When the Dragon hides its shine and bides its time
Lt General K J Singh
China recently released a white paper titled “China’s national defence in the new era”, which sets the template and vision for her strategic architecture. The basic thrust is to create modernized People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by 2035 and establish global presence (implying dominance). Considering our geopolitical realities, paper surprisingly has not evoked adequate analysis and debate. While the paper makes only passing and even reassuring references to India, suggesting carrying forward experiences gained in resolution of Doklam crisis to other contentious issues.
The dynamics of unresolved border dispute with continued transgressions, trade war and impending visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping mandate objective and detailed appraisal of document. Paper is in keeping with articulation of ‘aggressively rising China’ and confirms jettisoning of Deng’s approach of ‘hide your shine, bide your time’.
It seeks to upscale and give global context to limited wars under conditions of informationalization (Chinese formulation for high-tech conditions), which was initially spelt out in ‘war zone concept’ in 2004. Leveraging of Belt Road Initiative (BRI) is envisaged to extend footprint to bases like Djibouti and Gwadar, thereby giving PLA capability to manage localized regional environments, in faraway lands. This outreach includes cyber dimension through ‘digital silk road’, backbone architecture of digital and convergence technologies with clear cut aim to achieve spectrum domination. It also places heavy reliance on technology and in specific on non-kinetic cyber warfare, artificial intelligence, quantum convergence technologies among others. At the same time, kinetic delivery means like hypersonic missiles and rocket force continue to provide hard under pinning.
Considerable share of resources is planned to be re-appropriated for Navy to make it truly blue navy. Consequently, only credible official reaction came from Chief of Naval Staff, “We will have to watch China carefully”. The need for dispassionate and thorough analysis is also warranted as psychological warfare is an essential part of ‘three warfares’ mandate of newly configured PLA Strategic Support Force. The exercise will indeed be painstaking one as war zone concept that generated much hype and even some panic till we realized limitations of translation from Mandarin to English. It is also pertinent that many technologies are yet to be operationalized and applied. Most importantly, performance of Chinese troops in low-grade conflicts, even in relatively benign UN deployment, raises its own set of concerns and cynicism. Similarly, sceptics may cite BRI overstretch and fatigue, but Dragon has tentacles firmly in place in relevant places. While we cannot allow ourselves to be psyched or intimidated, yet complacency will be suicidal. The abiding reality is that China is prosecuting long term strategy, which may include some hype but is essentially ‘on course’.
The obvious question is how do we cope with the second largest spender PLA, which, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), has increased its military expenditure by 5% to $250 billion in 2018 against our measly $66.5 billion? It is interesting that China maintains that it is reducing its defence spending as share of GDP. In a burgeoning economy and with high current GDP share, both are indeed possible. Coping, in our context is limited to bare essentials, which are, building ‘credible dissuasive deterrence’ and retaining ‘strategic autonomy’ in our immediate neighbourhood and core areas of interest like energy.
The foremost requirement is to reset strategic compass and, borrowing Admiral Raja Menon’s expression, “Defining our Strategic Environment”, especially with projected aspirations to become $5 trillion economy by 2030. Analytical exercise obviously cannot be driven by gut feelings, hunches and impulses, which appear to be the current trend. This presumption is based on the fact that very limited information on security dialogue is being disseminated by official agencies. It is possible that secrecy is partially driven by urge to build ambiguity and keep others guessing. Ambiguity is normally applied by stronger power against weaker one, but it has its inherent limitations specially when not backed by will and capability. Weaker nations like Iran in standoff with USA and Pakistan have nuanced irrationality to their advantage. We certainly are not aspiring to join this league. It has dangerous implications in exchanges among nuclear powered adversaries and, above all, can even confuse own forces. Hence, it will be in order if we have more inclusive dialogue and apply quantified net assessment and operational research techniques, which currently seem to be on back burner, to forecast and validate.
The dialogue should aim to build national policy after consultations with all parties and political consensus on key parameters. The role of bordering states is also catalytic as progress on key irritants like sharing of river waters as also economic co-operation needs to be driven by states concerned. Our efforts in the past have been stymied by lack of capability and infrastructure, both requiring considerable financial outlay.
Without creating capability for envisaged role of regional security and disaster relief provider, our endeavours even in immediate neighbourhood will remain contingent on friendly governments in power. It is heartening that issue of finding money, including non-lapsing funds for defence capital expenditure has been referred to Seventh Finance Commission. It is hoped that correctives will be applied on priority as with lapsing of time, another election will loom large adding to compulsion for populist measures like subsidies. The stability and political capital of current government should also be leveraged to push down reforms like CDS, theatre commands, National Defence University and genuine integration in MOD.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.