At the Beijing Xiangshan Forum, PLA reaches out in strength
Beijing: “The situation in South China Sea is stable,” noted by China’s state councillor and minister of national defence, Gen. Wei Fenghe, was the most significant statement to come out of the 8th Beijing Xiangshan Forum held here between October 24 to 26.
This implied that in Chinese assessment, the possibility of war between China and the US over China’s speedy land reclamation, occupation and militarisation of South China Sea (SCS) has receded, if not concluded. Said another way, the SCS has been lost by the US to China. The US has been left to ensure Freedom of Navigation (FON) patrols and overflights based on international rules and norms. How long they would do so remain an open question. China had commenced chasing and warning US ships coming within 12 nautical miles of Beijing’s baseline around its occupied island groups, which are illegal under the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea.
Unlike the Obama administration, the Trump administration had increased FON patrols and overflights in SCS. It had sought to strengthen interoperability with allies for situational awareness, amphibious operations and anti-submarine warfare. Yet, the implications of Chinese victory — speak volumes of its political will — had not been lost on ASEAN and all major powers. This had given a boost to China’s new form of international relations and the new security framework for Asia-Pacific for ‘building a new type of security partnership of equality, mutual trust and win-win cooperation’ which was also the theme of the Beijing Xiangshan Forum. It was perhaps to underscore this win that China re-named the Forum prefixing it with the word Beijing. All earlier editions were called Xiangshan Forum.
As an invitee to the 2016 and the present Forum, this writer got a ringside view of how China had clutched victory from an ostensibly losing proposition. At the 6th Xiangshan Forum in October 2016, China’s Vice-Chairman, Central Military Commission, Gen. Fan Changlong had said, “We will not recklessly use force even when the issues affect our sovereignty.” China had, in August 2012, officially elevated the SCS as its core concern (over which it could go to war) to include Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, and Diaoya Island with Japan.
At that time, China’s land reclamation in SCS had begun albeit with assurance from President Xi Jinping that militarisation would not happen. Moreover, the US had commenced its FON patrols in SCS which experts felt could lead to military clash; Vietnam and Philippines had protested vehemently against China’s territorial aggression; ASEAN member Malaysia had questioned China’s commitment to Code of Conduct (COC); China’s relations with Japan were in tailspin; Obama administration’s re-balancing or pivot to Asia was in full swing; and the Trans Pacific Partnership was being sold by the US as its support for prosperity in Asia-Pacific.
Facing hostility from within the ASEAN and by extra-regional powers, China had in October 2016 invited ASEAN defence ministers to a separate China-ASEAN defence ministers meeting to defuse regional tension coinciding with dates of the Forum so that they could participate in public diplomacy as well. The then Malaysian chief of defence forces, Gen. Tan Sri Dato’ Sri had disclosed that the then China’s defence minister, Chang Wanquan had proposed a confidence-building measure protocol in the form of joint drill with ASEAN nations for Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) to ward-off maritime miscalculations (the Chinese and the US’ Navy follow the CUES protocol). China also proposed building a community of common destiny for ASEAN nations by the end of the year. This is not all. China had offered to hasten joint efforts to advance the agreed DOC (Declaration on the Conduct of parties in the South China Sea) to COC (Code of Conduct for parties in the South China Sea).
Commenting on the Chinese offer, the then Malaysian chief of defence forces had said, “The major obstacle is that mutual trust has not occurred.” According to him, while the DOC between China and ASEAN was signed in 2002, it has yet not translated in an agreed and legally binding COC because of “the mismatch of philosophy of time of China and other nations.”
In stark contrast, the present Forum was different on two major counts: ASEAN had collectively been subdued, and Gen. Wei was assertive with newfound firmness and determination. Ironically, the US too had contributed to this perspective by President Donald Trump’s self-goals in the form of withdrawal from the TPP, re-negotiation of the North American and US-Japan free trade agreements, replacement of Americanism with globalisation and his clarion call of America First, all of which led to widespread doubts in the region about US’ trustworthiness.
At the 8th Forum, the ASEAN presented a united front, which was summed up well by Singapore defence minister, Ng Eng Hen. He said, “Today, ASEAN and China’s economies are deeply integrated. China has been the top trading partner of ASEAN for eight consecutive years, and accounts for 17 per cent of ASEAN’s total trade last year. In fact, China-ASEAN volume hit a record high last year, amounting to more than USD 515 billion dollars. The ASEAN-China free trade is one of the world’s largest and was upgraded in 2015.” However, what he did not say was that given ASEAN’s dependence on China for its prosperity, would it be pragmatic for it to hand over its security concerns to the US?
The answer to what the ASEAN felt on this issue was soon evident. ASEAN, it seemed had decided to be a part of China’s new security framework. In a first, 10-member ASEAN as a whole held a military exercise with a single country (China), which also became China’s first maritime exercise with ASEAN. Coinciding with the Forum dates, the maritime exercise was meant to exercise the CUES, search and rescue, and communications. According to Ng Hen, “They also practised Guidelines for encounter for Air Military Exercises (GAME), which is the counter-part of CUES but in the air.” He added, “This exercise was aimed to de-escalate tensions (between ASEAN and China).” Truly so, unlike 2016 when Vietnam and Philippines were not invited, this time around, Vietnam was represented by its defence minister, and Philippines by its under-secretary for defence operations, Cesar B. Yano.
This is not all. Ng Hen disclosed that the recently held 18-countries ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) held in Singapore had both agreed to meet once a year and to conduct more field training exercises. It was obvious that the ASEAN would not like to get sucked into the vortex of growing US-China confrontation, the nuclear threat on the Korean peninsula, and increased tensions in SCS. By adding as after-thought that ASEAN would conduct a collective exercise with the US in 2019, Ng Hen left no one in doubt that the ASEAN would do a balancing act until the power equations between the US and China became clearer.
Making his opening speech, Chinese defence minister, Gen. Wei Fenghe squarely blamed the US for tensions in SCS and worsening bilateral ties. According to him construction of defence facilities in SCS were self-defence measures meant to safeguard China’s sovereignty and had nothing to do with militarisation. Instead, “US’ FON and overflights are provocative since they do not abide by international rules and norms.”
Taking cue from President Xi Jinping who had told the visiting US defence secretary, James Mattis in May 2018 that not an inch of its territory handed over by its ancestors would be lost, Wei lambasted the US for, “Repeatedly challenging our bottom-line on Taiwan which is extremely dangerous… the Chinese military will take resolute action at any costs.” To make its displeasure apparent, no US official was invited to talk in plenary sessions at the Forum; the US two-star led-delegation was seated in the third row according to its status rather than its global clout.
The idea behind Gen. Wei’s fulminations against the US was meant to air his disapproval, but not to disrespect import of this bilateral relationship. For this reason, he emphasised that this relation was important for world peace, and China would be happy to meet the US ‘half-way’ to work together.
Gen. Wei said that the new type of security framework proposed by China was based upon the principles of mutual benefit, strategic communications and trust, cooperation in bilateral and global governance. According to him, China sought peaceful development, was opposed to alliances, external interference and threats, would not engage in any arms race, nor seek any sphere of influence or military bloc, hegemony or expansion. He added that “No nation has absolute security when its neighbours are in trouble. We cannot build fences when we desire shared future of mankind.” Strength, he said, comes not from muscle but by cooperation. Gen. Wei summed up China’s defence policy as Active-Defence seeking peaceful development and world peace.
According to Gen. Wei, the new Asia-Pacific security framework included the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) architecture, the ASEAN regional forum, and advanced dialogue for deeper military cooperation with neighbours and developing countries. Relations with Russia were mentioned as Comprehensive, Strategic and Collaborative. India did not find mention in either Wei’s speech or any other Chinese’s official interaction. Unlike previous Forum, no Indian delegation was sent from Delhi; military officers from Indian embassy in China were present at the meetings. In sharp contrast, Pakistan and military leaders from the African continent were present in strength.
Gen. Wei’s public tirade against the US was softened by Chinese scholars on the sidelines of the Forum. China, they told me, values the need to have good relations with the US. It is essential that China and the US reach an agreement on a security framework for the Asia-Pacific. This required strategic communications which have nose-dived; for instance, the four annual high-level dialogues agreed to by the two heads of states in 2017 had not happened in 2018. These comprise the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, the Comprehensive Economic Dialogue, the Law Enforcement and Cyber Strategic Dialogue, and the Social and People-to-People Dialogue. Moreover, the ‘China Threat Theory’ pushed by the US, is not helping the relationship. Instead, commencement of strategic dialogue was essential to avoid militarisation of the SCS by the US. This, they said, could have unintended consequences which neither side wanted.
Speaking in the same vein, Chinese assistant manager of foreign affairs, Zhang Hanhui said that international governance should be based on multilateralism, adding that China had 400 multilateral treaties. Moreover, China had reached an agreed draft of COC with ASEAN; as part of its security through development, China had created 2,50,000 jobs for countries associated with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); and it had held meetings with Bangladesh and Myanmar to solve their disputes.
Centrality of ASEAN
Of the four plenary sessions at the Forum, two were devoted to the centrality of ASEAN. These sessions were on ‘International Security Governance’ and ‘Maritime Security Cooperation.’ The significance of ASEAN’s centrality was underscored by the Singapore defence minister, Ng Eng Hen, when he said that all 18 members of ADMM-Plus accept this proposition.
Understandably so, since the geo-strategic pivot of the two regional security frameworks (Indo-Pacific led by the US and Asia-Pacific led by China) is the Western Pacific Ocean where ASEAN holds the key — for China to break-out into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), and for the US to not allow it to do so.
For Beijing, the SCS dispute is more than the massive untapped resources in the SCS that it might be unwilling to share with the 10 smaller ASEAN. It is also more than the freedom of navigation through the world’s busiest SLOCS that the US proposes to safeguard against a belligerent China.
It is what retired Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu (who moderated the two plenary sessions) had said at the 2016 Xiangshan Forum. According to her, “China is the largest stakeholder for the safety and security of SLOCs. Since 2013, China’s trade, mostly maritime, exceeded USD four trillion which is 12 per cent of the world trade. China has largest trading partnerships with 120 countries and it has the largest shipping fleet. Moreover, China has learned lessons from the Eighties Iraq-Iran war and the earlier Suez crisis on the importance of having secure SLOCs especially at choke-points like the Straits of Malacca and Hormuz. Then there is piracy, natural disasters and environment challenges to contend with. China opposes militarisation of SLOCs and would like to play a larger role for making rules for maritime security.”
However, what she did not say was told to this writer by the Indian Navy Chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta in 2010. He said that in May 2009, Admiral Timothy J. Keating, the US Pacific Command chief, met him in New Delhi to discuss the import and consequences of an off-the-cuff remark made by a Chinese admiral. The Chinese admiral had told Keating, ‘You (the US) take Hawaii East and we (China) will take Hawaii West and the Indian Ocean. Then you will not need to come to the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean and we will not need to go to the Eastern Pacific. If anything happens there, you can let us know and if something happens here, we will let you know.’ The proposed deal envisaged that after China had its own aircraft carriers, the Pacific region could be divided into two areas of responsibility.
For China, it is about breaking free from its strategic confinement to gain unfettered access to the Western Pacific. To be the foremost power in Asia, China must become a maritime power in the Asia-Pacific and IOR, in addition to being a land power. In order to do so, China needs to negotiate two island chains. The first island chain encircles the Yellow sea, East China and South China seas, while the second runs roughly from Japan to Indonesia through Guam (US military stronghold) and Palau islands. In military parlance, ASEAN would be Chinese naval pivot or centre of gravity (which has to be won at all costs) in Western Pacific, much as Pakistan would be for the IOR. Without doing so, the China Dream which envisages the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road would not be accomplished.
Thus, the immediate geo-strategic challenge for China is to get ASEAN and Japan on-board with stakes in China’s BRI, which might lead to their viewing the China-led Asia-Pacific security framework favourably. This will not be easy. For one, agreement on the Code of Conduct (which appears a far cry) between China and ASEAN would not automatically resolve China’s maritime disputes with five ASEAN members: Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. For another, Japan and China share a bitter history, unpleasant recent past, and the lingering territorial dispute.
In a strange coincidence, however, Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe visited China on a three-day visit, after a hiatus of seven years (he last came in 2011) just when the Forum had concluded. Both sides appeared willing to put unpleasant issues aside to achieve some geopolitical objectives: Beijing hopes to stop Japan from joining US efforts to isolate China, while Japan could be hedging its bets against the mercurial Trump.
The big outcome of this summit was the acceptance of Xi’s signature BRI by Abe which he reportedly called ‘a promising concept.’ This led to the two sides agreeing to USD30 billion currency swap which could be utilised to strengthen cooperation by jointly exploring third-party markets. Both sides have enormous strengths for undertaking joint projects, which is why deals worth USD18 billion were signed. Analysts, however, were quick to point out that the tactical rapprochement would last as long as President Trump applied trade pressure on China. They could be correct, since within days of this event, speaking at a political rally, Trump said that the US trade war with China would soon be over.
The trade war, however, between the US and China is much more than meets the eye. The Trump administration has accused China of unfair trade practices and of stealing its Intellectual Property Rights across all domains of industry, and science and technology. The US in its 2017 National Strategy and 2018 National Defence Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review has labelled China as ‘strategic competitor’ and ‘revisionist’ power. China, in turn, has spoken about strengthening its military reforms.
Thus, notwithstanding what Trump said at the political rally, the entrenched acrimony between the US and China is unlikely to disappear in a jiffy. Aware of this, two special sessions were organised before the formal opening of the 8th Forum. The first was meant for young scholars from various countries. The focus was on what scholars from the US and China had to say. The session chaired by the director general of Forum secretariat office, Sr. Col. Zhao Xiaozhuo was to debate on the likely New Cold War between the US and China. Sr Col. Zhao listed numerous recent instances like the exclusion of China from RIMPAC and sanctions on CMC departments for purchase of Russian arms and so on to say that experts believe that a New Cold War was unavoidable. Interestingly, the US scholars did not assess the bilateral relationship in the way China did. Chinese scholars appeared paranoid, which perhaps was deliberate for in-depth discussion across the table and on television.
The second special session was on China’s military reforms expostulated by the Deputy Director of the General office of the CMC and of the offices for Reforms and Organisational Structure, Maj. Gen. Ding Xiangrong. No questions were allowed in this session.
In an important development, Maj Gen. Ding confirmed that ‘deep sea’ and ‘Polar region’ were People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) new battlefields taking the total to nine battlefields. These are land, sea, deep sea, air, cyberspace, outer space, electronic space, psychological space and Polar region. These he said were the consequence of military technology keeping pace with wars. In other words, with the infusion of technologies, it is the task of major powers to review the battlefields whose synergy would deliver desired war outcomes. Without this, it would not be possible to optimally generate and utilise military power in support of proactive foreign policies which is the hallmark of geostrategic players: nations which have the capability and will to shape the geopolitical canvass.
The general gave six reasons why China’s 2015 military reforms were essential:
- Military reforms are regular feature since innovations and reforms should keep pace with one another;
- Military reforms were essential to realise the China Dream and world peace. This requires explaining. Once Chinese prosperity grows, it would have assets, people and interests to protect outside the country, in addition to greater global responsibilities for common good;
- Military reforms were the strategic choice in the new era of BRI. Since the PLA would need to protect the BRI on land, sea, and digital space, new missions and tasks have been allocated to the PLA. For example, the PLA Navy’s missions have altered from coastal defence (brown water tasks) to open seas defence (blue water tasks) and deep seas;
- Military reforms were necessary to meet complex external and internal threats;
- Military reforms are critical since strong countries need strong militaries; and
- Military reforms were needed to cater for the new Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) to include new information and intelligent technologies. The first RMA was the consequence of the 1990-91 Gulf War between the US-led coalition and Iraq, which saw the US unleash precision-guided, stand-off and stealth weapons for the first time. The new RMA refers to use of Artificial Intelligence in warfare. Two sub-sessions were devoted to the new RMA.
While it is understood that more the number of battlefields, more is the need for jointness at all three levels of war: strategic, operational or war-fighting and tactical. Maj. Gen. Ding explained what is not well understood specific to the Chinese military, which unlike any other major power’s military, is responsible to the Communist party leadership and not the nation-state. The general called the PLA ‘socialistic military.’
Given this, President Xi Jinping has two unique responsibilities. The first is to achieve ‘total integration of civil-military systems’, which he does as general secretary of the party and chairman of the Central Military Commission. Xi heads the commission specially raised for the purpose of total synergy between the two systems; the PLA should know the party and the latter should know the former well. This is not an easy task since it involves the whole Chinese society including universities and civilian officers, according to the general. ‘It is strategic management to manage all human resources,’ he said.
Thus, according to the 2015 military reforms, the Political Works department and the Disciplinary Commission have been elevated in stature and placed under direct command of the Xi-headed CMC. The two department chiefs report directly to Xi Jinping. The Political Works Department is responsible for welfare, promotions (which is does with the operational commanders), and propaganda (publicity). Moreover, it is the pro-activeness of the Disciplinary Commission that, under Xi, even senior heads have rolled on corruption changes.
Xi’s other responsibility is unprecedented since the appointment of commander-in-chief, CMC joint command was created under the 2015 military reforms. As the C-in-C, Xi is directly responsible for war-fighting. Wearing military fatigues and sitting in the Joint Operations Command Centre during crisis or war, Xi would be assisted by the head of Joint Staff Department (tri-service organisation). The latter is expected to have three functions: he would provide single point advice to the chairman, CMC; he would provide the secretariat to the Joint Command of the Commission; and he would seamlessly integrate conventional and nuclear war plans for the commander-in-chief, CMC joint command.
According to the general, ‘Xi is himself responsible for improving socialistic principles, institutional barriers, and structural organisations which are needed for technology-intensive force.’
Maj. Gen. Ding said that PLA’s commitment to UN Peacekeeping operations, maritime escorts, humanitarian relief and for safeguarding peace had increased substantially. Despite the far-reaching military reforms which impact upon all aspects of military power, China’s policy is defensive in nature, the general concluded.
Since military reforms are an ongoing process, the two big questions at the Forum were: the future trajectory of military disruptive technologies and its impact on war-fighting doctrines. This was discussed under the special session on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the conduct of warfare.
A few basics would first be in order. Automation of weapons systems happened in the Sixties in the US. The process was laborious and involved humans typing the computer codes instructions on traditional computer software. The output was as much as the input. With the advent of better computer software, the speed of output increased — making it quicker, for say, fighter aircraft to automatically release weapon loads. Things changed dramatically with the arrival of Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) computers — which were faster than traditional Central Processing Unit (CPU) — and with more data being available. With GPU computers came the possibility of Machine Learning where the system could automatically generate task-specific mathematical algorithms. With the combination of Machine Learning and Big Data (huge amounts of data which cannot be sifted by humans) the AI revolution took-off sometimes in 2012. Suddenly there were possibilities of generating computer algorithms which could do tasks better and faster than humans with minimal or no human involvement. The problem, however, was that machines did not have human cognitive capabilities, which lead to Deep Learning (where machine would learn itself without the need for transmitting back to humans), neural networks (where machines would copy and perhaps outdo human brain and intelligence) and so on.
While the above is oversimplification of the AI revolution, the moot point is that there are three levels of AI: Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI) where the ‘human is in the loop’, meaning he remains a part of the decision-making cycle of Obverse, Orient, Decide and Act (OODA) between sensors and shooters. Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) where the ‘human is on the loop’, implying that human is in managerial or command and control position with the machine conducting the OODA cycle all by itself. And the Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI) where the ‘human is outside the loop’, suggesting that between the human-machine interface, the human has been made redundant with the machine capable of faster, better and innovative outcomes than human intelligence and cognitive capabilities.
The first type is also referred to as total automation of weapon systems and is rampant; the second is called partial autonomous systems and is presently under various stages of research, development and induction in militaries; while the last which would involve total autonomous systems is futuristic (leading to what PLA calls battlefield singularity where machine would run the war with minimal human involvement) and the subject of intense ethical debates around the world — if the system develops a glitch, it would not stop (under human) to avoid unintended collateral damages.
Battlefield singularity would come when quantum computing replaces the present AI computers since computing power would increase by unprecedented magnitude. This would be a different ball-game on which China is deeply fixated in order to leap-frog and beat the US to become the leading military power. In 2016, China launched the world’s first quantum satellite and hopes to make advances in quantum radar and sensing to undo US superiority in stealth. The PLA is working on developing quantum compass for its submarines in order to navigate without help from BeiDou (China’s equivalent of US’ GPS) which, dependent on space systems, could be compromised in conflict. And quantum cryptography could give an edge to the PLA with secure and full-proof communications.
At the 19th Chinese Communist Party National Congress, President Xi Jinping had exhorted the PLA to become ‘global leader in innovation by 2035.’ This is when quantum aided weapons systems are expected to enter military service. While speaking at the session on AI, the deputy general manager of China North Industries Group Corporation Limited (NORINCO), Zeng Yi said that “the physical and virtual reality (computers) spaces would get integrated by 2035 with fully autonomous systems”.
It is globally accepted that the race for AI supremacy is between the US and China. Working under the US’ department of defence, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is responsible for innovative and disruptive technologies. The US, through DARPA, launched its Third Offsets Strategy in 2014 whose centrepieces are robotics, autonomy of weapon systems, and human-machine teaming. At this stage, all countries with mature science and technology (including the US and China) are talking only about ANI and AGI; no one is talking much about ASI which involves quantum sciences. The First Offsets Strategy was in the Fifties when the US invested in nuclear weapons; and the Second Offsets Strategy was in the Seventies when the US focussed on precision and stand-off weapons which were showcased spectacularly during the 1990 first Gulf War.
Xi Jinping has given the call for China to become the ‘premier global AI innovation centre by 2030,’ when they hope to accomplish and perhaps outdo the US’ Third Offsets Strategy objectives. Unlike the US, China’s two strengths in this field are its better civil-military fusion and its huge database. Interestingly, the AI resolution is galloping on the commercial side the world over, with the military using the technologies for its purposes.
This strategic agenda is reportedly a high priority and is directed by the CCP’s Military-Civil Fusion Development Commission set up under Xi Jinping in 2017. The PLA’s CMC Science and Technology Commission (reporting directly to chairman, CMC who is Xi) and the Ministry of Science and Technology under the state council issued the civil-military fusion plan in August 2017. This is not all. All military research and doctrinal conceptualisation institutes have been brought directly under the PLA Academy of Military Sciences by the 2015 military reforms.
Doctrinal Aspects: Since PLA doctrines are heavily depended on technology availability, how would they change with the present partial autonomy breakthroughs across nine battlefields of air, land, sea, deep sea, outer space, cyberspace, electromagnetic space, psychological space and Polar region? The PLA is on the verge of inducting swamped combat mini-UAVs. It has made strides in cyber warfare and electromagnetic warfare where minimal human interface for high speeds might be acceptable. On this subject, Zeng made the following observations:
- There will be leap-frog development from platform-based systems to network centred AI across all domains;
- There will be more energy and connectivity in data computing;
- The roles of men and machines will change. The role of virtual reality (computer generated) in war will be enhanced with the physical space;
- There will either be a lack of centre or weak centre, with command and control changing from human to machine;
- There will be intelligence supremacy across all battlefields including cyberspace with more intelligent armaments;
- No people would fight, but would still be in the loop to control automated weapons;
- Rules for warfare will be made by people, but systems will be automated;
- In emergency, humans will be needed to stop machines by pushing relevant buttons; and
- Military doctrines would change.
How would military doctrines change? The Indian speaker made the following points on this issue: situation awareness would increase with availability of round the clock surveillance; there would be swift deployment of army’s small battle-groups; while autonomous robots would be there, ultimately boots-on-the-ground would be necessary; mine-sweeping would improve so that mechanised columns are unstoppable; decision-making cycles would be faster; and after capturing of objectives by the army there would be need for swift deployment of anti-ballistic missile shield.
The reality is that the disruptive technologies would bring about transformational rather than incremental doctrinal changes. To quote the Pentagon’s number two bureaucrat, deputy secretary, Bob Work who believes that technological advances would lead to a revolution in warfare since “they are periods of sharp, discontinuous change (in which) existing military regimes are often upended by new more dominant ones, leaving old ways of warfare behind.” Work had echoed precisely what NORINCO’s Zeng had said.
India needs to pay special attention to China’s fast-evolving disruptive technologies, emerging doctrines and military reforms since it has a land border dispute with it. It should be clear that the future of warfare is not war, but military coercion between a strong nation (China) and a weak nation (India); just as disruptive technologies would reinforce deterrence without lowering the threshold of nuclear weapons between two strong nations (China and US).
Since a war is fought at three levels (strategic, operational and tactical), with the coming of new disruptive technologies the role of tactical level would greatly diminish, if not be totally over between India and China.
The Forum kept the last plenary session on UN Peacekeeping in which China has done extraordinarily well. The first speaker was UN Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix who described China as a leading partner.
What sets China apart from the other nations — big and small — is its commitment in providing troops, equipment, and above all finances to UN operations. China is perhaps the only nation that is deeply involved in policy-making and reforms to meet new challenges in UN Peacekeeping. “We have strategic dialogue with China in New York and Beijing,” Lacroix said. For example, “UN Peacekeeping had its largest fatalities (43 numbers) in a generation in 2017. Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi participated in the review of political issues. China funded the report on reducing fatalities which was released in December 2017, and it is involved in implementation of the action plan,” Lacroix said at the session.
A few statistics given by Lacroix are as follows: In the last 10 years, China has provided the largest number of troops amongst the five UN permanent members, and eleventh among all nations to UN Peacekeeping. With 2,500 troops already engaged in operations, it has kept 8,000 troops as reserves. China is not only the second largest financer (after the US) for UN peacekeeping operations it has given extra funding to other countries, in addition to equipment and technical capabilities. These comprise engineering and medical equipment, hospital staff, air mobility, rapid reaction capabilities, de-mining equipment, unmanned aerial vehicles and so on. “It is China all the way,” Lacroix added for good measure.
To understand China’s contribution and commitment to UN Peacekeeping, a few more statistics would help. China took part in UN Peacekeeping operations for the first time by sending five military observers to the UN in 1990. In 1992, it sent an engineering unit of 400 officers and men to the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). It 2009, it established the Peacekeeping centre of the ministry of national defence in Beijing. By 2010, China had despatched 18,000 men on UN missions. While Chinese Peacekeepers have done various tasks including transportation, de-mining and treatment of patients, its expertise has been recognised in roads, bridges and other infrastructure building projects.
I remember an Indian air marshal rank officer who as air commodore had headed a UN Peacekeeping mission in one of the African nations in the Nineties. He had under him a Chinese contingent who was given the task of airfield construction. Well before the completion time, the head of the Chinese contingent (major rank officer) approached him. Certain that he was seeking an extension of the deadline the Indian officer was surprised when the Chinese major confirmed that his task was already completed. The unbelieving air commodore left with the Chinese major to inspect the airfield and was taken aback by the flawless work. When asked how they did it, the Chinese major said that after the long day’s work when UN peacekeepers of other nations hit the sack, Chinese men did not do so. They always cleaned, inspected and repaired their equipment if needed so that work could commence without delay the following day. Interestingly, the air marshal remembered this episode in his 38 years career as an example of dedication to work.
Back at the Forum, it was Nepalese deputy prime minister and defence minister, Ishwar Pokhrel’s turn to take the mike. While praising the bilateral relationship with China, based upon five principles of peaceful co-existence, and Chinese strong support to UN Peacekeeping, Pokhrel made a few interesting comments. With 6,000 peacekeepers (10 per cent of the Nepalese Army), Nepal is the fifth largest contributor of troops. According to Pokhrel, contributing to UN Peacekeeping was a major objective of his country’s foreign policy. If Nepal was to get additional financial and equipment support, it would like to raise its troops’ contribution to the UN missions to 15 per cent of its army’s strength.
Within two days, the Chinese defence minister, Wei Fenghe met Pokhrel and reportedly doubled military assistance to the Nepal Army for strengthening its capability in disaster management and for better equipping its UN peacekeeping missions. By raising its assistance to Rs 3 billion to the Nepal Army, China has also committed cooperation in military training and medical equipment. Beijing has also agreed to consider Nepal’s request for establishing a defence university in Kathmandu. While India is the major source of military hardware, stores and lethal weapons to the Nepalese army and police forces, the question is how long would it be before the Nepalese government seeks military procurements from China?
Clearly, China’s stakes in UN Peacekeeping are quite different from India’s and other developing countries. Unlike India, China’s UN Peacekeeping operations are supported and monitored at the highest political level. Working under the newly-created Office of International Cooperation — one of the 15 departments which directly report to the Chairman, Central Military Commission, Xi Jinping — UN missions are meant to serve strategic objectives. These could be the following: while not rejecting the existing US-led international order created after the Second War, China’s support is meant to pick up the best of global common for its new type of international relations. These operations help the PLA build bridges with militaries of other nations which would help facilitate its own mission of protecting the BRI. The PLA gets to understand tactics of other militaries while familiarising with their weapons and equipment, and introducing its own to them. Given China’s political, financial, material, policy-making and research-funding support to UN Peacekeeping operations, and the fact that most of these operations are in developing nations, what prevents UN Peacekeeping headquarters to be shifted from New York to Beijing?
The UN Peacekeeping session ended on a dramatic note. The moderator, retired Maj. Gen. Gong Xianfu of the PLA announced an additional speaker who was not listed on the Forum agenda. He was deputy defence minister of Afghanistan, Gen. Hilaluddin Hilal. Setting niceties aside, the general launched a frontal attack on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. He said, “Pakistan considers Afghanistan as its backyard. It gives assistance to terrorists. It has created more than 100 fundamentalist religious schools which are breeding grounds for terrorism. There are 38,219 Taliban terrorists and 2,000 IS terrorists in Afghanistan in addition to South Asia branch of al Qaida. ISI controls mineral resources in Afghanistan to fund these terrorists. Terrorists in Chinese Xinjiang and northern parts of India are also supported by the ISI.”
Shell-shocked by the unexpected harangue, the determined Pakistan naval advisor in China, Captain Shafat Ali responded calmly and sought clarification from the Afghan leader, which, for lack of time, was disallowed by the Chinese moderator. The questions that arise are: since clearance for allowing Gen. Hilal (not listed in the Forum agenda) to speak could only have been given at a high level, why did China shame Pakistan publicly? Has China failed to leash Pakistan’s employment of terrorists to achieve its strategic objectives? How long would Chinese support to Pakistan’s terrorism continue at international forums?
China’s frustration with Pakistan’s unabated terrorism in its neighbourhood (Pakistan military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf had called the ISI his first line of defence) became evident after hearing the commander of the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force, Gen. Wang Ning. Speaking in the session on global terrorism, the general said that given China’s zero-tolerance for ‘separatism, terrorism and extremism,’ it had, in December 2015, incorporated a counter-terror law in its constitution. China’s counter-terror system now worked holistically at five levels with coordination of humans and technology. “Since the terrorist attack in Xinjiang capital on 5 July 2009 where 197 innocent lives were lost, we have successfully intercepted 1,200 terror organisations,” Gen. Wang said.
According to him, China is making use of internet, artificial intelligence, internet of things, cloud computing, big data, and facial recognition technologies to get early warning of terrorist attacks. Once we get that, we do targeted response by Special Forces using technology with response from land and air, this way we do not allow terrorists to gain momentum, he added. Gen. Ning said that China was doing counter-terror joint exercises with Sri Lanka, Russia and Belarus where sniper shooting competitions were held.
Russian deputy defence minister, Alexander Fomin spoke of how IS was eliminated from Syria with Russian help. He mentioned the sophisticated telecommunications and space-based equipment used by terrorists, and how a Russian air base in Syria was attacked by UAVs operated by terrorists. He emphasised that the way to fight terrorism was to cut-off their finances and be clear that there were no good or bad terrorists.
He mentioned terrorist attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Indonesia, Somalia and African nations. Interestingly, he omitted India which has been at the receiving end of Pakistan’s proxy war. It was not a coincidence that even the Chinese Gen. Ning did not mention Pakistan as the hub of global terrorism.
The ultimate strategic irony of China and Russia is this: Both recognise the geopolitical importance of Pakistan and the need for good bilateral relations with it. Yet, both find it increasingly difficult to support Pakistan for its unflinching support to terrorism for strategic gains. If this state continues, Pakistan could be in real trouble. This is the call that General Headquarters, Rawalpindi would have to make sooner rather than later.
To sum-up the two-day Forum, here are two observations. One, Xiangshan Forum is unique, especially when it is owned, run, and supported by the PLA. It would be incorrect to compare it with Shangri la Dialogue organised by the British think-tank IISS. The Forum invites speakers (and finds their acceptance) depending upon the state of relations Beijing has with their country. Shangri La dialogue, on the other hand, presents the US and western viewpoint. And two, the choice of subjects for discussion at the Forum is a reasonably good giveaway to what and how China and the PLA would be concerned about in military power. For example, more than half-a-day (full five hours) was devoted to Artificial Intelligence and how it would affect national security and warfare. Given the sensitivity of the subject, PLA might have had difficulty in getting domain experts; they seem to have settled for speakers based upon their seniority rather than knowledge. Since AI is a new subject, domain knowledge was essential for fulfilling discussions, especially when the majority audience participating in this discussion were young PLA officers.