Monday, March 3, 2014

A grand new strategy for China

A major military and diplomatic shift is occurring in Asia. It is pushing China to reconsider its strategic priorities and this is causing a domino effect in regional politics.

The change is spawning a maze of new alliances. To prevent everything from unraveling, the US and China must find a new common ground that enables collaboration on the world's biggest quagmires - Central Asia and Middle East. This is necessary for peace in both the Middle East and the Pacific region.

The pivot to Asia and the collapse of the old Asian order
In the next plenary session of the Chinese parliament in March, the National People's Congress will complete the launch of two commissions the party set up at the plenum last November - one on reforms and another on national security. The latter is not simply a new administrative organ, but purports to be an important change in China's grand strategy.

So far, China's security environment has been plagued by a lack of coordinated control and strategy [1] in the face of a potentially very insecure geopolitical situation. [2] China's biggest strategic weaknesses - its vague, disputed sea borders and location surrounded by countries closer politically to the US - might have been one of the reasons behind America's "pivot to Asia".

The pivot is the ultimate reason for the new Chinese National Security Commission and the new grand strategy. The pivot also stems from the failure of Beijing to seize opening offers made by US President Barack Obama in 2009. [3]

Before that, China did not need a grand strategy: its sheer size made it formidable enough to intimidate its smaller neighbors through conventional warfare. They were scared of being overcome by the human wave of the Chinese population. In a way, China was too big to be defeated, since its defeat could cause bigger troubles than a Chinese victory.

Against bigger threats of a nuclear attack, China kept a minimal yet effective nuclear force of ballistic missiles. This was based on a simple strategic realization: you don't need to threaten the annihilation of your enemy to keep him at bay, it is enough that a credible threat of even a limited nuclear attack is in place. There is no need to spend too much money building a huge nuclear arsenal when just a few missiles will do the job.

It was an effective and thrifty defense strategy. Because the general security atmosphere around China was guaranteed by the US, Beijing could simply forget about broader security issues. The US Navy patrolled the international sea lanes, and the general political and security arrangement around Chinese borders was maintained by the US. This arrangement was not hostile to China, but conversely was quite friendly nor conducive to Chinese integration into a system of international trade and investment led by the US.

In this regard, China's former security arrangement made good sense. It aligned with some basic principles of defense which can be summed up in Edward Luttwak's classic assessment of the grand strategy of the Roman Empire. [4] He warns that a common fallacy in some analyses is:
... to evaluate defensive systems in absolute terms. If a defense can be penetrated, it is said to be "useless"; and only an impenetrable defense is conceded to be of value. This appraisal is highly misleading: its equivalent, for the offense, would be to regard as useless any offensive system that cannot prevail against all forms of resistance, under all circumstances. Defensive systems should instead be evaluated in relative forms: their cost in resources should be compared to their military "output". Further, the value of defensive systems must be assessed in terms of the type of threat they are intended to counter. One system may be most effective against "low intensity" threats (infiltration, hit and run raids, etc) another against maximal threat of invasion. Each should be evaluated accordingly, for the defensive systems are normally intended to provide a finite barrier only against a particular kind of threat, while absorbing, deflecting, or at least filtering other threats greater or lesser in intensity than those against which the system is designed.

Changing strategies in a changing environment

The new environment had made China's old strategy obsolete. It calls for a deep reassessment of resources, as is evident with the establishment of the new national security commission.

On command and control, things could be simpler. For instance, the various departments in charge of maritime security (the People's Liberation Army Navy, the fishery, the border control, the customs authorities and the like) can be brought under one command and possibly somehow merged into one structure.

But China has other, bigger constraints. China is weak in conventional war, [5] and it has better capability in strategic defense - missiles but also cyber-attacks, the new horizon for threats.

However, this kind of response is geared toward the pre-pivot political environment. Basically, the strategy is prepared to respond only to extreme threats with absolute answers, such as a massive cyber-attack or a nuclear missile strike. But these scenarios are extreme and very unlikely - not the least because they would amount to suicide attacks. Once attacked, the US or any other country in the world would respond and that would be the end of China as we know it.

Ruling out for the sake of argument the possibility of a dramatic escalation - which is always possible if not likely when a great power is involved, especially if armed with weapons of mass destruction - let's consider the scenario of a limited conventional war.

China has very narrow capabilities even in limited conventional war - and a defeat in a conventional clash would certainly cause massive a domestic political backlash that could put the rule of the Communist Party in jeopardy.

Victory in a limited conventional war is also dangerous. It would isolate China by showing the world that the idea of the "China threat" is not illusory but real, and that China must be brought down. However, from a very strict military point of view, when cornered it is better to win an engagement than lose it. Of course this leaves open the issue of the meaning of "being cornered".

While keeping in mind that no war would be good for China, the frictions around the Senkaku Islands and in the South China Sea raise the question of whether China is prepared for a limited conflict.

In a limited conventional war, the Chinese precedents are mixed. China clearly won against India in 1962. In Korea in the 1950s, it was draw, and that was only achieved because Beijing was willing to sacrifice thousands to US machine guns in its notorious human waves. It is very unlikely that China could now repeat that performance. With Vietnam in 1979, when Beijing tried to punish Hanoi for its invasion of Cambodia, it did not go very well - despite some intelligence assistance from America and Thailand.

Now the situation is unclear, but on paper things are no better than in the past.

Surely the possibility of an invasion of Taiwan is politically non-existent - especially now that bilateral ties are improving. It is simply not worth considering, and the Chinese have long stopped taking it seriously as an option.

But on other fronts, the chances are not so impossibly remote. China is likely to fare badly against Japan, a country that is better prepared and better armed in a sea clash. China could do well against Vietnam, against whom China won a sea skirmish in 1988. But back then, the US was on Beijing's side, and since that is no longer the case, it is unclear what could happen now.

The prospects are also unclear in regard to the weakest of China's antagonists in the region, the Philippines, which could fight in the sea closer to its shores and thus with better air support than the Chinese, who would be much farther from their own air strips.

This very cursory assessment is in striking contrast with the capabilities of other countries with the economic might of China. Their defenses could easily win in a limited conflict against smaller countries, but they are unable to project a total threat. Only China, Russia, and America can do that. Yet of the trio, the other two have capability to easily defeat a smaller enemy in a conventional war, while China might not. How China can bridge the gap? The acquisition of weapons may not be enough without actual combat training and experience.
New weaponry could give the Chinese army a false sense of security that would be shattered in an actual fight. In 1894, China was in theory much stronger than Japan, with more modern warships, and yet it lost the war. The basic mistake then was arrogance and miscalculation of what really mattered on the battleground. Many signs indicate that the current Chinese army may also be overestimating itself and underestimating others. This can be seen as one more reason for China to keep out of war and for China's adversaries to try to either force or lure China in.

In the cobweb of Bismarckian Asia

While from the military side signals are worrisome and confused, on the broad political front there is a new atmosphere. This may far be more important because in China, political considerations always prevail over the military.

China is drawing a new Bismarckian map of Asia with of contradicting pacts and allegiances. At the end of the 19th century, the prime minister of Prussia and first chancellor of the German Empire, Otto Bismarck, built a cobweb of treaties in Europe, where all countries pledged allegiance both to or against Germany. This network was basically the reason for a very long period of peace in the continent that lasted from 1870 to 1914. Something similar now seems afoot in Asia.

South Korea and Taiwan are close US allies but sided against Japan and with China over the Senkaku Islands, reverting to Cold War allegiances. Vietnam is locked in a bitter clash with China over parts of the South China Sea, and it has offered one of its strategic ports, Haiphong, to the US Navy. Yet political and economic ties with China continue to thrive, with Chinese investment in Vietnam spiking.

Just a few days ago, Xinhua wrote:
In an interview with Xinhua, Do Tien Sam, editor in chief of the China Research Journal published by the Institute for Chinese Studies in Vietnam Academy of Social Science, said that the political determination of the two countries' leaders to maintain stable and healthy bilateral relations has helped increase the confidence of Chinese private investors to boost their investment in Vietnam in 2013.

Quoting statistics from Vietnam's Ministry of Planning and Investment, Sam said that China's foreign direct investment (FDI) in Vietnam increased sharply in 2013, with 89 newly licensed projects and putting more capital into existing 11 projects, bringing the total investment in 2013 to over 2.3 billion US dollars, a remarkable increase from 371 million US dollars in 2012. [6]
In India, the nationalist prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is expected to take an anti-Chinese position, but he was also blacklisted by the US for his role in the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in his home state of Gujarat. In fact, Modi has started an anti-China campaign but Beijing is playing it down. [7]

On this matter, intelligence collaboration with Japan and Vietnam (ostensibly against China) is increasing, but Chinese company Huawei has also controversially gained access to the Indian market while it is in effect banned from the US because of alleged military and intelligence links. Moreover, in recent days China has offered to finance up to 30% of an Indian infrastructure plan, something that could bind the countries even closer. [8] And yet China is still very close to Pakistan, India's arch-enemy.

The same pattern can be found all over Asia. But economic ties between China and Japan are not plummeting even as official diplomatic rhetoric grows more shrill.

It is true, as Gordon Chang writes, that, "in 2013, trade volume between China and Japan dropped 5.1% from the year before. That followed a 3.9% fall in 2012. To put these figures into context, China's total trade was up 6.2% in 2012 and 7.6% last year while Japan's volume increased 1.0% in 2012 but was down 7.8% in 2013." [9]

But firstly this is not a dramatic fall, and secondly China is thinking of countermeasures to make up for the cooling political and trade ties. China is issuing 10 times more tourist visas to Japanese visitors than a year ago [10] to show that Beijing's beef is not with the Japanese people but only with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

At the same time, Japan is considering passing some kind of Taiwan act, putting relations between Tokyo and Taipei on sounder footing, to try to improve ties and draw Taipei closer to Tokyo on the Senkaku issue, [11] and Japan is denouncing Beijing's political plots to isolate Tokyo on the Senkaku issue. [12]

A similar play is underway in the triangle between China, Russia, and Japan, with Moscow trying to improve ties on both sides but keep Beijing and Tokyo separate. And the Kremlin is doing the same with Beijing and New Delhi.

The geography of these links is getting more complex by the day, spawning a cobweb of political and economic relations that military conflicts can break only with a special effort. In fact, political interests in the region are converging, as all the major players - the US, China, and Japan - are for instance taking the same line against the possibility of a military coup in politically troubled Thailand.

Politics is no longer a zero-sum game here; conversely new political activism from any party is pushing new political activity by everybody. New bilateral ties between countries in the region seem to kindle a wildfire of measures and countermeasures by almost every subject, where the result is a positive gain of political ties, not a freeze in any part of this very complicated chessboard. Politics seems to imitate international commerce - more trade by two parties creates more trade with many other parties not involved in the original exchange. It is a very new phenomenon and so far is hard to fathom.

The maze of double and triple ties is growing, and in a few years it could get extremely complicated. In fact, it could get so complicated that - as happened in Germany the late 1880s, when the country went without its spin-master, Bismarck - all could begin to dangerously unravel. We are very far from this happening, as the web of allegiances is just beginning to be spun, but perhaps it is worth thinking ahead because these are all long processes that are difficult to turn back once started.

Towards the West: A new Silk Road

The web of intertwined allegiances stops negative forces from getting out of control and sets up important check mechanisms, but it does not channel economic and political forces in a new and positive direction. Friction and suspicions between China and the US, the two main players in this drama, are held back but are not creating a positive political outcome.

So far, the only area where the Chinese and Americans are collaborating positively is on North Korea. However, even there frustrations abound. Some Americans, not involved in the matter, are discouraged and annoyed by the lack of progress with Pyongyang. The new leader, the young Kim Jong-eun, is giving everybody plenty of reasons to be irritated.
Perhaps this situation should not be considered in absolute terms, but in comparison to what happened by intervening in Afghanistan and Iraq or by supporting jasmine revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. North Korea then appears under control, a contained plague that is not influencing neighboring countries. China, South Korea, and Japan carry on thriving, while the Middle East and Central Asia are mired in problems that could take decades to solve.

The American diplomats who have been navigating these very difficult waters, against adverse tides coming from home and abroad, deserve the Nobel Peace Prize for keeping peace in the

peninsula for so many years while the world elsewhere went up in flames. Can their approach be adapted to the situation elsewhere, such as in Central Asia or the Middle East? And could it this time include an American offer to involve China in the peace and development process in the region? America political activist Bill Mundell is also advocating a new US policy in agreement with China in Central Asia.

The region is strategic for China, far more than the Senkakus or the South China Sea. From here, China buys most of its energy imports, from here come the subversive fundamentalist inspirations fanning independence movements in its restive western region of Xinjiang, and here China (and India) could reopen a land route to Europe, modern heir of the old Silk Road, which could bypass the disputed South China Sea.

The new land route could initiate a new frontier of domestic growth in China by drawing population to the west rather than only to the coastal east; moreover it could provide a new shore and direction of development to many land-locked provinces and regions in China. In fact, as it happened with the Silk Road of ancient times, the two extremes of the road, China and Western Europe, benefited from the long process, but the greatest beneficiaries of the road of exchanges were the local, regional economies where goods were first traded.

This could become extremely necessary in the future as China's western cities from north to south are becoming overcrowded and very difficult to run, caught in the vice of pollution and traffic that necessarily come along with efforts to provide growth (ie support industries), security, good air, and comfort. The advantage of coastal cities, which are now preferred because they are close to export harbors, could be gauged against internal cities close to train stations connecting exports to Europe and the Middle East.

So far, China has been reluctant to get its feet really wet in Central Asia and the Middle East for fear of getting bogged down, as has been happening with the US, and also for fear of antagonizing America in an area that for decades has been its own preserve.

However, the US may now need strategic help in the region, which is out of control, with growing regional rivalries for instance between Saudi Arabia and Iran. China's involvement in the region may not work miracles, and in fact could create many new troubles for Beijing. Still, these new troubles may be worth more than the present troubles of overcrowding on its eastern coast. Besides the strategic forces pushing China toward the western region, the largest dividend of Chinese involvement in Central Asia would be to build a growing positive collaboration with America and possibly also India and Russia. It could be a great new game whose final prize is to reduce the heat on tensions now boiling the area.

The end result, as with North Korea, could conservatively be simply to keep the situation under control or limit its negative spinoffs. It would be a long-term plan, thought of in terms of decades, as Beijing likes. If anything more comes out of it, it should be considered a boon.

It would hard for China to navigate alone in these troubled waters, and Beijing could learn more from Washington in the Middle East and Central Asia. At the same time, for America there could be little downside in bringing China diplomatically into the region. If Beijing's intervention improves the situation, the merit is also Washington's for initiating the movement; but if there is no improvement, Beijing could be bogged down, as Washington has been for 20 years.

Similarly, for Beijing, there is even less of a downside. If it helps improve the situation in the region, fine; if it gets mired in local issues in the Middle East and Central Asia, at least it will have improved ties with America (of paramount importance to China), and it will have created new westward development trends domestically and relieved demographic pressures in overcrowded eastern coastal regions.

Moreover, the complexities of the region could create a deep political and diplomatic dependence on America, as Beijing, especially at the beginning, will hardly be able to play with all the elements of the complex local political and religious equation, and thus it will have to learn the policy of a new balance of power necessary for navigating the region - and the world.

1. See "Too many cooks spoil foreign-policy stew", Asia Times Online, Jan 7, 2011.
2. See "The China 'threat' as a blessing", Asia Times Online, Apr 13, 2011. Based on a La Stampa article of June 4, 2007.
3. See "Copenhagen miscalculation", Asia Times Online, Dec 23, 2009 and Beijing should let sleeping Nobel dogs lie, Oct 14, 2010
4. Luttwak, Edward. Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. 1976. p. 61.
5. Easton, Ian. "China's Deceptively Weak (and Dangerous) Military," The Diplomat, Jan 31, 2014
6. See "Interview: More Chinese investment boosts China-Vietnam trade ties", Xinhua, Jan 16, 2014
7. See "China plays down Indian opposition leader's border remarks", Reuters, Feb 24
8. See "China offers to finance 30 per cent of India’s infrastructure development plan", Economic Times, Feb 20, 2014
9. "The Chinese And Japanese Economies Are Delinking: Prelude To Conflict?", Forbes, Feb 16, 2014
10. See "Increase in tourism can help heal Sino-Japan rift", SCMP, Feb15, 2014
11. See "To Counter Beijing, Japan Moves Closer to Taiwan", The Diplomat, Feb 20, 2014
12. See China seeks support of other countries in dispute against Japan,, Feb 24, 2014.

Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore. Courtesy Joyo News

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