China is now taking concrete steps to project its power through Jammu and Kashmir into the North Arabian Sea. India will have to do something about it or forever remain a power of “low-level equilibrium” as
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put it. For one thing it should reiterate that the whole of the former princely state is an integral part of India and, at the same time revise its stance on Tibet. Merely stamping stapled visa sheets may send a signal but China must be turned inwards if it is to be stopped.
The phase of the peaceful rise of China now seems to be over. The Dengist advise of “Hide your capabilities and bide your time” era seems to have come to a premature end in 2009. The global financial crisis seems to have hastened the onset of this new Chinese phase of surprising assertiveness. The Chinese possibly see the US as bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq and the initial awe of the Chinese military with the US initiated RMA seems to have worn off.
Possibly the development of the Chinese Dong Feng 21D missile is behind the new-found Chinese confidence in challenging the US Navy. This anti-ship ballistic missile was specifically developed by China in the wake of the 1995 Taiwan crisis as an answer to US aircraft carrier battle groups. The Dong Feng 21D is an aircraft carrier killer missile that could sink or put at serious risk any US carrier battle groups that might sail to the defence of Taiwan or South Korea in any future crisis. Armed with this new wonder weapon, the Chinese have exhibited a surprising degree of virulence. They stridently opposed US-South Korea exercises in the Yellow Sea and actually forced the US to back down and hold them well away in the Sea of Japan. Future US exercises in the Yellow Sea will still have to be without the aircraft carrier George Washington.
Closer home, the Indian media’s strident hype on Chinese tactical intrusions on the LAC last year had sidetracked attention and concern from the far more serious aspect of China’s “strategic intrusions” into India’s backyard in South Asia. Overtime these strategic intrusions will prove to be far more dangerous than the tactical intrusions of a few meters or more on the LAC. It is imperative that the issue is seen in the larger perspective instead of being smothered in the details of tactical trivia.
China started its economic modernisation in 1978. It thus has a headstart of almost 12-13 years over India (whose economic liberalisation commenced only in 1991). China consciously sought a peaceful periphery to pursue its economic modernisation unhindered. Hence China deliberately tried to create a peaceful periphery to focus unhindered on its economic modernisation. What is now apparent in hindsight however is China’s conscious Grand Strategy to deny India this very same peaceful periphery via its “string of pearls” stratagem. The prime component of this strategy was to build up Pakistan’s nuclear and conventional military capabilities to a level which would enable it to destabilise and permanently keep India off-balance. Pakistan thus became China’s primary catspaw and principal surrogate in South Asia.
Strategic use of nukes
Unfortunately for the last three decades India has been in a state of denial regarding the unprecedented levels of nuclear proliferation and conventional military support that China has provided to Pakistan. Given the stark security consequences of this Chinese support and the levels of nuclear and military parity engendered between India and Pakistan, such denial is dangerous. The harsh reality is that the degree of proliferation support provided by China to Pakistan is simply unprecedented in the history of international relations. Consider the following cold facts:
- China provided the blueprints of a Nuclear device to Pakistan and also HEU (Highly Enriched Uranium) for two bombs.
- China tested Pakistan’s first nuclear device at Lop Nor in 1990.
- China gave the M-9 and M-11 missiles to Pakistan.
When the US imposed sanctions on the Chinese firms supplying these missiles, China put A. Q. Khan in touch with the North Koreans.
- China paid for the Nodong and Taepodong missiles purchased by Pakistan from North Korea.
-China is now assisting Pakistan in converting its nuclear arsenal from HEU to lighter Plutonium weapons. For this it is helping Pakistan build a Plutonium Reactor and will supply two more in the years ahead.
All this support was given precisely in the period that India was making major peace overtures to Beijing. It is noteworthy that in December 1988 Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had visited China in a pathbreaking visit to restore ties. This was the period in which the Chinese had given Pakistan blueprints for the bomb. In fact in 1990 China had permitted Pakistan to test its first nuclear device at Lop Nor. No other country in the world has gone to such lengths to provide this degree of proliferation support to another. This action had disastrous consequences for India’s national security, but we seemed to be blissfully unaware and fully engaged in thawing our relations with China. This level of nuclear proliferation support therefore is unprecedented and in itself poses the greatest danger to Indian security. Thereafter China stepped up delivery of M-9 and M-11 missiles to Pakistan even as it talked peace and tranquility with India. This must also be seen in relation to the fact that almost 70-80 per cent of Pakistan’s main battle tanks, combat aircraft and artillery pieces are of Chinese origin. China’s massive support has given Pakistan notions of nuclear and military parity with India. It is precisely this parity that has emboldened Pakistan to wage a relentless proxy war in J&K and now a jihad in Indian cities.
It is the Pakistani dimension of the Chinese threat that needs to be clearly understood for it is the core of the Chinese containment strategy against India. Viewed in the light of the determined Chinese inroads into Nepal, Myanmar and now Sri Lanka and Gilgit, the encirclement strategy becomes apparent.
The second aspect of the Chinese threat comes from the steadily aggravating military power differential that is emerging between the two States. China’s defence budget has been rising annually by double digit percentages for over one decade. India’s Defence Budget in 2009 was US$ 39.8 billion. In sharp contrast, Chinese sources estimated China’s Defence Budget at over US$ 75 billion. The Pentagon points out that this does not include China’s massive outlays on defence research and development and other heads. If these are factored in, China’s Defence Budget stands at a whopping US$ 150 billion a year. This amounts to almost a 250 per cent differential annually and should be a cause for serious disquiet.
India cannot engage in a ruinous arms race with an economically stronger China. However the capability differentials and asymmetries have to be kept at reasonable levels so that these do not present windows of opportunity to a rising China. Indian capabilities must be sufficient not just to dissuade but to deter. Creating huge capacity differentials could simply invite attack / aggression. We simply cannot permit major asymmetries in Comprehensive National Power (CNP) to emerge to a level which opens serious windows of vulnerability.
China’s primary military threat had emanated from the former Soviet Union. With the sudden collapse of the USSR, China felt that its threat perception had undergone a dramatic paradigm shift. The Chinese doctrine of Local Wars now stemmed from paramount leader Deng Xiaoping judgment that small and medium local conflicts and not general total wars were the most likely threats. China’s military doctrine therefore changed from the defence in depth of the Peoples War era, to active defence and then to Local Wars under high tech conditions.
Gulf War I shocked the Chinese into starting their own military modernisation and switch to “Local wars under conditions of Informatisation”. However the Chinese doctrine for limited war envisages very high levels of the use of military force and lays heavy stress on pre-emption and seizing the initiative.
China currently has some 250 warheads in its inventory. By 2020 these could rise to 500 bombs (ranging from 10 kt, 90 kt, 250 kt to 2.50 mgt). It has hardened its nuclear silos, converted from liquid to solid fuelled missiles that are far more manoeuvrable and MIRVed. It has 60 ICBMs (DF-31 of 8,000 km and DF-31 A of 13,000 km range). By 2020 it will have 100 ICBMs and 6 Jin class (Type 094) nuclear submarines each armed with 12 JL-2 SLBMs (MIRVed with 3-4 warheads each). Besides DF-25 class IRBMs, China’s
2nd Artillery Corps has over 1,000 SRBMs with conventional warheads that will be fired in salvos to precede major ground attacks or prevent US carrier battle groups from intervening in any conflict over Taiwan. Overall China has 15 Missile Brigades grouped into four Bases.
Air Force: The most disquieting development that has not attracted its due share of media attention is the rapid qualitative upgrade of the Chinese PLAAF. This had a vintage fleet of the 1950s and 60s era F-6 (Mig-19) and F-7 (Mig-21) class of fighters. This fleet is rapidly being replaced by third and fourth generation fighters like the Russian SU-27 and
SU-30 and their Chinese copies the J-11. The mainstay of the Chinese Air Force will be the J-10 (Chinese F-16 equivalent fighter based on the Israeli Kfir design). China already has 150 J-10s, 97 SU-30s,
48 SU-27s and over a 100 J-11s. By 2020 China will have a formidable fleet of 1,200 J-10s, 200 J-11s, 200
SU-27 and some 100 SU-30. It is jointly developing the JF-17 with Pakistan and will have some 250 of these aircraft.
It is now developing a fifth generation J-X Stealth Fighter. It already has AWACS and air-to-air refuelling capability. Thus by 2020, the Chinese Air Force could field 2,300 combat aircraft of the third / fourth generation to India’s just 750 combat aircraft. So far the Indian Air Force had the qualitative edge. This will now stand largely eroded. China will soon have a significant quantitative edge as well as qualitative parity (if not a clear advantage). This tilt in the air power balance is the most ominous development in security terms. This will not go away simply by admonishments to the Air Force brass not to demoralise the nation by highlighting this asymmetry. The nation should be acutely conscious of this differential and do its utmost to create the requisite degree of balance in an acceptable timeframe.
Army: At 1.6 million men, the PLA is the world’s largest Army. As per the Military Balance 2009 it has 40 divisions to India’s 28, some 7,660 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) to India’s 3,978 and 17,700 artillery pieces to India’s 10,360. Besides there are some 60 Divisions worth of the People’s Armed Police (the Internal Security Force) the bulk of which are demobilised PLA Divisions.
|A U.S. aircraft carrier
Navy: Due to the Taiwan-centric focus of Chinese operational thinking, the PLAN received heavy funding and priority in modernisation. By 2020-2030 it could have three carrier battle groups and 60 submarines (10 nuclear) and 78 surface combatants to India’s two / three carriers and 17 submarines (1/2 nuclear) and 58 surface combatants. China has a well articulated strategy of “Access Denial” to stop intervention by US Carrier Battle Groups by firing salvos of medium / short range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and sending in its submarines in packs. The
DF-21D missile could become a significant game changer in naval warfare. Could it end the era of the dominance of the aircraft carrier?
China tested its first anti-Satellite Missile in January 2007. This year it has carried out an Anti-Ballistic Missile test. By 2020 it hopes to have 200 remote sensing satellites and a military Space Station (It has already launched three manned missions and a lunar orbiter). It is planning for nano satellites that will serve as space mines and has invested heavily in cyber warfare capabilities. (There are reportedly 30,000 computer professionals in its military and two hacker brigades).
The most pertinent is the major infrastructure differential between the Chinese logistic capacities in Tibet and Xinjiang versus ours in the Himalayan region. China now has a standard gauge railway line up to Lhasa with a capacity of up to eight trains per day. This is being extended up to Nepal and the Chumbi Valley. By 2030-2050 two more rail links will connect Tibet with mainland China and Xinjiang. Tibet will have over 60 airfields. The existing road network has been upgraded and this has created a paradigm shift in the Chinese logistical capabilities in Tibet. The scale and velocity of any Chinese build-up has now already gone up by a factor of over 120 per cent.
The Chinese Defence White Paper of 2006 had identified the three phases of a Chinese Perspective Plan that forms a blueprint for a super power status:
First Stage (to be completed by 2010) aims to lay a solid foundation for the country’s military posture and produce a modern force capable of defeating a moderate sized adversary (India, Vietnam, Taiwan). This phase has been completed a year ahead of schedule.
Second Stage (to be completed by 2020) aims to catch up with second tier world powers like Russia, Japan and EU and embrace information based operations and technologies as the principal focus of its modernisation.
Third Stage (to be completed by 2050) aims at being an advanced military information power by the middle of this century. This is a euphemism for catching up with the USA and achieving full fledged super power status with global power projection capabilities and a Blue Water Navy.
The year 2009 will probably go down as a significant year in Asia’s recent history. China, which had studiously been maintaining a low profile to focus on its economic development shed its inhibitions and began to flaunt its military muscle. The era of “hide your capabilities, bide your time” was over. The Global Financial Crisis has debilitated the US power and encouraged China to strike a far more assertive profile in Asia. This was also the 60th Anniversary of the PRC and it showcased its military might at the Anniversary Parade. Its PLA Navy and PLA Air Force held major expositions in 2009 to showcase their strength.
What was most significant however was a series of some 23 major military exercises culminating in the large scale Military exercise called Kuayue (or Stride). Four Divisions from four different Military Regions of China (Lanzhou, Jinan, Guangzhou and Shenyang) took part in this exercise. What was most significant was that all previous Chinese military exercises have focused on Taiwan and rehearsed for an amphibious assault. This was the first major exercise not focused on the renegade province but on overland military operations against possible adversaries like India and Vietnam. The Chinese papers termed it “Trans Military Area Command Exercise”. These exercises entailed high speed mobilisation and long range manoeuvre (to actualise the trans-regional War Zone Concept in which the resources of many Military Regions are focused on to a single conflict zone for a Local War under conditions of Informatisation). In the Kuayue Exercise however, these four divisions were not focused on one single combat zone. Rather a division each from these four Military Regions mobilised rapidly – moved almost 2,000 kms each to the other military region to carry out two sided exercises in unfamiliar terrain that entailed assault river crossings of major rivers and culminated in joint live fire exercise at the field firing ranges. These four exercise sets were:
Shenyang-Lanzhou. Some 10,000 troops and 1,000 vehicles of Shenyang MR were deployed at the foot of the Helan mountains in the north west of China (to the Lanzhou MR).
Lanzhou-Shenyang. Mechanised Infantry Division from the Lanzhou MR mobilised and moved to the Taonan tactical training area in the Jelin Province of the Shenyang MR. This force practiced a major assault river crossing of the Yellow River. A 250 meter pontoon bridge was launched to enable the divisional crossing.
Jinan-Guangzhou. Troops of the Jinan MR mobilised to the Guangzhou MR. Main Battle Tanks were moved by rail and lightly armed troops moved by the new high speed bullet trains and civilian aircraft.
Guangzhou-Jinan. A Motor Rifle Division of the Guangzhou MR mobilised and moved to Jinan MR in Central China. It covered a distance of 2,000 kms over four provinces. It carried out a major assault crossing of the Xianjang River.
All these exercises culminated in joint live fire drills in the tactical training bases of the four military Commands. These used Laser Combat Simulation systems and tested encrypted satellite communications. The long range mobilisation used civilian airlines, rail networks and high speed bullet trains.
The Shenyang to Lanzhou series of exercises were definitely rehearsing a scenario with India as the likely target. The reverse direction enabled a rehearsal of North Korea centric contingencies. The Jinan to Guangzhou component of the Kuayue Exercise was clearly targeted against Vietnam. Ominously, these exercises practiced assault river crossings. These put out the sinister message that in any future conflict between China and Vietnam, the Chinese intend to drive deep beyond the border hill belt and perhaps attempt assault crossings of the Red River or the Mekong River in Vietnam. It is noteworthy that there have been a large number of unreported clashes between Vietnamese Navy patrol vessels and the Chinese Navy in the disputed Spratley and Paracel Island group last year. In fact the Chinese had warned the ONGC not to carry out drilling in the block allocated by Vietnam. Alternatively these river crossings were possibly designed to ensure continued movement in scenarios in which enemy air attacks were to destroy existing bridges on the Chinese induction routes.
Taiwan has already been coerced into submission by a series of high profile Chinese military exercises and missile firings designed to highlight China’s will and resolve to use military force. This could render surplus a huge Chinese expeditionary capability. The Kuayue Exercise seems primarily focused on Vietnam, to coerce that small but brave nation into a meek surrender of its claims in the disputed South China Sea. It is also a warning to the other South East Asian countries with claims in this oil rich area. India is another intended target of such “Trans Military Area Manoeuvres”.
The 15 Airborne Corps is the prime Strategic Reserve (Rapid Reaction Force) of the PLA that functions directly under the Central Military Commission. It comprises the 43rd, 44th and 45th Para Divisions. This Corps held a 20 day Airborne Manoeuvre Exercise in 2009 called Kongjiang Jidong (Airborne Movement 2009). This is the largest single exercise executed by this strategic formation so far. It was termed a trans-theatre comprehensive campaign manoeuvre exercise involving 13,000 officers and men, some 1,500 vehicles and 700 pieces of equipment. These troops manoeuvred over 2,000 kms between Hubei, Henan, Annui and Jiangsi provinces by multiple means and routes. These carried out vertical landings or “Descent Operations” in Central Henan by a crack Demonstration Brigade deemed one of the best in the PLA.
Tibet choke force
It is noteworthy that some 10,000 AB Troops of this Corps had been mobilised in less than 48 hours to quell the Tibetan riots in 1988. Similarly in Sichuan earthquake of 08 May 2009, some 4,000 AB troops arrived in less than 36 hours for disaster relief operations. This AB Corps is likely to spearhead operations whether in Taiwan, Tibet or Vietnam.
Given the South China Sea territorial disputes and the recent rise in incursions on the Indian border, Kuayue Exericse was an ominous warning signal both to India and Vietnam (as well as Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand) that the Expeditionary Capability now rendered surplus from Taiwan could be easily employed against these two primary “combat target nations” of the PLA. In addition to the large scale Kuayue Exercise, China held another series of exercises called the “Vanguard” and “Victory” to test tactical concepts and air support procedures.
The threat profile from China is rising primarily because of the steady expansion of the capability differential between the two Asian giants. The only way to ensure that peace endures is to prevent the opening up of such large windows of vulnerability that could, in themselves, invite attack.
Threat to J&K
Selig Harrison’s report on the deployment of 7,000-11,000 Chinese troops in the Gilgit Region of PoK has sent ripples in South Asia. By way of denial the Pakistanis and Chinese have not refuted the presence of the troops but their purpose. The Pakistanis claimed they were there to assist in “flood control”. Zhao Gang Cheng of the Shanghai based Institute of International Studies stated that the purpose was “for considerations of economy and energy and not to pose a threat to anyone”.
The Gwadar-Karakoram triple rail, road and pipeline link is a key component of the Chinese “Malacca
by-pass strategy”. It must be noted that 80 per cent of China’s energy imports are transported via the sea route through the critical choke point formed by the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok Straits near Malaysia and Indonesia. The Chinese are acutely conscious of the extreme vulnerability of this critical SLOC (Sea Line of Communications) to disruption by any hostile Navy in the event of a conflict. China’s dependence on imported oil is now to the tune of 56 per cent. By 2015 this will go up to 66 per cent of China’s energy needs and by 2030 this would touch 80 per cent of China’s needs. The Persian Gulf, Central Asia, Africa and North America meet the bulk of China’s oil needs. Hence the Chinese paranoia about the extreme vulnerability of its energy imports as they are funnelled through the critical choke points of Malacca. China has consciously been trying to reduce this major strategic vulnerability. To achieve a supply chain that is less vulnerable to disruption from outside factors, China has consciously devised a “Malacca by-pass strategy” that seeks to re-route as much of its oil inflows via overland routes and pipelines. A key component of this Chinese strategy hinges upon its investment in the Gwadar Port of Pakistan and the frenzied construction / upgradation of a triple tier rail and road highway along with an oil / gas pipeline which will carry Iranian gas to China’s Western Provinces. Thus a bulk of the Persian Gulf oil would be diverted from the week long voyage via Malacca and would flow overland in just 48 hours via this Gwadar-Karakoram highway. This Chinese oil and gas artery via Pakistan and the Shia rebellious province of Gilgit in PoK has now become a core Chinese interest and a vital strategic artery. That still confines it to a matter of economy and energy and does not make it a military threat.
Unfortunately, the Chinese have an ingrained habit of defining core interests and vital communications arteries. Overtime they become prepared to launch “self defence counter attacks” to safeguard these arteries. Take our minds back to the India-China border War of 1962. One of the key Chinese concerns was their perceived threat to the vital Aksai-Chin highway that connects Tibet with Xinjiang. They perceived India’s “Forward Policy” (of establishing its claims by token posts in disputed areas) as a threat to this vital artery. Within a little over three years of a perceived threat to this road, the Chinese had attacked India. If Pakistan persists with its terrorist provocations, a limited war between the two countries could well erupt. The Chinese could then view it as a threat to their Gwadar–Karakoram energy life line and intervene militarily.
This is not mere conjecture. There has been an alarming shift in the Chinese stance over J&K. From complete neutrality in the Kargil War of 1999, China now assertively claims J&K as disputed territory. That however does nor prevent it from executing major infrastructure, energy and possibly military projects in PoK. However it does induce it to staple visas on the passports of Indian citizens from the state of J&K. It has now deliberately escalated the level of provocation by denying a visa to Lt. Gen. Jaswal (Army Commander, Northern Command) on the plea that he commands troops in J&K. The same logic did not apply to the Eastern Army Commander who commands our forces in Arunachal Pradesh! This is not a minor shift of stance or nuance. It is a major and deliberate provocation and upping of the ante. China is now defining an ever increasing list of core areas / red lines. Taiwan, Tibet and now South China Sea, East China Sea and Yellow Sea are all core interests where it will brook no interference. Do we have any core interests left any more? Should we not define our red lines in J&K now that both Pakistan and China appear to see our political will as crumbling?
The Chinese troops in Gilgit are reportedly involved in the upgradation of the existing Karakoram Highway to double lane status and the addition of a new railroad and oil / gas pipeline. The most baffling part is the construction of 22 tunnels to which even the Pakistani troops are not allowed. There is intense speculation on what these tunnels are meant for. One speculation is that these are designed to store the new aircraft carrier killer Dong Feng 21D anti-ship missiles. These as stated earlier are road-mobile missiles (with a range of over 3,000 kms) which could move down the Karakoram highway to attack US or Indian aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf / Arabian Sea and thereby form a key component of the Chinese Anti-Access Strategy. If that is so it would be a very strange way for Pakistan to repay its American patrons for their most generous aid! It would also have serious implications for Indian Naval operations in the Arabian Sea.
Seen as part of a developing pattern, the Chinese moves have serious and long term implications which we cannot afford to brush under the carpet. There is an urgent need to speed up our arms acquisition process. Given the recent developments there could be sudden and non-linear changes on our periphery and we can ill afford to be caught flat footed a la 1962. India’s position in Arunachal Pradesh has been strengthened considerably by sensible precautions. Was the Chinese hype about Arunachal Pradesh and Tawang just strategic deception while its main new focus seems to be J&K which it can threaten in concert with Pakistan? If that be the case it could have
very serious repercussions that we must factor in our operational planning, force re-structuring and weapons acquisition exercises. Courtesy : Defence and Security Alert ( DSA)