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China’s Power Exposition- Chinks In the Armour?

As built up assiduously from early this year, China made its great power show on October 01, 2009, commemorating the 60th founding anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. In Chinese tradition, a new life cycle began for the country. The massive display of military capability and economic power, marching in tandem from Tian An Men Square down Changan Avenue demonstrated that the new China had thrown away the past, especially the history of colonial “exploitation and domination”, to emerge at the top global table.

Some Chinese commentators have been writing that the past should be forgotten and it was time to spread Chinese culture across the world. Such officially endorsed views give glimpses into the strategic thinking of the Chinese leadership – a resurgent China which will never again be humiliated.

Communist China did not see culture in a simplistic way of showcasing arts and history. It was an embodiment of power as Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing and her ‘Gang of Four’ used so effectively during the ‘Cultural Revolution’. This is why Mao himself started his “bombard the headquarters” campaign, calling his attack on the establishment a ‘Cultural Revolution’. Nationalistic and, sometimes, jingoistic campaigns were projected through parades, dance and drama. The spirit in all such performances was daring and challenging. The power emanated through such activities by the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution stand witness to the death and destruction of the Chinese people and society. The Cultural Revolution has, however, been condemned by the Chinese authorities officially. But there are issues to ponder about especially by China’s neighbours following the October 01, 2009 parade.

On the one hand, the parade was sought to be a matter of pride for the Chinese people. Which citizen would not be emotionally elated with such a spectacle. Yet, how many Chinese citizens were allowed to witness this grand event personally?

The parade of 8,000 well drilled soldiers and 100,000 civilians conscripted was perfectly scripted. The women soldiers appeared to have come out of Vogue magazine, groomed from tip to toe and in uniforms the Long Marchers could not have dreamt about. This shows how far the Chinese Communist Revolution has travelled, a testimony to China’s pockets of liberalism and opening to the outside world.

The Chinese authorities announced that for the first time more than 50 “indigenously” developed weapons would be displayed to the public. The pride of the military display were the J-10 multirole aircraft which is expected to become the backbone of the PLA air Force, and the Dongfang-31 (DF-31) nuclear capable Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), with a range of 10,000 kms covering USA’s prize west coast. It is not yet clear if the DF-31 was displayed at the parade, as no announcement was made by the Chinese State media. Foreign experts watching China’s missile development are of the view that the DF-31A has high manoeuvrability capable of beating commonly available interceptors, and with world class accuracy.

China is developing the DF-5 MOD-2 multiple warhead ICBM, the DF-21 series is adding new varieties with 3000 kms range highly manoeuvrable multiple warheads with high precision, and a variety of intermediate to short range missiles including cruise missiles with Radio Frequency (RF) non-nuclear warhead DF-15 series. The electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) and High Power Microwave (HMP) warhead missiles are key features of future information warfare weapons. There are many others from thermo-basic bombs to submarine launched nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers that are on the anvil.

According to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) newspaper, the army is going to be reduced further by 70,000 personnel from its current 2.3 million strength, but the Navy and Air Force strength will be increased.

How many of these arms and equipment are “indigenously” developed is the question. Very little, especially where major developments are concerned. The J-10 aircraft has inputs from Israel, some of which may have come from the USA through Israel. There are regular cases of the Chinese acquiring US technology through clandestine means, proved in American courts but denied by China. It is well known and documented that the design of the US W-88 miniature nuclear warhead technology was acquired by clandestine means. But most of its modern technology has been acquired from the cash strapped Russian military industrial complex, and some from Ukraine. Two US companies, Loral and Huges Inc were fined by US courts for supplying long range missile technology to the Chinese in 1996, on business considerations.

Notwithstanding how and from where the Chinese establishments acquired technology, the fact remains they have it, used it and have come up with an array of weapon systems to send a message to Asia and beyond.

There are certain positions in connection with the celebrations that demand attention. One is politico-ideological. President, Communist Party General Secretary, and Chairman of the crucial Central Military Commission (CMC), Hu Jintao reviewed the Parade in a collared dark Mao suit in an open roof indigenously built Red Flag car. In contrast, his Politburo colleagues were in western style suits.

It is difficult to surmise that the dress code was discussed in the Politburo. It appears more of a Hu Jintao personal decision to put his stamp as a Maoist in the initial period of new China. It may be recalled when he took over as the Party General Secretary in 2002, he first went to Xibaipo outside Beijing where Mao had held his last plenary session before he took over in Beijing’s Great Hall of the people. Hu followed Mao’s footsteps. The new China upto 1954 under Mao was accommodating and reflects in many ways the early phases of Deng Xiaoping’s “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

What was Hu Jintao’s message? Was he conveying a message like Mao’s at the 1959 Lushan plenum, challenging his comrades that if they did not fall in line with him he would go to the countryside and raise another Red Army. Mao got his liberally disposed challenger in Marshall Peng Dehuai. Who is Hu Jintao’s Peng Dehuai? Vice President Xi Jinping who was not elevated to Vice Chairman of the CMC at the 4th Plenum of the 17th Party Central Committee held two weeks earlier?

It is very clear that Hu Jintao put his emphasis on the PLA. As the Chinese media,, a military website put it “Chinese President orders the armed forces to make new contributions to world peace”. In the context of the occasion, taking all other things into account, this is a loaded statement. Hu put the PLA in the front line of China’s foreign policy. An article in the official Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily reprinted in the English language China Daily, adds substance to the messages coming out of the 60th anniversary celebrations. Written by Vice Admiral Yang Yi, who is with the Institute of Strategic Studies of the National Defence University (NDU), it says that at the new starting point the PLA is shouldering the historical mission of safeguarding peace and security for the country’s long-avowed resurrection, and is maintaining national security and world peace but on the premises it is empowered to deal with multiple and complicated threats.

Obviously, the PLA is pitching not only for more resources but a greater say in strategic foreign policy decisions, not that it did not have a significant say earlier. But would this be a signal for a Party-military dictatorship notwithstanding the fact that the PLA representation in the 25-member politburo is now limited to two. On the other hand the PLA’s controlling body, the CMC, has one civilian representation in the person of the Chairman, Hu Jintao.

Vice Admiral Yang Yi, writing on China’s large sea and land boundaries does not suggest but states China’s strategy of a “rich nation and strong military” as well as the strategy of “active defence”, with no first attack and no first use nuclear doctrine. He says the “rich nation and strong military” status will create a “favourable security environment and defuse crises before they escalate into conflict and war”.

To take Yang Yi’s test strategy first, the message projected is that China will be the ombudsman of its nearby external region and the big brother. This means China is getting to intervene in the affairs of its neighbouring regions which has a huge circumference. Russia, of course, is not included. South Asia, South East Asia, and the Far East are included.

The positions of “active defence” and “no first use of nuclear weapons” are connected and ambiguous. The strategy of active defence or forward defence is to destroy a threat well outside China’s periphery. That threat is perceptive not real. Similarly, on the nuclear action no first use is no longer to be taken as strike and then retaliate. This strategy has evolved into strike first if a possible nuclear strike on China is perceived. This opens a huge uncharted area of perception. Vice Admiral Yang Yi’s theories are more than theories. They appear more as doctrines.

It must be taken into account that the 60th anniversary celebrations were prefaced by the multi-services military exercise “stride-09” of 50,000 personnel spanning the country to assure the Chinese people that no adversary would dare to invade China. This was contrasted with the initial years of the People’s Republic when it suffered from the paranoia of external invasion. This imbibes pride among the Chinese people as nothing before. At least that was the intention – not only is China invincible on its own soil, but it is ready to dictate half of the world.

Taking the entire gamut of issues raised by the developments surrounding the 60th anniversary including its preparation of a Chinese cultural crusade (meaning surrender to China) calls for reciprocal thinking in Asia. It is no longer a case of one waiting for the other to take the lead.

A Jewish prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp wrote something like this “when they came for my neighbour across the street, I did not speak; when they came for my neighbour next door, I did not speak; when they came for me, there was no one left to speak for me’. The South East Asian and the Central Asian countries have something to think about.

Yet, there is a very pertinent question for China. A real world power does not need to shut off their own people from such a huge celebration. China became a virtual prison for its own people. Chinese citizens, except for the privileged and selected 200,000, were forbidden from viewing the national parade. They could only watch it on television. The large population in the hinterland and villages were distanced. Those living on Changan Avenue, including foreigners were prohibited from even opening their windows to see the Parade, let above photograph it. Some foreigners living along the Parade route were given to understand that if they stepped out on their balconies they could be shot by the security personnel.

This projects a bizarre picture. A power as strong as China but insecure to the extent of paranoia can only be a threat to regional security and stability. It sees ghosts all around. Has a dangerous Frankenstein arisen?

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst on China, based in New Delhi,

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