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On 30 September 2018 the USS Destroyer Decatur conducted freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese holding in the South China Sea (SCS). A People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy destroyer Lanzhou arrived to shadow the US warship. She made a manoeuvre within 40 metres of Decatur and the two vessels narrowly missed a collision. Immediately Decatur launched electronic warfare measures against Lanzhou and partially crippled her command system.

The sinister nature of this episode is manifold. Firstly, had the two warships collided with loss of lives, a level of military confrontation between the two nuclear powers would have become inevitable. The overall bilateral relations would have been irreversibly damaged and the whole world would have felt its impact. Secondly, the electronic warfare was the first combat engagement since the two militaries fought in Vietnam in the late 1960s. Once a precedent occurs, logically room for a subsequent one is created.

The last two years have seen 18 unsafe encounters between the two.

With US FONOPs inside the Chinese claimed islands in the SCS routinized and the Chinese response intensified, militarization of the SCS has been raised to the combat level as far as the US and Chinese militaries are concerned. Admiral Harry B. Harris’s words “fight tonight” capture this trend of worsening a “cat-and-mouse” game in the high seas.

Apparently neither the US nor China are eager to confront each other on the battle field. The two sides have reached six technical agreements to discipline encounters in the ocean. Yet strategically the US named China as its adversary in its National Defense Strategy and its National Security Strategy. By a basic international relations theory, if you identify someone as your enemy, they will eventually become your enemy. This is why until Trump Washington had not used such a strategic depiction of China. Now with this shift the Pentagon may have set a new pattern of military squeeze on China, as indicated by the combatized Sino-US military interaction and their deepening trade war, which would induce much wider implications to the bilateral relations.

Infographic by Alberto Bellotto

Increasing both a military and economic tight hold on China has been a rational choice for anti-China hawks in the US, as the White House can contemplate such a strategy relatively easily from its position of strength. In the on-going trade war China has suffered more due to the asymmetrical interdependence between the two economies. Military US superiority underlines Pence’s pressure-based peace in the Indo-Pacific through targeting China as the villain. The series of Trump’s punishing policies towards Beijing, in trade, in SCS FONOPs and in the hi-tech cold war against China in general and against Huawei in particular, have placed the US in a favorable position vis-a-vis China. This may simply further embolden Washington to pressure China for more gains, something inconceivable by his predecessors. The worsening Sino-US relations and the resultant confrontational prospects in the bilateral military and economic ties have proved right Xi Jinping’s grave assessment of the international order as having “registered the most tremendous change in a century”.

Beijing is preparing for the worst to come for the remainder of Trump’s reign, and beyond.

Clearly the US has formulated a new paradigm to prohibit China’s rise. Among the uncertainties in the future of Sino-US relations Beijing is most concerned about a military standoff, in the SCS, in the Taiwan Strait, or in the Diaoyu/Senkaku Island area, triggered by an accidental exchange of fire such as the near collision of warships last September. In this strategic context Xi Jinping has repeatedly called the PLA to accelerate preparation for war through quickened military transformation, enlarged financial inputs in military R&D and hardened combat training. It is interesting to note that “accelerate preparation for war” was the call of his two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. They however put an emphasis on “preparation”, Xi in contrast has laid his focus on war per se.

Preparation for war is first of all spiritual and psychological. The PLA has not fought a single war for about 30 years, the longest period of non-belligerence in its history. Comfort in life is poison for PLA soldiers. Xi Jinping defined it as a peace syndrome that has been prevalent among the officers and men, eroding their combat spirit, the thirst to fight and battle-field tenacity. In the last year or so the PLA high command has launched a thorough campaign to eliminate such a syndrome by frequently putting the soldiers through gruelling war drills in extreme weather conditions and locations in order to test the soldiers’ physical endurance.

Yet the biggest challenge is China’s military inferiority vis-a-vis America’s. In 2013 Xi initiated a thorough PLA reform, based on a synergy of the most advanced military technology, new military strategies and doctrines, and a five-dimensional joint force structure in accordance with the IT-RMA requirements for future wars. The PLA has designed a three-stage development plan to evolve into a military force on a par with the US by 2050: completing mechanization by 2020, joining the first echelon of top military powers by 2035 (e.g., a top European NATO military) and reaching a rough parity with the US by 2050.

Camilla Ferrari, China, Beijing, Baochao Hutong Neighborhood, 2017

Until then, however, the PLA will have to cope with the visible generational gap in weaponry with the US, especially in the areas of conventional arms which still play the decisive role in current warfare. Xi once told top PLA commanders that no war against top military powers could be won if there is a generational gap with them in weaponry. On the other hand if the gap is sufficiently narrowed, the US overwhelming superiority will be reduced to one that is relative. To Beijing this is of huge importance, as it believes that the US would think twice before launching a war against another top power when it does not enjoy absolute superiority. This would allow China to gain much greater scope in conducting its world pursuits.

Militarily the huge generational gap with the US forces the PLA to pursue an asymmetric AD/2A type of warfare from a position of weakness. There is rich inventory for the PLA to execute such asymmetric warfare but the very foundation for it to be effective is acquisition of three MAD capabilities: nuclear MAD (mutually assured destruction), space and cyberspace MAD (mutually assured disruption) that are effective asymmetrical means for a weak military to balance a strong one. While the PLA never attempts an order of battle parity with its US counterpart, it is confident that through a sustained increase in financial and material inputs in enhancing the three MAD forces and through carefully cast asymmetric doctrines, it will be able to deter the Pentagon’s attempt to use brinkmanship as a means to pressure China.

By 2035 the PLA will own a combat ready space force and a cyber force. For a weaker military a 2A/AD offensive in space and cyber space is easier than a major battle at sea and in the air and it is human-casualty free. Such a strike may take different combat forms carefully weighed and designed, from show and threat of force to its actual execution, and from symbolic actions to paralysis of a few satellites. Attacks on China’s homeland would diminish major psychological and physical taboos for aerospace retaliation, which is regarded more as self-defence than pre-emptive strike.

Camilla Ferrari, China, Beijing, Tiananmen Square, 2017

Capability improvement is foundational to the PLA’s overall transformation. The previously-mentioned timetable for a three-phased transition from a top-power military to a superpower military by 2050 is tremendously ambitious, although the time-framework is not outrageous. China’s huge GDP would allow the PLA’s military spending to approach that of the US by 2040/50, according to an estimate by The Economist. The first phase to 2020 will see the PLA realize its long-desired objective of high-end mechanization. For instance, currently every PLA group Army has an aviation brigade, which is a concrete criteria for advanced mechanization. The goal of the second phase is to lessen the generational gap with the superpower, which will make the Pentagon balk at intervening militarily in regional disputes against China. By the end of the third phase of 2050 the PLA will largely reach a rough power parity with the US, which means that the PLA will by then have largely filled its generational gap in the major categories of arms.

In summary while the US tries to consolidate its superiority against the PLA in the years to come, the PLA will endeavour to catch up, through an unprecedented reform that will eventually enhance its combat readiness according to the world’s latest development of military science, military technologies and the new modes of combat engagement. However the risks for the PLA are also definite, as the transitional dislocations may temporarily undermine its force coherence and command effectiveness at various levels. More profoundly, China is in peacetime but persistent emphasis on war fighting and subjecting the soldiers to constant war preparation may eat into national resources at a time when the country’s economic growth loses vigour. Last but not the least, emphasis on war further lifts the military’s social and political status in domestic politics and in the decision-making process over foreign policy and territorial disputes. How the PLA will overcome these downsides of change is an interesting development for us to watch.

Cover photo by Camilla Ferrari, China, Beijing, Wangfujing subway station, 2017

Author You Ji