Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s will without fighting.
– Sun Tzu
As military men and security analysts, we have been brought up to believe that there is a deep, dark, incomprehensible design in every step the dragon takes. It ruminates long and hard before making any move and if one were to microscopically scrutinise its deeds, it may be possible to establish a pattern and long term aims that it is trying to achieve. In fact, every step it takes sends analysts rummaging through the fabled ‘Art of War’ in search of its esoteric intent. Of course, if one looks hard enough patterns do emerge with 20/20 hindsight. And so, we have a plethora of expressions dug out from arcane Chinese strategic literature that have become the idiom of current strategic discourse on China- frog in warm water, wei qi and kong cheng ji just to mention a few. But is there truth in the strategic wisdom of the Chinese or is it only an illusion that makes the dragon appear fiercer than it actually is? It is the author’s premiss that the latter is closer to the truth.
To examine the veracity of this assertion I intend to highlight some major developments over the seven decades of PRC’s (People Republic of China) existence in its domestic, economic and foreign policy domains. Nothing can be taken away from the many achievements logged by China on all these fronts, but it appears that it has largely blundered along, hitting upon some brilliant ideas occasionally and grasping opportunities thrown up by a turbulent geo-strategic environment with open arms.
The Domestic Debacles
On 01 Oct 1949, the establishment of the People’s Republic of China was formally proclaimed by Mao Zedong. Immediately thereafter, the leadership embarked on an ambitious land reform movement which involved ceasing the property from landlords and its redistribution to the tenants and peasants. While not extraordinary in themselves, what sets these reforms apart from other such movements elsewhere in the world is the mass murder of landlords that accompanied it, an event that led to 2-3 million deaths by the reckoning of several analysts. This episode was a Chinese take on the Stalinist Dekulakization in USSR (The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) three decades previously and brought the word ‘Classicide’ into the English vocabulary.
As if this was not enough, the Chinese leadership launched the ‘Great Leap Forward’, in 1958, ostensibly to revolutionise Chinese industrial output, that led to the ‘Great Chinese Famine’ and resultant deaths of anywhere up to 45 million peasants, the bulwark of Communist ideology and for the ennoblement of which class the Communist Party exists by its own system of beliefs, in just three years. These events have been well researched and documented and require no citation but the Orwellian newspeak of the PRC, epitomised in the ‘Resolutions on a number of historical issues of the Party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China’1, adopted in 1981, makes for interesting reading.
These phenomenal catastrophes required scapegoating to make the leadership look good and so there were the ‘Hundred Flowers Campaign’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’, spanning much of the two decades from 1956- 1976 resulting in further purging, incarceration in labour/prison camps and murders of intellectuals, Rightists, suspect party workers and opposition members leading to about 20 million deaths. The ‘Up to the Mountains, down to the Villages Movement2’ during this period resulted in the forced migration of nearly 17 million educated, urban youth, referred to as the ‘the lost generation’3, to rural areas ostensibly for re-education.
Thereafter began the era of reform under Deng Xiaoping, the purported ‘Architect of Modern China’, in 1978 and yet, a mere decade later there was enough resentment in the youth that led to the protests and massacre of thousands at Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in China, in 1989, and the subsequent witch hunt that went on well into the current century4, 5. The ongoing malfeasance in occupied Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong lately is hidden from none.
Chanakya, the revered Indian philosopher famously wrote, “People’s Fury is above all the furies” and “the foremost duty of the ruler is to keep his people happy and contented. The people are his biggest asset as well as the source of peril”6. Not much is left to be reiterated about the wisdom of PRC’s domestic policies over the past seven decades.
The Economic Conundrum
After the disastrous effects of the Maoist era hare-brained economic policies, PRC has taken enormous strides and emerged by far as the second-largest economy of the world with a burgeoning GDP poised to overtake the US by 20247. This rapid growth could only be achieved after relinquishing its communist principles, which it nevertheless continues to publicly espouse, and turning patently capitalist in the guise of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era’. With several trillion dollars of forex reserves, PRC invests heavily in US treasury bonds, considered the safest investment instrument. But therein lies the catch for PRC8, 9. The US is not averse to unilateral precipitate action when its economic hegemony is threatened beyond a point, as it demonstrated with the Nixon Shock of 1971. Chinese attempts at economic unilateralism or multi-lateral coercion of the US could just be the trigger for the next economic shock the US delivers to PRC and the world.
The Geo-Strategic Dilemma
The USA has been the dominant power of the world over the past century because it has an unassailable mainland, the only conventional attack on the US being the one on Pearl Harbour in 1941, 4000 km from the mainland. With the east and west protected by enormous oceans, it built strong alliances with its neighbours in the north and south through cultural and social affinities as also humongous amounts of bilateral trade. It resolved all its boundary disputes with Mexico, even ceding territory to it. Despite occasional disputes with Canada, it maintains the longest land border in the world, completely undefended. So much so that the US Armed Forces have never had to guard its mainland. On the other hand, even a cursory glance at the map will reveal the enemies that PRC has surrounded itself with along its land and maritime borders due to its aggressive policies. Perhaps, the only countries it can claim as friends and allies are DPRK and Pakistan.
PRC began its international engagements in close alliance with the USSR. However, the relations soured in less than a decade and they became irreconcilable enemies till they engaged in a border conflict in 1969. Taking advantage, at the height of the Cold War, the US moved in quickly to nestle it, beginning with the historic Nixon visit to Beijing in 1972, despite the obvious ideological divergence between the two. Having incorporated PRC into the trade system lorded over by it and after making PRC repudiate its avowed ideological underpinnings, the US continued to tango with the PRC for four decades, despite ups and downs in the relations. At long last, the tide has turned again, with increasing acrimony between the US and PRC and the latter’s growing ties with Russia. Its foreign policy has displayed an uncanny resemblance to a swinging pendulum.
PRC has fought three wars unaided by other countries. Two of these have ended in stalemate without achieving its stated aims, with one against a decidedly weaker Vietnam. Much is spoken about the ‘String of Pearls’ it has beaded across the IOR (Indian Ocean Region) to encircle India. But is that not a desperate defensive strategy to hedge against Indian and US dominance of the Indian Ocean with its venerable choke points, through which transit the vast majority of its international trade and oil supplies?
The 1962 war with India happened as PRC was grappling with the aftermath of the Great Famine. The 1967 Nathu La episode with India was triggered at the peak of internal domestic turmoil during the Cultural Revolution as were the Ussury River clashes with USSR in 1969. The 1979 war with Vietnam was timed with intense political manoeuvring as Deng Xiaoping endeavoured to establish control over the levers of power. The 1986 Sumdorong Chu confrontation had the backdrop of sky- rocketing inflation, rampant corruption with Deng personally open to charges and student discontent simmering across China. The 2013 Depsang incursion happened when the Chinese leadership was new and trying to establish control, a time when some analysts conjectured that it may have been an attempt by PLA Generals to wrest some autonomy10. The 2017 Doklam stand- off preceded the momentous 19th National Congress of the CPC which amended the constitution to remove term limits, potentially making Xi Jinping the Paramount Leader for life. And of course, the 2020 Ladakh Crisis is ongoing in the backdrop of intense civic discontent due to the pandemic, resultant economic downturn and vocal international opprobrium. While one may infer a strategic pattern behind all these incidents, the connection to domestic politics is unmissable. Every time the CPC has been rattled by domestic turmoil or upheaval, it has sought to quell opposition by falling back on that infamous refuge of the scoundrel, Patriotism, the sentiment that overshadows all other concerns when confronted by an external threat. As someone aptly said, “Nothing unites the people of Earth like a threat from Mars”11.
The world economic crash of 2008 was a major blow to the PRC economy. From a peak of near 15% annual GDP growth rate and a decadal average of near 10% over the previous two decades, it dropped to about 6% in the following years12. This resulted in enormous job losses, unsold inventories of real estate, sudden export demand plunge, surplus stocks and industrial closures. With limited appetite for domestic consumption and overflowing capacity, the only viable option for renewal of growth was massive debt funded investments abroad. Thus, was born the idea of the OBOR (One Belt One Road), officially announced in 2013 and now well known as the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative). Its tremendous initial success may have given wings to strategists’ ambitions and the BRI transmogrified into a brilliant stratagem for global access and domination, at a time of US turn inwards after the fatigue of long, never- ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The pieces have been placed over the last decade, whether they lead to a successful strategic endgame remains to be seen in the post- pandemic push back against PRC in the Indo- Pacific and EU.
China of the Xi Era
Xi Jinping came to power at the most propitious time for China. Russia was probably at its weakest post the Second World War and the only remaining hegemon of the uni- polar world, the US had become a tiring giant after nearly two decades of never-ending interventions in world trouble spots. Burdened as its Presidency was under its own pre- election commitment of military drawdown globally and the weight of expectations from an early in the term Peace Nobel, it withdrew into a shell while espousing moralistic platitudes that must have sounded like manna from heaven to the real politicking Xi, steeped as he is in the traditional power play that is all too embedded in the Chinese culture and psyche. It must have appeared as the ideal time to establish PRC’s global dominance to the strategists in Xi’s inner circle. And so, they made haste in the South China and East China Seas and along its longest unsettled borders with India. In so doing, they overlooked the basic commandment of Sun Tzu, “…. when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near”13. In fact, PRC has so alarmed the world by its overtly aggressive turn in the last decade that even its most ardent economic serfs may have begun to have second thoughts about their inequitable engagements. It certainly has stirred the US from its deep slumber, and it has begun to marshal alliances to counter PRC’s rapid rise.
Salami-slicing, the strategy of accumulating small gains surreptitiously without alerting the victim, over a protracted period till a substantial change in status quo can be presented as a fait accompli to the unsuspecting adversary, is a subtle art form necessitating large doses of patience and deft geo- strategic manoeuvring, traits that the PRC under Xi has abjectly lacked. Far from being a perspicacious strategic player on the world stage, PRC has emerged as a powerful but cantankerous tyrant in a rush. Its actions have betrayed not so much the ability to plan for the long term but the unfailing zest of an unscrupulous opportunist.
PRC is undoubtedly an extremely strong economic and military power. But it also has debilitating constraints and vulnerabilities with its hemmed in maritime borders patrolled by inimical navies, adversarial relationships on the land borders, few strategic alliances and a population which may be seeking an opportunity to break the authoritarian fetters. It has mismanaged its population, created enemies all around itself, emerged as an untrustworthy power that is disdainful of operative international rules or norms and shown up itself to be a scheming manipulator. Vietnam in 1979 and Indian actions in the numerous confrontations post 1962 have reaffirmed the ancient wisdom that the best defence against a bully is to stand up to him. Rather than displaying astute strategic vision and breaking the enemy’s will to fight, PRC, with its actions over the past decades, has only whetted the appetite of its numerous adversaries to resist. Not the medicine that Sun Tzu would have ordered.
- Chinese Communism Subject Archive- Resolution on CPC History adapted on 27 June 1981 – available at https://web.archive.org/web/20191022175245/http://www.gov.cn/test/2008-06/23/content_1024934_2.htm accessed on 19 November 2020, as translated by Google.
- Up to the mountains, down to the villages (1968)- available at https://chineseposters.net/themes/up-to-the-mountains accessed on 19 November 2020.
- CNN: China’s ‘lost generation’ recall hardships of Cultural Revolution published on 24 October 2012- available at https://edition.cnn.com/2012/10/24/world/asia/china-lost-generation/index.html accessed on 19 November 2020.
- Amnesty International Press Release- ‘China: 15 years after Tiananmen, calls for justice continue and the arrests go on’ published on 03 June 2004- available at https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/92000/asa170202004en.pdf accessed on 19 November 2020.
- Sino-American Relations: One Year After the Massacre at Tiananmen Square, Volume 4, published January 1991- available at https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=3glYpzuWrr4C&hl=en_IN&pg=GBS.PA5 accessed on 19 November 2020.
- Chanakya Quotes: 12 Best Chanakya Quotes for the politicians on How to Run the government published on 11 October 2011- available at http://chanakya-quotes.blogspot.com/2011/10/best-chanakya-quotes.html accessed on 19 November 2020.
- World Economic Forum: China could overtake the US as the world’s largest economy by 2024, published on 20 July 2020- available at https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/07/largest-global-economies-1992-2008-2024/ accessed on 19 November 2020.
- Investopedia: Why China Buys U.S. Debt With Treasury Bonds, published on 14 April 2020- available at https://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/040115/reasons-why-china-buys-us-treasury-bonds.asp accessed on 19 November 2020.
- Financial Times: China stuck in ‘dollar trap’ published on 25 May 2009- available at https://www.ft.com/content/5b47c8f8-488c-11de-8870-00144feabdc0 accessed on 19 November 2020.
- Deccan Chronicle: Xi, Modi and the Chumar hijack by Ashok malik, published on 21 September 2014- available at https://www.deccanchronicle.com/140921/commentary-columnists/article/xi-modi-and-chumar-hijack accessed on 20 November 2020.
- Los Angeles Times: How Obama and ‘a threat from Mars’ are uniting the party behind Hillary Clinton, published 11 June 2016- available at https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-democrats-unity-20160611-snap-story.html accessed on 20 November 2020.
- Trading economics: China GDP Annual Growth Rate- available at https://tradingeconomics.com/china/gdp-growth-annual accessed on 20 Nov 2020.
- Sun Tzu Quotes by Goodreads- available at https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1771.Sun_Tzu#:~:text=%E2%80%9CAll%20warfare%20is%20based%20on,him%20believe%20we%20are%20near.%E2%80%9D accessed on 20 Nov 2020.