PLA Modernisation, China's New Military Guidelines, Taiwan, India-China Border Problems, South China Sea, Military-Tech-Cyber, Academic Space and more
Issue Number 1
I hope you all are doing well!
Welcome to the first edition of the PLA Bulletin: A monthly newsletter on news, analysis, updates and academic writing about the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
I am Suyash Desai, a research scholar studying Chinese military and foreign policies. Previously, I was an Associate Research Fellow (China Studies Programmes) at The Takshashila Institution, Bangalore, India. In February 2022, I moved to Taiwan to focus on improving my language skills. Currently, I am undergoing Chinese language training at National Sun Yat-sen University, Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
Why this newsletter? It aims to keep the PLA watching community informed and, more importantly, for me to stay in touch with the subject while studying the language.
Scope of the newsletter: Unlike the previous newsletter (The PLA Insight), which was published every weekend for the past three years, the PLA Bulletin will be dispatched once a month (and on special occasions like the release of China’s defence white paper – which is due, military parade, something happens on the border/ South China Sea/ Taiwan Strait, the release of US National Strategy document, during Party Congress etc.) It will highlight broad trends and patterns related to issues concerning the PLA. It will also focus on academic work like journal articles, monographs, policy papers, testimonies, occasional papers and issue briefs on the above-mentioned topics.
I plan to stay in Taiwan for two years to improve my language skills (subjected to funding and sponsorship, of course). As I progress in my language studies and improve my military and strategic vocabulary, I will also try to share important stories and trends from the Chinese and Taiwanese sources.
Finally, before we start, please note that it’s a 6000 words newsletter and might be folded in the email. So it’s best to open it on the browser by clicking on the logo.
As always, a sincere thank you for reading the newsletter. I hope you enjoy reading it and find it insightful.
Please take care and stay safe,
Suyash Ashok Desai.
I. The Interesting Story this Month:
NPC, the PLA Modernisation, Security Deals and Military Guidelines
China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) – the highest state organ and the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) national legislature – meets for two weeks in March every year along with China’s People’s Political Consultative Conferences (Together, both referred to as the two meetings). While attending the plenary meeting of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Armed Police (PAP) this year, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary (GS), Xi Jinping, said that China should strengthen the use and making of military laws when engaging with other countries.
“China should make more comprehensive the body of military laws and regulations that involve foreign countries to better protect national interests through the use of the law,” said Xi. As part of efforts to elevate the role of laws in governing the country, Beijing has for years called for the prioritising of “foreign-related legal work”, including taking part in the making of international law; resolving disputes through treaties and revising domestic laws to correlate them with those of other jurisdictions. The concept of “foreign-related legal work” has been applied mostly in international commerce, less used in reference to the rules of military engagement. Xi also noted that China must speed up the “fundamental change” in the military’s governance. “We must adhere to the party having absolute leadership over the military, adhere to the standard of combat effectiveness and adhere to the building of a military rule of law system with Chinese characteristics,” he said, adding that the process of making military laws should be more systematic, comprehensive and coordinated.
2013: Xi put forward the goal of building strong armed forces under new conditions, saying that the people’s armed forces should obey the Party’s command, be able to fight and win, and maintain excellent conduct (During a meeting with NPC deputies from the military in 2013).
Skipping his 2017 Party Congress Speech - which is very important for understanding the ongoing PLA reforms.
2018: Xi told the military deputies that the troops should strengthen their training and be ready to fight at any time, adding that “combat readiness never comes from leisure hours.”
During previous NPCs, he has also met the delegation of border security troops from Tibet (2013), military engineers (2015) and military researchers (2017) to discuss multiple aspects. If we read backwards, then 2012-13 was the second phase of the recent violence and immolation in Tibet, 2015 was when Xi was flagging the military reforms, and 2017 was when China’s MCF was picking up pace.
So, now, what do we make of his recent comments to the armed forces delegations at the NPC?
Moving on, like every year, the first day of the NPC is dominated by news about China’s defence expenditure. Its national budget projected that China’s defence spending is expected to rise to 1.45 trillion Yuan (the US $229.47 billion) in 2022. This marks a 7.1 per cent increase from 2021 spending, which was 1.36 trillion Yuan (the US $209.2 billion). The PLA’s defence spending has increased by at least 6.6 per cent every year over the past three decades, and its defence expenditure has increased nearly six-fold in the past two decades.
Interestingly, the 2022 budget marks the only time the budget’s growth rate has increased two years consecutively in the last decade. Currently, China spends more on defence than any other country except the United States (US). Also, its total defence expenditure for 2022 is more than the combined defence expenditures of India, Japan, Australia, South Korea, and Taiwan for 2021.
China’s Year-wise Defence Expenditure since Xi took over
However, more than what it shows, it is interesting to note what it hides:
PAP and Coastguard’s expenses
Space, cyber, nuclear programmes
Capital mobilisation funds
Non-defence related funds like disaster relief operations expenditure, etc.
There is much more. Thus, SIPRI, IISS, RAND Corporation and US DOD’s Annual China Military Power Report highlight that China’s defence expenditure is much more than what China claims, and it hides more than it shows.
For more, you can read my commentary for News18 on the same.
- This month, China's first Type 075 amphibious assault ship, the Hainan, has reached initial operating capability, and the vessel will visit harbours and ports all over the world. After a year of training, the Hainan will have full operational capability in the not-too-distant future, Captain Lü Yongjun, the captain of the ship, revealed. The Hainan entered service with the PLA Navy on April 23, 2021, as China's first amphibious assault ship. Often dubbed a helicopter carrier, the vessel can carry a large number of helicopters in addition to amphibious armoured vehicles and tanks and launch both horizontal and vertical landing missions on islands and reefs and even land from the sea.
- SCMP’s Minnie Chan reports that China’s most advanced stealth fighter jet, the J-20, has a new engine that significantly boosts its performance. She reports that the WS-15 afterburning turbofan engine was developed in China and has increased manoeuvrability and combat capability – taking the J-20 a step closer to rivalling the American F-22 Raptor. The engine upgrade was highlighted on Chinese state television on Sunday, with CCTV saying the WS-15 had been put through a series of tests.
- The PLAN “intensively” exercised its upgraded J-11B fighter jets over the disputed South China Sea following mass delivery of the advanced model, according to state media reports. More than ten fighter jets from the PLA’s Southern Theatre Command participated in “round-the-clock” training and battled in four-versus-two and two-versus-two formations, official broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) reported.
Unlike the past three years, when I wrote the weekly newsletter and found stories relating to the modernisation or commissioning of a new vessel every two weeks, this time, it took some effort to look for such stories. Either of the two things could have possibly happened: 1) As my former colleague and I had highlighted in SCMP quoting Dr Sarah Kirchberger’s arguments, the rate of commissioning newer vessels falls when operations and maintenance costs set in. The speed of commissioning newer vessels and aircraft is likely slowing down. 2) Or the State Media has moved on from celebrating the commissioning of newer vessels to something else. Let’s keep a watch on this space!
Meanwhile, The Solomon Islands has confirmed that it is drafting a security deal with China after leaked documents indicated that a Chinese military base might be set up just northeast of Australia. The leaked documents, described as a framework agreement on security cooperation, highlighted that the Solomon Islands could ask China to send armed police and military personnel to quell unrest, among other missions, including disaster response. It also said that the Solomon Islands could allow Chinese naval ships to dock in the country and protect the safety of Chinese residents and major projects.
As past experiences have highlighted, this could be the first step toward granting a permanent presence to Beijing in the southern Pacific. China’s expanding military footprint threatens regional balance as it brings its troops to Australia and New Zealand’s doorstep. Furthermore, if constructed, the military outpost would also help China dock its naval vessels outside the first and second island chains, relatively close to the US territory of Guam. Finally, such deployment also undercuts the regional influence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), as China has pulled another state into its orbit, despite Quad member Australia’s effort since 2018 to “re-engage with its Pacific family.” (Read more in my recent commentary in Taipei Times). Furthermore, The latest SCMP reports that the Chinese and Cambodian armies have also signed a memorandum of understanding as Beijing seeks to deepen regional security ties amid increasing competition with the US. Senior commanders from the ground forces of the two militaries sealed the agreement in a video call on Thursday, Chinese defence ministry spokesman Senior Colonel Wu Qian told a regular news briefing in Beijing. He did not elaborate on the details of the agreement.
China’s New Military Guidelines
Don’t miss Dr Joel Wuthnow and Prof M Taylor Fravel’s recent, very important journal article for the Journal of Strategic Studies on China’s Military Strategies for a New Era: Some Change, More Continuity and Tantalizing Hints. It looks like China’s Central Military Commission has adopted a new strategy for the PLA, titled the ‘military-strategic guidelines for the new era.’ Dr Wuthnow and Prof Fravel answer three important questions: What is the content of the new strategy? Why did the PLA adopt a new strategy in 2019? What are the implications for PLA modernization?
Despite being described as the strategic military guideline of the CCP’s ‘new era,’ the new strategy largely represents a rebranding or relabeling of the one adopted in 2014. This way reflects a minor adjustment in China’s strategy and not a major change or departure that would require the PLA to transform how it plans to wage war.
The main driver appears to reflect political considerations and, strictly speaking, not military ones. The change both aligned the PLA’s strategy with the CCP’s ‘new era’ under Xi Jinping and further consolidated Xi’s control over the military. In this way, the 2019 strategy is the PLA’s only military strategy since 1949 that has been adopted in response primarily to political factors and considerations. Two other factors that might have led to the adoption of this strategy: Updated strategic assessment that highlighted perceptions of growing threats from Taiwan and the United States and the need to prepare for them. Another would be to highlight the completion of the unprecedented military reforms that began in late 2015 and the need to implement new operational doctrine and other changes required for deepening joint operations under the 14th Five-Year Plan.
Although the 2019 strategy constitutes a minor and not major change in strategy, our review of available Chinese sources foreshadows the contours of the next change in strategy, which is likely to be more significant. Changes in strategic landscape and threat assessments, breakthrough technological developments, or updated operational concepts could prompt a change in the direction of China’s military strategy – perhaps a change akin to the 1993 guideline that set the PLA on the course it continues to follow today.
There is much more to read and study in this article, I would not miss reading it. Also, you could read Prof Fravel’s Active Defense for studying the history of China’s Military Strategies in greater detail.
II. Taiwan and China
A few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, US President Joe Biden sent a delegation of former senior defence and security officials to Taiwan. The visit, led by the one-time chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, came when Taiwan has stepped up its alert level, wary of China taking advantage of a distracted West to move against it. The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Ralph Johnson (DDG 114) also conducted “a routine Taiwan Strait transit” on February 26. The presser read, “The ship is transiting through a corridor in the Strait beyond any coastal State's territorial sea. The ship’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the United States’ commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Meanwhile, Taiwan has appointed a working group to study Ukraine’s war tactics against Russia. Taiwan’s team studying Ukraine included academics from the National Defence University, he said. While Taiwanese officials have seen many parallels between the Ukraine war and their own situation, including having a giant neighbour with territorial ambitions, they have also pointed to major differences. The Taiwanese government is also considering extending compulsory military service beyond the current four months, Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said on Wednesday, as the war in Ukraine renewed a discussion about how best to respond to Beijing’s military threats.
Ukraine’s fight back against the Russian invasion offers Taiwan lessons on building up effective asymmetric capabilities to defend against an attack from mainland China, Taiwanese officials and analysts said. They also urged Taiwan to learn from the way Ukraine has mobilised its people to join the military in an all-out resistance effort. Similarly, a senior US defence official told the senate hearing that Taiwan needs to do all it can to build asymmetric capabilities and get its population ready to be as prickly as possible should China choose to violate its sovereignty.
Meanwhile, Taiwan is planning to speed up the development of its military drones to strengthen its defences against Beijing after seeing how Ukraine used them to resist Russia’s invasion. Noting the effectiveness of Ukraine’s drone fleet, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen recently said, “Regardless of whether it is for military or civilian use, it is highly necessary for us to speed up our development of drones as it will be an important matter for the next generation.”
Elsewhere in Taipei, experts in policy-making and policy-influencing circles believe that Beijing will try to use limited military actions and non-conventional means to force Taiwan to the table within a decade. This is because the PLA is not yet ready to launch an all-out attack on Taiwan, according to the experts, and also the more pressing concern of the US-led Aukus security alliance targeting Beijing in the South China Sea and wider Indo-Pacific region.
In late 2020-early 2021, I remember that there were speculations that Beijing could attempt to launch a campaign by 2027, which happens to be the PLA Centenary. This is after Xi’s speech marking 2027 as an important date for fastening the military modernisation. The former US Indo-Pacific Command Commander Admiral Phil Davidson had also informed the Senate in March 2021 that an invasion could occur by 2026, saying, “I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.”
However, two factors remain despite all the noise about the PLA’s military reforms and newer weapons acquisitions. 1) Is PLA capable/will it be capable in this decade of conducting landing assaults and amphibious attacks? 2) But considering the political cost of the use of force, particularly given the potential US intervention (and possible economic sanctioning and isolation as witnessed after the Russian invasion), would there be a political will of doing so?
Do read Cristina Garfola's recent Issue Paper for the US Naval War College on the PLA Airborne Corp in a Joint Island Landing Campaign. She highlights the importance of the Airborne Corps for China's para drops and landing operations to seize and hold the terrain. In recent years, the Corps has reorganised to improve its capability for mechanised manoeuvre and assault, leveraging the PLAAF's larger inventories of transport aircraft, particularly the Y-20; improved the sophistication of its training at home; and gleaned insights from abroad via training with foreign militaries. Nevertheless, she highlights that it is uncertain to what extent the Corps is able to overcome key challenges relevant to a cross-strait campaign like ensuring effective integration with similar ground force and marine units; carrying out operations in complex or degraded environments; transcending the Corps' lack of relevant combat experience; and obtaining adequate air support.
Poll: Will China Attack Taiwan: Foreign Policy
Is Taiwan Next? The New York Times
Taiwan’s Live Fire Drills on Islet Close to the Mainland
Chinese Warship Transit Taiwan Strait before Biden-Xi Phone Call
Analysing China on Ukraine: Antara Ghosal Singh: ORF
III. India-China Border Problems
In 2022, China and India have had two Corps Commander-level meetings (14th in January and 15th in March) to discuss the disengagement of forces and de-escalation of tensions between the PLA and Indian Army at various border points on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh.
Revising the dispute: There were five to six points in contention: Galwan Valley, Gogra, Hotsprings, Pangong North and South Banks, Depsang and Charding Nullah junction in Demchok. These disputes erupted in 2020 when the PLA walked into the Indian side of the LAC with an intention to change the status quo on the ground. In June 2020, the LAC also witnessed the loss of life: 20 Indian soldiers and 4 PLA soldiers (could be more) when the two sides fought at the Galwan Valley with nail-studded rods and barbed wired weapons. Since then, both sides have moved over two and a half divisions of armed forces at the Himalayas, with the tripwire waiting to trigger at the sub-zero temperatures.
In the past two years, the two sides have conducted multiple Corps Commander-level meetings, Work Mechanism for Consultation and Co-ordination Meetings and foreign minister-level meetings to achieve de-escalation.
India's approach: Border problems and normal relations cannot go hand-in-hand. Since China initiated and escalated the crisis, the onus of achieving the April 2020 status quo-ante is on China.
As has been viewed from its actions, the PRC's approach is that the border dispute shouldn't disturb bilateral relations.
The two sides have managed to achieve dis-engagement at three points since 2020 – Galwan Valley, Gogra, Pangong north and south banks. However, forces are still engaged in other areas. The recent Corps Commanders' meetings failed to break the deadlock, however, the two sides managed to put out a joint statement – which itself is positive for now.
Moving on, China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, visited India last month. This was the first visit by a high-level Chinese leader since the India-China stand-off started in 2020. Maj Gen Harsha Kakkar sums up his visit in the following words: “He came uninvited, was snubbed, and returned with actionable points.”
Unlike other foreign dignitaries, FM Wang Yi was forced to move through the normal arrival lounge at the Delhi airport rather than the Air Force station. This sent the first message that India considered him unwelcomed. There was no announcement on his visit based on a request from the Chinese government. This gave the impression that China was not expecting any gains to flow from the visit. It’s reported that his request to meet Prime Minister Modi was denied. He met India’s foreign minister Dr S Jaishankar and India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval. Wang invited both EAM and NSA to visit Beijing, but both turned it down till the resolution of the standoff. There was no press conference involving the Chinese foreign minister, though a joint statement was released. India maintained firmness in its approach to restoring ties, despite the Chinese request to segregate the standoff from normalising relations. All told, the impression conveyed was that nothing major, apart from the exchange of views, was achieved during the visit.
India’s Former Foreign Secretary Amb Vijay Gokhale sums up this Carnegie’s Interpreting India podcast, do take a listen.
Also, check out the Centre for Policy Research’s (CPR) amazing podcast series (India Speaks), were they have invited Prof M Taylor Fravel, NDU’s (very) senior military fellow Dennis Blasko, Prof Rana Mitter, India’s Former Foreign Secretary Amb Shyam Saran, Prof Arne Westad and more to discuss various aspects of India-China relations and China’s military modernisation. Do check these podcasts, they are extremely enlightening.
China’s Infrastructure Expansion on Western Borders: CSIS ChinaPower
Issue Paper: AUKUS and the Indo-Pacific Stakeholders: Prof Harsh Pant
No Substantial Outcome, but China has Exploited the Visit: Prof Jabin Jacob
Why Wang Yi’s Ruse must not work in Delhi: Amb Gautam Bambawale
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IV. Intelligence Threat Assessment & National Defence Strategy
US’ Office of the Director of National Intelligence released its annual threat assessment report in February 2022. The China section of this report highlights that the CCP will work to press Taiwan reunification, undercut US influence, drive a wedge between Washington and its partners on the world stage and foster some norms that favour its authoritarian system.
Highlights from the report:
The friction will grow as China continues to increase military activity around the island, and Taiwan’s leaders resist Beijing’s pressure for progress toward unification. China’s control over Taiwan probably would disrupt global supply chains for semiconductor chips because Taiwan dominates production.
In the South China Sea, Beijing will continue to use growing numbers of air, naval, and maritime law enforcement platforms to intimidate rival claimants and signal that China has effective control over contested areas. China is similarly pressuring Japan over contested areas in the East China Sea.
Beijing will continue to promote the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to expand China’s economic, political, and military presence abroad. Beijing will adjust its approach to BRI in response to publicity and sustainability challenges and diversify project selection in an attempt to improve the initiative’s brand and minimise international criticism.
On capabilities, the assessment especially highlights the capabilities build-up of the PLAN, PLA AF and PLA RF. It’s heading towards its stated goal of being a strategic air force and blue water navy for protecting far-seas interests.
On space capabilities, the report highlights that Beijing is working to match or exceed US capabilities in space to gain the military, economic, and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership (Space station, recognisance, positioning, navigation and communications capabilities and counter-space capabilities.)
On cyber, the report highlights that China presents the broadest, most active, and most persistent cyber-espionage threat to U.S. Government and private sector networks. China’s cyber pursuits and export of related technologies increase the threats of attacks against the U.S. homeland, suppression of U.S. web content that Beijing views as threatening to its control, and the expansion of technology-driven authoritarianism globally.
Furthermore, the US DOD released a factsheet of its National Defence Strategy 2022. The top priority of this strategy is to “defend the homeland, paced to the growing multi-domain threat posed by the PRC.” The factsheet highlights that the Department will act urgently to sustain and strengthen deterrence, with the PRC as our most consequential strategic competitor and the pacing challenge for the Department. Notably, for the first time, the DOD has conducted its strategic reviews in a fully integrated way – incorporating the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and Missile Defense Review (MDR) in the NDS – ensuring tight linkages between our strategy and our resources.
After the release of this factsheet, the White House requested an initial $773 billion budget for the Pentagon in fiscal 2023, up 4% from the prior year and the starting point for discussions with Congress, elevated by the continuing war in Ukraine. The request continues the Pentagon’s focus on what the White House called the “pacing” threat of China, which has rapidly expanded its military forces with more advanced weaponry. Pentagon leaders called Russia a secondary “acute” threat, though the request was finalised before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month and allocated just $300 million in military support, on top of the $3.6 billion recently agreed by Congress. The Biden administration’s military budget request focuses on the development of new weapons systems, especially refreshing America’s arsenal of long-range nuclear missiles delivered from bombers, land-based silos and submarines.
China has reacted to these reports, calling it full of Cold War and bloc confrontation mentality. “The US attempt to contain and suppress them (Russia and China) will not succeed. The US should reflect on its due responsibilities in the Ukraine crisis, show repentance for and correct the practice of establishing imaginary enemies, ignoring other countries’ legitimate security concerns and stoking bloc confrontation,” reacted Wang Wenbin, spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
V. The South China Sea
Earlier this month, Taiwan’s National Security Bureau confirmed that a Chinese aircraft had crashed in the South China Sea (SCS). NSB Director-General Chen Ming-tong (陳明通) officially confirmed that a PLA plane had crashed into SCS on March 1. This confirms a report by a Vietnamese journalist that a Chinese military patrol plane had crashed off the coast of Vietnam.
Meanwhile, US Indo-Pacific Command Chief said that China has fully militarised at least three of several islands it built in the disputed South China Sea, arming them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets in an increasingly aggressive move that threatens all nations operating nearby. These actions are in stark contrast to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s past assurances that Beijing would not transform the artificial islands in contested waters into military bases. “I think over the past 20 years, we’ve witnessed the largest military build-up since World War II by the PRC,” Aquilino told Associated Press in an interview.
Elsewhere, the Philippines government summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest against what it calls the illegal incursions by Chinese naval ships into its waters and demanded that Beijing order its ships to respect the country’s territory and follow international law. Earlier in the first week of March, a “close distance manoeuvring” by a Chinese coastguard vessel in the disputed South China Sea “constrained” the movement of a Philippine ship sailing nearby. The incident took place during the Philippine coastguard’s maritime patrol operations around the Scarborough Shoal.
The US and the Philippines also held the largest joint military drills across the main island of Luzon. The exercises will cover maritime security, amphibious operation, live-fire training, counterterrorism, and humanitarian help and disaster relief. In response, the Chinese state television has shown footage of day-and-night drills by the PLA along the coasts of East China and South China seas. These exercises included underwater reconnaissance, air defence and ship-to-ship strikes and practising rapid response in multiple-mission scenarios.
Do read Dr Ketian Zhang’s recent journal article for the Journal of Strategic Studies on China’s large scale reclamation in the South China Sea: Timing and Rationale. She highlights that China has undertaken extensive reclamation and construction on several reefs in the Spratly Island chain in the South China Sea. But China has since been adding new construction and fortifications to the land features that had undergone reclamation between late 2013 and 2015, but none of the new projects rivalled the large-scale reclamation from 2014 to 2015, and neither has China reclaimed any new land features. She argues that China’s land reclamation is a result of capability, rationale, and opportunities which include a calculation of US resolve. She explains that China chose 2014 to ramp up its land reclamation efforts in SCS because it inferred the level of US credibility and commitment from its lukewarm response regarding Syria and Ukraine, therefore interpreting the US lacking resolve in militarily challenging China directly if it increased its land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea. China, by and large, paused its large-scale land reclamation by 2015 because the majority of the construction was finished. However, China did not proceed to reclaim the Scarborough Shoal because of the clear signals sent by the Obama administration, she argues. Do take a look; it’s a rigorously researched and extremely well-articulated journal article.
What Lies Beneath: China’s Survey in the South China Sea
In lead up to the elections, Beijing warns Manila
VI. PLA Military Tech, Space and Cyber
Australia launched its Space Command, a new defence agency with echoes of the United State’s Space Force. Defence Minister Peter Dutton said the new defence arm would be modest to start with, though he gave no detailed staffing or budget figures. In a speech to the Australian Air Force, he said space “will undoubtedly become a domain that takes on greater military significance in this century”.
“Space is becoming more congested and is already contested, particularly as the boundaries between competition and conflict become increasingly blurred through grey-zone activities,” the minister said. Dutton positioned Space Command as a clear counter to China and Russia’s extraterrestrial military ambitions, name-checking both nations in his speech along with all “countries that see space as a territory for their taking, rather than one to be shared”. Space Command will be led by Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts, who will oversee a team drawn from across Australia’s Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as private contractors.
Meanwhile, Chinese researchers have made significant progress in building artificial intelligence (AI) systems that can design new hypersonic weapons by themselves, according to the team behind the project. The researchers said that the machine could identify most of the shock waves occurring in wind tunnel tests, even though it was not instructed on what to look for. Without human intervention, the AI machine built a knowledge base of its own to aid the development of new engines for hypersonic missiles or planes that could travel longer distances at much faster speeds, according to its creator. The research team, led by Professor Le Jialing with China Aerodynamics Research and Development Centre in Mianyang, Sichuan, published its findings in the Journal of Propulsion Technology, a peer-reviewed publication run by China’s aerospace defence industry.
Finally, The Global Times reports that the US has been launching cyber-attacks against 47 countries and regions for a decade, with Chinese government departments, high-tech companies and military-related institutes among the key targets, the Global Times learned from the Internet Security Company 360.
For more on China’s Technology and Military technology, please read USCC’s testimonies on China’s cyber capabilities: warfare, espionage, and the implications for the US.
VII. Academic Space
Section 1: China’s Martime Grey Zone Activities
Dr Ryan D. Martinson’s article for Asian Security titled Getting Synergized? PLAN Cooperation in the Maritime Gray Zone focuses on China’s strategic advances in its maritime claims in the South and East China Seas. He argues that China is gradually advancing its claims by using non-traditional tools of sea power like coastguards and maritime militia – which the PLA Navy backs. The ability to synergise all three forces help China steadily achieve its goals. The synergy is established in operation coordination, training and exercises and intelligence sharing. These are especially achieved after the ongoing reforms, which started in March 2013 (NPC legislation to integrate all four agencies: China Marine Surveillance, China Fisheries and Law Enforcement, the Border Defense Coastguard and the maritime units of Anti-Smuggling Police of the General Administration of Customs. The article also highlights some challenges and concludes that despite eight years since the reforms began, the PLA and CCG interoperability is weak. His findings strongly suggest that China’s maritime grey zone strategy is not as potent as it might be, given the size and strength of the sea services individually. However, China’s ability to use its sea services to assert control over maritime space could significantly improve if the CCG and the PLAN are able to overcome the interoperability challenges.
CSIS’s Occasional Paper by Gregory B. Poling, Tabitha Grace Mallory and Harrison Prétat focuses on the history of the Chinese Maritime Militia and who funds, owns and supports its activities. Broadly, the report highlights that the maritime militia dates back to 1974, however, its involvement in aggressive operations has increased since the 2000s. After the completion of South China Sea outposts, the militia is deployed to the Spratlys in great numbers. It currently operates from a string of 10 ports in China’s Guangdong and Hainan provinces. These ships can be roughly divided into two categories: Commercial and personal ships. Recently, a wide array of central and local government programmes have been formed to fund them. The existing subsidy policies incentivise the operations of large vessels in the disputed waters while providing no incentives to fish. Most militia and likely militia vessels’ ownership networks were not found to be linked to the Chinese government. Professional militia vessels were underrepresented in ownership data, but they are likely more centralised and directly linked to government entities.
Section 2: Nuclear Strategy and Missile Technologies
Dr Wu Riqiang’s recent journal article for International Security on Assessing US-China Inadvertent Nuclear Escalation is an important read. He argues that while the possibility of a major China-US conventional war inadvertently escalating to the nuclear level cannot be excluded, the risk is extremely low. There are two variables for this: the survivability of China’s nuclear forces under unintentional conventional attacks and China’s NC3 system. Dr Wu examines three potential mechanisms before coming to this conclusion: the use-it-or-lose-it escalation, unauthorised/accidental escalation, and damage-limitation escalation. He argues that the US military is unlikely to unintentionally destroy a significant percentage of China’s nuclear retaliatory capability. Furthermore, during a conventional war, the Chinese leadership would likely maintain minimum emergency communication with its nuclear forces. China’s NC3 system is highly centralised and biased toward negative control. And finally, the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear war would cause the US to exercise extreme caution before making damage-limitation strikes. However, he also gives a caveat that the nuclear escalation could happen, but it is unlikely to happen in an inadvertent way. “If a China-US conventional war were to occur, I would be more concerned with intentional escalation than inadvertent escalation,” he argues.
Also, Nick Hansen’s report on Nuclear-Capable Missiles examines the nuclear weapons and nuclear capabilities of the six countries: The US, Russia, PRC, India, Pakistan and DPRK. On China, he highlights that the PRC has already reached a goal of achieving its triad with the deployment of the Type-094 type SSBN that carries the JL-2 ICBM. Six of these submarines are currently operational, with two entering services in 2020.
However, I personally think that the PRC is still in the nascent stage of the triad, with its strategic bombers still in the development stages. Also, we have very little information on China’s nuclear deterrence patrol capabilities.
Dr Tong Zhao’s article in Asian Security on China and the International Debate on No-First Use of Nuclear Weapons
Dr Oriana Skylar Mastro’s recent book chapter on Nuclear Deterrence and the US-China Strategic Relationship
VIII. Additional Readings
Amb Vijay Gokhale: Chinese Authoritarianism and Global Order
US Department of State Presser on Establishment of Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy
Ukraine: Did China have a Clue? (Yun Sun – Must read)
A New Chinese National Security Bureaucracy Emerges
CSIS: Interpret China
I would also like to recommend some newsletters that I find particularly useful for consuming information on China. They are Manoj Kewalramani’s Tracking People’s Daily and Eye on China, Ananth Krishnan’s India-China Newsletter, Bill Bishop’s Sinocism, Adam Ni’s China Neican, Aadil Brar’s Chinascope and Megha Pardhi’s China Tech Dispatch. All of them are highly recommended!
Many Thanks for reading!!