China

Parade of power

Print edition : October 02, 2015

YJ anti-ship cruise missiles at the parade. For the first time, China rolled out its DF-21D ballistic missiles, which are geared to destroy aircraft carriers, the centrepiece of the U.S. power projection capability in the Pacific. Photo: AP

Chinese President Xi Jinping with Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Park Geun-hye (seated) of South Korea at the parade in Beijing on September 3. Photo: AP

PLA soldiers march in formation during the parade. Photo: XINHUA/ REUTERS

China showcases its military might in a stunning display of weaponry to send a message of deterrence to the U.S., providing alongside a glimpse of its aim to build a Eurasian world order.

CHINA’S perfectly choreographed military parade on September 3, to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, has been a major event in the country’s recent history. Like a typical Chinese hotpot, it contained several flavours—some meant for the palates of the external world, including an “Asia-pivoting” United States, as well as people at home, who are anxious to avoid the bitterness of a “hard landing” of a transitioning economy, under President Xi Jinping’s stewardship.

The guest list at the parade, which included Russian President Vladimir Putin, his South African counterpart Jacob Zuma, South Korean President Park Guen-hye, and most heads of the post-Soviet Central Asian republics, also symbolised China’s sharpening vision of an emerging Silk Road or BRICS [Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa] world order, centred on the economic and physical integration of a rising Eurasia.

The stunning display of weaponry, mostly indigenously developed, especially the powerful missiles, sent an unambiguous message of deterrence to the U.S., which has amplified its China-containment strategy under President Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” or “rebalance” military doctrine.

China’s anxieties have been fuelled by the presence of 360,000 personnel in the Asia-Pacific theatre under the U.S. Pacific Command. The command has also deployed 200 ships, which include five aircraft carrier strike groups, accumulating enormous firepower in the region, with China and North Korea as the core concerns. Eventually, nearly 60 per cent of U.S. forces will fall under the command’s wings as the “Pivot to Asia” unfolds. Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Guam are playing an indispensable role in the U.S.’s complex force projection architecture under the “rebalance” doctrine. Beijing has responded to the “Pivot” by mounting an essentially defensive but unquestioningly potent response, which has its nuclear missiles at the core. Unsurprisingly, four Chinese missiles were the star attraction at the march past at Tiananmen Square on September 3.

For the first time, China rolled out its DF-21D missiles at the parade. These are unique ballistic missiles geared to destroy aircraft carriers, the centrepiece of the U.S. power projection capability in the Pacific. These weapons, capable of changing the strategic military balance of power in the Pacific, adopt a ballistic trajectory, and re-enter the atmosphere at ten times the speed of sound, breaching most, if not all known, warship defence shields.

An article in Financial Times published ahead of the parade noted that “some analysts say such missiles threaten to consign aircraft carriers—which form the basis of current U.S. naval strategy—to the dustbin, just as aircraft carriers themselves did to battleships with Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour”.

With studied deliberation, the Chinese also show-cased the DF-5B missile at the parade. The previous versions of the DF-5 were displayed in the past, but the maiden display of the DF-5B had an exceptional significance, attributed to its advanced warhead. The DF-5B mounts a multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicle (MIRV) warhead—a major technological breakthrough, which has been achieved by only a handful of countries. In plain language, the MIRV missile can deliver independently several warheads that pursue several targets simultaneously. Thus, the destructive power of a single missile is multiplied because it can attack many targets at the same time within its “footprint” area.

The Chinese seemed to have worked hard at their second strike capability—an ability to counterattack with atomic weapons after absorbing a nuclear first strike. The mobile solid-fuelled DF-31D missiles, capable of escaping destruction on account of their mobility, were rolled out at Tiananmen Square.

The parade, however, did not demonstrate the full extent of China’s advances in acquiring the potency of a second strike with the induction of nuclear-powered submarines and weapons. Now, each of China’s JIN class of submarines can now each mount a cluster of 12 JL-2 missiles, with a strike range of around 7,350 kilometres. China has three JIN-class nuclear-powered submarines, which entered service in 2007. Despite their fairly high noise level, the JIN class submarines and their nuclear strike component give China a credible second-strike capability.

The JL-2 missiles will have an array of strike options, depending on whether the submarine chooses to fire its weapons close to Chinese shores or from areas deeper in the sea. Alaska will fall within their ambit if the missiles are fired from waters near China. Hawaii can be targeted if these weapons are launched from waters south of Japan. Western continental U.S. and all the 50 U.S. States are within range if waters west or east of Hawaii are chosen as launch pads.

The Chinese also paraded the CJ-10 land-attack cruise missiles, which have apparently been tailor-made to target American forces that are positioned in South Korea and Japan. The Americans have already deployed around 28,000 troops in South Korea, while Japan hosts an estimated 48,000.

The relations between China and Japan, which soured following the dispute over East China Sea islands, could worsen as the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has begun to marshal the passage of two security Bills which clear legal hurdles to allow Japanese troops to join U.S.-led conflicts even if they did not pose a direct threat to Tokyo’s security.

Japanese militarism

China has already loudly protested against the move as it fears a revival of Japanese militarism, opposition to which was the stated core theme of the parade. Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi voiced his “stern concern” over the move, for it raises questions “from neighbouring countries and the rest of the international community on whether Japan will abolish its pacifist posture”. Yang appeared to refer to Article Nine, which anchors Tokyo’s pacifist post-War Constitution.

Xinhua, China’s official news agency, dispensed with the niceties of diplomatic parlance and called the decision a return to Japan’s militarist past. “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe… realised his dream of abandoning post-War order and switching his country back into war mode,” it said.

The blistering commentary, with particular focus on East Asia, which had borne the brunt of Japan’s wartime atrocities, said that the passage of the Bills was a “tragedy” for the regional countries that were once “ruthlessly trampled by Japan’s wartime barbarities” and would “once again witness the rise of Japan’s militarism at a time when their wounds have not yet fully healed and bitter memories remain to haunt”. It also focussed on Japan’s rearmament programme by pointing out that Abe had “renovated Japan’s long-restricted arsenal, polished the nation’s arms, and developed next-generation weapons hardware such as the Izumo aircraft carrier”.

In an earlier report, The New York Times said, “Some of Japan’s biggest companies, best known for motorcycles, washing machines and laptop computers, are pitching a new line of global products: military hardware.” The daily added that after a 50-year ban imposed by the Japanese government, “Mitsubishi, Kawasaki, Hitachi, Toshiba and other military contractors in this semi-pacifist country are cautiously but unmistakably telling the world they are open for business.”

Keeping a tight focus on U.S. military bases, the Chinese rolled out the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile at the parade. The weapon is capable of targeting Guam, a strategic U.S. military base in the West Pacific, which includes a submarine squadron along with the Anderson Air Force base.

The parade also showed China’s ongoing effort to modernise its armed forces, by making it more technologically intensive and improving its “teeth-to-tail” ratio. Thus, Xi announced a plan to cut troops by 300,000, which will be accomplished by 2015. The carefully timed announcement also removed any edge of bellicosity or jingoism that could easily have become the subtext of such a massive show of strength. Xinhua said that in October 1951, shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had a record strength of 6.11 million troops. These were reduced by one million troops in 1985, in an effort to focus on accelerating economic development and strengthening the quality of the troops.

In 1987, the total troops of the PLA were reduced to 3.235 million. By 1990, they had gone down to 3.199 million. A decade later, China decided to further shrink its troops by 500,000 over three years, reducing the total to 2.5 million. Between 2003 and 2005, a third-time cut of 200,000 downsized the troops to 2.3 million, with the army accounting for the lowest proportion in the country’s history. The cut unveiled on September 3 will downsize the current troop strength number to two million.

The report said that the PLA would reduce non-combatant institutions and personnel, according to a decision reached by the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2013. Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said Beijing hoped to boost “military quality” by concentrating resources and accelerating the progress in information technology.

Eurasian world order

Apart from demonstrating the core component of Chinese nuclear and conventional deterrent, the parade offered a glimpse of an evolving Eurasian world order that Beijing envisions, in partnership with Moscow. Putin and Xi stood out at the parade as the nucleus of two salient regional formations—the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the BRICS grouping. The presence of four Presidents from Central Asia in Beijing showed the growing consolidation of the SCO bloc.

Despite all the chatter about the latent and inherent competition for influence over the Eurasian landmass, China and Russia are arguably in their closest political embrace in recent history. Their bonding has been reinforced by the perceived existential threat—in the Russian case following the Western-backed “regime change” in Ukraine and at China’s end in the aftermath of the U.S. rebalance strategy. Finally, the 2008 financial crisis, which reduced Western demand for goods, went a long way towards wrecking China’s export-led growth model, which was premised on manufacturing in what has been called the workshop of the world. Consequently, instead of parking cash in U.S. treasury bonds, China has decided to plough billions of accumulated dollars in roads, railways, industrial parks, energy pipelines, cyber connectivity and smart cities along the Eurasian mainland.

Under its Eurasian integration Belt and Road initiative, the Chinese and the Russians—victims of post-Ukraine economic warfare—are working hard to create “new growth engines” through the construction of the Eurasian Land Bridge project. This is a massive infrastructure undertaking, which could generate millions of jobs and transform the economic landscape of a vast underdeveloped geographic swathe. To ensure project funding, China, Russia and India are supporting the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (NDB), run by the BRICS grouping. The presence of Zuma at the parade meant that except India and Brazil, the rest of the BRICS were represented at the highest level.

The political fallout of the AIIB is already significant, for it has chipped away at the unity of the Atlantic Alliance. Despite exhortations from the U.S. against participation, Britain, Germany and Australia joined the AIIB as founding members.

The presence of Park Guen-hye at the parade also triggered sustained speculation on whether the eastern flank of the U.S. alliance system, premised on Japan and South Korea, has started to crumble. However, such anticipation may be premature as long as South Korea is dependent on the U.S. to counter the North Korea threat.

It is argued that the parade provided a timely boost to Xi’s popularity—the much-required ammunition to counter a growing list of powerful foes who have mushroomed following a relentless anti-corruption drive. Critics point out that the grand display of pageantry and military power was also meant to bolster confidence and give more recovery time to the government, which is steering a difficult economic transition from an export-led growth model to an economy focussed on services, consumption and innovation.

Both claims appear to be exaggerated. While it is true that decision-making has taken a hit, with even upright officials apparently avoiding taking important decisions owing to fears of being falsely implicated in anti-corruption cases, it is difficult to imagine how the popularity boost resulting from the parade can be powerful enough to change the internal balance of power within the Chinese establishment. On the contrary, a more specifically targeted clean-up drive within the system, which insulates the non-corrupt officialdom from prosecution and restores its confidence, would be a more effective tool in bolstering Xi, rather than the spectacle of a military parade. The transitioning Chinese economy requires deft handling, but fears that the economy is a sinking ship are fiction resulting from wishful thinking among China’s detractors. Observers say that the government needs to take three concrete steps to ensure a calibrated course correction. First, borrowing costs for households and businesses, which remain exceptionally high in China, need to be lowered through an interest rate cut in order to stimulate real growth. This should not be a problem given the high rate of saving in the country.

It is also necessary that job-creating infrastructure projects are implemented swiftly through a coordinated effort to streamline the availability of land and funds to execute well-defined engineering plans.

Regarding the recent developments in the stock market, the disappointing export data are among the salient factors that led to the blowout. After a slight growth in the first half of the year, exports fell significantly in July. There were other signals that triggered the sell-off. Primary among them was the perception that the economy was slowing down after production of electricity and cement—both items that fall under domestic consumption rather than exports—fell in the first seven months of the year. But analysts point out that stock market fall is not the real concern. On the contrary, the focus should be on the real economy that needs to be fine-tuned rapidly, without a massive overhaul.

In an article in Financial Times, David Daokui, a former member on the monetary policy committee of the People’s Bank of China, the country’s central bank, said that the economy should take the recent plunge in the Shanghai Composite Stock Index in its stride. “The problem—not a huge one, but a problem nonetheless—is the Chinese economy itself. It requires corrective action from Chinese authorities—not surgery, but acupuncture,” he wrote.

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