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Xi Jinping warns armed forces of possible war: China's assertiveness reflects its modernised military programme

It is the measure of a country’s strength that a statement by its head on possible war and conflict sends shivers down the spines of leaders everywhere. Chinese president Xi Jinping did just that in his first address of 2019 to top officials of Central Military Commission where he reportedly warned of the possibility of war and “unprecedented risks and challenges”. Unease is also rife in the immediate neighbourhood of China, since days earlier, he had also called upon the people of Taiwan to accept that “China must and will be reunified” on the principle of “one country, two systems”. That would still have been swallowed with some difficulty, but he then went on to warn that China "reserved the right to use force". Taiwan expectedly rejected this, arguing that the status – which is similar to that of Hong Kong – was not in line with the wishes of the people. That’s all very well. The point is who is likely to come to Taiwan’s aid should China decide to actually use force. The Chinese armed forces have been steadily strengthening under Xi’s watch ever since he came to power in later 2012.

The statement by Xi marks the culmination of several statements and actions aimed at enhancing the capability and positioning of the armed forces. Structural reforms have been made to ensure the PLA’s absolute loyalty to the party and to him personally, as its head. Recently, reports noted the promotion of 35 Colonels to the rank of Major General who were handpicked by the president himself.

Operationally, the PLA under Xi has received the highest boost ever since the days of Deng. A detailed paper by RAND points out that the PLA is likely to achieve all its major objectives by 2035 if not earlier, to contest all domains of conflict including sea, air, land, space, cyberspace and electromagnetic in the India-Pacific. Xi’s statement seems to indicate that the moment of confidence has arrived.

 Xi Jinping warns armed forces of possible war: Chinas assertiveness reflects its modernised military programme

File image of Chinese president Xi Jinping. Reuters

Xi’s statement is reinforced by the PLA’s own public papers on preparedness. The navy’s weight in this regard was apparent in a recent statement that “As of 24 December, 2018, the Chinese navy has sent 31 escort fleets, 100 ships, 67 shipborne helicopters and more than 26,000 soldiers to escort more than 6,600 Chinese and foreign ships over the past decade”.  PLAN has also held about 40 exercises with 30 countries in 2018. That’s quite an achievement for a force that was negligible a decade ago. This might is apparent in the fact that notwithstanding increased US pressure, Chinese patrols around Taiwan increased significantly, with the most recent including deployments of  Su-30’s, Tu-154 recce, H1-6K bomber and IL-78 aerial tankers. The same source also reported an alarming statement from the defence ministry spokesman noting that “resisting unification with force is a path leading to death”. No one can say that the country doesn’t speak with one voice.

Similarly, the land forces have also been tasked with new training schedules, new capabilities like a claimed stealth drone, and the slow trimming of its bloated strength to develop into a far more streamlined force, under a system of military commands rather than the old military regions. Like the navy, the land forces have also been encouraged to conduct exercises with other countries. The most recent was a special forces exercise with Pakistan at Kharian in Punjab for three weeks. Earlier, in December 2018, a joint air drill together with pilots and air defence controllers was carried out. That marks the coming out of the Chinese Air Force, once made up of obsolete license built aircraft, into one that now fields operational stealth aircraft, thus being the only other country other than the United States to do so. The J-20 is the core of this squadron, with other follow-on designs in the pipeline.

Less publicised is the modernisation of the Rocket Forces. After its upgradation from an independent branch to a full service, the Rocket Forces have steadily increased their reach, with the DF-31 AG first displayed in 2017, and the road mobile DF 41 with improved and new warheads, namely multiple independently targeted warheads and glide vehicles. A nuclear bomber force also seems to be envisaged, as also the strengthening of the submarine force with a reported testing of a submarine launched missile in November 2018. China’s nuclear deterrent ambitions are not unlike India’s. The watchword is “lean and mean”. The difference, however, is that Beijing also achieves deterrence by arming others. The steady support to Pakistan’s missile program was always meant to deter India from stepping out of its “South Asia” envelope, and there is no sign that cooperation in this area has reduced. Indeed, with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the web of cooperation appears to have strengthened.

For India, there is a perplexing question to be faced. Is Beijing’s new (relative) bonhomie – reflected in the increasing bilateral visits, not to mention the first high-level people-to-people exchange mechanism in December 2018 – a function of its fears of a war-like situation developing around Taiwan, under the watch of the irrepressible United States president Donald Trump?  In simple terms, is China keeping India as a “friendly” as it faces up to a possible high voltage conflict with the United States? Or does Xi’s New Year address where he warned of a “period of major change never seen in a century” also include direct dangers to India, in the North East in particular? The answer is probably a little of both. No country, no matter what its size, will look to have enemies towards both east and west, and it would vastly prefer a peaceful border with Delhi for the duration. The problem is that Beijing’s anxiety to see India boxed into South Asia has led it to announce the building of advanced naval frigates to ensure the “balance of power” in the region.

Nothing is more likely to ensure that New Delhi tilts towards Washington as part of the new “Indo-Pacific” construct. Meanwhile, despite the public calling out of possible war by a neighbour, it would perhaps be wishful thinking to hope that the Opposition would desist from continuing allegations against the Rafale deal, which are likely to worsen the already delayed modernisation of the Indian Air Force. In times of danger, it would be natural for all to unite. But then, politics in India has hardly ever been about logic or patriotism. It is unsurprising then, that China dismisses India as a poor competitor.

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Updated Date: Jan 07, 2019 20:33:34 IST