“There is a bunker mentality in China right now” as per a report in New York Times. It strikes a chord. One gets into a bunker either when war is imminent or upon us. So what is the war that China is bunkering into? China took to the Multi Domain War concept like a duck takes to water. It is now talking of a full dimensional war where fighting goes beyond the ‘tangible’ domains of air, land and sea into the ‘intangible’ domains of economy, diplomacy, energy, space, electromagnetic spectrum and beyond. ‘Full dimension’ wars are ones where their much publicised three war strategy weaponizes information warfare, influence operations and lawfare to maximise effect. The chord which struck me is that, currently China is fighting in some domains from its bunker, and preparing to fight in other domains in future, with the three war strategy going full blast. Where is it heading eventually?
During the cold war, ideology drove the military confrontation between Soviet Union and USA. The economic and social domains were in a fracture. It was direct in your face kind of a two dimensional military collision which assured mutual destruction. The triggers were therefore never pulled. No one likes annihilation. In modern day confrontations, wars are three dimensional and fought in multiple domains. You make a move in one domain and the riposte comes in another to effect a recoil in the third. The globalisation effect of being more interconnected has triggered a cat and mouse game. No one tcan emerge a clear winner. The double edged sword of interdependence imposes abundant caution. Hence wars, the violent traditional or the intangible variety, are likely to be more ‘local’ with incremental objectives. However if one pieces together all the ‘local’ wars in all domains and integrate the incrementality in a larger time frame, one gets a ‘total ongoing protracted’ war. Is that happening for China?
For a starter, Xi Jinping has not left China or received foreign visitors since 22 months. This is significant since he maintained a frenetic pace of international travel before 2020. The perception is that Xi Jinping has been signalling an inward turn on domestic issues and a reluctance to compromise on the global stage. Xi Jinping is not really too bothered about the steady decline in China’s global reputation till such time he has all Chinese on a nationalistic high. International domination rather than cooperation is his mantra. However Xi Jinping’s greater priority seems to be to stay in power and to be considered the greatest all time Chinese leader. The leader in his bunker and is directing China’s wars on his terms and pace. He has to beat his virus for that at first.
China declared victory over the virus last year by controlling it better than other countries. It was publicised far and wide. The internal audience were repeatedly told that they were better off than others. However the Delta variant counter attacked with great ferocity. It mutated, penetrated deep into districts and appeared in clusters all over China at greater frequency . Though the case numbers are low, China steadfastly remains the last country chasing full elimination. This has now been converted into a cause of national pride. Xi Jinping, uses it to repeatedly point out that China’s success in containment shows the superiority of its governance model. While the rest of the world has shifted to living with the virus, China has started taking pride in living without it. The cost of a zero case policy has started hitting China. Its economic growth is slowing , fitfully recovering and ebbing with waves of the virus. The policy has started affecting people. Even a single case leads to multiple long lasting lockdowns, virus free buffer zones created by forced indefinite evacuation, loss of jobs, no incomes, factory slowdowns, schools closed or turned into fully no outside contact residential ones, parts of major cities being locked down cyclically, trains and flights cancelled and more. All this despite 75 percent of its population being fully vaccinated. This puts the efficacy of its homegrown vaccines on the dock. People are simply getting fed up of standing in long queues and being tested almost daily. Their views and complaints are going viral. To top all this, China has asked people to stock up as it has remained in its splendid isolation enforcing its stringent restrictions to curb the increasing viral outbreaks. Whichever way you look at it – it is a war – against the virus, the world view and to keep people on its side. As the virus persists, China’s war with it is getting complicated.
China is preparing to militarily usurp Taiwan. As per estimates, it will be at least two years before China can actually do that. Two years is a long time in geopolitics. By then things could change. Hence there is a good chance at preponement if the opportunity presents itself or if there is adequate provocation. However will it go to battle in the ‘tangible’ domains and risk losing the war in ‘intangible’ domains? China wants Taiwan to complete its unification dream. More importantly, it needs Taiwan for its economy and semiconductor industry (TMSC). However the semiconductor industry is like quicksilver. It is built on technology and trust. Both are rare in China. TMSC builds chips with designs , tools and technology from different companies — mostly American – Apple, Qualcomm, Nvidia, AMD, Applied Materials, and even Intel. The ecosystem between these companies and TMSC has been built over years. They share designs and IPRs based on trust. China cannot get around that by seizing Taiwan or TMSC. That would be a fool’s errand to get nothing. Even if China gets hold of Taiwan by force, there could be a residual insurgency. Then there is a million dollar question. What will be the effect of a battle with Taiwan? What will be the unintended consequences- domestic or international? More importantly, will China risk failure at something at which it has no experience? Taiwan reduced to rubble will drain the already declining Chinese economy. Are there better political methods to attempt unification? If China does not have answers to these questions why is it blowing hot everyday over a cross straits operation? Xi must be directing this high octane campaign obviously for something else. Hyper ventilation about Taiwan keeps nationalism up and CCP in power.
Then there are numerous reports that China is building the strongest military on earth including the largest Navy. One day it tests a nuclear tipped hypersonic missile. The next day news filters out about enhancing its nuclear capability to having a potent triad. On another day, the news is about militarisation of space and fighting the next gen war with AI and other exotic technologies. However, we recently saw a full spectrum player like USA being given a military and political comeuppance by the down to earth Taliban. China is pursuing a military capability which it cannot use either against near peers or nuclear powers. Many of these technologies are costly, while their utility is futuristic and hazy. It does not need these capabilities against smaller nations. The Chinese economy is slowing down naturally due to many factors – property bubble about to burst, finance and educational technology sector regulation, lack of commodities, costlier labour and more myriad factors. The mega BRI, meant to garner economic and strategic power, is turning out to be a drive with a loose safety belt on a bumpy road. All this is being further retarded by a common prosperity drive which does not make any economic sense unless one is a staunch communist. Ageing will limit its rise further and make it less militaristic. However a curious issue is that Chinese spending on its military is not in sync with its slower-growth and an ageing society. Which war is Xi Jinping directing from his bunker?
China has got into severe energy problems. Factories have shuttered and residential power has gone scarce. It has picked up a fight with its main supplier – Australia. Result – coal mines mothballed earlier to curb emissions, have been reopened to churn out dirty energy. It is the top producer and consumer of coal. While China talks green, the path ahead is coal black. By not attending the climate change summit, Xi and China have forsaken the global leadership role. That might be due to the forthcoming plenary of CCP which tees off the selection and appointment of Xi for the third term. Hence the war is not about climate change but leadership retention. It is emerging that China is at energy risk which it cannot offset. However if it is treated as a developing nation, it might be able to meet ends. The country has super power ambitions which is at odds with its assertion and the status it seeks. In all this, the economy continues to haemorrhage. The war in the energy domain is just unfolding. Xi Jinping needs more clean energy to keep his bunker well lit. The horizon has only dirty power.
View it from any direction. China’s bunker and its multidomain wars have unravelled themselves brick by brick since the virus came into play. It was always said that the Chinese think deep and for the long term. In the past two years it is emerging that China has long term ambitions but short term goals. Every sub system of the Chinese firmament is in a fight of its own and has attained some level of autarky with very minimal resonance or correctability for the long term. As they say in gunnery – China seems to be an over stabilised shell unable to course correct itself and likely to land short in the strong international head winds and heavy domestic drag. To conclude it seems as if Xi Jinping or his replacement will have to fight wars from the Chinese bunker for a long time. Some wars are in the open and others are simmering in the shadows. They are going to be protracted and will take their toll. However in all fairness it must be said that while China might not lose the global wars, it might not win the domestic ones either. The problem is internal. Chernobyl took five years to dismantle USSR. It is only two years into the virus. Interesting days ahead.
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