China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee is currently deliberating a new law on “National Defence Mobilization”. The law envisages various emergent actions if the country’s “state sovereignty, unification, territorial integrity or security were threatened”, and provides for expropriation of civilian resources if required. The NPC Standing Committee, a version of China’s Parliament, takes up a draft law for discussion only after this had received the sanction of the Politbureau of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the country’s preeminent political body.
The brief statement on the law carried by the Global Times (April 21), a sister publication of the CCP mouthpiece the People’s Daily, has very wide interpretation of conditions or threat that would call upon the activation of the details in the law.
Appropriation of civilian resources in case of a war or the threat of a major war, is not new. The civilian infrastructure like airports, ports, communication system have been incorporated in the People Liberation Army’s (PLA) simulated and actual exercises in the past also. Engineering of extreme nationalism or ultra-nationalism has been resorted to by the state against foreign powers, especially the USA over the last decade where a situation of confrontation had arisen. It began with the US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kosovo in 1999, where US Missions in China were attacked by the people.
The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) unleashed by Mao Zedong, included ultra-nationalism and anti-foreigner indoctrination as part of it political agenda. The ten-year long upheaval put the country back by 50 years, according some political assessments after the demise of Mao. But while Mao’s Mantra was defence against historical foreign exploitation, the new doctrine appears as offence against foreign countries through power diplomacy to establish Chinese supremacy in the world, starting with Asia. The implication of such a policy on China’s Asian neighbours needs no emphasis.
China Defence White Paper 2008, released in January, was apparently a precursor to what was coming. A so-called exercise in military transparency as demanded by the USA, the European Union and Japan among others, hardly gave any realistic account of defence spending, foreign acquisitions or indigenous production. It, however, deliberately gave clear but teasing indications about where its military thrust was going. It was evident that its military might was set to gallop not only in the traditional hard equipment area, but cyber warfare, informization and space supplemented military superiority using no contact destructive weapons including laser, electromagnetic and radiation weapons.
Targets, both specific and in general, are gradually being identified. In March, the official Chinese news agency, the China News Network (CNN) said that the US and Japan were joining hands with the ASEAN countries to oppose China in the South China sea, and India’s “look east” policy was a bid to enlarge its say in the affairs of the area. The report also said that China must strengthen its military strength in the region to the level of a deterrent force. Simultaneously, tension has been rising over the ownership of the Spratly group of islands in the South China sea claimed as a whole by China as its sovereign territory, and partially claimed by others in the region. Both Malaysia and the Philippines have reiterated their claims on some of the islets and reefs of this group which are in their continental shelves. The Philippines also enacted a law in March this year to make their claims official as per the UN Laws of the Seas. China has refuted these claims and warned Manila against it.
The Sprately islands area is estimated to have rich gas deposits though no realistic survey has been made yet. The South China sea is a very important strategic shipping route which Chinese want to control. It has proposed joint development of the resources there, but under the conditions its sovereignty over the area is accepted by the others.
China is increasingly feeling that its carefully crafted policy over decades to dominate Asia without any challenge is being threatened by India’s development into a global power of considerable acceptance from a sub-continental cage. It has watched three Indian steps very carefully. First was the establishment of the tri-services command in the Andamans, development of the Indian Navy, and the counter-piracy and rescue exercises of the Indian navy with South East Asian countries in the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait.
The next was the Indian nuclear test in May 1998, and the resilience it demonstrated to hold its nuclear position against international pressures, finally to be accepted as a de facto nuclear power. It saw in the NDA government led by the BJP the determination to carve India’s name in the international ranks.
The third was the Indo-US nuclear deal and the Indo-US strategic partnership under the UPA government led by the Congress. Beijing opposed the Indo-US nuclear agreement till the end, but had to withdraw in the face of Indian diplomacy backed by the global recognition of an emerging India as a benevolent force of temperance and balance.
Within the above parameters, China perceived an India-US-Japan-Australia challenge to China’s Asia and Asia Pacific Kingdom. It had neutralized Australia for a brief period, but got caught recently in its intelligence and economic subversion of Canberra. It is also aware that most of the South East Asian countries which were overwhelmed by Chinese power waves, may look to the new strategic developments to stand up to face Chinese domination.
A sense of frustration appears to be creeping in in Beijing, and they appear to be considering the need for military force backed power projection. At the same time, the Chinese are trying to work with the USA using the global economic meltdown, to construct a bilateral relationship to ensure Washington that China’s military and economic power are still decades behind that of the USA.
An article published by the official Global Times (April 15) reveals a thinking currently under discussion in Beijing, over a possible new doctrine regarding Asia. The article written by Senior Chinese expert Zheng Youngnian currently a visiting adjunct and director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the Singapore National University, claims Asia is China’s “great backyard”, and China’s rise must first be in Asia only by acquiring the capabilities to resolve various issues in the continent – an euphemism for intervention in the hot spots. The article suggests that while China has won a significant position in the world by its investments and involvement in Latin America and Africa, to be really effective it must acquire the preeminent position in Asia and, if need be, through power diplomacy and power projection.
Zheng advocates the use of power to resolve emerging hot spots that can rise to a crisis level and destabilize China’s stability, security and territorial integrity. He further cautions that while relations with major powers cannot be ignored, as the same time small countries cannot be neglected in any way.
Zheng’s article was also published in the Singapore daily United Morning Post giving it wide publicity in south East Asia and the Asia Pacific region. The message is unmistakable and would raise concerns in Asia, especially for countries which have territorial disputes with China and those harbouring any intention of forming an alliance to stand up to China.
These developments culminated with the Chinese naval review on April 23, in which an unprecedented fifty-six Chinese submarines, destroyers, frigates, missile boats and aircraft were displayed to invited foreign navies including the Indian and US navies. The naval parade was led by two Chinese nuclear submarines which were kept secret from foreigner till now.
For countries like the USA and Russia the display was to suggest the Chinese navy was far behind theirs. But to the Asian navies it was a different message of power, with their naval commander-in-chief Admiral Wu Shengli proclaiming earlier this month that China would develop a new generation of warships and aircraft to give it much longer range capabilities. The Chinese warships deployed in waters off the Somali coast in anti-piracy operation is the first display of the Chinese navy’s long-range capabilities with the ability to operate for extended durations on its own.
On a separate issue, Prof. Yang Haisheng of Sichuan University observed that India should not consider the entire Indian Ocean region as its own backyard and shut off China’s co-operation with countries of the region. In 1993, the then head of the PLA’s General Logistic Department, Zhou Nanqi, had said the Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean. China’s strategy to acquire port facilities for its navy in Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka is well known to the international strategic community.
Nobody would grudge China acquiring a large navy and aircraft carriers to guard its sea borders and secure its shipping from piracy. But when the real intention is the dominate Asia and impose its unreasonable demands through military power diplomacy, it is another thing. This is certainly going to provoke an arms race in Asia. Japan, South Korea and Australia have already begun to respond. India still remains in some kind of a hole, many a time pushing strategic threats from China under the carpet.
( Courtesy- South Asia Analysis Group. The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience of study on the developments in China. He can be reached at email@example.com)