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China Aims for Impactful Offshore Defense in the ‘New Era’

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As the rule of thumb goes, it is best to read between the lines and understand the tone of words because there are always two sides to every story. This general approach spawned a perception that the words that are on a piece of official paper not only contain government’s stances but also include strategies to solve a problem, or make a decision. Similarly, China, with a series of White Papers on national defence and international security, engaged in a dialogue and concisely presented its viewpoints on contemporary developments.

The gap between the United States (US) and China is gradually becoming thinner for global economic and regional power shift; the 2019 defence white paper on China’s National Defense in the New Era(10th of this kind) underlined the importance of the careful balance of perceptions, and manage China’s relations to the changes in security order.

China’s response to any change in the security order is traditionally characterised as unique. In the West, China is often seen as responsible for change in the status quo. It is more than about its exceptional stands and the position it holds in the international system, e.g.reform and reshape global governance.

Interestingly, the focus is centred to where China stands in shaping normative security order: align with traditional Chinese cultural values or adopt models and principles of western theories of International Relations. In this respect, the Chinese discourse has been confident about experimenting traditional Chinese models, though the international response has mostly been unsupportive. Moreover, it appears that the outside world is not too much focused on China’s normative influence, but more importantly, interested about what implies minor distinctions in China’s position, posture and policy and why there is a shift.

Through the 2019defence White Paper, China had stressed on the need for balancing the trend of the current international security situation. It also set out core directions and objectives of China’s military diplomacy and strategy by articulating the far-reaching goal of nurturing a new form of defence relations for deterrence, reassurance, and secure overseas interests, which is a breakthrough in some respects against Xi Jinping’s vision for great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics. Although China affirms its fundamental principles have not mainly changed but in the security realm,its current posture is inclined to more practical commitments rather ideological.

As signs of the mounting pressure of partnership-based alliance is becoming apparent, China’s narrative is gradually tuning to the fundamental change in the US policy and literature. Indeed, China may have realised now there is a reason to be sceptical of the optimistic forecasts of regional security order as improving. A premise that is largely influenced by China’s resilience and preparedness for offshore defence is its naval and maritime defence to keep regional and global threats at bay.

Indeed, this comes from the understanding that as China is moving closer to the centre of the world stage, the international community expects China to embrace the shift conflict-free. So far, China’s engagement with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) haspartially favoured to check security challenges and likely military alliances.

As Beijing is taking the initiative to repair its relations with neighbours and show gestures that it is willing to cooperate, on the other side, Washington and its allies have resumed campaigns, stating that BRI is to exert China’s influence on weaker nations. Each side has their reasons, but the situation seems partly a result of the current sluggish world order suffering from security dilemma, competition and misgivings about each other.

What is new in Beijing’s Active defence?

The most salient feature in China’s new approach is shying away from military options to mitigate security risks regarding overseas interests. Zhou Bo (Director of the Center for Security Cooperation in the Chinese Ministry of National Defense’s Office for International Military Cooperation)explained the change as natural and argued: “wherever possible, the PLA has been trying to blend China’s national interests with its international responsibilities.” Second, interestingly for the first time through the2019 White Paper, China has conveyed a strong message that the People’s Liberation Army would seek a stronger role to protect ‘China’s Overseas Interests’ that includes Chinese people, organisations and institutions. This way, it has quietly but confidentially made China’s overseas interests fall in the scope of its core national interest.

Traditionally, Beijing has stressed on its offshore facilities such as offshore fish farms, wind farms, drilling rigs, floating rocket launchers in and around its exclusive economic zone and ‘historical claims’ were under its defence umbrella. However, with the change in policy, now China reserves an equal amount of focus on jointly operated commercial ports, maritime assets and Sea lines of communication (SLOC)that are away from its shore.

For those who wonder how China protects its overseas interest, the answer is, it seems China does not to follow the US’s traditional offshore balance model of acquiring too many expensive and permanent military bases and making military alliances, but rather, focus on soft or semi-hard balance by attaining naval/military rights to operate in the host countries’ military facilities. Such a posture not just defends its cause but also justifies defensive use of force when its interests are challenged. In this regard, the PLA Djibouti Support Base, military rights in the pacific islands and military facilities in the South China Sea (SCS) islands and reefs help to escort China’s task groups and could be seen as key features of China’s offshore defence.

The second important feature of China’s offshore facilities explains the economic rationale and commercial potential. If we were to compare overseas military bases and how much China spends, it comes nowhere near to the United States. However, whatever overseas military facilities that China has, they have certain unique features: primarily they serve Chinese business interests, but the US facilities were to assist Overseas Contingency Operations (generally known as funding the wars). Second, they are comparatively inexpensive and cost-effective, whereas the US maintains around 883 expensive overseas military bases and spends about $139.4 billion annually. Nevertheless, China has a lesser overseas combat experience.

Therefore, it is no surprise that China has been keen about reforming and modernising the PLA to build a fortified national defence and a strong military, which required overseas combat expertise.

China’s offshore defence with limited offshore capabilities calls for focus to key geopolitical regions of the world such as East Asia, West Pacific, and the Persian Gulf. As China further intends to extend the training of PLA branches and deploy the aircraft carrier task group for far sea combat exercise, the reforms in China’s military such as suspending commercial responsibilities, informatisation, modernisation of military theory, and organisational structure come in handy. As a result, the role of PLA branches has increased significantly in diversified military tasks such as “monitor China’s territorial air and peripheral air space, carry out alert patrols and combat takeoff”, and to build and develop far seas forces and overseas logistical facilities.

Besides, one could trace about three core approaches that China prefers to follow in safeguarding its sovereignty, security and development interests are self-help, partnership, and military protest.

China’s self-help approach focuses on major security fields such as nuclear, missile defence, outer space, electromagnetic space, and cyberspace for nuclear and conventional deterrence, protect cyber sovereignty and information security. In fact, this approach was pretty much the same throughout. However, now that the scenario has changed with the global military competition in the areas of technological, intelligence developments towards informationized warfare, and intelligent warfare, China gives serious attention to tactical and strategic deployment of such facilities.

Second, the partnership approach emphasises on active development of China’s military relations and partnerships with Central Asia, Russia and European countries in critical areas of non-traditional security threats such as terrorism and extremism, piracy, cybersecurity and bio-security. Besides, in the hotspots and international passages, China seeks to play a constructive role – meditation for the political settlement, and jointly maintain the security respectively.

Third, the element of military protest are set to follow in concerning areas of information and cultural warfare, Taiwan gaining of foreign influence, ‘Tibet independence’, the creation of ‘East Turkistan’, and in the South China Sea disputes.

For instance, sovereignty, maritime demarcation, and freedom of navigation and overflight over islands and reefs in the South China Sea were concerned the White Paper emphasised about creating favourable conditions by building “infrastructure and deploy necessary defensive capabilities … [and] conduct patrols”, at the same time in commercial affairs China stated that it is committed about upholding freedom of navigation and overflight by all countries in accordance with international law and safeguard the security of SLOCs.

To make sure that this offshore adventure remains risk-free and reliable the White Paper set military strategic guideline for PLA to work within “the principles of defence, self-defence and post-strike response, and adopts active defense”, and stressed the strategic defence and offence at operational and tactical levels to contain and win wars.

What worries China?

The White Paper makes some observation that also appeared to be China’s security concerns. China views the situation in Asia-Pacific (and the South China Sea) as “generally stable and improving”; contrary, it views the situation in Europe and the Persian Gulf as disturbing. Besides, at this juncture,China also asserts that despite its attempts to stimulate confidence the military alliances, deployment and intervention were adding complexity to regional security.

If that is the case, in China’s opinion, who is undermining regional security? The White Paper roughly mentions the United States, Republic of Korea, Japan and Australia’s activities resonate as a challenge to regional security. Other areas of China’s concerns also include the UK, France, Germany, Japan and India’s rebalance and optimisation of their military structure. Perhaps a better question might be: is China’s opinion influenced by the Indo-Pacific debate?

Interestingly, by stating that the security situation in Asia-Pacific remains generally stable, the White Paper tried to avoid overlaps with American strategic interests. On the other hand, it referred to the US military and diplomatic efforts as the primary source of intensifying strategic competition, hence causing China to focus on offshore defence.

Meanwhile, either in the offshore balance or defence, the alliances play an essential role. Though China’s seeks military partnership based on non-alliance and non-confrontation, the US policies however, is driving China closer to Russia and SCO members. Further, Beijing also attempted to clarify its principle position as ‘Defensive National Defense Policy’ and never seek hegemony, expansion or spheres of influence. At this stage, to avoid misgivings about its principles and actions, effective communication and cooperation are best for China.

In terms of balancing threat perceptions about China’s rise, the White Paper recognizes the need for Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) and treaties of good-neighbourliness, friendship and cooperation with the neighbours.

For the moment, the new posture to protect China’s overseas interests translates that the country is gradually heading towards impactful offshore defence. Nevertheless, in the long run, despite the US and other players counteracts, PLA’s international profile would increase significantly regarding China’s offshore facilities and international military cooperation.

Dokku Nagamalleswara Rao is a Doctoral Fellow (PhD) in International Politics at Shandong University, China. He worked as a Research Intern at the Chennai Center for China Studies (C3S) Chennai and at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) New Delhi; he received M.Phil. in Chinese Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, and M.A. in Politics and International Relations from Pondicherry University.

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The Irony of Afghanistan: US Plans Departure amidst Anarchy

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A family runs across a dusty street in Herat, Afghanistan. (file photo) UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya

The peace and prosperity in Afghanistan have been a mere myth for decades. With a succession of invasion by a blood-ridden Taliban rule followed by a 2-decade long US invasion, the said country has seen little tranquillity when it comes to human rights and secure living. While the US vowed to ensure a democratic regime laced by a rule of law in Afghanistan, the withdrawal seems anti-climactic: especially after spending trillions of dollars and suffering thousands of soldiers in warfare. As the egress nears, however, the one glimmer of hope dwindles faster than expected. The hope of peace. It is ironic, however, as to how an invasion initially programmed to contain terrorism is culminating whilst the transition witnesses similar bloodshed and instability.

The Taliban have been infamous for launching attacks against the Afghan armed forces and the US military on a perpetual basis. Not to mention hundreds and thousands of civilians facing the raucous vigilantes for years. While the agreement ensured the safety of the foreign soldiers, however, the civilians continue to face the brunt. The recent attack in the capital city of Kabul is a prime example of how the world superpower leaves the battlefield after instigating the barbaric factions for almost 20 years.

The bombs detonated last Thursday in the neighbourhood of Dasht-e-Barchi, resonating the community pithing the peripheries. The Shia-Hazara community, the largest community in the region, was the main target (as it has been for years by both Taliban and Islamic State). The targeted school rendered a majority of female students who were conceived to be the main target instead of their religious affiliation. Regardless of the underlying intent, the attacks left 68 dead while 165 victims are still struggling in hospitals. The sheer brutality of the attacks signifies how brazen the rebels stand in their positions while the western powers stagger off the mainland under a facade of victory when all that has been achieved is a fragile democracy and a ravaged land that potentially stands open to any militant group even before the forces exit.

Surprising, unfortunate, and even maudlin is hardly the sentiment to describe the brutality. It is the outright indifference that incriminates the US in the warfare that follows its exit. As the officials collect stationery and books strewn across the street, doused in blood, the US is blame-worthy to the slaughter that would most likely not be the end of the tyranny of the militants. The fact that is ridicule-worthy, however, is that the Taliban attended the mediation talks recently and ensured order and calm in Afghanistan, attesting to their will to enforce Shariah in Afghanistan whilst not meddling or overthrowing the government in the ensuing of the US egress. Mere days and the streets are coated with blood especially as Eid festivities are marking the same streets scattered with the remains of the innocent.

While the Taliban denied any involvement in the recent attack, either side poses a problem. If the involvement is in fact a reality, like it has been on similar occasions in the past, the gruesome fact stands tall. No one can stop the Taliban from spreading chaos if they truly want to. The pervasive nature of their rebellion could be gauged by a thorough historical analysis. A group that reached the United States in 2001 and a group that could not be withered by legendary powers like the Soviet Union in the 80s. The Taliban have steered the negotiations and even the US is aware of the leverage they enjoy given it is their homeland whilst the foreign forces have failed to dent their vice-grip on the terrain of Afghanistan.

If, however, the Taliban are taken true to their word, this poses a far sinister possibility. The attacks signify an underground nurturing of an offshoot militant group, possibly the IS or Boko Haram. With US and NATO exiting in September, the Ghani-regime struggling to ensure stability, and the Taliban holding power in scores, anarchy is much more plausible than tranquillity. The US withdraws from the land in the name of ending the endless war. The reality, however, is that the US is receding from an endless war. The war that was ignited by the US would continue to burn with or without the US. The difference is the switch from armed personnel to innocent students and minorities. It is a matter of perspective and, well, ownership and acceptance.

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5th Generation Warfare: A reality or Controversy?

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In the truest sense, the constant repetition of phrase ‘the 5th generation warfare’ by our military leaders in every media conference has been true in the light of the exposition of the Indian sinister campaign against Pakistan in the ‘Indian Chronicles’. Those who were mocking the idea of 5th generation warfare in the context of Pakistan need to revisit their opinions, suggestions and warfare analysis.

Needless to say, Pakistan is facing enormous threats across its borders. The temperature has been red hot in the East and west borders of the country. Since the government of the Modi in its absolute fascistic endeavors took over the valley of Kashmir, the idea of the 5th generation warfare has become incredibly important to understand the volatile and emerging situations. While the India is accusing Pakistan regardless of its pathetic human rights violation in Kashmir, it seems that the war of demonization continues between these two arch-rivals.

Technically speaking, the dossier that Pakistan has recently published of its intelligence reports which clearly indicate the network of India that has been put in place to malign Pakistan and to come true in its ominous ambitions. In the light of the possible threats, Pakistan has to protect the CPEC projects from India and all the workings going on along the one belt and road project as we have undeniable evidence of the threats to the projects. Amid the rivalry of India and Pakistan, there is a play of world super powers as well as both America and China wants to expand their influence in the Asia, and Middle East.

If one belt and road initiatives stand tall in the face of the foreign funded attacks it would become the strength of the country in the near future. Along with protection of the OBOR projects Pakistan needs to understand the fact that it needs regional players to take part in OBOR extension to raise the stakes in it so that other regional actors will help making OBOR a successful economic venture. Since South Asia has been at the center of war from the last three decades only economic success is deemed to cut this root out. It will hopefully carry out people who have been radicalized because of the prolonged war on terror and the subsequent longest war of America in the Afghanistan territory.

The root cause of the Pakistani society of becoming violently rogue has been due to the pathetically designed strategic policies. Now, every effort on the part of the state must ensure economic progress. Wading into foreign wars, in the name of saving Islam has proved detrimental and counterproductive. The recent dossier that Pakistan has published largely identified this fact that the fallout of extremism and the wide network of India has exploited the regional issues, especially secessionists movements, in the country. It is time for our state to take responsible actions against these terror hideouts. Naming them or just publishing a dossier would not make difference until the whole infrastructure of the terror sites raze down to Earth.

The intelligence report that Pakistan has published certainly brought some results to the fore. One, India has been demonized subsequently more prominently in the Arnab Goswami case where it has been openly told to the world that India had fake surgical strikes inside Pakistan. This whole drama was just a political tactic by the BJP party to win in the general elections lately. This proved to the world that India has been maligning Pakistan and its interests in the world. But things are unsettling now. Time has come for India to take upon itself the weight of  its sinister plans against a neighboring country.

It is also theoretically important for the state of Pakistan to really see the emerging trends in the lens of 5th generation warfare as military cadre has been pointing repeatedly in every media conference. If one see the attacks on the infrastructure of the OBOR, insurgents activities along the Durand line, and through the case of Aranab Goswami case, it is vividly clear that the nefarious activities in the guise of 5th generation warfare are true.

There are many political commentators in the Dawn Newspaper who have downplayed the visible threats of 5th generation warfare calling it a facade because of their abnormal understanding of the emerging situation in south Asia. That is why to understand a situation like surgical strikes that too fake one, one is left with no choice but to look up to the themes like 5th Generation warfare.

Until we expose India and our many other enemies through precise and strategic actions with the help of our strategic think tanks, Pakistan will not grow up economically because for economic ease peace is the necessary condition. The core strategy of Indian so far has been deploying maximum pressure upon Pakistan. It is true that India has been successful in some way to malign Pakistan. Visibly, Pakistan has made a lot of investment in the building up of the infrastructure for OBOR projects but apparently our intra-regional trade has been dipped to 7.4 down from 12.2 percent in 2011. It means we have been massively slowed down by India with the help of rising up temperature at the borders and planning attacks inside the country.

All in all, 5th generation warfare has been true in the context of Pakistan. To understand this, we need to connect the dots. The connection of Pakistani intelligence dossier, to attacks inside the country, to Arab Goswami case  and to the Indian lab of disinformation proves the fact that 5th generation warfare is not lost on us. It is a time to rethink on these lines as we will have a tough time in balancing our economy through OBOR, opening intra-trade to maintain political instability in the country.

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China’s quad in the making: A non-conventional approach

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Politics of alliance can be traced to the ancient times of the East and the West. Since it affects the core interest and security of individual states, the leaders concerned seek for alliance partners in order to meet the threat they face and the gains they can expect from alliance. The U.S. has maintained its superiority in military and also created the largest alliance system in the world. Now seeing the rise of China as one strategic competitor in the 21st century, the U.S. has made all efforts to create a “quad” along with Japan, Australia and India in the Indo-Pacific. This leads to an inquiry into how China reacts to the containment led by the U.S.?

China has maintained the high-level of strategic partnership with Russia, Pakistan and now Iran. Yet they aim at strategic consensus, economic connectivity, mutual respect and equality in a challenge to any unilateral hegemony. Due to this, China’s version of the “quad” is more flexible and pragmatic in winning over states with different cultural, religious and ideological backgrounds. Yet the Biden administration has made it clear that it moves to establish a “quadruple” alliance along with Japan, Australia and India in order to insure the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific still to the U.S. favor. To that end, on March 12, the first summit among the four countries revealed their collective security talks on everything from vaccine distribution to fighting climate change, yet also including their viewing China’s efforts to modernize and professionalize its military as a strategic competition in Asia and the Pacific.

Only days after President Biden’s drive for a “Quad” in the Indo-pacific, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made his visit to China during March 22at the invitation of his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. This reveals the high-level quality of the relations between the two largest Eurasian powers and their agenda has deepened across nearly all dimensions of the comprehensive strategic partnership, such as from diplomacy and defense to economic and technology. The growing ties between China and Russia have aimed to establish a multipolar order that dethrones the US as the global hegemon. In light of the deteriorated relations between China and the U.S. alongside the EU, and between Russia and the Western bloc, the meeting is of strategic implications for China and Russia to consult regularly on the latest issues. Though not ready to forge a military alliance in a traditional way as indicated, China and Russia are actually confident in each other to meet any challenge of the world. The latest announcement that Russia and China would jointly construct a space station on the moon (ILRS) is another great leap forward in the establishment of what is described as the “Sino-Russian alliance in the making”. It clearly reveals that cooperation has become operationally more consequential than the frequently touted democratic partners between the U.S. and India.

During the 1990s,Joseph Nye warned the prospect of the “alliance of the aggrieved” coming from Russian and Chinese strong passion for national glory. Yet, it is very the awkward statecraft of the U.S. that has led China and Russia deftly to overcome conflicting national interests that should make them adversaries on the bilateral, regional and global issues. As Lavrov said prior to his visit, “the model of interaction between Russia and China is free from any ideological constraints. It is of an intrinsic nature, not subject to any opportunistic factors nor against any third countries.”

If the Sino-Russian strategic partnership is seen as the “strategic alliance”, the solidarity between China and Pakistan has been termed as “batie”, referring to “brothers in ironclad”. It is true that China’s normal relations with Pakistan started in 1951 and since1962, the bilateral relations have been transformed into a de facto alliance regardless of the differences in religions and ideologies. Cooperation has covered nearly all aspects from politics to economic and from military to foreign affairs over the past decades. Diplomatically, Pakistan has committed to one-China policy while China has made all endeavors to support its sovereignty, security and stability. Geopolitically, the two sides have worked closely on the joint projects like JF-17 aircrafts, civilian nuclear power plants and the peaceful settlement in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led NATO presence in the war-torn land is seen as a threat to common interest of the two countries and the stability in South Asia as well. Accordingly, Pakistan isseen as one of the key strategic partners of Beijing’s global links, along with Russia and North Korea.

Additionally, in China’s security and development agenda such as the BRI, Pakistanis sure to be a vital partner in light of the decades-long friendship and its location in South Asia near to Strait of Hormuz which links the Middle East. China has invested heavily in the region while it depends on oil, gas and many other energies. To that end, the project of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has been expected to enhance the strategic connectivity between the two sides to a new high-level strategic convergence. It is in a broader term, alliance forms when states have common interests and strong consensus to pursue them. For example, China, Russia and Pakistan have shared compatible interests in a constructive and inclusive solution to end the civil war in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan through agreements on the formation of a coalition government with the participation of the Taliban movement.

Now an inquiry is whether China along with Russia and Pakistan would move toward a Eurasian bloc including Iran. On March 27, Chinese FM Wang Yi formally visited Iran, yet what China seeks for in the Middle East is not a traditional alliance like the NATO or the “Quad” in the Indo-Pacific as the U.S. has driven for. Rather, as Beijing reiterated, China acted to persuade the countries concerned to stay impervious to external pressure and interference, to independently secure its own interests in light of the regional peace and stability. Accordingly, China wants to project itself an image as a peaceful power unlike the U.S. and its allies which aim to pursue the exclusive privileges and unilateral interests in the Middle East and beyond.

During Wang’s visit, “the plan for China-Iran comprehensive cooperation” was signed with a view to taping the potentials for enhancing economic and cultural cooperation in a long run. It is said that a 25-year agreement would be able to upend the prevailing geopolitical landscape in the West Asia which has for so long been subject to the United States. Moreover, Iran has forged a de facto alliance with Russia and a strategic cooperative partnership with China. Yet, this plan is essentially a large-scale economic development agenda for Iran which has been illegally sanctioned by the United States. To that end, China and Iran vowed to support mutually on the issues related to their core interest and major concerns, including general opposition to any hegemon dictating international affairs. In effect, China has urged that the United States should first take a step to lift unilateral sanctions against Iran, and return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), instead of making unreasonable demands on Tehran.

Some people have argued that the interaction of China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran can everywhere outline new geopolitical vectors, which must be taken into account by the U.S. and its allies. It is also true that without the political involvement of Pakistan, China and Russia, the peaceful settlement of the crises in Afghanistan are quite unthinkable. First, China still follows its long-term principleof non-alliance in foreign affair. Second, though stronger economically, China is a new external power with limited knowledge of the region. Considering the prospect that a high-profile deal with Iran may have been met with some backlash from the Gulf states that traditionally see Iran as an adversary, a plan involving economic cooperation is more pragmatic and necessary. Politically it is wise and rational that China-Iran plan fits within its five-point initiative to achieve security and stability in the Middle East, such as mutual respect, equity and justice, non-proliferation of nuclear weapon, collective security and common welfare.

In sum, advancement of China’s quad requires even more focus and attention nowadays. In light of this, the best thing for China to do is to make sure a long-term stability and prosperity in the entire region. For sure, China has pursued its diplomatic goals in accordance with its ancient culture and contemporary grand mission.

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