The Outline of Instability
China has commenced re-balancing its forces by downsizing its Army and boosting its Navy, Missile Force, and Strategic Support Force. Army personnel are to be reduced to below one million for the first time in its history. Xi, has ordered the PLA to be transformed into a world-class fighting force in the next three decades. A tacit admission that it is not yet so. The trade war is brewing and is not likely to taste well for China. Its economy has perceptibly slowed. The ambitious BRI is not going well. There are rumbles in China’s internal politics. There is a shift taking place. A window is opening which gives India some consolidation space. It tells us to re look at the China threat without over-hype.
Instability of Change
Any system will be unstable during change or transformation. That is a law of nature. China is no different. It has entered an instability phase as it seeks to transform from a regional power to a global power. It was predicted four months back ( https://bharatshakti.in/china-an-overstretched-hegemon/). In this transformation period, while it remains a power of reckoning, it will not be a power to fear by India or even other powers. In fact, if one sees, anti-India hype is not as rampant as before from Chinese state organs and its behavior along the LAC has been less aggressive. The shift is subtle but discernible.
The Economic Instability
Trade War. The trade war is truly on course. Whether USA or China emerges as the winner does not matter. The Chinese economy will suffer. This is also well known. However, the joker in the pack is the compounding adverse effect it will have on a cooling economy. That is to be seen.
The Middle-Income Trap (MIT). Increasing wages, erosion of competitiveness, prematurely aging population and decline of productivity has brought China into MIT zone. China must get past the MIT to be a global power. China has launched the Made in China 2025 program for high value-added exportable products to vault over MIT. It can do so if it invests in advanced infrastructure, innovation, technological inputs and improved labor. However, China is debt fueling the economy, propping up traditional industries with massive loans and is backing state-owned enterprises. It is opined by experts that the greatest enemy of Xi’s Chinese dream of circumventing MIT is Xi himself.( https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-01-13/xi-s-leading-china-s-economy-into-the-middle-income-trap).
The Military and Economic Drivers of Transformation
BRI and CPEC. Apprehensions about BRI is expanding and the push-back list now encompasses Malaysia, Myanmar, Indochina, Montenegro, Maldives, Nepal, Bangladesh and Tajikistan. Projects are either delayed, diluted or in doubt in these countries. “Loss of face” is happening.(https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/china-admits-challenges-in-bri-amid-pushback/articleshow/65928923.cms) (http://idrw.org/chinas-bri-is-facing-resistance-in-region-says-ministry-report/) . Zambia has gone the Hambantota way and has handed over its international airport and state power company to China. Many projects are tending towards economic un-viability. Other major countries (including India and Japan) are providing attractive alternatives. Recipient countries are negotiating harder. Even Pakistan has started looking seriously at renegotiation of terms with China on CPEC. However, assets are being created. This has two spin offs. BRI is going to strain China economically since the envisaged ROI is far away. Chinese presence in many of these assets is considered hostile by local populations. Hence, BRI must be guarded. Accordingly, a military stretch has commenced.
Energy. Chinese efforts at finding alternative forms of energy have not succeeded despite having huge deposits of shale gas. Technology for its extraction has eluded them. China will be a net energy importer (mostly oil) up to 2035 and beyond. It is expected to guzzle more than half of the net growth in oil consumption. Oil will be largely sourced from states, regions and sea lanes (Hormuz and Malacca Straits) which are conflict ridden or unstable. Hence inbound oil flow will remain a major economic and security concern for the Chinese. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421514002079). It explains Chinese interests and actions in Djibouti, Gwadar, Maldives, Hambantota, Myanmar and its unilateral muscular actions in South China Sea. It explains CPEC being the showpiece of BRI. China will have to go all lengths to protect its carotids. (https://bharatshakti.in/the-new-carotids-of-china/). If China is not overstretched who is?
The Military Instability
Prime Driver of Transformation. The economic cool-down, BRI plus CPEC and energy security issues as explained earlier are making China look through the South China Sea gateway. There is not much guarantee about CPEC. Militarily it must protect its main carotid. Hence China must transform from a land-based force to a more balanced outbound force suited to its national interests and imperatives.
Threat Analysis. China has potentially three main military threats. Firstly, conflict with India. It cannot gain much in this. There is full potential to lose face as seen in the Doklam incident. Secondly, protection of its Eastern Coast, its core Han heart land, economic engines and population centers. It is the highest priority which needs major dedicated military resources. Thirdly, vulnerability of its expanded economic and energy interests worldwide. Highly susceptible and not fully resourced. If I were a Chinese, I will make friends with India and shift military weight towards other issues. I will get back to India when I reach stability elsewhere. Till then I will use Pakistan, my cats-paw to keep India off balance. That is what China has started doing – shifting weight while enlarging the Pakistani cats-paw.
Dynamics of Transformation. Transformation dynamics will bring instability into the Chinese Armed Forces. Operating a blue water Navy with Aircraft Carriers and Subs, building out of area capabilities, combat deployments at international scale are complex and time consuming. Transforming land-based force into dynamic multidimensional forces will take time. Equipping forces with new weaponry, building logistics and infrastructure at an international scale, training, deployment, rotation and above all gaining combat experience is a complicated project for a system which has not experienced serious fighting since the Vietnam conflict. To this it needs to add capability in hybrid warfare of the humanized variety. So, gaps will appear.
Fighting Ability. Their retiring Generals of the Long March era bemoan lack of fighting ability. Their media (PLA Daily) had an editorial on “Peace disease”. Their quality of troops is suspect. Let me highlight. When I was the GOC Mumbai Area, a delegation led by a Vice Chief of PLA and two Maj Generals came. We hosted them at our air-conditioned Mess for lunch. After the meal, I took them outside to appreciate the band as is our custom. It was in the open. Mumbai was hot and humid. By the time the band finished their first tune we were sweating. Fine. By the time the VIP’s choice tune was playing, sweat started pouring down the General’s neck. Lo and behold, the two Maj Gens came forth and were wiping the sweat of the General’s neck with their hankies very reverently and the VIP was enjoying this gesture! I was stunned. Even my most faithful Sahayak in Indian Army would not do that, and I would not allow it! Even in my dreams. The first thought which came to my mind was that they cannot be fighters. Fighting demands shedding blood. Here even shedding sweat was being dithered at. The rest you can conclude.
New Weapon Hype. China’s ambitions of super power status have made it invest in a host of new military technologies. Every day a military system is announced which will give them an increased worldwide foot print. In my personal view there is too much hype. Many of these are in a prototype state and will take a decade at least to make a difference or to reach weapon status. Till then their efficacy is suspect. A state of art military in transformation with new untested equipment and a cooling economy are at odds with each other. There is bound to be hollowness.
Threat to India. The conventional high-profile Chinese threat to India is virtually out of the equation. Analyze the Sino Indian confrontations – 1962, Nathu La Incident, Sumdorong Chu and Doklam. The tone and tenor have increasingly been less belligerent notwithstanding, shrillness of state propaganda. Considering aforesaid arguments, the threat for the next decade and a half will at best be a series of small confrontations or face-offs with varying degrees of latitude for application of force. ( https://bharatshakti.in/chinese-treat-a-reality-check/ ). This is at the cost of repetition.
Looking Through the Window
The Instability Window. China’s cooling economy, insecure energy, change in threats and a military in transformation induces instability to say the least. Add to it other moving parts like religion, political revision, internal imbalances and Taiwan. The emerging picture is that it gives India a window of opportunity where the Chinese cannot afford to pick a fight with India at least for a decade. Of course, if China is successful in its endeavors, we could have a gorilla on our doorstep. So, India must do certain things in this time slot.
India’s Imperatives. India should mil-sync its economy and build fighting capacities consistent with its GDP growth rates. It must decide whether its military is based on its threat or its threat is based on its military. Accordingly, it needs to downsize or right size its forces. A precursor to this is that the establishment must define an evaluated national threat not as a least common denominator of the Army, Air Force or Navy view point. Top driven jointness is the QED. A disjointed military of a ten-million-dollar economy will stick out as the odd misshapen entity at the top table. Last but not the least we need indigenization and modernization in a proper manner. For that to happen we need to carry out some surgical strikes on ourselves.
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