out in the 1999 ‘Draft Nuclear Doctrine‘ (DND) was based on an assertion that India would pursue the ‘No First Use’ (NFU) policy. The first amendment to this posture, which came out in January 2003, was based on a review by the Indian Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) of the nuclear doctrine. It stated that if India’s armed forces or its people were attacked with chemical and biological weapons, India reserves the right to respond with nuclear weapons. This review could, therefore, be considered a contradiction to India’s declared NFU policy at the doctrinal level. On the basis of this notion, it could be assumed that India has had an aspiration to drift away from its NFU policy since 2003.
Subsequently, the notion of a preemptive ‘splendid first strike‘ has been a key part of the discourse surrounding the Indian and international strategic community since the years 2016-2017. According to this, if in India’s assessment, Pakistan was found to be deploying nuclear weapons, in a contingency, India would resort to such a splendid first strike. With such a doctrinal posture, India’s quest for preemption against Pakistan seems to be an attempt to neutralize the deterrent value of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. In this regard, India has been constantly advancing its nuclear weapons capabilities based on enhanced missile programs and the development of its land, sea, and air-based nuclear triad thus negating its own NFU policy. This vindicates Pakistan’s already expressed doubts over India’s long-debated NFU policy. Such Indian notion would likely serve as an overt drift towards a more offensive counterforce doctrinal posture aimed at undermining Pakistan’s deterrence posture. This would further affect the strategic stability and deterrence equilibrium in the South Asian region.
India’s rapid augmentation of its offensive doctrinal posture vis-à-vis Pakistan is based on enhancing its strategic nuclear capabilities. Under its massive military up-gradation program, India has developed the latest versions of ballistic and cruise missiles, indigenous ballistic missile defence (BMD) systems in addition to Russian made S-400, nuclear submarines, and enhanced capabilities for space weaponization. In the same vein, India’s aspiration for supersonic and hypersonic weapons is also evidence of its offensive doctrinal posture. Furthermore, India has been carrying out an extensive cruise missile development program having incredible supersonic speed along with its prospective enhanced air defence shield. Through considerable technological advancements India has shifted its approach from a counter-value to a counter-force doctrinal posture, as it demonstrates its ambitions of achieving escalation-dominance throughout the region. These technological advancements are clear indicators that India’s doctrinal posture is aimed at destabilizing the existing nuclear deterrence equilibrium in South Asia.
Pakistan, on the other hand has been threatened by India’s offensive postures and hegemonic aspirations. Consequently it has to maintain a certain balance of power to preserve its security. Pakistan’s doctrinal posture is defensive in nature and has over the years shifted from strategic deterrence to ‘full spectrum deterrence’ (FSD) by adding tactical nuclear weapons which, it claims, falls within the threshold of ‘minimum credible deterrence’. In this regard, Pakistan too has developed its missile technology based on; short, intermediate, and long-range ballistic missiles. Pakistan’s tactical range ‘Nasr’ missile is widely regarded as a ‘weapon of deterrence’ aimed at denying space for a limited war imposed by India. The induction of ‘multiple independent reentry vehicle’ (MIRV), the development of land, air and sea-launched cruise missiles and the provision of a naval-based second-strike capability have all played a significant role in the preservation of minimum credible deterrence and the assurance of full-spectrum deterrence at the strategic, operational and tactical levels.
Contrary to India’s declared NFU policy, Pakistan has never made such an assertion and has deliberately maintained a policy of ambiguity concerning a nuclear first strike against India. This has been carried out to assure its security and to preserve its sovereignty by deterring India with the employment of Full Spectrum Deterrence (FSD) within the ambit of Credible Minimum Deterrence. This posture asserts that since Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are for defensive purposes in principle, they are aimed at deterring India from any and all kinds of aggression. This has been evident from recent crisis situations as well during which Pakistan’s deterrent posture has prevented further escalation. Therefore, even now Pakistan is likely to keep its options open and still leave room for the possibility of carrying out a ‘first strike’ as a viable potential deterrent against India if any of its stated red lines are crossed.
Hence, the security dynamics of the South Asian region have changed significantly since its nuclearization in 1998. The impact of this has been substantial and irreversible on regional and extra-regional politics, the security architecture of South Asia, and the international nuclear order. As has been long evident India has held long term inspiration to become a great power. There have been continuous insinuations about the transformations in India’s nuclear doctrinal posture from ‘No First Use’ to counterforce offensive posture. The current security architecture of South Asia revolves around this Indian behavior as a nuclear state. In contrast, Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine is based solely on assuring its security, preserving its sovereignty, and deterring India by maintaining a credible deterrence posture. Based on the undeniable threats from India to its existence, Pakistan needs to further expand its doctrinal posture vis-à-vis India. This would preserve the pre-existing nuclear deterrence equilibrium and the ‘balance of power’in the South Asian region.
Israel Shines in the Gulf Where Big Powers Falter, but That Could Prove Tricky
The Firefly, an Israeli-built loitering kamikaze drone, part of the Spike family of missiles that the Jewish state has sold to various European nations, may be one reason why Gulf states, and particularly Saudi Arabia, have cozied up to Israel in a seeming reversal of their past support of Palestinian rights.
If there is one lesson that Gulf states have learned from the United States’ reduced commitment to the region and the strains in US-Saudi relations, it is that putting one’s eggs in one basket is risky business.
That has not prevented the United States from continuing to secure its place as the region’s foremost arms supplier as this month’s arms and related commercial deals prove.
The US Defense Department announced a $2.6 billion USD Saudi deal to acquire 1,000 air-to-surface and anti-ship missiles from Boeing. Within days, Saudi Arabia’s Al Tadrea Manufacturing Company tweeted that it had reached agreement with Oshkosh Defense to establish a joint venture to manufacture armed vehicles in the kingdom.
The Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, disclosed separately that it had recently taken a $ 713.7 million USD stake in Boeing at a time when the company, already suffering major setbacks because of its 737-Max fiasco, took a significant hit as a result of a collapse of the civilian aviation industry.
The continued Saudi arms focus on the United States has not deprived China of opportunities. China has stepped in to help Saudi Arabia produce unmanned military vehicles after the United States refused to sell its MQ-9 Reaper killer drone to the kingdom. Saudi Arabia expects production to start next year.
Like China, Russia has been urging Saudi Arabia to purchase its acclaimed S-400 anti-missile defense system. So far, the kingdom, having watched the United States cancel NATO-member Turkey’s purchase of US F-35 fighter jets and its co-production agreement of some of the plane’s components after it acquired the Russian system, has been reticent to take the Russians up on their offer.
The limitations of Saudi-Russian cooperation have since become obvious with April’s price war between the two major oil producers that sent oil markets into a tailspin from which they are unlikely to recover any time soon.
Israel, like China and Russia and unlike the United States, puts no problematic restrictions such as adherence to human rights and use of weaponry in accordance with international law on its arms sales.
But Israel has one leg up on its Chinese and Russian competitors who maintain close ties to Iran. Israel shares with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) a perception of Iran as an existential threat and a destabilizing force in the Middle East that at the very least needs to be contained.
To be sure, that is a perception that Saudi Arabia and the UAE see reflected in the United States’ maximum pressure policy towards Iran which aims to force the Islamic Republic to “change its behavior,” if not change its regime.
The problem is that maximum pressure two years into the imposition of harsh US economic sanctions has produced little result.
Add to that the fact that the United States has proven to be an unreliable ally when the chips are down, persuading the UAE and other smaller Gulf states to reach out to Iran to ensure that their critical national infrastructure does not become a target in any future major US-Iranian military conflagration.
The watershed moment for the Gulf states was when the United States failed to respond forcefully last spring and summer to alleged Iranian attacks on key Saudi oil facilities as well as oil tankers off the coast of the UAE.
The Trump administration, in a bid to reassure Gulf states, weeks later sent troops and Patriot anti-missile defense systems to Saudi Arabia to help it protect its oil installations, although the United States withdrew two of those systems earlier this month.
It took the killing of a US military contractor in December 2019 for the United States to respond to tens of Iranian-backed attacks on American targets in Iraq. And when it did, with the killing in January of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, Gulf states privately celebrated the demise of their nemesis, but also feared that it was overkill, bringing the Middle East to the brink of an all-out war.
Gulf states are likely to find that cooperation with Israel has its limits too. Israel may be eager to sell weaponry and have the capability to push back at Iran in Syria. If need be, Israel can also severely damage, if not take out, Iranian nuclear and missile facilities in military strikes that Gulf states would be unable to carry out.
But ties to Israel remain a sensitive issue in the Gulf and elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world. And Israel has so far restricted sales to non-lethal equipment and technology. That could change with a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the establishment of formal diplomatic relations.
Public opinion, however, may be one reason Gulf states have refused to turn unofficial relations into diplomatic recognition, suggesting that there may be greater public empathy for Palestinians than Gulf rulers wish to admit.
That could count for more with Gulf rulers finding it increasingly difficult to provide public goods and services, among which first and foremost jobs, as a result of the global economic crisis and the collapse of oil prices.
Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia
China’s Revolution in Military Affairs with Chinese Characteristics
China’s political leadership had ascribed the first two decades of the 21st century as a “period of strategic opportunity.” After considerable and due evaluation of the prevailing international conditions, China’s politburo determined that the weather was conducive to conduct domestic development and expand Beijing’s “comprehensive national power,” a term that embodies all components of state power in addition to economic capacity, military prowess, and diplomacy. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), had engineered a successful model to utilise the paradigm of national power to cater to Beijing’s overarching strategic aspirations, as well as to guarantee the protection of the CCP’s control in the state while ensuring domestic political stability.
Besides, the CCP also envisaged a positive sustainable trajectory for its economic development and postulated a comprehensive plan for the defence of its national security, with the purpose of expanding globally its national status as a great power. In contrast, there was considerable reservation regarding the success of this ambitious drive within the academic community in China, questioning Beijing’s capabilities to sustain the “period of strategic opportunity” during the two decades. However, the Chinese authorities in their defence pointed out the urgent need for achieving the strategic objectives, to claim the global hegemonic status. The call for an immediate rehaul of its National Defence edifice, is also the result of the constant dynamic changes in the international security structure. Rising hegemonism, power politics, and regular regional conflicts and wars have also undermined the global security order. In view of the growing global strategic competition, China is attempting to expedite its modernisation drive to achieve its twenty-year plan, with utmost focus on innovation, science & technology.
Beijing’s politico-strategic community has often reiterated the importance of achieving two critical goals of economic and military landmarks by the year 2020. The first goal is meant to oversee the inclusion of a successful model of an economic structure to help sustain the growth and improve the quality of life of its people while ensuring a socio-economic stability in the state, while the second goal is intended to rehaul the national defence and armed forces through the process of mechanisation and the inclusion of “informatisation” warfare in view of enhancing its “overall strategic capabilities”. These military initiatives are intended to spur the Chinese military in acquiring the capacity and strength to win potential regional conflicts, to safeguard the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs), to defend territorial claims in the East China Sea and the South China Sea and to protect its territorial sovereignty on the western borders.
Through multiple official press statements, prominent Chinese leaders have accentuated the imperative for a military modernisation in the 21st century, presuming Beijing aspires to gain the great power status. These statements also endorse Beijing’s view that a modern military is an imperative form of deterrence against enemies and prevailing threats to Chinese interests, globally. The Chinese leadership has further articulated and justified the ongoing military modernisation programme in the Chinese defence white paper of 2019, by stating that China’s strong military is a force for ensuring “world peace and stability,” while assuring a “comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security by upholding justice while pursuing shared interests” with its various stakeholders. To commensurate with what was earlier said, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stated, “We will stick to Chinese path in strengthening our armed forces, advance all aspects of military training, war preparedness and firmly and resolvedly safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests.” In the background of all the rhetoric concerning the modernisation, one thing is certain, Beijing has systematically induced and justified the obligation for the military modernisation not only to its people but also to the global audience, by depicting a political idealist narrative.
Elements of the Modernisation Program
In the last 20 years, Beijing, in a comprehensive effort to bolster its military power, has undertaken the modernisation and upgradation programme of its services. The rationale for such an initiative accounts for achieving multiple objectives in a single stroke, such as, attaining the status of a world power, accruing of “hard” power through military reformation, harnessing and protecting the state’s interests of “soft” power components of a growing economy, and enhancing diplomatic and cultural ties. Time and again, Beijing has preferred the use of hard power to protect and project its regional interests, settle its territorial claims in the South China Sea and its border disputes along the North East border with India, and also to safeguard the SLOCs which are instrumental for its energy supplies and maritime commerce.
Since the currency of military power has been identified as the primary instrument to protect, project and resolve its national interests, the Chinese leadership has initiated the revamping of its military structure by transforming it into a leaner, robust, technologically advanced force, while increasing its naval capabilities in order to serve its core national strategy. As part of this initiative, China had retired 300,000 troops in a single year in 2018, to improve the quality of recruitment by inducting elite technocrats in the ranks. Parallelly, China wants to upscale its capacities for the Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW), with the aim of maintaining its growing global interests, by engaging and participating actively in activities such as peacekeeping missions, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, anti-piracy operations and play the constabulary role of securing and maintaining the global passages. The agenda behind China’s modernisation programme is the creation of a war machine that not only challenges the presence of the American might in the Indo-Pacific region, but which also establishes itself as the sole hegemon in the region.
Additionally, China’s defence programme is aimed at constructing a technologically advanced force, adequately capable of engaging and winning “limited local wars under conditions of ‘informatisation’.”
In such a scenario, the nature of battle would be short, intense and decisive, complimented by elements of speed, agility and precision of long-range assaults, a synchronized deployment of joint operations by air, land, sea, space, and electromagnetic space (a five-dimensional warfare) which will be assisted by the state-of-art munition systems. To achieve victory in the shortest span of time without any attrition to the troops, the doctrine underscores the importance of three tactical elements of pre-emption, surprise, and shock value, since these elements are critical in defining the outcome of any conflict at its earliest stage. As a result, the Chinese modernisation programme is restructuring and adapting itself on the basis of agility, flexibility, power projection, accuracy of precision-strikes. Furthermore, it is striving towards achieving a smooth functioning of joint operations to ensure effectiveness on the battlefield which in turn will result in a comprehensive victory in the shortest time with minimum casualty.
Beijing has initiated the march to transform the PLA into a lean and mean technologically oriented force while paving way for “informatisation” warfare. This domain of warfare consists of capabilities that are tantamount to C4ISR and are considered quintessential for operational effectiveness on battlefields. In order to build this kind of techno-electronic warfare system, it is a prerequisite to integrate multiple high-end electronic and technological compounds such as the control of the electromagnetic spectrum through an integrated network electronic warfare grid while also, utilising technological advances in the field of microelectronics, sensors, propulsion, stealth technology, and other special materials. The integration of all these various components have helped arm the PLA with nuclear weapons and facilities, precision-strike weapons, including ballistic, anti-ship and cruise missiles, stealth technology and an “integrated network centric warfare” system.
With the advent of the concept of “informatisation” warfare, the Chinese military has moved from being a platform-centric to a network-centric force, where the PLA is principally dependent on the coordination of network linkages between platforms, which stands in dire contrast to the mandates of individual platforms themselves. Observing a quantum leap in the sphere of warfare strategy and in its military arsenal, the PLA has similarly witnessed a revolution at the operational level, switching from simple joint operations to a more dynamic and complex form of an Integrated Joint Operations (IJO). Formerly, joint operations were when two services operated together in any given environment, while one typically played the supporting role for the other, leading to very little coordination and integration in the command and control structure between the two services. However, with the inception of “informatisation” warfare and the induction of the IJO, the PLA has been provided with more flexibility and mobility pertaining to multi-service operations, which include non-PLA forces such as the reserved forces of the paramilitary and the local police force in certain measures.
In order to successfully operationalise the IJO system, the PLA is been tasked with the challenge of formulating a new kind of command and control structure that enables a seamless exchange of information between the three services and aids in multilevel synchronization in the decision-making process on real-time basis, during live operations. Lack of coordination between the military services has stymied the successful implementation of the IJO.
Other dimensions of technological warfare in the modernisation programme include the development of cyber and outer-space security. In the era of science and technology, cyberspace is an essential domain that needs to be controlled. It is not only a repository of data and information but also plays a vital role in building national security, economic and social growth, and development. The Chinese military has focussed its attention on its cyber security cell and has built cyber defence capabilities to rival other technologically superior countries, aiming to establish itself as the fore runner. A cyber division has been operationalised to detect and counter all foreign network intruders. The role of this organisation is to guarantee the safety of cyber data and information and asseverate sovereignty in the cyber realm.
The other key focus is on the development of the outer-space programme which Beijing perceives as a crucial domain of strategic international competition. Beijing has undertaken several international space cooperation and programmes and has initiated the development of space specific technologies and capabilities with the interest of providing strategic assistance for national and social development. It is also engaged in rendering advanced integrated space-based information resources, enhancing space situation awareness, protecting space assets, while also working to ensure free movement in the outer space.
China’s military is gearing towards the optimisation of its arsenal composition, by inducting the state of art machinery. Obsolete hardware and equipment are being decommissioned paving way for high- tech weaponry. At the same time, it is fiercely working towards the successful formation of a network centric warfare system, where it can shape an efficient battle environment for smoother interoperability between different services. Complying with the era of information, science and technology, China is working unceasingly to build a military that is harnessed and powered by information and technology, in order to create a military unlike any other in the world.
China’s fundamental perception of modern warfare transmuted after the debacle of the first Gulf War in 1992, where America displayed conspicuous military superiority and operational efficiency over their adversary through the use of technology, to conduct clinical strikes on the battle-field with minimum loss of life. Having witnessed a phenomenal exhibition of the use of military technology in a theatre of war, China recognised the significance and the indispensability of the use of technology in modern warfare and thus initiated the modernisation programme of its armed forces. Instead of engaging in protracted wars, local wars were preferred wherein, “quick battles to force quick resolution”.
Taking queue from “informatisation” warfare as the kernel of the modernisation programme, the PLA has pressed for a “Revolution in Military Affairs” with typical “Chinese characteristics”. It has scientifically and systematically formulated the strategic plans for its national defence and armed forces and put it into motion in 2010, while also framing a comprehensive strategy to help develop its logistics support for the development of its arms and services corps. According to its twenty-year plan, China has sought to complete the mechanisation process of its forces and has desired to make significant progress in innovation and technology to strengthen its information and communication command structure by 2020.
However, regarding the mechanisation process, the PLA “has yet to complete the task of mechanisation and is in urgent need of improving its informatisation.” Since it is unable to keep abreast with the rate of technological development, it is falling behind schedule. China’s latest defence white paper 2019, clearly outlines certain key elements of the modernisation programme which require immediate attention and application in the military domain, and those include, artificial intelligence, quantum information, cloud computing and the operationalisation of cutting edge-technologies. Driven by the need to “develop an intelligent military”, the PLA has transformed its “quantity-and-scale model military into a quality and efficient one” that is “science and technologically-intense”.
Furthermore, the PLA regards the use of innovation and information as key ingredients to the success of future combats, while assuring an asymmetric engagement. As China’s rivalry with America and its neighbouring countries keeps intensifying, it will be interesting to observe the manner in which China will tackle its modernisation challenges and technological shortcomings in the coming decades, in order to challenge the American military might and to displace their global hegemonic status.
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