Commenting on the just commenced military exercise of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), “Stride-2009”, the Chinese official media made a very succinct comment: “The stronger a military power is, the less it wants to conceal”. This apparently confirms that the Chinese authorities at the highest level have decided to discard late senior leader Deng Xiaoping’s advice “hide your strength, bide your time”.
For almost four years now Chinese strategic experts have been debating if the country’s economic and military power was strong enough to openly and emphatically dictate its preeminent position in Asia – West Asia to the Asia Pacific Region. The conclusion is, yes, China is ready to project overseas a combination of economic and military power to establish its perceived domain.
“Stride-2009” is the biggest ever military exercise conducted by the PLA. It comprises 50,000 personnel drawn from four of its seven Military Regions(MRs). All three arms – the army, the navy and the air force are involved. What is notable, however, is that the Second Artillery, the nuclear missile force is also taking part along with tactical nuclear weapon units embedded in the military, and the civilian society. According to Gong Fanbin, a Professor with the PLA’s National Defence Academy, this exercise is concentrating on “regional conflicts and overseas deployment the PLA may possibly encounter in the future”. Although China does not expect to fight a war on its territory because of its enhanced power according to Prof. Gong, inclusion of civilian population, infrastructure and assets in the exercise projects people’s war under modern conditions. On the other hand, it is another type of exercise infusing ultra-nationalism among the people. The ultra-nationalist exercise has been an ongoing feature under the Communist Party for some years now. The civilians are now being meshed with the military.
A pertinent question is why the Secondary Artillery and tactical nuclear weapons units were used in such an exercise. If the exercise is to prime the PLA in local wars, that is, wars over territorial disputes and claims, India would be the only country in its focus as a de facto nuclear state with which it has border or territorial disputes. The rest like Japan, and the South East Asian countries claiming parts of the South China Sea Spratly islands are non-nuclear power countries. China claims full sovereignty over Taiwan. Although Taiwan is a non-nuclear weapons territory, de facto almost independent, there is an US military cover. Japan, which has a serious territorial dispute with China, also has agreed US nuclear cover.
Therefore, the question arises as to how will China use its tactical nuclear weapons and the intermediate to long range nuclear weapons and in what kind of a war theatre. If one goes by Prof. Gong Fanbin’s words, exercise “Stride-2009” denotes not only “forward defence”, but also overseas deployment. This leads to a concurrent question: nuclear weapons deployment where and for what. The answer is not difficult to guess.
China’s nuclear weapons assistance to Pakistan predates India’s 1974 nuclear explosion test, Pokhran-I codenamed the Buddha smiles, contrary to the common folklore that Pakistan embarked on the nuclear path only after India did. Similarly, China encouraged, abetted and aided Iran’s nuclear programme. China was also the middleman between Pakistan and North Korea for nuclear technology and missile technology cross osmosis. China may have had second thoughts about nuclear armed Iran and North Korea very recently, but there is so much difference between what China says and what China does, that always there is room for doubts.
Pakistan’s nuclear assistance from China was by no small means abetted by the USA. Washington did not want its axis with Pakistan and China during the cold war and especially the Afghan war disturbed by this issue. A nuclear weapons Pakistan was manageable. There is no sign yet that the USA seriously wants to curb Pakistan’s nuclear weapons expansion because of the war against terrorism. In the present scenario, Pakistan and Iran look most likely destinations for China’s overseas nuclear deployment.
The Chinese hard line leaders apparently feel unshackled finally from Deng Xiaoping’s restraint. The PLA, a powerful pillar of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always been hardline on territorial and important foreign policy issues. President and CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao, who is also the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), has kept the PLA in good humour. Hu Jintao, himself, is not even a closed liberal, let alone a willing compromiser in any territorial issues. But like many Chinese leaders before him, he also grudgingly respects strength and forthright positions.
In their new euphoric power embellishment, the Chinese authorities have experimented with power in their immediate region of perceptual domain. Claimants to sections of the Spratly Islands have been threatened, Japan’s determination to protect sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands tested, US naval vessels in the international waters of the region have been limitedly provoked, and cyber attacks made trial runs on computers of various countries including India.
China has reverted its hard line focus on India. Following the 13th round of Special Representative (SR) level talks in New Delhi (August 7-8) on the border and other issues, it has re-opened its insulting and threatening postures. The CCP mouthpiece the People’s Daily (August 13) charged Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru as an imperialist and expansionist who provoked the 1962 war. It also warned that China can retaliate with “defensive action” (military) if India continues to strengthen its military position in Arunachal Pradesh and promote the “China Threat” theory.
Apart from direct statements from the Chinese leaders and the foreign ministry, the People’s Daily is the most authoritative of Chinese statements. A statement from the party can be more serious at times than from the government.
The Chinese authorities are not giving the Indian government an option. It is fall in line or face the consequences. This is not to project that China is going to launch a war on India in the next few or several years. There are many other ways in which India can be put under pressure including abetment to Pakistan sponsored terrorism. Chinese support to the war against terrorism has always been questionable. Using terrorists may become part of China’s asymmetric warfare strategy. But no country including India can let its defence down. A strong defence is a guarantee for peace.
The Chinese must understand that 2009 is not 1962.
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst based in New Delhi)