By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 3rd Jun 15
In the late 14th and early 15th centuries China’s legendary eunuch admiral, Zheng He, carried Ming dynasty naval power to the corners of the Indian Ocean. But that brief flicker of a Chinese maritime flame was extinguished around 1435, when the emperor turned his attention instead to a land threat from the Mongol north, strengthening the Great Wall and the land army.
Now, 600 years later, China’s new emperors have explicitly returned focus to “managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests”.
“The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned”, says a new White Paper published by China’s Ministry of National Defence on May 26.
Given the US rebalance to Asia, Japan’s growing military, and “provocative actions” by China’s maritime neighbours, “the PLA Navy (PLAN) will gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defense’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defense’ with ‘open seas protection,’ and build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure”, says the White Paper.
This is the latest advance in Communist China’s incremental maritime evolution from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when internal turmoil and serious land threats --- the Korean War and the border confrontation with the Soviet Union --- left resources only for “coastal defence”. Only in the early 1980s, after Deng’s economic opening, did visionary PLAN chief Admiral Liu Huaqing throw off the self-limiting shackles of coastal defence and articulate a “Near Seas” strategy based on “offshore defence”, appropriate for a trading nation.
Liu’s “Near Seas” concept visualized the PLAN’s dominance of a maritime defence perimeter encompassing the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea and the Bohai Gulf, along with their islands. These waters extend up to the First Island Chain, running from Sakhalin in the north to Borneo in the south, along the Kuril Islands, Japan, Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the northern Philippines and Borneo. The PLAN believes this maritime space must be dominated --- for the physical security of China’s coastal economic powerhouses, for asserting its maritime claims and for deterring Taiwan.
By the early 2000s a more ambitious Beijing extended its gaze several hundred kilometres further afield. This “Far Seas” concept, enthusiastically championed by President Hu Jintao --- who also headed the Central Military Commission --- involved dominating the approaches to the Second Island Chain, which runs north-to-south from the eastern edge of the Japanese archipelago, along the line joining the Bonin and Marshal islands, the Marianas, Guam and the Palau archipelago. The “open seas protection” that the White Paper refers to seems synonymous with the “Far Seas” concept.
The “Near Seas” concept has rested on an “anti-access, area denial”, or A2/AD strategy, which rests on asymmetrical tactics like swarm attacks, sea mining and anti-aircraft carrier ballistic missiles to cause unacceptable casualties on enemy vessels in the vicinity of China. In contrast, a “Far Seas” concept would have to be more offensive, involving the establishment of sea control by a surface fleet based on aircraft carriers.
Admiral Liu had laid down time lines for extending PLAN sea control --- over its “Near Seas” by 2010; up to the Second Island Chain by 2020; and by 2040, China would “have the power to contain the dominance of the US Navy in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.”
China’s assertiveness in the maritime neighbourhood after 2008 has raised such alarm as to scupper any plans to dominate the “Near Seas” by 2010. Yet, the White Paper ups the ante with its reference to “open seas protection”.
With the PLA’s attention focused on the confrontation in the Western Pacific, it would logically appear to have lower stakes in India’s maritime neighbourhood. While the White Paper makes no mention of the Indian Ocean, New Delhi is not reassured. It continues to harbour apprehensions about China’s cultivation of littoral countries, creation of potential naval bases in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Pakistan, port visits by PLAN warships and submarines and Beijing’s increasing commitment to anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, which provides PLAN vessels the opportunity to sail the Indian Ocean.
On land warfare, which is of key concern to India, the White Paper reiterates its emphasis on western-style, high-technology warfare. This was first formulated in 1993 under the rubric of “winning local wars in conditions of modern technology”. A decade later, in 2004, with the digitization of the battle space, this was modified to “winning local wars under conditions of informationization.”
For an Indian military that remains mired in early-20th century positional warfare, the current White Paper conjures up the uncomfortable possibility of an enemy that is not just high-tech but also flexible and mobile, switching troops from other theatres in a rapid build up of forces trained and equipped for specific tasks.
“(T)he PLA Army (PLAA) will continue to reorient from theater defense to trans-theater mobility. In the process of building small, multi-functional and modular units, the PLAA will adapt itself to tasks in different regions… (elevating) its capabilities for precise, multi-dimensional, trans-theater, multi-functional and sustainable operations”, says the White Paper.
The document also envisions a larger PLA Air Force (PLAAF) role, stating that China “will endeavor to shift its focus from territorial air defense to both defense and offense”. China’s growing space capabilities would also be harnessed into “an air-space defense force structure…”
To combat this vision, India continues to raise additional static formations that could be quickly outflanked. In addition, there is the weak Indian threat of a “mountain strike corps” that will be understrength, underequipped and so far without a clear strategic task.
At the level of grand strategy, the White Paper recognises that China owes its economic and political rise to the new globalized economy. The very first paragraph in China’s new White Paper acknowledges: “In today's world, the global trends toward multi-polarity and economic globalization are intensifying, and an information society is rapidly coming into being… Peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit have become an irresistible tide of the times.”
Even so, in a neighbourhood where China looms uncomfortably large, Beijing’s plans for military modernisation are taken more seriously than its talk of peace.