Global strategic maritime vision: The China factor

PBbox

by Dr Abul Kalam in London

A simmering maritime tension is currently on upscale across South China aquatic belt and the Asia-Pacific waters since China has laid its hands on island-building or land reclamation projects around the Nansha Islands where many Southeast Asian nations also make contentious claims. The Chinese projects are but part of a bigger picture of China’s global maritime initiatives, which include ‘Maritime Silk Route’, ‘Maritime Pearls Route’, and ‘the Belt and Road’ Initiative­ all signal China’s vision to reinforce its worldwide network as a major global trading nation.

The US, an Asia-Pacific player, has put on show some nerviness to all this. Its reactions in recent months have been instantaneous, as the US with the self-image of a unipolar global actor can hardly reconcile itself to China’s enlargement plans that it views as a threat to its leading strategic global role.

Changing polarity
Global relations since the inception of the new millennium have been in a state of flux. The waning weight of the old power combines, the seminal reordering of international system has been on the card. Over six decades the US maintained its hegemony in world politics; relations between and among nations have been subject to American wish since the ending of World War II. That seemed long enough. Whilst the US still continues to play a key role in global affairs, the global polarity of the past order has been ever more in doubt. The chaotic developments across the Middle East and parts of Europe, where the US and the western powers pursued interventionist polices, are indicative of the order of things that might jeopardize US global role.
Since the opening up of China in the late 1970s ‘the China factor’ has progressively surfaced in the global strategic scene, as China came into sight as a magnetic powerhouse, corresponding with meteoric rise in its economic-political muscles. Historically, known as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ a seat of world civilization, ­the most populous nation on earth has now emerged as the second largest economy, and the largest global creditor. Steadily also it gained ground in foreign direct investments. It hosted the Olympic Games in 2008 and organized the 2010 World Expo. The development of the Chinese MNCs is a new feature of globalization, one that is set to change the global geopolitical landscape. ‘China Goes Global’ is a catchword in research initiatives that investigates some emerging issues related to China’s globalization and a pivotal role being played by the Chinese firms in the internationalizing process.
The current global realities vis-a-vis China are staggering. It is the world’s largest manufacturing hub, an export-driven economy. Its strategy is to maintain export-led growth that aids it in generating jobs and enables it, through such continued growth, to keep its large population productively engaged, a plus for global stability.

Economic, political strategy
China runs a huge trade surplus with the US, which in 2014 was a net importer of goods worth $319 billion from China. China also has a big pile of euro assets and runs a huge trade surplus against the Eurozone, $117 billion in 2014 to August. It is the number-one investor among foreign governments, owning an estimated $1.268 trillion in U.S. Treasuries, which accounts for over 21% of the U.S. debt held overseas and about 7.2% of the US total debt load. China’s total foreign reserves have reached about $4 trillion since mid-2014. It has also launched a well-publicized ‘Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)’­ a parallel to the US-dominated World Bank and the ADB ­and has drawn widespread global support even from the traditional US allies, sans the US and Japan.
All these changes in the global strategic scenario have taken place gradually but the assertion by China of its international role has been steadily unequivocal, exposing the vulnerability of rank of the US as the presumable leader of a unipolar international system. A series of defence papers published from Beijing since 1998 has been indicative of the order of strategic contest that might tag on between the US and China in the years since. The latest in the series is the publication of a ‘Defence White Paper’ (DWP) released by China’s State Council (on 26th May) seems unique, as it the first Chinese document of its kind to focus exclusively on strategy. It represented the principal doctrine of the Chinese military, outlining a new military strategy that emphasizes a more “active defence posture” and a greater Chinese naval presence farther from its own shores, and is geared to win local wars under conditions of informationization.

‘Grand rhetoric’?
Despite the ascription to it of a ‘grand rhetoric’, the DWP provides blueprint of the principal doctrine of the Chinese military. It clearly articulates a network-centric warfare and the growing informationization of the battlefield, which are seen as particularly important for the PLA’s “preparation for military struggle (PMS).” In line with the evolving form of war and national security situation, the basic point for PMS has been placed on winning informatized local wars, highlighting maritime military struggle and maritime PMS.
The new strategic doctrine elaborates on China’s aspirations towards a blue-water navy and an increased Chinese naval presence outside territorial waters: In line with the strategic requirement of mobile operations and multi-dimensional offense and defence, the PLA Army (PLAA) aims to reorient from theatre defence to trans-theatre mobility. In the process of building small, multi-functional and modular units, the PLAA will adapt itself to tasks in different regions, develop the capacity of its combat forces for different purposes, and construct a combat force structure for joint operations. The PLAA will elevate its capabilities for precise, multi-dimensional, trans-theatre, multi-functional and sustainable operations.
The DWP also emphasized that China will accelerate developing its cyber-war capabilities, given that the “international strategic competition in cyberspace has been turning increasingly fiercer.” It also plans to further expand its space program, strengthen its nuclear forces refine the military’s medium- and long-range strike capabilities, and refocus the PLA Air Forces’ (PLAAF) mission from “from territorial air defence to both defence and offense, and build an air-space defence force structure that can meet the requirements of informationized operations.” It also takes into account a generally favourable external environment”.

’Active defence posture’
The DWP noticeably displayed a masterly understanding of the strategic landscape and command over the operational aspects of the games of warfare. Being China’s first defence policy document, the DWP outlined a new military strategy; it emphasizes a more “active defence posture” and a greater naval presence farther from the Chinese mainland shores. While the document contains various new observations, the principal doctrine of the Chinese military appears to be unaltered: winning local wars under conditions of informationization. Thus, it clearly articulates a network-centric warfare and the growing informatization of the battlefield, which are seen as particularly important for the PLA’s “preparation for military struggle (PMS).” In line with the evolving form of war and national security situation, the basic point for PMS will be placed on winning informationized local wars, highlighting maritime military struggle and maritime PMS. Its planned establishment of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) also attests to its seriousness about pursuing its maritime objectives in conjunction with other force components.
The DWP also elaborates on China’s aspirations towards a blue-water navy and an increased Chinese naval presence outside territorial waters. In line with the strategic requirement of mobile operations and multi-dimensional offense and defence, the PLA Army (PLAA) will continue to reorient from theatre defence to trans-theatre mobility. In the process of building small, multi-functional and modular units, the PLAA will adapt itself to tasks in different regions, develop the capacity of its combat forces for different purposes, and construct a combat force structure for joint operations. The PLAA will elevate its capabilities for precise, multi-dimensional, trans-theater, multi-functional and sustainable operations.
The DWP also emphasized that China will accelerate developing its cyber-war capabilities, given that the “international strategic competition in cyberspace has been turning increasingly fiercer.” It also plans to further expand its space program, strengthen its nuclear forces refine the military’s medium- and long-range strike capabilities, and refocus the PLA Air Forces’ (PLAAF) mission from “from territorial air defence to both defence and offense, and build an air-space defence force structure that can meet the requirements of information-nized operations,” that is “generally favourable external environment”.

2500-yr old maritime history
A precise understanding of China’s maritime status needs to be placed both in retrospect and prospect. With its 18,000-km mainland coastline and 14,000-km island coastline, China constitutes the single largest maritime landmass in the Asia-Pacific. It maritime history dates back to the 5th century BC when China had started to have an army of ships that could engage in naval operations. The current versions of China’s modern maritime strategy dates back to 15th century when, during the reign of Ming Emperor Jen-Tsung, the famous Admiral Cheng He made seven successful naval expeditions (between 1405-1433) which went as far as the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Africa. By today’s standards, however, Cheng He’s Nautical Charts present only a vision which can, at best, be described as “coastal defence”.
China has never publicly endorsed an official cyber war doctrine, nor, according to public sources, has it ever shared aspects of a doctrine with the US. However, China’s Military Strategic Guidelines emphasize that the PLA is focusing on prevailing in “local wars under informatized conditions by 2050.” One way to accomplish this will be by exploiting asymmetrical advantages over its adversary. Currently China is known to have poured massive investment into the formation of a 30-strong commando unit of cyber-warriors, a team supposedly trained to protect the PLA from outside assault on its networks. While the unit, known as the “Blue Army”, is ostensibly defensive, the revelation is likely to confirm the fears of some governments across the globe who already suspects that their systems and secrets may come under regular and co-ordinated Chinese cyber-attack.

The Sino-US contentions
The responses to all this in Washington have so far been sharp. It rejected China’s boundary building around artificial islands in the guise of land reclamation, as it could undermine the U.S. objective of retaining its regional leadership and could also increase the chance of an incident involving US-Chinese ships and aircraft. Therefore, US views the current Chinese manoeuvre as aggressive, a low-intensity coercion that may prove counterproductive. It already has reinforced its maritime units in South China Sea. It wants China to stop “throwing elbows and pushing people out of the way” in pursuit of its interests in the name of its freedom of navigation. China, however, believes that all its actions are legitimate, taken in consideration of the freedom of navigation and are in full accord with the framework of the UN and that it remains committed to resolve any contentious issues through peaceful means.
Whatever outcome may follow the current Sino-US contentions the China factor is now an emergent strategic reality for all the global watchers and policymakers. Even for a country like Bangladesh that now owns a wider but soft-underbelly across its shores and is set to map out an all-inclusive maritime strategy can ill-afford to be oblivious of the China factor, given the fact that China is both a ‘neighbour’s neighbour’ and a global colossus.

The author is a former professor and chair of the Dept of International Relations, University of Dhaka. He can be reached in:kalamdrabul@gmail.com The current work is part of the research project: ‘Maritime Security of Bangladesh.’

Source: Weekly Holiday