Xi examines military options to offset rising disquiet

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Central Military Commission may calculate that if they move in force across the Himalayas, reassurances from Washington to Delhi notwithstanding, India would be on its own in facing a country far bigger in economic size than the Russian Federation, writes Prof. Madhav Nalapat

In common with Mao Zedong, PRC supremo Xi Jinping has been more closely involved with military matters than his predecessors Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. It may be mentioned that Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun had extensive connections with the military, as still does the First Lady of China, Peng Liyuan. It was not Xi but his rival Bo Xilai who sought support through the banner of upholding “Mao Zedong Thought”, the very factor that doomed his chances of succeeding Hu Jintao.

Given the experience of the top rungs of the CCP leadership during the period in power of Mao, there was no appetite among them for a repeat performance. This smoothed the way for the outwardly emollient and accessible Xi to ascend to the top of the CCP. Unlike his predecessor Hu who allowed Jiang Zemin to remain Central Military Commission (CMC) Chairman for a couple of years after the General Secretaryship of the party had been transferred from him, from the very start of his tenure as General Secretary, Xi Jinping took formal charge of the Central Military Commission as well as taking on the protocol-heavy (while visiting foreign countries) job of President of the PRC.

More than the party secretariat or the civilian side of the central government, it is the military that has the most influence in the thinking of the present CCP General Secretary. As a consequence, the three “active” fronts of the PLA have witnessed an acceleration of attention and activity since Xi took charge of the PRC in 2012. These are the South China Sea, the Himalayan massif and Taiwan.

Prof.-Madhav-Nalapat-

EMULATING MAO

Mao took the decision to intervene in Korea in 1950 as a consequence of his belief that General Douglas MacArthur was planning to cross into the PRC from North Korea to set up a base area for operations by the KMT. In contrast, the PLA invasion across the Himalayan massif into India in 1962 worked as a diversion drawing attention away from the economic woes (including famine) that were sweeping across China at the time.

Instead of growth and a rising standard of living for the Chinese people, the opposite was taking place during the years prior to the 1962 war with India. The conflict gave a respite to Mao in the context of efforts by some CCP leaders to whittle down his powers before removing him altogether, an interval that Mao used to strengthen his position (with the help of the Army) sufficient to clear the top and middle rungs of the CCP of all those suspected of being unhappy with the CCP Chairman’s stewardship of the state and party. This was accomplished through the brutal “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” that began in 1966 and lasted almost until Mao’s death a decade later.

In the case of “Mao’s heir” Xi, although almost all such activity remains hidden from the outside world, criticism of the functioning of the Office of the General Secretary (OGS) has been growing inside the higher ranks of the CCP. Since Xi took charge in 2012, the OGS and the CMC have far more influence over policy than the Central Committee or even the Standing Committee of the CCP, not to mention the Prime Minister of the PRC. In the past, the PRC PM used to be in charge of economic policy, but that responsibility was transferred by Xi to him and the Office of the General Secretary (OGS). This secretariat serves as the enforcer of what has been officially proclaimed to be “Xi Jinping Thought”.

PRC HAPPY WITH BIDEN’S RUSSIA FOCUS

Xi has been fortunate in the Europeanist policy of the Biden White House and its obsession with “teaching Putin a lesson”. This has greatly increased the degrees of freedom available to the PLA in the three “active” theatres mentioned earlier, the South China Sea, the Himalayan massif and Taiwan. An example of the Euro-focus of the Biden administration is the fact that weapons on an almost daily basis are being gifted to Ukraine, a country much less significant for overall US interests than India. Although the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India has come under attack multiple times by the PLA and its satellite GHQ Rawalpindi, neither the US nor the rest of NATO appears overly concerned about this.

In contrast to Ukraine, India is asked to pay top dollar for essential defence purchases from the US, thereby sharply limiting its ability to access such platforms in quantities sufficient to ensure a desirable expansion of “offensive defence” capabilities against the PLA. Ensuring such a capability for India ought to have been among the highest priorities of the Biden administration, but this is still not the case. President Biden and the rest of the leaders of NATO are lavishing resources and attention towards an ultimately futile effort at preventing the Russian military from overcoming Ukrainian resistance.

Prolonging the bloodletting in that unfortunate country by giving false hopes to its leadership by the US and the rest of NATO through life-support weapons supplies is creating a window of opportunity for the PLA to attack any of the three “active” fronts it has been engaged in. This may happen should Xi calculate (as Mao did in 1962) that the resistance to his policy decisions and over-centralisation of the twin machinery of government and party can best be solved through a military diversion. In the case of Mao, the Cuban missile crisis ensured that Washington’s attention was taken away from the Himalayan front, while for Xi, the prosecution of the Ukraine war by NATO is serving a similar purpose.

Given the blowback from domestic constituencies within NATO at the pain being inflicted on them by the sanctions imposed on Russia by their own governments, the CMC planners in Beijing may be forgiven for assuming that after experiencing such a shock, there would be almost no appetite for similar sanctions by NATO against the PRC in view of the severe economic consequences of such a move. Such consequences are inevitable until sufficient decoupling from the Chinese economy takes place, a process that is proceeding at a snail’s pace, in contrast to the lightning speed with which western companies have been exiting the Russian Federation. The good news for India is that the country needs no assistance in the form of troops to tackle fresh assaults by the PLA.

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Supply of US weapons platforms and other assistance on a Ukrainian scale would ensure that the PLA regret for a long time to come any expansive adventurism against India. However, such stockpiling and resupply by the US of India seems far from assured, given the obsession of President Biden with punishing Russia under Putin in a war on Ukrainian territory that NATO leaders apparently seek to prolong indefinitely. The CMC may calculate that if they move in force across the Himalayas once again, reassurances from Washington to Delhi notwithstanding, India would be on its own in facing a country far bigger in economic size than the Russian Federation.

The PLA is known to be working on military options that involve action across both the eastern as well as the western fronts with India. Significant investments in personnel, weaponry and infrastructure have been created by the Chinese side so as to kinetically gain fresh territory in India along the frontier in order to silence Xi’s critics within the CCP. Such a move would fail, for under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is prepared to tackle such an attempt even on its own. Whether such a capability is known to the CMC or not is unknown. Under Xi, that institution has developed a sense of hubris that may cause it to take actions including against India that would ultimately lead to disaster, but which would also entail damage to other countries.

BIDEN’S CREDIBILITY GAP ON INTENT

The South China Sea is fast becoming a Chinese lake, given the density of PLAAF and PLAN military bases created within its waters. While the US and other Navies routinely sail the seas in a symbolic gesture, leaving PLA structures unmolested, the reality is that the PLAN and PLAAF are building up sufficient strike power to block such access, should that option be chosen by CMC Chairman Xi. This has been the consequence of lack of substantive rather than symbolic efforts at clearing the waters of such obstructions by both Presidents Obama and Trump, a policy continued under Biden.

Should Xi decide on setting up a zone within the South China Sea that excludes naval vessels save those given permission by Beijing to enter such waters, it remains to be seen whether the calculation of the CMC is accurate that President Biden (who ordered the 2021 Afghanistan pullout) would do little to challenge the PRC in the South China Sea as a consequence of his wariness about provoking a war with that country. Even in the case of Taiwan, the calculation of CMC planners may be that the US would not act in force and enter into a direct kinetic conflict with China.

Neither, so goes this thinking, would Japan, were its partner in the US-Japan alliance to not take an active role in the conflict but confine itself to outside assistance to Taiwan, as is happening in Ukraine. The problem is that the same messages and events are read differently by the two sides. In the case of Ukraine, President Biden believes that his supply of weapons to Ukraine is giving pause to Xi over Taiwan, when in Beijing, what may be counting for more is the lack of NATO boots on the ground in Ukraine, as well as growing public resistance to the domestic impact of sanctions against Russia in the US, UK and France that is causing a cratering of the popularity of the leaders of the three countries.

THE TAIWAN PRIZE

The greatest prize for Xi would be the conquest of Taiwan. Choosing the Taiwan option would necessitate the takeover of the entire country by the PLA rather than just its offshore islands. Just taking control of such limited spaces would not be able to satiate the hunger for the conquest of Taiwan of the Han nationalists, emotions that have been brought to a high pitch since Xi took over as CCP General Secretary. In the South China Sea, a kinetic objective could be an active enforcement of the existing reality on the waters by making passage subject to Beijing’s nod. The objective of military operations across the Himalayan massif would be to gain control of significant slivers of Indian territory in the east and west of the Sino-Indian frontier, a limited objective.

In the case of Taiwan, unless the entire country is occupied, there would not be the required political dividend for Xi. Should the Taiwanese people resist the invading army in the manner that the Ukrainian-speaking people of Ukraine have since the start of the February 24 “Special Military Operation” by Russia, the island would become a sea of quicksand for the PLA. The CMC is betting (as the Russians initially appear to have in Ukraine this year) that the Taiwanese people would acquiesce in the occupation of the island by the PLA after seeing the havoc that is being wreaked on Ukraine. However, the securing of a second term by President Tsai Ing-wen indicates that the people of Taiwan are unlikely to surrender their freedom as tamely as the CMC wishes them to do. Even within the KMT, the pro-US wing is gaining at the expense of the pro-PRC wing. Such a division did not matter when the US and the PRC were close to each other, but does now.

INDIA IS ON GUARD

The stakes in Taiwan are the highest for Xi, as failure to succeed in the event of a military conflict would doom his rule. As conditions in China continue to deteriorate and patience within the public as well as those in the ranks of the party diminish, the CMC under Xi is studying a possible military diversion in any of the three “active” fronts. This would be a way of deflecting public anger away from the CCP General Secretary (to whom each soldier has pledged his personal loyalty) to an external entity.

Given a situation when Xi may resort to the military option to draw the focus away from the economic woes and reduction in freedoms of PRC citizens, India under Prime Minister Modi is on guard. A similar preparation for the worst is in progress in Taiwan under President Tsai Ing-wen. The problem for democracies in Asia is the Putin obsession of US President Joe Biden, who together with European leaders is eager to continue seeing Russia as Enemy Number One even though that country is not what it was in the Soviet era, and has been replaced as the primary systemic challenger by the PRC.

Rather than deter the PRC from military action against any of the three “active” fronts, the rising level of adverse consequences of the war by Russia in Ukraine and the attendant sanctions by NATO countries is boosting the view that exhaustion from the Ukraine conflict makes even such limited intervention by the US and its allies unlikely in the event of the PLA launching a conflict within what the CCP considers Chinese territory (Taiwan and the South China Sea) or its backyard (the Himalayan massif).

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