13 June 2019
by SUYASH DESAI
The Chinese leadership aims to achieve informatisation of the People’s Liberation Army by 2020 and modernisation by 2035, with the broader goal of developing the PLA into a world-class force by 2050, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. | AP
China’s Defence minister Wei Fenghe made a speech on June 2 at the Shangri-La Dialogue forum in Singapore. Shangri-La Dialogue is one of the biggest track-one diplomacy security fora of Asia. Mr. Fenghe’s speech was monitored closely for three reasons. One, the Defence minister has not attended this forum since 2011. Two, his speech was a response to the statement made by Patrick Shanahan, the acting secretary of defence for the United States. Mr. Shanahan revealed details of the ‘new phase’ in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy. Third and most importantly, the speech came a month after the Chinese military report published by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).
The DOD report cautioned the U.S. Congress about the rapid modernisation of the Chinese armed forces. The report claims that the Chinese leadership aims to achieve informatisation of the People’s Liberation Army by 2020 and modernisation by 2035, with the broader goal of developing the PLA into a world-class force by 2050. The report gives considerable attention to the advancement of the PLA Navy (PLAN). There has been an evolution in the approach of the PLAN from ‘off-shore water defence’ to ‘open sea protection’ due to its increased military capabilities. The report says that China’s second aircraft carrier, Type 001 A, would likely be commissioned by the end of this year. This would be followed by the induction of another carrier, Type 002, in a short span of time.
The Type 002 carrier is expected to be equipped with advanced launch capabilities in the form of an electromagnetic catapult. Currently, this technology is available only with the single aircraft carrier of the U.S. Navy, the USS Gerald R. Ford. The report also states that the PLAN currently operates four nuclear-powered ballistic missile–carrying submarines (SSBNs) and six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), predicting that this number would increase in the near future. The DOD report further cautions the U.S. Congress to expect the establishment of more overseas PLA bases, like the one in Djibouti, in the Indo-Pacific region in the near future.
What does this mean for regional stakeholders?
Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been the unquestioned military superpower around the globe. It currently operates over 11 aircraft carriers. But the supremacy of the U.S. Navy is slowly being challenged by the PLA in the Indo-Pacific region. The Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996 was a turning point for the PLA Navy. The presence of a U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk, in the region during the Taiwanese election underscored for the Chinese leadership the need to undertake rapid naval modernisation. Over the years, the PLA Navy has invested in and developed Anti Access / Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities, significantly enhancing its ability to challenge the U.S. Navy along the three seas (Yellow Sea, South China Sea and East China Sea). Assessing the impact of the PLA’s modernisation on the regional balance of power, a bipartisan commission set up by the U.S. Congress in 2018 delineated that in case of a war with China over Taiwan, “Americans could face a decisive military defeat”.
For India, the PLA Navy’s modernisation has implications in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). India considers the IOR as part of its sphere of influence. But increased Chinese investments in commercial ports in the region have led to concern about increased PLAN activity and possibly new bases. In 2017, the PLA established its first overseas military outpost in Djibouti. The new DOD report cautions that “China will seek to establish additional military bases in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests”. In this context, Pakistan appears to be the front-runner. Hambantota in Sri Lanka could also possibly be another candidate, although Chinese influence there thus far remains merely commercial. Also, it would not be wrong to believe that one of the three aircraft carriers of China, in the near future, would be operational out of the IOR. Such developments in the IOR are a point of concern for India.
For the Japanese, Vietnamese and the ASEAN navies, the stakes are much higher as they are directly involved in territorial island disputes with the PRC in the East and South China Seas.
There are three ways in which the increasing footprint of China is being challenged by the regional stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region — by strengthening the existing military partnerships and agreements, enhancing capabilities, and acquisition of naval bases. The choice is subjective, and depends on the country’s ambitions, interests and capacities.
For the United States, the approach towards China in the Indo-Pacific region has changed from accommodation and competition to strategic competition. The U.S. strategy for the Indo-Pacific region, according to its 2017 National Security Strategy is to maintain ‘forward military presence’, which is capable of ‘deterring and, if necessary, defeating any adversary’. The U.S. has many more naval bases than China in this region. It already has military alliances with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines and informal partnerships with India, Singapore and Australia. The 2017 NSS also refers to strengthening of informal Quadrilateral security dialogue, i.e. the Quad, between the U.S., India, Australia and Japan. But there has been no substantive developments in the Quad, and it has been confined to media talks for now.
In the case of India, its primary theatre of operation and interest is the IOR. India aims is to beef up its naval capacity and might. India is one of the major regional major allies for the U.S. in its approach to rebalancing the Indo-Pacific region. However, India’s approach to the IOR comes with a mix of balancing and accommodating China, with greater emphasis on the former. India has informal partnerships with the U.S. and French navies in the IOR. The scope of the partnership is restricted to non-traditional security initiatives like intelligence and information-sharing, joint naval exercises and drills, joint naval operations against the non-state actors in the high seas, logistics-sharing and deepening tri-lateral and multilateral cooperation with like-minded countries. It is not unimaginable to see such partnerships with Japanese, Vietnamese, Australian and select ASEAN navies in the foreseeable future. However, India has refrained from being a party to any formal security/military arrangement or dialogue which would be overtly targeted towards China. Its apprehensions towards the Quad comes from this thought process.
India is blessed with a wide coastline and has a geographic advantage in the IOR. This negates the need of foreign military bases in the IOR. However, despite this, India and Seychelles have agreed to work jointly in Assumption Island for raising a possible naval military infrastructure.
The other regional stakeholders such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore are walking a tightrope between balancing and bandwagoning against China and the U.S. These navies have tried to balance against China by having a close linkages with the U.S. Navy and at the same time, have started to conduct smaller maritime drills, engagements and associations with the PLAN. For instance, ASEAN navies held their first joint multilateral naval exercise with China in 2018. The Thai navy recently conducted a joint maritime exercise with the Chinese navy in the South China Sea. Since stakes for these countries in this region is high, due to ongoing territorial disputes, they prefer a more cautious approach in dealing with PLAN in the Indo-Pacific region.