Beijing’s strategic signalling

Xi

The massive military parade by the Chinese to mark the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Japan in World War II provided the impetus for the production of innumerable articles, analysing the implications of such a move. This was somewhat reminiscent of the grand Soviet military parade during the Cold War era, which provided the resource for similar articles, analysing the implications of ‘new’ weapons technology on show and the briefest of the hints on what were the evolving power dynamics at that time.

In the current situation, it is clear that the Chinese managed to make the people stand in awe, with their ‘high-tech weapons’ on display, but two pertinent questions remained unanswered. First, what was the underlying rationale and second, whether or not, this humongous event finally managed to send the right strategic signals to the intended recipients across the world?

The occasion undoubtedly was artificially ‘build-up’ and was essentially, an event to send subterraneous signal, as was evident from the fact that it was the 70th anniversary, and not the 75th commemoration — which is a more common occasion for a grand celebration like this.

Many felt that this event was primarily meant for internal audiences — to reiterate that Chinese President Xi Jinping had emerged as the tallest leader in line with the greats of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Many are well aware that Mr Xi wields immense power and is often compared to the likes of the great two. So, at best, this was a reiteration of the obvious. To others, it was a standard political ploy to distract the citizens from the turbulence in the financial markets, rising social tensions and ethnic unrest in parts of the country and a massive industrial explosion in Tianjin that killed more than 150 people.

If the intention was to influence the international community, it definitely produced mixed results at the best. Many countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that had faced the brunt of Japanese brutality during the World War II and hence should have actively participated, showed little or no enthusiasm in this ‘Japan bashing’ as they realised the fact that there was an urgent need to look forward and that Japan is an important partner today with few linkages to its past.

As a consequence, if China hoped to have a long line-up of influencial foreign leaders to share the stage with Mr Xi, they were in for disappointment. Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Korean President Park Geun-hye were the only notable statesmen of stature, though some smaller countries were represented by their Presidents. India not willing to offend Japan, chose to send junior Foreign Minister VK Singh.

The parade across Tiananmen Square was gigantic with 12,000 Chinese troops marching along with contingent’s from Russia, Pakistan and 15 other countries. With 500 pieces of defence hardware on display, along with 200 aircrafts — the release of 70,000 doves and balloons as a sign of peace seemed like a contradiction of sorts but few noticed this irony.

The exposition of weaponry (of which presumably 84 per cent was for the first time and indigenous) was a message meant for both local and international audiences. For the global audience, it signified a coming of age — a dominant regional power aiming for the world stage probably by the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in 2049.

For the local populace, it was a reassurance that the People’s Liberation Army was modernising at breath neck speed and as a rising power, China was capable of taking on US — its perceived competitor. But for the hardnosed analyst — like the massive missiles displayed during the Soviet times — the current crop of Chinese weaponry were more for deterrence rather than war fighting.

Apart from the new tanks and aircrafts on display, one of the prime weapons on show was the DF-21D which was branded as the giant carrier killer with a speed of 10 mach and a range of 1500 kms, supposedly an ideal weapon against the US aircraft carrier groups. However, the reality is that this surface to sea missile will require land basing with an exceptionally high degree of accuracy or guidance.

First, in case of a conflict, no US carrier or its battle group will venture so near the Chinese mainland as its own missiles and aircrafts, possessed longer ranges of operation. Second, armed with a singular untested vulnerable aircraft carrier Liaoning, China can really never ever hope to use these missiles or hope to create a significant damage with it. Third, the US super carriers are currently being armed with high-powered lasers against these anti-ship ballistic missiles, which make the chances of damage to the US carrier groups dimmer.

The intercontinental ballistic missile DF-5B with a range of 12,000 kms was also on display, supposedly equipped with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle technology which is nascent in Chinese missiles.

But questions of efficacy of the MIRV being integrated in this canister based missile is debatable at best. The other two significant missiles put on show were the mobile DF-31 A which will probably be used for a second strike and the so-called ‘Guam killer’ DF 26- an IRBM that has a capability of reaching the US base in Guam from China.

While the display of wares was impressive, it must be noted that they essentially were for deterrence and hence, China at best displayed political weapons. Herein remains the second and the most important question — did Beijing achieve its aim in this massive display of weaponry, most likely not — at least at the international level.

With the Chinese showing increasing signs of aggressive attitude in the South China Sea — such grandiose displays will only aggravate fears rather than assuage their fears. The rise of a hegemon’ and his military might would be apparent to all and sundry.

To be fair, Mr Xi in his speech did make some placatory noises and pledged to cut troop numbers by 3,00,000 — a relatively insignificant number given that China’s military Budget will likely continue to rise at a double-digit pace.

Thus, it seems that this event which was in many ways regarded was a self congratulatory one, probably sent wrong signals at least at the international level. While Mr Xi talked of a peaceful and a harmonious rise — the actual message probably created more apprehensions and worries amongst the regional countries. That is something that Beijing could have best avoided.

(The writer is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy: ORF- Beijing’s strategic signalling

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