Xi Jinping is aware that his dream of world domination is not achievable without conflict. Should he wait for the world to arm against China, or is the present environment the best opportunity with the US in election mode? writes Lt Gen Prakash Katoch for South Asia Monitor
China’s Eastern Theatre Command has been exercising close to Taiwan and its bombers have been flying across the median line of Taiwan Straits. The periodicity of China’s live-firing drills in seas along China’s coastline, including in proximity of Paracel Islands, and declaring the area ‘No Go Zone’ has increased, twice in the last two months and thrice in the current year. Beijing is riled over Taiwan’s willingness to accommodate Hong Kong’s democracy supporters.
The US has accused China of pursuing reckless and provocative militarization of disputed outposts in the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) not honoring its commitments. China responded by saying US military actions have made it the biggest threat to the peace and stability of the South China Sea. American aircraft carriers, bomber aircraft, and spy planes have been active in the area.
Earlier China signaled warnings to the US warships and bases by firing missiles – DF-21D touted ‘carrier killer’ and DF-26 IRBM.
Growing tensions with the US
China’s information war against Taiwan and the US is an all-time high. Beijing has been openly calling for the US to exit the region in international seminars. The past two decades officials of China’s ministry of national defense told visiting delegations that the outer limit to assimilate Taiwan with the mainland is 2025. China knows Taiwan will have to be taken by force because no Taiwanese government would merge with the People's Republic of China (PRC) voluntarily. Taiwan has been rehearsing responding to the Chinese invasion and the US will not quit the region much that China may want.
Western intransigence gave China a free hand in establishing military bases in its so-called 9-dash line, giving it dominance over the South and East China Seas and the Yellow Sea.
A recent US Department of Defense report mentions Beijing developing capabilities and operational concepts for offensive operations within the Second Island Chain, in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. China has a formidable arsenal of missiles and its navy is expanding rapidly. Increased periodicity of exercises is one way to make them look routine. China could mount a quick offensive against Taiwan immediately following an exercise - similar to how it invaded Eastern Ladakh in India.
China considers Taiwan its territory. If China invades Taiwan, how would the US react? Will it be against the People's Liberation Army (PLA) inside Taiwan and Chinese assets at sea or includes mounting bases and other targets in mainland China? In the latter case, China would target US aircraft carriers at sea, US bases in Guam, Diego Garcia, and Japan, as also mainland US depending on the escalation it wants to risk. Does attacking Taiwan become the ultimate of China testing US redlines and dilemma for the POTUS – US President Donald Trump, who has tested positive for coronavirus?
No thaw in China-India standoff
There is little chance of thaw in the India-China standoff in Ladakh despite continuing diplomatic and military level talks. India saying no territory lost despite sizable intrusions enabled China to brand India aggressor and say the onus of disengagement lies with India. India is not reiterating its earlier demand for PLA to revert to April 2020 positions. Ladakh is one of the five fingers of Tibet which Mao Zedong had described as the palm of China.
For long-time China has been eyeing to capture Ladakh including Siachen Glacier (a major freshwater source) and join hands with Pakistan along the Shyok River reviving the old silk route linking Gilgit-Baltistan to Yarkand in China through Karakoram Pass. This is the reason China has intruded into the area of Y-junction in Depsang Plains and consolidated its position with over 10,000 troops - the same area where PLA intruded in 2013 and stayed on for three weeks. India is determined to not let PLA advance further but is unlikely to take offensive actions unless China does so.
China's strategic thinking
Beijing is conscious of world opinion building against it especially after the coronavirus is said to have originated from China. New multilateral alliances are coming up. The next meeting of the US-India-Japan-Australia quadrilateral or Quad on October 6 would focus on the growing China threat.
After years of neglect India is waking up to the need of building hard power though it is going to be a long-drawn process. Japan's Defense Ministry has asked for an 8.3 percent budget increase in 2020, which is the largest rise in more than two decades. Thailand has canceled the Kra Canal project.
China has been criticizing the US-India partnership and is watching how the virus has hit both these countries extensively and has adversely affected their economies. Xi Jinping is aware that his dream of world domination is not achievable without conflict. Should he wait for the world to arm against China, or is the present environment the best opportunity with the US in election mode? POTUS will also need to consider US-China economic interdependence no matter how many times Pentagon war-games defending Taiwan.
Many quote Xi saying PLA should not fire the first bullet but when did China mean what it says? There is a viewpoint that Chinese actions in Ladakh are a ruse while the actual target is Taiwan. Chinese media says invading Taiwan will imply shifting resources from the Indian border.
War on multiple fronts
But China has been exercising war on multiple fronts, PLA has enough troops and surely PLA’s Strategic Support Force can support these two fronts. Invasions will need to be swift and intense before being forced to halt because of global opinion.
Bursting Indian defenses will be difficult but China would employ algorithmic warfare, even gas attack? Western scholars were of the opinion eight years back that China could use tactical nukes forcing India to give up territory. India has nuclear weapons but the government would remain in a dilemma about overall escalation. The above may be termed 'extreme' but wisdom lies in preparing for the worst.
(The author is an Indian Army veteran. The views expressed are personal)