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    Greater China
     Feb 27, '14

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A grand new strategy for China
By Francesco Sisci

BEIJING - A major military and diplomatic shift is occurring in Asia. It is pushing China to reconsider its strategic priorities and this is causing a domino effect in regional politics.

The change is spawning a maze of new alliances. To prevent everything from unraveling, the US and China must find a new common ground that enables collaboration on the world's biggest quagmires - Central Asia and Middle East. This is necessary for peace in both the Middle East and the Pacific region.

The pivot to Asia and the collapse of the old Asian order
In the next plenary session of the Chinese parliament in March, the National People's Congress will complete the launch of two

commissions the party set up at the plenum last November - one on reforms and another on national security. The latter is not simply a new administrative organ, but purports to be an important change in China's grand strategy.

So far, China's security environment has been plagued by a lack of coordinated control and strategy [1] in the face of a potentially very insecure geopolitical situation. [2] China's biggest strategic weaknesses - its vague, disputed sea borders and location surrounded by countries closer politically to the US - might have been one of the reasons behind America's "pivot to Asia".

The pivot is the ultimate reason for the new Chinese National Security Commission and the new grand strategy. The pivot also stems from the failure of Beijing to seize opening offers made by US President Barack Obama in 2009. [3]

Before that, China did not need a grand strategy: its sheer size made it formidable enough to intimidate its smaller neighbors through conventional warfare. They were scared of being overcome by the human wave of the Chinese population. In a way, China was too big to be defeated, since its defeat could cause bigger troubles than a Chinese victory.

Against bigger threats of a nuclear attack, China kept a minimal yet effective nuclear force of ballistic missiles. This was based on a simple strategic realization: you don't need to threaten the annihilation of your enemy to keep him at bay, it is enough that a credible threat of even a limited nuclear attack is in place. There is no need to spend too much money building a huge nuclear arsenal when just a few missiles will do the job.

It was an effective and thrifty defense strategy. Because the general security atmosphere around China was guaranteed by the US, Beijing could simply forget about broader security issues. The US Navy patrolled the international sea lanes, and the general political and security arrangement around Chinese borders was maintained by the US. This arrangement was not hostile to China, but conversely was quite friendly nor conducive to Chinese integration into a system of international trade and investment led by the US.

In this regard, China's former security arrangement made good sense. It aligned with some basic principles of defense which can be summed up in Edward Luttwak's classic assessment of the grand strategy of the Roman Empire. [4] He warns that a common fallacy in some analyses is:
... to evaluate defensive systems in absolute terms. If a defense can be penetrated, it is said to be "useless"; and only an impenetrable defense is conceded to be of value. This appraisal is highly misleading: its equivalent, for the offense, would be to regard as useless any offensive system that cannot prevail against all forms of resistance, under all circumstances. Defensive systems should instead be evaluated in relative forms: their cost in resources should be compared to their military "output". Further, the value of defensive systems must be assessed in terms of the type of threat they are intended to counter. One system may be most effective against "low intensity" threats (infiltration, hit and run raids, etc) another against maximal threat of invasion. Each should be evaluated accordingly, for the defensive systems are normally intended to provide a finite barrier only against a particular kind of threat, while absorbing, deflecting, or at least filtering other threats greater or lesser in intensity than those against which the system is designed.
Changing strategies in a changing environment
The new environment had made China's old strategy obsolete. It calls for a deep reassessment of resources, as is evident with the establishment of the new national security commission.

On command and control, things could be simpler. For instance, the various departments in charge of maritime security (the People's Liberation Army Navy, the fishery, the border control, the customs authorities and the like) can be brought under one command and possibly somehow merged into one structure.

But China has other, bigger constraints. China is weak in conventional war, [5] and it has better capability in strategic defense - missiles but also cyber-attacks, the new horizon for threats.

However, this kind of response is geared toward the pre-pivot political environment. Basically, the strategy is prepared to respond only to extreme threats with absolute answers, such as a massive cyber-attack or a nuclear missile strike. But these scenarios are extreme and very unlikely - not the least because they would amount to suicide attacks. Once attacked, the US or any other country in the world would respond and that would be the end of China as we know it.

Ruling out for the sake of argument the possibility of a dramatic escalation - which is always possible if not likely when a great power is involved, especially if armed with weapons of mass destruction - let's consider the scenario of a limited conventional war.

China has very narrow capabilities even in limited conventional war - and a defeat in a conventional clash would certainly cause massive a domestic political backlash that could put the rule of the Communist Party in jeopardy.

Victory in a limited conventional war is also dangerous. It would isolate China by showing the world that the idea of the "China threat" is not illusory but real, and that China must be brought down. However, from a very strict military point of view, when cornered it is better to win an engagement than lose it. Of course this leaves open the issue of the meaning of "being cornered".

While keeping in mind that no war would be good for China, the frictions around the Senkaku Islands and in the South China Sea raise the question of whether China is prepared for a limited conflict.

In a limited conventional war, the Chinese precedents are mixed. China clearly won against India in 1962. In Korea in the 1950s, it was draw, and that was only achieved because Beijing was willing to sacrifice thousands to US machine guns in its notorious human waves. It is very unlikely that China could now repeat that performance. With Vietnam in 1979, when Beijing tried to punish Hanoi for its invasion of Cambodia, it did not go very well - despite some intelligence assistance from America and Thailand.

Now the situation is unclear, but on paper things are no better than in the past.

Surely the possibility of an invasion of Taiwan is politically non-existent - especially now that bilateral ties are improving. It is simply not worth considering, and the Chinese have long stopped taking it seriously as an option.

But on other fronts, the chances are not so impossibly remote. China is likely to fare badly against Japan, a country that is better prepared and better armed in a sea clash. China could do well against Vietnam, against whom China won a sea skirmish in 1988. But back then, the US was on Beijing's side, and since that is no longer the case, it is unclear what could happen now.

The prospects are also unclear in regard to the weakest of China's antagonists in the region, the Philippines, which could fight in the sea closer to its shores and thus with better air support than the Chinese, who would be much farther from their own air strips.

This very cursory assessment is in striking contrast with the capabilities of other countries with the economic might of China. Their defenses could easily win in a limited conflict against smaller countries, but they are unable to project a total threat. Only China, Russia, and America can do that. Yet of the trio, the other two have capability to easily defeat a smaller enemy in a conventional war, while China might not. How China can bridge the gap? The acquisition of weapons may not be enough without actual combat training and experience.

Continued 1 2 3

New fault lines in the South China Sea (Feb 26, '14)

China chances a game-changing role
(Jan 16, '14)



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