It’s done it before. Will it do it again? Under Chairman Xi Jinping, China’s military capabilities have exploded. It has ramped-up military pressure on Taiwan. It is holding regular large-scale military exercises in the East and South China Seas.
Border clashes with India have resulted in casualties for both sides.
Now international affairs analysts are pondering the odds of imminent military action.
China, they agree, has the means.
It’s a matter of how seriously Beijing believes in the cause.
Its rhetoric is certainly severe: “We will not allow anyone, any force to infringe upon and separate China’s sacred territories,” its defence ministry declared in November.
Trouble is, many of those territories are also sacred to others.
China’s wolf warrior diplomats insist their intentions are peaceful. They proclaim their Communist Party has never resorted to military conflict.
Its neighbours would disagree.
In 1962, it clashed with India. In 1969, a dispute with Russia turned violent. In 1974, it seized Vietnamese islands in the Paracels. This escalated to a major conflict in 1979. The two nations clashed again in 1988, this time in the Spratly Islands.
Stanford University International Studies analyst Dr Oriana Mastro told a Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) debate she’s convinced a clash is coming, soon.
“China does not seem to be preparing for peace,” she says. “Its weapons are not defensive.
“Whether it is projecting power with its surface vessels or its commissioning of multiple aircraft carriers, what we can clearly see is they are building a military to use force to take the territory that they consider their own.
“The leadership is not happy with the status quo. But as China becomes more and more powerful militarily, they’ve become more and more comfortable using military tools to achieve their goals.”
Under Chairman-for-life Xi Jinping, Beijing’s belligerent rhetoric has been scaling new heights.
“Chinese people don’t want war, but we have territorial disputes with several neighbouring countries instigated by the US to confront China,” the Communist Party’s Global Times propaganda service declared in September.
Again, neighbouring countries would disagree over the identity of the instigator.
China has sea disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. It has land disputes with Russia, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Laos, Mongolia, Tibet and Myanmar.
But the intended audience isn’t those neighbours. It’s the rest of the world.
It wants to plant the seed of plausible deniability in the minds of the international community.
“First, we must make it clear that the other side, not China, is the one that breaks the status quo,” Communist Party appointed editor Hu Xijin states. “Second, we need to make it clear that the other side is the provocateur in a complex situation.”
He goes on to argue that any scenario must be couched in such a way as to justify China’s behaviour. That way “a just war can be started in an upright manner”.
Mastro says Beijing’s intentions can be seen in its actions: “Whether you think it’s for prestige and honour. Whether you think it’s for domestic political reasons (there’s nationalism at home where they need to divert attention abroad).
“Whether you think states are rational (they’re doing cost-benefit calculations to try to build and exercise their power). All these factors lead in one direction – China’s more likely than not to use force.”
“China must be a country that dares to fight. And this should be based on both strength and morality,” the propagandist writes. “We have the power in our hands, we are reasonable, and we stand up to guard our bottom line without fear.”
The problem is getting the rest of the world to believe that.
Which is why Beijing is investing so heavily in influence and misinformation campaigns.
Another tactic is to establish a sense of fait accompli.
Loudly proclaim ownership. Persistently claim ownership. Occupy contested territory. Coerce acceptance by unrelated parties.
This is the scenario being played out in the Himalayas and East and South China Seas.
Problem is, other nations also occupy those spaces.
And Beijing feels aggrieved.
“China is a rising power that has been ideologically rejected by the US and the West,” Hu states. “The countries that have territorial disputes with China also sympathise with each other. “If China does decide to go to war with a neighbouring force, the international community will tend to favour the weaker side. Whether or not our moves are justified, the moral risks are high.”
But does the Communist Party leadership believe the risk is worth it?
Beijing is yet to be deterred from its step-by-step territorial advances.
“The odds are against peace,” Mastro says. “Chinese platforms will most likely come into contact with those of the United States or its allies. And this will lead to the destruction of property and deaths that – especially in today’s political climate – could escalate to war.”
Chairman Xi, like most authoritarians, has built his power on a sense of national pride.
To maintain power, he must produce results.
“We know that Xi Jinping is very nationalistic,” Mastro notes. “And he has said many times, for example, that reunification with Taiwan is a necessity for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
“This rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, in my mind, has become the source of legitimacy for the Communist Party. It’s no longer economic growth alone.”
Mastro argues most wars begin once leaders become convinced military force would produce resources, power, glory and prestige.
In essence, the outcome would justify the cost.
“The Chinese leadership, I think, obviously believes that its most important task is to regain control over what it considers its territory. And if displays and expressions of Chinese nationalism are to be believed, the Chinese people also agree in this.”
And while the Chinese Communist Party would prefer to use economic and diplomatic means, it is showing signs of running out of patience.
“We have to be clear, the complete regaining of these territories cannot be done through these tools,” Mastro says. “And that is because the players on the other side are never going to completely accommodate China’s position.”
India will not willingly surrender its Himalayan high ground.
Taiwan won’t easily surrender its democracy and independence.
Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines can’t afford to lose their traditional fishing grounds.
As these nations dig in their heels and begin to unite, Mastro says Beijing’s temptation to use a military “demonstration” grows.
Beijing has been making a great display of its disagreements with Australia. Its economic coercion tactics have been blatant and extensive.
They’re tactics they’ve used before against the likes of South Korea and Japan.
“Yes, those grey zone activities have been very effective,” Mastro says. “China has pursued these activities for two reasons. They’re low cost and effective, and they did not have other means of doing so.”
Now they do.
And that’s especially applicable to territorial disputes.
As more warships come online, they’re moving into the East and South China Seas.
“While it has been unnecessary to date, you cannot completely regain these territories without using force,” Mastro says.
Now, these vessels are adding a tone gunmetal grey to the grey-zone tactics being deployed further out into the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
“I think Xi Jinping has articulated that during his tenure, he wants to see more than just the status quo, that he has worked very hard with foreign policy, with economic leverage to ensure that the costs would be acceptable in case that he uses force.”
And those calculations include the United States and the influence of the West in Asia.
“At this point, the Chinese military (believes) there are contingencies in which the United States would not involve itself, like against Vietnam or India, and this would hurt the US role in the region.
“Or where the United States would involve itself, and China would prevail. This is a huge boon and benefit for Xi Jinping.”
China’s propaganda messaging paints a similar picture.
“We are confident to win on the battlefield if conflicts are fought with neighbouring forces that have territorial disputes with China. Similarly, if there is a war with the US near China’s coastal waters, we also have a good chance of victory,” Hu states.
BUILD IT, USE IT
Beijing perfected its use of coercive statecraft because it didn’t have overwhelming military strength.
That’s now changed.
Extensive modernisation programs are producing results. And recent military exercises have been focused on joint operations between the People’s Liberation Army, Air Force and Navy.
“These types of operations are critical, for example, for an amphibious operation against Taiwan, or an air and ground operation on the Indian border, or an island grabbing campaign in the South or East China Sea,” Mastro says.
“I do think that now the conditions are right because, for the first time, China has the military capabilities to use force successfully in these territorial disputes. It is not a coincidence that they’ve become more aggressive in these disputes as certain military capabilities have come online.”
China has the largest Navy in the world with some 350 warships and submarines and more than 130 major surface units. These are focused on the Indo Pacific region while its primary competitor – the United States – is projecting power worldwide.
“Recent advances in equipment, organisation, and logistics have significantly improved the PLA’s ability to project power and deploy expeditionary forces far from China’s shores,” a report to US Congress found last week.
That doesn’t mean a great-power clash is imminent.
“But there are benefits to fighting smaller non-allied countries, such as Vietnam or India to hone their military capabilities, to undermine the US role in the region, to prepare (in seven to nine years) for the major conflicts against Japan or to retake Taiwan by force.”
RUNNING OUT OF TIME
“The most important core strategic interest for the Chinese Communist Party is territorial integrity and Chinese sovereignty,” Mastro says. “But in the case of people outside of China, there might be a viewpoint that these territories don’t necessarily belong to China.”
Combined with the failure of Beijing’s wolf warrior diplomats to win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of the world, this puts Chairman Xi in a bind.
“We also see the trend that countries are becoming less and less willing to accommodate Beijing and instead are becoming more resistant. There’s more willingness among the other claimants to co-ordinate,” Mastro adds.
Southeast Asian nations are being driven together to oppose Mr Xi’s assertiveness.
But, while Australia and the United States have declared Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea illegal, the rest of the world remains mostly apathetic.
Likewise, little action has been taken to address the plight of the Uyghur people. Occupied Tibet has long since been forgotten.
Now the apparent benefits of seizing such territories again may appear so high to Mr Xi that the economic and reputational costs are approaching irrelevance.
“I firmly believe that if you told Xi Jinping ‘you would be isolated from the diplomatic community for a couple of years, that people might say some bad stuff about you, that your economy would suffer, but you would regain Taiwan’, that he would go for it,” Mastro says.
The Chinese people are being prepared for just such an eventuality.
“Chinese society must … have real courage to engage calmly in a war that aims to protect core interests, and be prepared to bear the cost,” the Global Times declares. “As long as the outside world can feel such true will from China, it might, in turn, help us avoid a war”.
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