China White Paper signals emerging naval power - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Tuesday 2 June 2015

China White Paper signals emerging naval power

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 3rd Jun 15

In the late 14th and early 15th centuries China’s legendary eunuch admiral, Zheng He, carried Ming dynasty naval power to the corners of the Indian Ocean. But that brief flicker of a Chinese maritime flame was extinguished around 1435, when the emperor turned his attention instead to a land threat from the Mongol north, strengthening the Great Wall and the land army.

Now, 600 years later, China’s new emperors have explicitly returned focus to “managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests”.

“The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned”, says a new White Paper published by China’s Ministry of National Defence on May 26.

Given the US rebalance to Asia, Japan’s growing military, and “provocative actions” by China’s maritime neighbours, “the PLA Navy (PLAN) will gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defense’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defense’ with ‘open seas protection,’ and build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure”, says the White Paper.

This is the latest advance in Communist China’s incremental maritime evolution from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when internal turmoil and serious land threats --- the Korean War and the border confrontation with the Soviet Union --- left resources only for “coastal defence”. Only in the early 1980s, after Deng’s economic opening, did visionary PLAN chief Admiral Liu Huaqing throw off the self-limiting shackles of coastal defence and articulate a “Near Seas” strategy based on “offshore defence”, appropriate for a trading nation.

Liu’s “Near Seas” concept visualized the PLAN’s dominance of a maritime defence perimeter encompassing the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea and the Bohai Gulf, along with their islands. These waters extend up to the First Island Chain, running from Sakhalin in the north to Borneo in the south, along the Kuril Islands, Japan, Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the northern Philippines and Borneo. The PLAN believes this maritime space must be dominated --- for the physical security of China’s coastal economic powerhouses, for asserting its maritime claims and for deterring Taiwan.

By the early 2000s a more ambitious Beijing extended its gaze several hundred kilometres further afield. This “Far Seas” concept, enthusiastically championed by President Hu Jintao --- who also headed the Central Military Commission --- involved dominating the approaches to the Second Island Chain, which runs north-to-south from the eastern edge of the Japanese archipelago, along the line joining the Bonin and Marshal islands, the Marianas, Guam and the Palau archipelago. The “open seas protection” that the White Paper refers to seems synonymous with the “Far Seas” concept.

The “Near Seas” concept has rested on an “anti-access, area denial”, or A2/AD strategy, which rests on asymmetrical tactics like swarm attacks, sea mining and anti-aircraft carrier ballistic missiles to cause unacceptable casualties on enemy vessels in the vicinity of China. In contrast, a “Far Seas” concept would have to be more offensive, involving the establishment of sea control by a surface fleet based on aircraft carriers.

Admiral Liu had laid down time lines for extending PLAN sea control --- over its “Near Seas” by 2010; up to the Second Island Chain by 2020; and by 2040, China would “have the power to contain the dominance of the US Navy in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.”

China’s assertiveness in the maritime neighbourhood after 2008 has raised such alarm as to scupper any plans to dominate the “Near Seas” by 2010. Yet, the White Paper ups the ante with its reference to “open seas protection”.

With the PLA’s attention focused on the confrontation in the Western Pacific, it would logically appear to have lower stakes in India’s maritime neighbourhood. While the White Paper makes no mention of the Indian Ocean, New Delhi is not reassured. It continues to harbour apprehensions about China’s cultivation of littoral countries, creation of potential naval bases in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Pakistan, port visits by PLAN warships and submarines and Beijing’s increasing commitment to anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, which provides PLAN vessels the opportunity to sail the Indian Ocean.

On land warfare, which is of key concern to India, the White Paper reiterates its emphasis on western-style, high-technology warfare. This was first formulated in 1993 under the rubric of “winning local wars in conditions of modern technology”. A decade later, in 2004, with the digitization of the battle space, this was modified to “winning local wars under conditions of informationization.”

For an Indian military that remains mired in early-20th century positional warfare, the current White Paper conjures up the uncomfortable possibility of an enemy that is not just high-tech but also flexible and mobile, switching troops from other theatres in a rapid build up of forces trained and equipped for specific tasks.

“(T)he PLA Army (PLAA) will continue to reorient from theater defense to trans-theater mobility. In the process of building small, multi-functional and modular units, the PLAA will adapt itself to tasks in different regions… (elevating) its capabilities for precise, multi-dimensional, trans-theater, multi-functional and sustainable operations”, says the White Paper.

The document also envisions a larger PLA Air Force (PLAAF) role, stating that China “will endeavor to shift its focus from territorial air defense to both defense and offense”. China’s growing space capabilities would also be harnessed into “an air-space defense force structure…”

To combat this vision, India continues to raise additional static formations that could be quickly outflanked. In addition, there is the weak Indian threat of a “mountain strike corps” that will be understrength, underequipped and so far without a clear strategic task.

At the level of grand strategy, the White Paper recognises that China owes its economic and political rise to the new globalized economy. The very first paragraph in China’s new White Paper acknowledges: “In today's world, the global trends toward multi-polarity and economic globalization are intensifying, and an information society is rapidly coming into being… Peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit have become an irresistible tide of the times.”

Even so, in a neighbourhood where China looms uncomfortably large, Beijing’s plans for military modernisation are taken more seriously than its talk of peace.


  1. Dear editor,

    Instead of the word Eunuch, is it not better to use the word Transgender ?


  2. Col. Shukla raises important points. Perhaps PLAN is not overtly stating an Indian Ocean doctrine other than "containing" the US Navy because a fleet capable of pushing US to 2nd Island Chain (2020) and Hawaii (2040)could also dominate the Indian Ocean.

    Still, this is an interesting formulation because PLAN will not be competing with USN for the Indian Ocean. The resident IO power will be India. Why no mention of India? Is China signaling India it does not see Delhi as a threat? Or is it saying Indian Navy is too insignificant to figure in its plans - not militarily, but politically?

    Mobile warfare: the Chinese in 1962 defeated us with mobile warfare whereas - as Col. Shukla notes - we were fighting a positional war a-la-\World War I. Unless we give up the idea of holding "every inch of our sacred soil", we cannot meet PLA mobile warfare. Incidentally, we cannot defeat Pakistan without shifting to mobile warfare.

    Mobile warfare does not always means mechanized and helicopter forces. In WW2, only 1-10th of the German Army was motorized/mechanized; 9-10ths was footslogging infantry with few vehicles and many horses and mules. But the infantry could march 50-km/day week after week. With limited armor forming breakthrough and envelopment, it was the infantry that met and destroyed the bulk of Polish, French, and Russian forces, with net advances of 10-20 km a day and often more.

    This suggests we could reach the Indus River in 15-21 days depending on the sector, and we could reach Lhasa in 21-30 days. That is pretty darn fast.

    But this an be done only if we are prepared to forget the defense, focus on the offense in key sectors, use infiltration against heavily defended or mountain positions, and leave our flanks undefended. The idea in mobile warfare whether fought on foot or horse or tank is that maintaining the initiative and the speed of the advance protects the flanks.

    Impossible? Well, simply go back over the 1962 campaign to see this is exactly what PLA did to us, using a few trucks and lots of mules. They used the same tactics in Korea, particularly infiltration because US/ROK defenses were strong. It worked well in the retreat to Pusan, it did not work in the UN COunteroffensive to the 38th Parallel because US had air superiority and unlimited firepower, and the Korean peninsula was about 300-km wide. Our front with Pakistan is more than 2000-km, with China 4000-km. Defending every inch as well as having sufficient force for offensives means at least 3 times larger, maybe 5 times larger.

    So okay, no reason why we cant field 120-200 divisions. But do we want to do that just because we don't want to change our tactics and strategy to the offensive? No one won a war by defending, let alone defending everything.

  3. If China actually treads this path it will ruin itself. Only a strong economy can sustain a strong military. With China's growth slowing down they need to rationalize their defense expenditure. If they continue to splurge on defense they will face the same predicament of USSR. Same message to India. Almost 30 to 40% of our total expenditure goes towards internal and external defense. Expenditure in defense does not contributes in any manner towards nation building or creation of wealth and prosperity. On the contrary heavy expenditure in defense leads to India getting stuck in the quagmire of poverty and malnutrition. Almost 200 million people in India face starvation. 4 out of 10 malnourished people happen to be Indians. In other words out of all the poverty stricken malnourished people of the world, half of them happen to be Indians. In light of this, we need to control our defense expenditure. Creation of Mountain Strike Corp was a knee jerk reaction of our low quality top brass and utterly nincompoop defense minister.
    Almost 10 or more regiments in Indian Army consist of people drawn solely from the Himalayan regions of India and Nepal. Inspite of having such over representation of such people in Indian Army, what is/was the need for creation of additional MSC costing the exchequer several tens of billions on recurring basis???
    Rafale is also turning out to be a useless over expensive acquisition at a time when India's economy continues to go downhill.

  4. What else would you expect from a mainly North Indian ,inbred , Punjabi Paratha, caste conscious Army , more into retirement benefits at the time of joining , CSD robbery , Land Grab , clubs and privileges, who has contempt for all other Indians , is extremely indiscipline and would have difficulty adding two + two without two pegs of fake whiskey , where selection is for those with an IQ guaranteed to be less than 70 . In most parts of India other than the North it is now seeming more an army of occupation with its behavior in Cantonments with non -North Indian Civilians who incidentally are the majority of this country .

  5. To Anonymous 17:34, Similar things can be said the defense research orgs such as DRDO, which are staffed by People from South India for the most part. ISRO is also largely South India based. Nobody really complains. The fact of the matter is to do what you are good at. We have to contribute to this Nation according to our strengths and develop our armed forces as a whole. Please broaden your visions.

  6. @Ravi

    Mobile warfare by Infantry ... age old practice and well established but forgotten in Indian Army. However, do not scare the Mud corps community in India. Their ideas of mobility is stuck on machines not men. For them it is unthinkable and straight away reject-able. Others who tried it expected mobility of machines/ tanks from Infantry in high altitude and screwed their commanders and soldiers. The only time IA showed some traces of mobility were during Exercise Checker Board under Sunderjee. So there is basic lack of comprehension and visualisation of reality unless one is thinking of introduction of old age Young Husbands Cavalry there. For Chinese in 1962, they were descending down from higher altitude to lower one and for Indians it would be reverse. There were no Chinese mobile warfare and infiltration in Ladakh except at very small tactical level. For Indians the mobility exercised by them to occupy Dhola etc was outightly stupid.

    @Anonymous 16:30

    Those are sick arguments repeated like broken record many a times that defence does not contribute to economic activities. MNREGA contributes to nation building but not paying to the soldiers and industral workers who almost belong to MNREGA group? Defence industry consumes power, steel, metals, electronics, works, buildings, infrastructure, vehicles, many other industrial production providing jobs to millions. That is waste of economic activity? You must learn basics of economics..

    @ China shifting from Continental Inward Looking power to outward Conscious Sea Power - yes. The internal cohesion and central authority is perceived being threatened by forces from Sea. It is core issue for China to maintain centralised hold and authority over China and for that management of periphery is of vital importance . South China Sea and may be Indian ocean is the periphery. If major threat to China's Centralised authorities emanate from there the Dragon will move his gaze thereon. That is the doctrine. So simple...

  7. @Anon 23:54

    Do you know why USSR collapsed?? How can expenditure in defense lead to creation of wealth? It is taxpayers' money which instead of being spent on infrastructure and nation building is being spent on pension, medical, salaries of 3 million serving + pensioners while 200 million people of this country starve. Are you completely ignorant that we import almost 70% of our defense needs even though better indigenous alternatives are available?

    @ Anon 22:54

    ISRO and DRDO are dominated by south Indians largely because these institutions are located in southern region of the country whereas Indian military has pan India presence. Indian Army is still structured as per British Indian Army where pro British princely kingdoms were favored and mainstream Indians were discouraged from joining the army. This same setup continues till this day. The Indian Army is by and large a Hindi/North Indian army and not pan Indian army.

  8. @ Anonimous 23:45..

    Your claim " better indeginous alternatives" says that you are a DODO.. a DPSU sucker or something like that

    USSR Collapsed due to many reasons but as long as it survived it was due to its miliatry..

    Military is not a means of wealth creation is saying that Great Britain became world power just like that without its military power and the militries of Islam did not create any wealth for 2000 years of their subjugation of half of the world including India including selling millions of Indian females as slaves in Arab markets.. and that China is the poorest country in the world because of their second largest Army in the world. You also seem to suggest that soldiers all over the world except in India are not paid pensions and salaries .. a looser.

    First understand what economics is all about and how military power ( or all kinds of power out of which Military is one) plays a vital role to that and then comment..

    What is economic value of peace ? Any quantification..

    Lastly, your comments about the regional bias of Army is totally wrong and you are uneducated in that regard. After Independence, the population percentage of Army as per recruitable male population by states is strictly followed .... if you did not that much, know it now or challenge that.

    So far DRDO is concerned you are 50 percent South Indians and another 50 percent reservationists !! I have no problem with that except for my opinion that you are free loaders and not scientists at all.


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