China’s military modernisation has been striking both for its pace and ambition.
The high point of the 70th anniversary celebrations of the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China was clearly the military parade at Tiananmen Square. The message was spelt out by the Chinese leader Xi Jinping, “No force can shake the status of this great nation.”
During the three hour long parade, a number of new weapon systems were displayed accompanied by 15,000 goose stepping soldiers. The key difference was that the weapons were no longer of Russian origin; these were designed and developed in Chinese weapons labs and produced by the Chinese defence industry. The fact that many of these weapon systems have been developed after 2012 when Xi took over would have been a source of personal satisfaction for he has long made it clear that it was his vision that China should have a “world class military” in 30 years.
New toys for the PLA
An atmosphere of suspense had been built up in preceding weeks with leaked pictures of some of the systems that were going to make their debut. The most anticipated was the new solid fueled, road mobile ballistic missile DF-41. With a 15,000 km range and capable of carrying 10 warheads including decoys and penetration aids, it is expected to become the mainstay of China’s nuclear arsenal as it can defeat US missile defences.
China signaled that it had become the first country to have deployed a (HGV) hypersonic glide vehicle DF-17. Russia had announced its Avangard project last year and the US has been working on one for some years. The boost-glide trajectory enables the projectile to fly low with considerable manoeuvrability at hypersonic speeds (between Mach 5 and Mach 20). The US has been working on its system designed to carry a conventional warhead while the Chinese version is dual capable. The high speed and low altitude capabilities enables an HGV to evade any current missile defence systems which are designed to track ballistic trajectories.
At the turn of the century, the Chinese arsenal was estimated at below 200 and is currently estimated at 290 warheads, distributed over a triad consisting of ground based missile systems, long range bomber aircraft and submarine launched ballistic missiles.
Chinese capabilities were visible in the new range of drones on display. The WZ-8, a high speed, possibly supersonic rocket powered drone is intended for real time battlefield surveillance and damage assessment while there was the long endurance, low observable Sharp Sword (UCAV) showing off stealthy engine intake and engine nozzles. A large displacement unmanned underwater vehicle HSU-001 is possibly intended for multiple roles including observation and surveillance.
Other systems on display included the 7,000 km range JL-2 SLBM which was deployed in 2016. Twelve of these are carried on each of the six Jin class SSBNs. Intermediate range ballistic missiles DF-21D and DF-26 are described as highly precise systems capable of striking aircraft carrier groups. In all, 580 pieces of military equipment were on display along with 160 aircraft.
China’s nuclear and military modernisation
Since its first nuclear test in 1964, China has maintained a nuclear doctrine of minimum deterrence coupled with a no-first-use policy. This enabled China to focus on ensuring survivability and building an assured nuclear retaliatory capability. Since Chinese leaders defined the role of nuclear weapons as ‘political’, China was able to maintain a limited arsenal. At the turn of the century, the Chinese arsenal was estimated at below 200 and is currently estimated at 290 warheads, distributed over a triad consisting of ground based missile systems, long range bomber aircraft and submarine launched ballistic missiles. Further, the arsenal has been maintained at low-alert levels with warheads and missiles kept de-mated under normal circumstances. This was in sharp contrast to the US and the USSR who engaged in a nuclear arms race matching each other in terms of both types and numbers of warheads and delivery systems, accumulating a total of over 65,000 weapons at its peak. Both of them also maintained a significant part of their arsenals on high alert and adopted doctrines of nuclear war fighting based on first use.
The DF-41 marks a decisive demonstration to MIRVs indicating that Chinese arsenal could undergo a significant expansion as earlier missiles carried a single warhead.
China began to modernise its nuclear arsenal gradually in the 1990s, motivated primarily by growing US missile defence and conventional prompt global strike capabilities. China perceived that with these, US would be able to nullify its limited retaliatory capability. To ensure survivability, it began to invest in hardened underground facilities, switching from liquid fuelled to solid fuelled engines and developing road and rail mobile systems. It also developed more accurate missiles with dual capabilities (DF-26) which generate concerns because of increased potential for a misunderstanding during a crisis.
The DF-41 marks a decisive demonstration to MIRVs indicating that Chinese arsenal could undergo a significant expansion as earlier missiles carried a single warhead. A new SLBM JL-3 with a range of over 9,000 kms is also under development. Dual capable cruise missiles, both air launched and ship launched, have been under development. Chinese nuclear modernisation has moved in tandem with technology developments in hypersonics, stealth capabilities, space based systems and ASAT capabilities, electronic and net-centric warfare, UAVs and robotics using advanced AI.
China’s military modernisation has been striking both for its pace and ambition. Between 1998 and 2018, Chinese official defence budget grew annually by 10 percent in real terms. During last two years the pace has slowed to 6 percent. It currently has an annual defence budget of $ 170 billion (SIPRI estimates are higher at $240 billion), second only to the US whose annual defence expenditure is $650 billion. In 2015, Xi began a restructuring of the PLA which regrouped the seven military regions into five integrated theatre commands. PLA numbers were pruned down to make into a more agile fighting force capable of joint operations.
An assertive China
There is a new assertiveness about Chinese policies best captured in Xi’s speech in October 2017 at the beginning of his second term as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, “China has stood up, grown rich, become strong, and is moving towards centre-stage.” Xi sees himself as the architect of China’s third revolution after Mao helped it stand up in 1949 and Deng Xiaoping nudged it on the path of growing rich in 1979. The moving centre stage is a sign of Chinese rejuvenation for which Xi has positioned himself as the transformational leader; his name and doctrine have already been included in the Chinese constitution, an honour bestowed on Deng after his death. Last year, the constitution was amended to enable Xi to continue beyond 2022 when his second term would have ended. While Xi has emphasised the role of the Party, he has also centralised authority and moved away from the collective leadership that Deng had espoused to safeguard against disastrous decisions like the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward during Mao era.
However, its modernisation plans raise questions about whether China is visualising a shift away from no-first-use to launch under warning.
Nowhere is the Chinese assertiveness more visible than in the South China Sea. In 2015, Xi had promised President Obama that China would not militarise the features it was reclaiming in Spratly and Paracel islands, an assurance that has been brazenly violated. By 2016, China had reclaimed more than 16 sq kms in the Spratlys and three of the reefs now host three kilometre long runways, hangars for combat aircraft, ammunition storage facilities, anti-aircraft guns, ship berthing facilities, jamming equipment and 40 radar installations spread across seven islands to strengthen observation, intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities. Combat aircraft have been landing here and in the Paracels (Woody Island) where anti-ship cruise missiles are already deployed.
Resetting military equations
A disconnect is visible between China’s nuclear and conventional policies. The nuclear policy is based on a credible minimum deterrent and no-first-use with a deployment posture of low alert. Compared to US and Russia which have approx 6,300 warheads each (of which each deploys approx 1600 currently), the Chinese arsenal at 290 is still considerably smaller. However, its modernisation plans raise questions about whether China is visualising a shift away from no-first-use to launch under warning. In a 2013 Chinese White Paper, the reference to no-first-use had been quietly dropped and reintroduced after growing expression of concern by other states. The omission was described as an oversight.
In contrast, China’s conventional posture is marked by pre-emption, asymmetry and war fighting. The developments in the South China Sea are consistent with this approach. In 1995-96, when China fired missiles in the Taiwan straits to convey a political signal to Taiwan, President Clinton ordered two aircraft carriers to sail through the Taiwan straits. Today, despite FONOPS, the US can no longer visualise such an action. Gradually, China has changed the ground reality.
In 2003, Chinese leader Hu Jintao had acknowledged China’s “Malacca Straits dilemma”. Over the last decade and half, China has moved to overcome it by developing transcontinental links across the Eurasian land mass and the maritime Silk Route under the banner of the Belt and Road Initiative. Simultaneously, it is freeing itself of the constraints of the first and second island chains that hem its limited coast line. Privately, Chinese analysts claim that China is justified in seeking the equivalent of a Monroe Doctrine in East Asia as the US did nearly two centuries ago in the western hemisphere!
As China went about its military and nuclear modernisation, it ducked any suggestions about participating in any arms control agreements claiming that this was a stage for two actors — US and Russia. However, the bipolar world was a legacy of the Cold War that ended three decades ago. Russia assumed that sharing the stage with US still gave it the ‘superpower’ tag. The military display on 1 October showed conclusively that China has redefined the nuclear and military equations. Any new arms control arrangements will need to bring in China as it no longer has a free pass.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).