Tuesday, September 19, 2017
China’s Strategic thinking: yesterday and today
'Strategic Leadership' often does not mean ‘Morals and Ethical leadership'. One of the best examples is Mao Zedong.
In Problems of War and Strategy, the Great Helmsman noted: “Some people have ridiculed us as the advocates of omnipotence of war. Yes, we are: we are the advocates of the omnipotence of the revolutionary war, which is not bad at all, but good and is Marxist.”
The moves of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the early days of the revolution are a testimony that Mao was one the great strategists of the 20th century, though an extremely amoral leader.
On October 1, 1949, the new People's Republic of China was proclaimed; Mao told a million Chinese assembled on the Tiananmen Square. “The Chinese people have stood up, long live the Chinese Communist Party.”
In the following months, the new regime never missed an opportunity to tell the world through the Chinese media that China would soon ‘liberate’ large areas at the periphery of the Middle Kingdom.
On the other side of the Asian chessboard, Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister was an idealist, not to say a dreamer or a romantic, and for him, the means more than the goal to be achieved, were of supreme importance. At Mao’s opposite end, he did not see the importance of the Army and believed that India could be the peacemaker of the planet; the Indian Prime Minister had little inkling about ‘strategy’ while Mao was a master, as the story of the long March shows.
We shall take two examples, the annexation of Xinjiang and the occupation of Tibet, to see how Mao acted as a great strategist, once he had chose his objectives.
A comment from the Communist Party’s Chairman speaks a lot about Mao’s mindset: “People may ask if there is contradiction to abandon a territory gained by heroic battle. Does it mean that the heroic fighters shed their blood in vain and to no purpose? This is to put the wrong question. Does one eat to no purpose simply because he relieves himself later? Does one sleep in vain because one wakes up and goes about? I do not think the questions should be asked thus; rather one should keep on eating and sleeping or fighting. These are illusions born out of subjectivism and formalism and do not exist in real life. ”
Mao, the great strategist, never forgot what his final goal was; the fact that Nehru and his collaborators later talk about ‘surprise’ and ‘betrayal’ showed their lack of strategic culture.
In the second part of this article, we shall look at today’s strategic policies of the Communist regime.
Military Annexation of Xinjiang
On February 4, 1949, during a meeting with Soviet Foreign Trade Minister, Anastas Mikoyan, Mao Zedong raised the issue of Xinjiang and pointed to the Northwestern district of Iili district, where China had noted an independence movement, as well as the presence of a communist party. Mikoyan told him that he did not know about the existence of a communist party, but was aware of nationalist forces in the district: “This movement was triggered by the incorrect policy of the Chinese government, which does not want to take into account the national specifics of these nationalities, does not present rights of self-rule, does not permit the development of the national culture.”
He added: “If the nationalities of Xinjiang were given autonomy, the soil for the independence movement would likely remain [sic]. We do not stand for the movement of independence of the Xinjiang nationalities and do not have any claims on Xinjiang territory, considering that Xinjiang is and must be a part of China.”
After Mao had the green light he needed, he explained that China was planning “giving Xinjiang autonomy, in the same manner as for Inner Mongolia, which is already an autonomous region.”
Interestingly, he was interested “in whether there is a lot of oil in Xinjiang or a little.” He also suggested the construction “a railroad connecting the Chinese railroads with the Soviet railroads through Xinjiang. This would have great significance for joint defense in case of a new war.”
The above discussion is interesting; first, Mao gets the Soviet green light to annex Xinjiang (later in the year). While showing his interest in oil and trade with Central Asia, then under Soviet Union.
Three months after this discussion, Mao instructed the PLA to ‘liberate’ the entire country, which included Xinjiang and Tibet. “A History of the Counter Attack War in Self-Defence along the Sino-India Border” which relates the annexation of Xinjiang, says: “The PLA rapidly advanced towards the East, South-middle, Southwest and Northwest China with the power of toppling the mountains and overturning the sea.” While, during the following months, the remnants of the Nationalist forces were slowly and systematically annihilated in the mainland, in Xinjiang, Mao used two tactics: sending a large number of troops in two different directions, while inducing the surrender of the Nationalist forces. He had already the assurance from the Soviets that they would not only, not interfere, but would also support the annexation.
A Swift Strategic Move
By swiftly taking over the Western Dominion, as Xinjiang is called, the Communists would be controlling the Western borders of the Middle Kingdom; access the trade with Central Asia; block any possibility of Soviet advance in the region (in case they change their mind later) and come closer to the Indian frontiers, particularly in the Aksai Chin area.
During the Second Plenum of the Seventh Party Congress, Chairman Mao Zedong gave the task for the liberation of Xinjiang to the Commander of 1 Corps of the 1 Field Army.
On September 8, the 1 Field Army was ordered to advance towards Xinjiang, while the 6 Army was to remain stationed in the Northern Xinjiang till further orders and the 2 Army was instructed to advance in Southern Xinjiang.
By the end of September 1949, a large contingent of Communist troops started moving towards the Western Dominion where a 70,000 strong Nationalist force was still stationed.
following the Hexi Corridor , the PLA advanced toward Urumqi which was ruled by a coalition comprising the Nationalists (KMT) and representatives of the former Second East Turkistan Republic (ETR), supported by the Soviet Union. The ETR sympathizers were particularly strong in the three districts in northwestern Xinjiang, where they had retained some autonomy, while the KMT controlled most of Southern Xinjiang.
The Second Step, the Nationalists become Communists
After having obtained the Soviet support, the second phase saw the Nationalists turning coats. On September 25, Tao Zhiyue, the Nationalist Commander-in-Chief of the Xinjiang garrison and Burhan Shahidi, the Political Commissar, announced the formal surrender of the Nationalist forces in Xinjiang to the Chinese Communists. Several Kuomintang generals joined the PLA and began serving the Communists; those who refused to surrender fled to Taiwan or Turkey.
A second victory for Mao …without fighting!
Later the five ETR leaders who were to negotiate with the Communists died in an air crash in Soviet airspace over the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic; it was rumoured that there were murdered. Anyway, the way was opened for Mao’s troops.
The Two Pronged Advance
Starting from Yumen , east of Jiuquan, the Communist troops went through indescribable harsh terrain, deep gorges, cold desert, “they started a massive advance of forces towards Xinjiang along North and South of Tian mountain,” says the Chinese account.
The 6 Army (comprising 16 Division, 17 Division and troops of the 18 Division) under the leadership of Army Commander Luo Yuanfa and Political Commissar Jianyue marched “towards various places in North Xinjiang continuously adopting various tactics for air transportation, mobilization of forces, advances, etc.”
The Chinese account says that the 2 and 6 Armies had been motivated by the slogan given by their Political Commissars: "Not be afraid of any sacrifice, don't fear any difficulties, bravely advance and hoist the five star red flag on the plateau of Pamir”.
On October 12, 1 Army HQ left Jiuquan by road.
On the same day, the 2 Army also advanced towards South Xinjiang. Wang Enmao, a veteran of the Long March who later governed China's Muslim-dominated Xinjiang Province for three decades was the Political Commissar.
Two days later, supported by a tank Regiment, the main forces of 4 and 5 Division of the 2 Army reached Hami . Ten days later , the 4 Division ‘liberated’ Qarqan , where the troops stayed a couple of weeks to recover from the quick advance march.
A New Headquarter in Urumqi
With particularly poor communications, the advance of Communist forces into Xinjiang was extremely difficult and risky; the distances were long, from Jiuquan to Urumqi it was 1,253 km and from it was 2,547 Km from Kashgar: “In order to overcome the communication and transportation difficulties, Soviet Union came for assistance with 40 transport planes so as to quickly transport soldiers from Jiuquan towards Urumqi,” notes the Chinese account.
On November 5, a forward battalion reached Urumqi by air. Two days later the PLA commanders met with the Nationalist Army and Tao Chuyue troops at three places; on the same day, a People's Government was set up, formalizing the Xinjiang province’s accession to Communist China.
The next day, the HQ of the 1 Corps was airlifted to Urumqi.
From November 20 to 26, the PLA took over most of Southern Xinjiang and Kashgar where the HQ of the 2 Army was established on December 1, had fallen by then; the annexation of Xinjiang was complete.
The PLA had to cross deserts, walk over high snow-capped mountains, suffer starvation; indeed, the Communists realized an unbelievable military feast. Marshal Peng Dehuai and Xi Zhongxun praised and encouraged the troops in a telegram: "You have created an unprecedented record of the advance of forces".
The PLA walked some 3,000 kms in six months, to complete their mission “the main force, in more than two month's time, successively liberated each important town and city in the North and South of Xinjiang, pinned down uprising launched by reactionaries of Nationalist Party at many.”
Strategically, Communist China was at the Gate of Tibet …and of India; a couple of years later, the construction across the Indian territory in the Aksai Chin area started.
Retrospectively, nearly 70 years later, one understands the importance of the annexation of Xinjiang with its the natural resources such as oil, but also the trade routes such as One Belt One Road initiative or the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The ‘Liberation’ of Tibet
In his study on Communist China and Tibet, Ginsburg gives a strategic definition of the plateau: "he who holds Tibet dominates the Himalayan piedmont; he who dominates the Himalayan piedmont, threatens the Indian subcontinent; and he who threatens the Indian subcontinent may well have all the South-east Asia within his reach, and all of Asia.”
Mao the strategist knew this well (so did the British before him).
For China, it was necessary to establish a de facto suzerainty over Tibet; iIt was also the first step towards the South, and possibly the sub-continent, particularly areas such as Ladakh, Bhutan or Sikkim.
The First Warning
On December 31, 1949, the Government of India hurriedly pushed through the recognition of the Communist regime in Beijing. The next morning, a broadcast of the New China News Agency proclaimed: "the task for the PLA for 1950 are to liberate Taiwan, Hainan and Tibet... Tibet is an integral part of China. Tibet has fallen under the influence of the imperialist."
Who were the ‘imperialists’? Was it the few Indians posted in Tibet?
Brushing aside India’s interests in Tibet, Mao prepared detailed plans for a military operation to ‘liberate’ Tibet. During the following months, China never missed a chance to assert that Tibet was part of China's territory and it was "China's sacred duty to liberate Tibet." Very few understood the message in Delhi.
In the meantime, the Indian Government was torn between two sentiments: on the one side Tibet was a small independent nation with rich and deep cultural and religious bonds with India and on the other side Nehru and some of his colleagues had an immense admiration for the new People's Republic, which like India, had to struggle against colonial powers to gain her freedom.
In early August 1950, Marshal Liu Bocheng again reiterated: “[The] People Liberation Army will soon march towards Tibet with object of driving out the British and American aggressive forces so as to make Tibetans return to the Great Family of the Peoples Republic of China. As soon as the Liberation Army enters into Tibet they will carry out the Programme of National Regional Autonomy, religious freedom …. The military and political systems prevailing in Tibet now will remain as they are and will NOT be changed; various ranks of officials and men will work as usual; the present Tibetan Army will become a part of the National Defence Force of the Peoples Republic of China.”
The plans were clear.
For months KM Panikkar, the Indian Ambassador in China regularly put the blame on the Tibetans for refusing to ‘negotiate’ with China. However for Mao, it was clearly a two-phase strategy; first a military take-over of the Chamdo area and then a ‘peaceful liberation’ after the Tibetans had been militarily defeated and forced to sign an agreement with the ‘Central Government’, i.e. the Communist regime in Beijing.
On August 23, 1950, the Chairman cabled the CPC Southwest and Northwest Bureaus: "If our army can capture Chamdo in October, this will urge the Tibetan delegation to come to Beijing for negotiation for peaceful settlement."
So much for the peace-loving Panikkar who for months tried hard avoiding putting the blame on Mao for Tibet’s invasion.
Even though the Indian government was informed in August via Hong Kong of the war preparations, he had refused to believe it.
Mid-October, Chamdo the capital of Kham Province fell and on October 17 Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, the Governor of Kham capitulated without fighting and ordered the Tibetan army to surrender to the Chinese troops.
The four-direction attack on Tibet was a well-prepared military operation. The Chinese propaganda managed to put to sleep Delhi while the war preparations were going on full-swing.
The attached sketch shows how masterfully were executed the military operations (phase 1), which lasted hardly two weeks.
The history of Mao's China is a tale of well-planned and well-executed moves. All the events from 1949 onwards have been unfolded in a perfectly calculated sequence: the invasion of Tibet in 1950; after a very vague protest by the Indian Government and the adjournment of the Tibetan Appeal to the UN (at India's instance), the 1951 Sino-Tibetan ‘Agreement’ (forced on the Tibetans under duress); then the 1954 ‘Panchsheel’ Policy (neutralizing India under the Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai bluff); the first incursions on Indian soil at the end of the fifties; the crushing of the Tibetan uprising in 1959, and finally the ‘teaching of a lesson’ to India in October 1962 for having given asylum to the Dalai Lama and his followers in March 1959.
The Situation in 1953
On February 13, 1953, AK Sen, the Indian Consulate General in Lhasa sent a report to the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi assessing the advances of the PLA troops in the plateau. It gives a clear idea of the determination of the Chinese strategic planners to advance towards the Indian borders. The ‘Liberation’ of Tibet was just a pretext.
The report first discuss the total strength of Chinese troops stationed on the plateau. It is estimated to be between 20,000 and 25,000; these figures exclude the road workers: “The Chinese admit it was their plan to have a force of 60,000 troops but the supply position forced them to abandon it for the time being although they said the present strength was NOT enough to guard the borders,” writes AK Sen.
For centuries, the Indo-Tibet border did not need any troops to guard its borders and all a sudden, a force of 25,000, with all the attendant problems (such as food shortage) is not ‘enough’ for the Communists.
Does it mean that the Southern neighbor, i.e. India has become aggressive or is Delhi planning to ‘invade’ Tibet?
The report does not go further in the analysis, it just notes: “with the completion of the Chamdo-Lhasa Road within the next two years, more troops would be brought in.”
The two main axes, namely the Tibet-Qinghai and the Tibet-Sichuan highways, would be completed in December 1954, less than two years after the report was written.
The Consul General notes: “concentration at the outposts cannot be considered to be heavy. They are well scattered in small detachments and are kept frequently on the move.” The figures however show that the deployment is quite massive, as the map shows.
Mobility was part of the usual PLA tactics: “This mobility would enable them to be concentrated at any place in an emergency with ease.”
Is it different today, when most divisions bank more on the excellent infrastructure than the sheer number of troops on the plateau?
More than sixty years later, the main change is the incredible improvement of the infrastructure in Tibet, especially since the arrival of the railway link in Lhasa in July 2006 and subsequent development towards the Indian border.
Modern Strategic Thinking
Let us jump nearly 70 years in history and come to the recent Two Sessions of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) which took place in Beijing in March. The Sessions are always an occasion to take stock of the new directions in which Beijing plans to go. While presenting his government’s Work Report, Premier Li Keqiang gave a comprehensive idea of China’s objectives in the defense sector; he asserted that “China will strengthen its maritime and air defense as well as border control amid efforts to safeguard its sovereignty and security,” adding that China would continue “to deepen military reforms, while upholding the absolute leadership of the Communist Party of China over the armed forces.”
Li also remarked that Beijing will ensure the organization of important operations related to countering terrorism, safeguarding stability, international peacekeeping, and providing escort in high seas, while China would “enhance its capacity of innovation in defense-related science and technology and step up development of advanced logistics and equipment …military-civilian integration will be intensified.”
These were the great lines of the strategic choices of today’s China.
PLA’s budget increase
A day before the NPC’s opening, a 7% military budget increase was announced. In an interview with China Military Online, Maj Gen Chen Zhou, Deputy Commander of the Military Strategy Department of the PLA Academy of Military Science explained the rationale of the increase during a press conference.
When asked how the incremental military budget would be used, Gen Chen said that it would support the national defense and the military reforms; he also spoke of updating China's military equipment, improving the training, the working and living conditions for grassroot-level troops, and cultivating high-caliber military talents.
He mentioned the in-depth military-civilian integration, dear to Chairman Xi Jinping. Gen Chen Zhou further explained that the military budget was “based on objective and rational judgment. China won't change the scope of increase simply because of sudden changes in external factors unless there is a large-scale war.” He added: “For a very long time to come, China doesn't face the threat of a large-scale war,” though he admitted that China could face local “warfare and armed conflicts caused by external factors.”
He described the military budget as consisting of two parts: “the need of national defense and the suitability with national economic development level. …China's military budget is coordinated with the growth of GDP and fiscal deficit and revenue.”
Giving an indication of the strategic choices confronting the People’s Republic, Gen Chen explained that the China’s armed forces still remain “an Army-based, defensive and labor-intensive military, and China's geopolitical environment requires it to maintain a strong army. …However, with the deepening of reform and the changes in China's security environment and the form of warfare, China needs to intensify the construction of other services too, including the Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force.”
These are the new strategic changes.
Accordingly, the Central Military Commission (CMC) has decided to downsize the Army and phase out some troops while increasing the strength of the PLA Navy (PLAN): “China has set the strategic goal of building a maritime power, which is why the PLAN has developed so rapidly recently.” When questioned about China’s second aircraft carrier, he answered that it is “a benchmark in China's naval development. The Liaoning [the first Chinese carrier] has performed superbly both in testing and training. The second aircraft carrier is also in smooth progress and equipment is being installed on it."
He concluded by saying that China would continue to adhere to the peaceful development path and uphold the defensive national defense policy: “China's naval development and military development will be limited and appropriate," Chen Zhou emphasized, reiterating the main lines of the 2015 White Paper on Defence.
Let us look at the main strategic changes recently undertaken by the PLA.
Increase of the Marine Corps
On March 13, The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported an increase of the size of the PLA Marine Corps (PLAMC), working under the PLAN, from 20,000 to 100,000.
According to unnamed PLA insiders, part of the expanded Marine Corps would be stationed abroad, including Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and Gwadar in southwest Pakistan.
The Mission of the PLAN has been expanding from conducting operations in China’s coastal areas — including defending Chinese ‘assets’ in the East and South China Seas — to play a larger role and prepare for a possible amphibious assault on Taiwan.
The SCMP explained “The PLA marines will be increased to 100,000, consisting of six brigades in the coming future to fulfill new missions of our country”. The size of the navy would grow 15 per cent from its estimated size of 235,000 personnel.
Two combat brigades have already been transferred to the PLAMC, increasing the size from about 12,000 to around 20,000. Each PLAMC brigade has two marine battalions and an armored regiment equipped with ZBD05 Tracked Amphibious Infantry Fighting Vehicles and ZLT05 Tracked Amphibious Assault Guns. This shows the rapid expansion of the Chinese interests beyond its coastal areas.
China to Reduce Army Reserves
The Global Times announced that Beijing planned to reduce its Army (PLAA) reserve while increasing reserves for other services. General Sheng Bin, the head of the National Defense Mobilization Department stated “while the army reserve will be reduced, the reserves of other military services including the navy, air force and the rocket force will be increased in a bid to keep up with China's military buildup.”
The structure of the reserve forces would have to adapt “to information warfare from traditional combat-oriented and mechanized ones,” he said.
A new structure is being established, the CMC would take care of the overall administration of the PLA, the People's Armed Police (PAPF) and the militia and reserve forces, while the five Theater Commands would focus on combat preparedness.
China had already announced a cut of 300,000 troops by the end of 2017 to build a more efficient military. In The Global Times, Major General Chen Zhou of the PLA Academy of Military Science is quoted saying that many officers would retire and be assigned to new positions; the CMC would “step up efforts on the national level to help retired servicemen resettle to civilian life by adopting a series of laws and regulations.”
It may be easier say than done.
Improved Military Training
An important aspect approved by the CMC is the military training. China Military Online reported that “the Training Management Department and the Discipline Inspection Commission of the CMC have jointly issued a notification of punishments for 28 cases of violations of military training regulations.”
The PLA and Armed Police Force have been urged “to conscientiously implement the important instructions of President Xi Jinping and the strategic decisions made by the CMC, and execute the combat effectiveness standards in the whole process of military training.”
It is obvious that the PLA has suffered of laxity and corruption in the recent past; this is not the case anymore under the Chairmanship of Xi.
The notification says: “In order to push forward the real combat-oriented military training, related departments of the CMC will conduct supervision over the implementation of the interim provisions on strengthening real combat-oriented military training in the PLA and Armed Police Force.”
And this applicable at all levels.
‘Training’ is the new leitmotiv of the Chinese armed forces.
Xi underlines innovation in military upgrading
On March 12, 2017, President Xi Jinping ‘joining’ a panel discussion with the PLA deputies at the NPC, called “for deepening military-civilian integration, while highlighting sci-tech innovation as the key to military upgrading.”
Xi said that efforts should be made to provide greater science and technology support for the PLA. He added that since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012, “historic breakthrough in national defense and military reform has been made, significant progress in combat readiness has been achieved, and crushing momentum in fighting corruption has been realized.”
Xi spoke about one of his favorite topics, ‘military-civilian integration’ for national defense technology and military equipment. He emphasized strengthening military and civilian cooperation by training high-quality military personnel.
The CMC Chairman also said that “civil technologies should better serve military purposes, and defense technologies should be adapted and applied well for civil use.”
He noted that the Party’s decision to establish a central commission for integrated military and civilian development whose objective is to reinforce centralized and unified leadership.
Though it is not possible to compare the ‘strategic’ skills of Mao Zedong with those of his successors, particularly the present CMC Chairman, Xi Jinping, it is obvious that Beijing, today like yesterday, masters a clarity of goals to achieve for the revival of the Chinese nation; and it never hesitates to use the necessary means to materialize this vision. In strategic terms, the swift actions in Xinjiang and Tibet are still paying rich dividends, more then 60 years later.