Dr. Namrata Goswami is an author, strategic analyst and consultant on counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, alternate futures, and great power politics. After earning her Ph.D. in international relations, she served for nearly a decade at India’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) sponsored think tank, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, working on ethnic conflicts in India’s Northeast and China-India border conflict. She is the author of three books, “India’s National Security and Counter-Insurgency”, “Asia 2030” and “Asia 2030 The Unfolding Future.” Her research and expertise generated opportunities for collaborations abroad, and she accepted visiting fellowships at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo, Norway; the La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia; and the University of Heidelberg, Germany. In 2012, she was selected to serve as a Jennings-Randolph Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), Washington D.C. where she studied India-China border issues, and was awarded a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Fellowship that same year. Shortly after establishing her own strategy and policy consultancy, she won the prestigious MINERVA grant awarded by the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense (OSD) to study great power competition in the grey zone of outer space. She was also awarded a contract with Joint Special Operations University (JSOU), to work on a project on “ISIS in South and Southeast Asia”. With expertise in international relations, ethnic conflicts, counter insurgency, wargaming, scenario building, and conflict resolution, she has been asked to consult for audiences as diverse as Wikistrat, USPACOM, USSOCOM, the Indian Military and the Indian Government, academia and policy think tanks. She was the first representative from South Asia chosen to participate in the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies NATO Partnership for Peace Consortium (PfPC) ‘Emerging Security Challenges Working Group.’ She also received the Executive Leadership Certificate sponsored by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, National Defense University (NDU), and the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS). Currently, she is working on two book projects, one on the topic of ‘Ethnic Narratives’, to be published by Oxford University Press, and the other on the topic of ‘Great Power Ambitions” to be published by Lexington Press, an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield.
China celebrated the 70th anniversary of its founding on October 1, 2019. In that celebration, the ‘military parade’ held the most critical position via which China transmitted to the internal Chinese domestic audience (1.4 billion) and external observers the power and lethal capabilities in possession of the Communist Party of China (CPC). In the military parade, 15,000 soldiers marched across Tiananmen Square.
Added to that, 580 pieces of military equipment were showcased, with 40 per cent of military hardware, shown for the very first time.  160 military air-crafts flew overhead, with Chinese commentators on live TV, explaining their range and stealth capacity. China, for the very first time, showcased its medium range hyper-sonic glide vehicle, the DF-17, along with others like the DF-41 and the DF-100. Also showcased were the GJ-11 “Sharp Sword” supersonic stealth Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) and the WZ-8 high altitude, high speed reconnaissance drone. Wu Jian, editor of Defense Weekly from Shanghai explained in an interview with Global Times:
The biggest advantage of the drone [WZ-8] is that it can effectively gather intelligence in real time in a controllable way compared to other platforms like satellites…A satellite must travel along its orbit and conduct reconnaissance only when it is above the target…this can be calculated by the enemy, and can create fake intelligence…A high-altitude, high-speed reconnaissance drone will not have this problem… the drone will also act as a soft deterrence, giving the message that the Chinese military can engage in reconnaissance on its targets, so can it launch strikes on them.
After the military parade was over, President Xi Jingping reminded all that “no force will stop or shake China or its people from achieving its goals” of becoming the primary global power, as well as its consequent intended goal of unification of the motherland with its lost territories (read South China Sea Islands, East China Sea Islands, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Arunachal Pradesh). What I found most insightful, while watching the military parade via the Xinhua live telecast were the painstakingly crafted 70 seconds videos of China’s success -1949-2019- in fields such as poverty alleviation, space technology, high speed rail, housing, and overall infrastructure [ Xinhua is China’s major news source]. The commentator kept reminding us that China is the only country that has met the United Nations Millennium Development goals, especially when it comes to poverty alleviation. This perspective was corroborated by an article in China.org.cn,
Especially since the launch of the “reform and opening-up” policy 40 years ago, the unprecedented economic and social success China has achieved as it marches towards achieving its “Chinese Dream” [footnote added by author] has no parallel in human history. Consider what has happened: As the world’s most populated country, China, which could barely feed its people 70 years ago, has made historic achievements in poverty alleviation by lifting more than 700 million people out of poverty through various welfare schemes while offering Chinese wisdom and solutions to global poverty reduction. This figure accounts for nearly 70% of the worldwide poverty alleviation numbers. From 1978 to 2018, the number of impoverished people in the country dropped from 770 million to 16.6 million, and the poverty rate from 97.5% to 1.7%…In doing so, China has written a new chapter in humanity’s fight against poverty. It was the first developing nation to achieve the targets set for hunger and poverty-free society under the U.N. Millennium Development goals…Hailing China’s remarkable success in poverty reduction and contributions to the world organization, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, president of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly, used his opening speech to declare: “China is on track to ending poverty ahead of schedule as envisioned by the U.N. 2030 Agenda — this alone would be a significant contribution to the global community.
Given all such highlights, to include the assertion that China’s military strength is to ensure the ‘forward march’ of the Chinese nation and its people, what I infer from China’s National Day ‘Military Parade’, the biggest ever since its founding, and its 70th year celebrations, are two clear messages.
First, the primary goal here is to accelerate efforts to constitute and build legitimacy for the CPC; Second: broadcast China’s military capabilities as a measure of its ‘Great Power’ status and a ‘deterrence focused signaling’, least countries like the U.S. believe they can take on China militarily over issues such as Taiwan, Hong Kong or the SCS.
The CPC is actively constructing a narrative of legitimacy, both within China and abroad, to ensure that it continues its authoritarian one-party rule. This was apparent during the live telecast of the military parade, when Xinhua broadcasted videos of the Prime Minister of Cambodia, President of Pakistan, as well as messages from Serbia about how positive the CPC has been for China, and how these countries would like to emulate China’s success story. There were special reports carried in Chinese language news sources highlighting world leaders congratulating President Xi Jingping, to include U.S. President Donald Trump’s congratulatory tweet, Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s message and Russian President’s Vladimir Putin’s good wishes, which stated “Russia and China are mutually irreplaceable strategic partners. I highly value our friendship and would like to continue to work closely with you to benefit the people of Russia and China”. Xinhua highlighted and praised the CPC for the great achievements China has enjoyed since its founding. China has a dedicated website for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and that forum was filled with analyses about China’s success; a clear signal to BRI’s 70 members.
While most analysts view these messages from world leaders as routine, I argue that for the CPC, broadcasting such messages builds into its aura, creates a narrative of legitimacy for its rule, as well as showcases its reach, to its internal audience. This aspect is extremely important for the CPC given the atmosphere of illegitimacy surrounding its stake to power, since it is a party that has self-selected itself to rule China. As Daniel W. Drezner posits: “identities are developed or constituted through mutual recognition-authoritative actors are considered legitimate in the international community not only because of self-recognition but because others recognize them as legitimate”. This Chinese behavior of constituting legitimacy follows the time-old aphorism of one of China’s greatest philosophers, Sun Tzu. For a comprehensive grand strategy of success, Sun Tzu believed that a state must have five inter-related factors. These includes an understanding of the power of norms (moral legitimacy), heaven, earth (physical conditions), leadership, and finally, method and discipline (assessment of military capability, context, relative power potential/difference, logistics, resources). Once all elements come together, a state can benefit from a grand strategy for success. So, by building internal and external legitimization, President Xi and the CPC are following Sun Tzu’s first factor: the power of norms (moral legitimacy); and his third factor: leadership.
Showcase Military Power
China’s strategic culture prioritizes the ability to use force when required, though for China, to realize Xi’s China dream, the superior grand strategy is to win without fighting. As the author of the book, China Dream, Liu Mingfu, a retired PLA Colonel maintains; as per Sun Tzu’s guidance, the breakout of war is the breakdown of strategy and demonstrates civilizational demise. To win a war by stratagem, without bloodshed, is the way of a superior grand strategy and civilization.
With a combination of economic resources, moral legitimacy, and by constituting standards of behavior, China is playing at a game for power; one with consequences for the global order. For with power comes influence, especially “the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events”. By broadcasting military power at its 70th national day celebrations, especially showcasing new military hardware ‘made in China’, Xi’s rather explicit message is that China has the military capacity to defend what it believes is rightfully its territory, or take over new territory as a unification goal, but chooses not to do so, since it believes in peace. Based on current available statistics, China is the second largest military spender, with $250 billion in 2018. [The U.S. leads the world with $649 billion in 2018; though the returns from the military budget could differ given cost difference in both countries]. The recent parade demonstrates that China has upgraded its military hardware, followed by investments in new military services like the PLA Strategic Support Force, and the Rocket Force. As mentioned earlier, several new UCAVs were on displays, followed by the DF-17, China’s hyper-sonic missile, capable of maneuvering at many times the speed of sound, making it difficult to deter, thereby raising serious doubts about the effectiveness of the missile defense system being built by the U.S. and Japan. The DF-41, China’s long range intercontinental missile (9, 320 miles) that can travel to the U.S. in 30 minutes was showcased during the parade, coupled with the DF-21D, designed to hit ships 932 miles away, as well as the DF-26 intermediate range missile, that can reach Guam, where the U.S. military base is located.
While these were the two clear strategic messages, it is useful to access Xi’s own foundational strategic philosophy.
Xi’s Strategic Philosophy
Xi is influenced by one of the toughest of the legalist scholars from ancient China, known as Han Fei Tzi or Tzu, a philosopher from the Warring state period (475–221 BC). Han Fei Tzi asserted that morality had no place in the realm of ruling, especially when the sole goal was that of preservation of the state. Morality is only useful to create an ‘atmosphere of legitimacy’ but must be cast aside in the interest of national survival (read national revival or rejuvenation). Ruling consisted of strengthening the hand of the state, and effective control of the population with the usage of law. We can see that manifest in present day China with the increased role of the People’s Armed Police (PAP), proudly showcased in the October 1 ‘military parade’, its technology focused surveillance, and the social credit system. Han Fei Tzi specified that the ruler himself was determined by a set of principles and maintained an enigmatic personality that oversaw his subordinate officers of the court. According to this tradition, self-interest dictated almost every aspect of administration, and concepts like deceit, intrigue and a ruthless disposition were encouraged for success.
In the context of the Hong Kong democracy protests, or China’s occupation of the South China Sea islands, Xi wants to deliberately project military power, least the U.S. or an alliance led by the U.S. think it prudent to intervene to deter China’s revisionist territorial grab. As of today, China has moved about 10,000 to 12, 000 PLA/PAP into Hong Kong, up from 3000 a month ago. A September 30, 2019 Reuters report suggest that “there are now up to 12,000 Chinese troops in Hong Kong…Among them: members of the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary force that answers to Xi Jinping. If China moves to put down protests in the city, they will likely do the job…’. The PAP, a paramilitary force, was brought under direct control of the Central Military Commission (CMC) since 2018, of which Xi is the Chairman. Before that administrative change, the PAP was under the dual command of the CMC and the State Council. I predict that China will become militarily aggressive vis-a-vis Hong Kong since the National Day and 70th anniversary celebrations are now over. However, PAP will be at the forefront of riot control measures unlike what occurred in 1989 when the PLA was used to suppress pro-democracy protests.
In conclusion, I can predict that the next big celebration for the PRC is in 2049-the 100th year celebration of its establishment. That year, China will not only showcase cutting edge military hardware but also demonstrate ‘world first’ capabilities of a lunar industrial base as well as the first ever Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP) satellite in orbit. Already, China has demonstrated several ‘space firsts’ like landing on the far side of the Moon, building of an un-hackable Quantum satellite, Micius, as well as growing the first two cotton leaves on the lunar surface.
Several economic forecasts predict that by 2050, China will be the leading economy in the world, followed by India. The U.S. will fall into third position. With economic resources at hand, China will spend more on military modernization and its space-based technology. The trend in the last five years clearly support such an outcome. For instance, between 2009 and 2018, China has witnessed an 83 per cent change in its military expenditure. In 2010, China spent $115.7 billion in defense. In 2018, that has gone up to $250 as per the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The Chinese government estimates of its military budget tends to downplay its defense expenditure, sometimes half of what SIPRI estimates. However, SIPRI’s assessment is corroborated by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS):
Where possible, official defence budgets for the current and previous two years are shown, as well as an estimate of actual defence expenditures for those countries where true defence expenditure is thought to be higher than official budget [emphasis added] figures suggest…Therefore, there will be several countries listed in The Military Balance for which only an official defence-budget figure is provided but where, in reality, true defence-related expenditure is almost certainly higher.
Given all that, the CPC, under Xi’s leadership and direction, will bolster both internal control and external assertiveness. These changes should not surprise anyone observing China. When Xi took over power in 2012, he clearly indicated that the time for China’s national revival has come. He followed up his words by establishing firm control over the PLA, create new military institutional structures backed by his Civil-Military Integration Strategy, encourage initiatives like the ‘New Silk Road’, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), reassert territorial claims, and aggressively move to stake China’s claim on them. Under Xi’s leadership, China is actively shaping its regional and global environment, where it emerges as the lead player, expanding its sphere of influence.
Besides the two main intended strategic messages: CPC legitimacy and broadcasting military power, China’s national day celebrations and the military parade offer a few further strategic insights: that the key factors of nationalism, and pride in China’s achievement were in full display; the Chinese narrative is that the revival of an old civilization with modern characteristics will offer an alternative compelling paradigm vis a vis the liberal world order. The CPC narrative of legitimacy-building will continue, backed by China focused alliance mechanisms like the BRI, which has 70 member countries and plans to invest $575 billion in these “corridor economies”. Remarkably, countries like New Zealand (part of the five countries intelligence alliance of the Anglosphere: U.S; U.K; Australia; New Zealand; Canada), popularly known as the Five Eyes, have joined the BRI. In Europe, Greece, Italy, Serbia, are among those who have joined. Early this year, Luxembourg joined the BRI, in lieu of which China Bank posted the first BRI Bond of $500 million in the Luxembourg Stock Exchange (LSE). The Global Times, one of China’s leading state funded newspapers specified why Luxembourg joining the BRI is such a bid deal strategically for the China led initiative:
The tiny European nation of Luxembourg has a very important status in the EU. It is the eurozone’s leading financial center and the world’s second-largest fund market. With the UK possibly leaving the EU trade bloc, Luxembourg is eyeing London’s spot as the financial hub for EU countries after Brexit…The former prime minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker, is currently the president of the European Commission…Luxembourg can perhaps serve as a pragmatic bridgehead for cooperation between the BRI and Europe. The country was the first non-Asian nation to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a multilateral development bank that has been seen as a key supporter for BRI projects, and will host the bank’s first annual meeting outside of Asia in July.
With such tight CPC control of mainland China narratives, as well as ever more efficient technology-based surveillance system, the hope that democracy will make its way into China appears distant as ever. For as the Xinhua ‘70 seconds videos’ of the 70th year celebration ticked off years since 1949, highlighting several significant events within China in 1949, 1959, 1969, 1979, 1989, 1999, 2009, 2019, the one glaring omission were the democracy protests in Tiananmen square. It is an event that is lost in the competing narratives of legitimacy, power broadcasting, and Great Power ambitions, within China.
For now, the images of Chinese military hardware dominate the news cycles of the world. The strategic signaling Xi intended through the October 1 military parade display has achieved its strategic effect; that China is a Great Power, and its military capabilities [emphasis added] is “much closer to the U.S. than you probably think”.
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© Dr Namrata Goswami