The Strategist

"The World is Not Peaceful"

31 Aug, 2017    ·   5351

Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar weighs in on the dogmas, past and present, that guide Chinese strategic thinking

Vijay Shankar
Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral (Retd.)
Addressing senior Communist Party and government officials in Beijing at an event to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Premier Xi Jinping declared, “We do not allow any individual, any organisation, any political party, at any time or by any means, to split any single piece of the Chinese territory. No one could expect us to swallow consequences that damage our sovereignty, security and developmental interests.” During the speech, Xi repeatedly emphasised that the “world was not peaceful and the military must forever stay unswervingly loyal to the Communist Party of China, as its absolute leadership over the armed forces is the PLA’s “unalterable soul and indispensable lifeline.” These comments came just two days after he addressed the PLA ground forces directly at Zhurihe in Inner Mongolia (Was there symbolism attached since the geographic location was where Genghis Khan set off on his conquest of Eurasia in the year 1206 AD that cleaved political cohesion to the silk route?). Here Xi announced, “China must defeat all enemies that dare to offend.”

If now China’s enemies were to be ascertained, it would become amply clear who the target or targets are. No easy task this, as China has long been embroiled in a contest with Japan over the East China Sea island of Senkaku; with South Korea on rights over the submerged Socotra Rock; with Philippines on sovereignty over Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal; Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei over the Spratly Islands; and Indonesia over control of Natuna Island. Beijing also threatens to use force to conquer Taiwan if peaceful enticements prove insufficient. More importantly it has flouted the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and conventions regarding establishing a new Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ)  in the East China Sea.

China also demands title over nearly all of the strategically vital South China Sea through which US$ 5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes and is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits. Its claim of possession over the waters within the so-called 9-dash line (it was 11-dash when relations with Vietnam were different) has brought it on a collision course with the US and all the maritime stakeholders of the region as the claim overlaps with those of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan. And not forgetting, China was engaged in a two month-long border standoff with Indian forces over the latter’s security relations with Bhutan and its commitment to blocking a road being constructed across the Doklam Plateau (claimed by Bhutan) which could potentially act as a spring board to sever the strategically critical ‘Chicken’s Neck’ (the Siliguri corridor); its elites cogitated that it would be a 'just war' to expel India. However, on 28 August 2017, the two governments announced that the crisis had been defused and troops were disengaging.

From the Indian standpoint, solidarity of the Indo-Bhutanese security pact had weathered the crunch, while China’s deployment of man and material for construction of the road was balked (it can hardly be a coincidence that China is to host the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) summit on 3 September - a dissolution of the conclave would have meant loss of face to Xi). While China’s nuclear and strategic promotion of North Korea provides the context for alarming tensions in the entire region, the recent US and Japan-imposed sanctions on a dozen Chinese companies and individuals accused of helping North Korea's nuclear weapons programme is perhaps the first aggregation of a mounting series of strictures. So in near ‘epic’ terms, the question remains, who “dare offend Xi?”

Scholars in their wisdom have found three reasons for India earning the wrath of Xi. The first is India’s strategic snub to fall in line with Xi’s grandiose One Belt One Road (OBOR) scheme (never mind that it passes through disputed territory in northern Kashmir). Secondly, the impending 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China provides a critical context for Xi to stamp his authority by “constituting his strategic policies” in the mould of Mao when in 1964 he thrust his ‘Red Book’ and later used it during the Cultural Revolution to ram home ideological uniformity and to weed out adversaries. To have countries insouciant to Xi’s grand designs would tantamount to abasement at the highest political level. Thirdly, since sovereignty whips up the maximum nationalist emotions, it may provide some understanding to both the recent Doklam confrontation and the situation in the South China Sea. The three put together may seem to an absolutist, such as Xi, ablation of the indices of his power.

An important symbol of political standing, clout and legacy of leadership since 1949, from Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, is to have their political theories written into the party constitution as guiding dogmas. Mao had his ‘Red Book’, Deng his ‘24 characters’, Jiang his ‘developmental dictatorship’, and even the bland Hu emblematised pursuit of economic growth at the cost of legal and political reforms. However, will Xi achieve the distinction – putting him in the same league as Mao – if his thoughts (conceivably titled "security, development and territorial sovereignty" on China’s terms) are accepted as the supervisory ideology while still in power? This, at the 19th Congress, would give him the legitimacy and mandate, in a presumptive way, of the people to the exclusion of the politburo.
“The world is not peaceful,” says Xi. Somehow, Chinese actions, Janus-faced policies, coercive manoeuvres and rhetoric of recent times have only served to confound the script.