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PLA Navy@73, India-China: WTC's New Political Commissar, Cyber Attacks Near Ladakh, Nuclear Modernisation, China's National Security, Taiwan, Academic Space and more
Issue Number 2
您好 from Taiwan. I hope all of you are doing well and are fit and fine!
I am happy to share the latest edition of the PLA Bulletin: A monthly newsletter on news, analysis, updates and academic writing about the Chinese People’s Liberation.
From the third issue (next issue), I plan to share five Chinese words/terms related to the PLA, security/foreign/nuclear policy, and related subjects. Five words is a modest start, but I will share more as I get comfortable with the language.
Before we start, please note that it’s a 6500 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. Interesting Story this Month: The PLA Navy @ 73
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) celebrated 73 years of formation on April 23. Formed at Baima (白马, baima), a town under the administration of Gaogang District in Jiangsu province of China, the PLAN has today become the world’s largest navy in numerical terms surpassing the US by 350 to 297. Notably, it was only a 255-ship force in 2015 before China went on a spree of building naval vessels. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies China Power initiative highlights that between 2014 and 2018, China launched more submarines, warships, amphibious vessels and auxiliaries than the number of ships currently serving in the individual navies of Germany, India, Spain and the United Kingdom. For instance, 18 ships were commissioned by China in 2016 alone, and at least another 14 were added in 2017. By comparison, the US Navy commissioned only five ships in 2016 and eight ships in 2017. The US intelligence estimates that the PLAN would be fielding around 400 vessels by 2025 and about 425 battleships by 2030 if it continues at the same rate.
However, I personally think that the rate has slowed down. How and why at the end of this section!
Beijing marked its 73rd anniversary by releasing video footage of amphibious assault landings and island-control exercises involving marines and other special fighting units. Several clips have been broadcast this week, coinciding with China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe telling his American counterpart Lloyd Austin in a phone call on Wednesday not to underestimate Beijing’s determination or ability to defend its national interests and dignity over the Taiwan issue. The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reports that the state-owned China Central Television (CCTV) video depicted at least a dozen ZTD-05 amphibious assault vehicles sending marines to attack a simulated enemy base during a recent island seizure drill. Airborne troops landed on the island from Z-8 transport helicopters soon after the marines wiped out all key military assets.
It’s essential to make a note of such exercises, as Dennis J. Blasko highlights in his recently published China maritime report on The PLA Army Amphibious Force. (Note: I am aware that I have mentioned naval exercises in the previous paragraph, and Mr Blasko’s paper is on the PLA A’s amphibious force. However, the PLA A’s amphibious force would serve as the core of any joint force charged with invading Taiwan. Thus, highlighting it here). The article highlights that the PLA A now possesses six amphibious combined arms brigades distributed across three group armies (the 72nd, 73rd, and 74th). During a cross-strait invasion, these brigades would likely receive support from other elements of the group armies to which they belong. The core of the PLAA’s contribution to the Taiwan deterrence and warfighting missions resides in six amphibious combined arms brigades (ACAB) assigned, two each, to the three group armies stationed closest to Taiwan in the Eastern and Southern Theater Commands (TC).
As a result of the 2017 structural reforms, these group armies have a mostly standardised structure comprising six combined arms brigades and six or seven supporting brigades. Combined arms brigades are categorised as “heavy” (or amphibious) with tracked armoured vehicles, “medium” with wheeled armoured vehicles, and “light,” which are transported by trucks or, increasingly, Mengshi (Warrior) wheeled armoured trucks. Though each group army has six combined arms brigades, the distribution of brigade type—heavy, medium, and light—varies among the group armies (usually, there are one to four of each type per group army). For most PLAA units (and ground units in the other services such as the PLANMC, PLAAF Airborne Corps, and PLARF) comprise a high percentage of two-year conscripts (estimated to amount to about 50 percent of personnel in squads, platoons, and companies), unit manning levels and training are dependent upon the annual conscription cycle. However, in 2021, the PLA changed its conscription from a once-a-year to twice-a-year model (in spring and fall). The PLAA amphibious force has traditionally spent the first four months of every year developing basic individual and team skills, but the recent shift to a twice-a-year conscription cycle could allow for more complex training throughout the year. This could significantly raise the level of readiness for the conscript-heavy units like the ground forces in the three services. Read the full document here.
Back to the PLAN, China has commissioned two more Type 055 cruisers – Anshan and Wuxi. Now the PLAN operates five Type 055 guided-missile cruisers – Anshan, Wuxi, Lhasa, Nanchang and Dalian. Nanchang was the first to be commissioned in January 2020. Lhasa and Dalian were commissioned in 2021, and Anshan and Wuxi in 2022.
The PLAN also displayed its advanced anti-ship missile ahead of its 73rd-anniversary celebrations. It was the first time footage was released of the YJ-21, or Eagle Strike-21, hypersonic missile, which can be carried by ships or warplanes. SCMP reports that the missile is estimated to have a range of 1,000 to 1,500km and is believed to be capable of hitting a whole carrier strike group. Video footage circulating on social media showed a missile that looked like a YJ-21 being launched from one of the five Type 055 cruisers. CCTV also aired footage – which shows a Z-20 helicopter taking off from the deck of a Type 055 destroyer. Different versions of these helicopters have already entered service with the PLA A in Tibet and Xinjiang military commands in the past few years.
Meanwhile, it is also reported that the Shanghai shipyard is racing to attain the CCP deadline to possibly commission China’s third aircraft carrier – Type 003 – before the opening of the 20th Party Congress.
Some speculation: The Type 003 will be China’s largest aircraft carrier and could be compared to the US Navy’s Kitty Hawk-class carriers. It is expected to have a flat-top flight deck with a “catapult assisted takeoff but arrested recovery” (CATOBAR) system. Most CATOBAR systems are steam-driven (Also Liaoning and Shandong). But like the US’s new Gerald R. Ford-class of carriers, the Type 003 could have an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) that enables faster takeoffs, reduced maintenance, and increased energy efficiency.
As highlighted earlier, the Chinese navy is the world’s largest navy – at least numerically. Admiral Michael Gilday, chief of US naval operations, recently commented that the phenomenal growth in China’s military requires a strong response. Check this CRS report for more details on China’s Naval Modernisation.
But not everything is as smooth as its sounds. I have observed that the PLAN’s rate of vessel commissioning has fallen in the past two years. Unlike 2019-2020, when there was news about a new naval vessel every ten days, it is occasional now. Either the Chinese state media has moved away from celebrating every vessel that the PLAN commissions like it did in the past, or security policy expert Dr Sarah Kirchberger’s argument about life cost — taking a toll on the commissioning rate of the PLA — has proven correct. (Her argument: Naval vessel’s average lifespan is around 40 years — Procurement costs only account for 23 per cent of the life cost; operations, maintenance and update costs account for a massive 71 per cent of life cost, with the remaining being fuel and development expenses. Thus, maintenance of the existing fleet slows down the expansion.)
You could read my commentary (long-read) on the PLA Navy anniversary: I trace the PLA Navy’s journey from Assassin’s Mace (殺手鐧, shashoujian) to safeguarding overseas interests (维护海外利益安全, weihu haiwai liyi anquan).
II. China’s Nuclear Modernisation
Admiral Charles Richard, Commander of the US Strategic Command’s recent testimony posted on the website of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, highlights that China’s “breathtaking expansion” of its strategic and nuclear arsenal is a quickly escalating risk for the US. He claimed, “I am fully convinced that the recent strategic breakout points towards an emboldened PRC that possesses the capability to employ any coercive nuclear strategy today.” He highlighted that China had constructed three missile silos (which were revealed in the past year), fielded road-mobile MIRV capable DF-41 with launch options including silos and rail-mobile basing and has already employed over 900 theatre-range intermediate and medium-range ballistic missiles. Additionally, its recent pursuit of an ICBM delivered HGV with FOB capability is a technological achievement with serious implications for strategic stability. He categorically said, “while deterrence is not a new concept, the emerging security environment necessitates integrated deterrence to leverage all elements of national power, while enabling the Joint Force to synchronize actions across domains and time on an unprecedented scope and scale. Yet, the foundation of the Nation’s strategic deterrent is unchanged: a powerful and ready nuclear force, a survivable NC3 system, and a responsive nuclear weapons infrastructure. Absent this foundation, the credibility of integrated deterrence will not work.” Full testimony.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that China has accelerated an expansion of its nuclear arsenal because of a change in its assessment of the threat posed by the US, and the Chinese nuclear effort long predates Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It reports that the people close to the Chinese leadership said China’s increased focus on nuclear weapons is also driven by fears Washington might seek to topple Beijing’s Communist government following a more hawkish turn in US policy toward China under the Trump and Biden administrations. Going ahead, the risk of miscalculations could be higher because while the US and Soviet Union communicated about their nuclear weapons during arms control talks in the late 1980s, the Chinese program and Beijing’s thinking on the role of nuclear weapons has been shrouded in secrecy. China has declined to engage in nuclear arms control talks with the US, saying Washington should first reduce its nuclear inventory.
Along with its nuclear inventory and modern weapons, China is also focusing on building up its plutonium and uranium plants as a part of a secretive crash programme, reports the Washington Times. The four slides were part of a recent briefing for NATO allies in the past month on Chinese nuclear forces and show three facilities that appear to have sharply increased in size since 2010. One plutonium production area, the Jiuquan Atomic Energy Complex, doubled in size at a nuclear reprocessing zone in the past two years alone and added another reactor in the past year. In 2017, it was highlighted that China ended plutonium production for weapons in 1991 and uranium production for arms in 1987. Maybe this is also changing under Xi!
Do check this commentary by Dr Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr. in Foreign Affairs on deterrence and China’s growing nuclear arsenal. He argues that the US can do nothing to prevent China from joining it and Russia as the world’s top nuclear powers. China’s attainment of great-nuclear-power status will dramatically upset this delicate equilibrium. Until recently, the Chinese government seemed content with a “minimum deterrent” force of only a few hundred weapons. Now, however, it is moving in an entirely different direction. This could also result in what he describes as an N-BODY problem, where India and Pakistan could look to increase its nuclear forces.
One argument that caught my eye while reading his piece was this: “Counterintuitively, one possible way of keeping China’s nuclear ambitions from creating an n-body problem would be for China, Russia, and the United States to build much larger arsenals. If each maintained a nuclear force level that was closer to that of the Soviet Union or the United States in the Cold War era, perhaps at the original START agreement level of 6,000 deployed weapons, the three states would establish a much higher barrier for other countries seeking to join them.” I am still struggling to cope with this intriguing argument. Let me know what you think of it?
Moving on, also, don’t miss Dr Tong Zhao’s paper on China’s Approach to Arms Control Verification. His paper examines China’s mainstream thinking and general practice on arms control verification. He argues that China’s approach to arms control verification is driven by three primary factors: political incentives, technical considerations, and mutual trust. On the political front, China chooses its position regarding verification measures based on the country’s perceived interests vis-à-vis the treaty in question. On the technical front, research on verification is under the almost complete monopoly of government agencies whose interest in conducting verification research is determined by the government’s political interest. Third, China’s top-down approach to mutual trust differs from the traditional Western approach of implementing bottom-up confidence-building measures. Whereas the West views a country’s proven record in respecting arms control obligations as a way to build trust, Chinese policymakers require trust as an imperative precondition for operational-level verification cooperation. Thus, China stresses the importance that the relevant countries should first agree on a friendly political relationship. Do read the full paper; it’s a very complicated but extremely useful paper.
Related Stuff: AUKUS and Hypersonic Weapons
A Whitehouse factsheet highlights that the US, UK and Australia will work together to accelerate the development of hypersonic weapons and counter-hypersonic capabilities. The AUKUS leaders also highlighted that they were deepening cooperation on electronic warfare, cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum and undersea capabilities.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian reacted that the Aukus partnership’s plan to cooperate on the weapons, along with nuclear-powered submarines, “not only increases the risk of nuclear proliferation … but also further intensifies the arms race in the Asia-Pacific region. The Asia-Pacific countries should be highly vigilant about this,” said Zhao.
China’s United Nations ambassador Zhang Jun also said that such measures could fuel conflict. “Anyone who does not want to see the Ukrainian crisis should refrain from doing things which may lead the other parts of the world into a crisis like this. As the Chinese saying goes: ‘If you do not like it, do not impose it against the others,” said Zhang.
III. China’s National Security
China’s Minister of State Security, Chen Wenqing, wrote an article in Qiushi, CCP’s bi-monthly journal published by the Central Party School and the Central Committee. Here are a couple of important highlights and themes from his article:
The Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China decided to establish the Central National Security Committee. The purpose is to better adapt to the new situation and new tasks facing China’s national security, establish a centralised, unified, efficient and authoritative national security system, and strengthen the leadership of national security work. Since the establishment of the Central National Security Committee (Commission) eight years, it has continuously strengthened the top-level design around improving the national security leadership system, improved the national security legal system, strategic system and policy system, and established a national security system. The work coordination mechanism and emergency management mechanism promotes the implementation of the national security responsibility system by party committees (party groups) at all levels, form a strong synergy of “one game of chess across the country”, and create a new situation for national security in the new era.
Resolutely safeguard regime security, institutional security, and ideological security, resist and fight back against extreme external suppression and containment, push the situation in Hong Kong to achieve a major transition from chaos to governance, carry out in-depth struggles involving Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, and the sea, and make steady progress promoting the border and enriching the people, stabilising the border and consolidating the border, properly handling surrounding security risks, and the anti-infiltration, anti-terrorism and anti-separatist struggles have been fruitful. (It’s interesting to note the emphasis on two things, among others: Carry out struggles involving seas and stabilise and consolidate the border – perhaps an indication of the intentions on the India-China border going ahead).
Dr Joel Wuthnow’s recent article in the Jamestown China Brief details multiple points that Minister Chen highlighted in his article. Dr Wuhnow’s article highlights how CNSC is empowered, its ideational core (holistic concept of national security), its hierarchy and complications involving this system. Do read the full piece; it’s extremely useful.
Some other important pieces on understanding China’s national security concept and structure: 1) Dr Sheena Chestnut Greitens' testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Xi Jinping’s Approach to National Security 2) Prof You Ji’s article in the Journal of Contemporary China on China’s National Security Commission: Theory, Evolution and Operations.
Moving on, in a keynote speech at the opening of the BFA annual conference, General Secretary Xi Jinping proposed a "global security initiative" that upholds the principle of "indivisible security." "We should uphold the principle of indivisibility of security, build a balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture, and oppose the building of national security on the basis of insecurity in other countries," Xi told the gathering on the southern Chinese island of Hainan. He added, "In today's world, unilateralism and excessive pursuit of self-interest are doomed to fail; so are the practices of decoupling, supply disruption and maximum pressure; so are the attempts to forge "small circles" or to stoke conflict and confrontation along ideological lines. Instead, we need to embrace a global governance philosophy that emphasises extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits, promote the common values of humanity, and advocate exchanges and mutual learning between civilisations."
Later in the month, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi published an article in the People's Daily on the same issue. His article highlighted the US Indo-Pacific strategy and called it a strategy to divide the region and create a "new Cold War." Calling it the Asian version of NATO, the article called for "upholding the ASEAN centrality in the regional architecture, promoting the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and the "Bandung Spirit", deepening regional and sub-regional security cooperation, and embarking on a road of joint construction, sharing and win-win Asian security."
One big takeaway from Xi's speech and Wang's article was the emphasis on
-- Striving to build a new regional security framework -- (for Asia and the Indo-Pacific region, which could counter the Quad, AUKUS and Five Eyes).
IV. Solomon Islands and China
Last month’s issue highlighted China’s deal with the Solomon Islands. The deal was signed just days before a top American official was due to arrive on the island in an attempt to scupper the controversial deal. The announcement, which follows the leak of a draft of the agreement last month, renewed fear from local opposition leaders as well as Pacific countries, including Australia, New Zealand and the United States, that the deal could lead to a Chinese military presence in the islands and increase tensions in the region.
Meanwhile, Guardian reports that China requested that a plainclothes 10-person security detail armed with pistols, rifles, two machine guns and a sniper rifle be dispatched to the Solomon Islands late last year. In a leaked memo in response to the request, also obtained by the Guardian, Solomon Islands’ permanent secretary for foreign affairs said he had “no objection” to the request from China, as the Pacific nation had not been able to guarantee the safety of Chinese embassy staff during the riots. In its diplomatic note, China said the deployment of the security team was necessary in light of “the current security situation in the Solomon Islands”. “The government of the People’s Republic of China has decided to send a plainclothes security team (10 personnel) with necessary light weapons and equipment to the Chinese Embassy in the Solomon Islands. The team will be responsible for internal security and necessary escort missions outside of the Chinese Embassy,” the diplomatic note said.
Coming back to the deal, details of the agreement are not public yet. However, U.S. National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink, Deputy Commander INDOPACOM Lieutenant General Stephen Sklenka, and USAID Acting Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator for Asia Craig Hart visited Honiara, Solomon Islands. The delegation met for ninety minutes with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, along with two dozen members of his cabinet and senior staff.
The press readout highlights, “The two sides engaged in substantial discussion around the recently signed security agreement between the Solomon Islands and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Solomon Islands representatives indicated that the agreement had solely domestic applications, but the U.S. delegation noted there are potential regional security implications of the accord, including for the United States and its allies and partners. The U.S. delegation outlined clear areas of concern with respect to the purpose, scope, and transparency of the agreement. If steps are taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power-projection capabilities, or a military installation, the delegation noted that the United States would then have significant concerns and respond accordingly. In response to these enumerated concerns, Prime Minister Sogavare reiterated his specific assurances that there would be no military base, no long-term presence, and no power projection capability, as he has said publicly. The United States emphasized that it will follow developments closely in consultation with regional partners.”
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has reacted to this. MFA spokesperson Wang Wenbin said, “China – Solomon Islands security cooperation is in nature the normal exchange and cooperation between two sovereign and independent countries and an important part of China - Solomon Islands comprehensive cooperation. The security cooperation follows the principle of equality and mutual benefit and is based on respecting the will and actual needs of the Solomon Islands. It aims at promoting social stability and long-term tranquillity in the Solomon Islands and is open, transparent and inclusive, and does not target any third party.”
The details of the security pact are not known, however, some reports highlight that it allows China to send police and military personnel to the Solomon Islands “to assist in maintaining social order” while also opening the door for Chinese warships to stop in port there for “logistical replenishment” — giving rise to worries of a possible Chinese naval base on the doorstep of Australia and New Zealand.
Also, read Japan sends an envoy to the Solomon Island.
Australia’s reaction is hysterical and hypocritical
Solomon Islands deal alarms the Quad
V. India-China Border Issue
China’s Western Theatre Command’s (Army) has a new political commissar. Lt Gen Wang Zhibin takes over as the new political commissar of the WTC (Army).
Lt Gen Wang Zhibin served permanently in the former Nanjing Military Region and served successively as Commander of the former Anjing Military Region of Anhui province, Commander of the Zhen City Military Sub-district of the former Nanjing military region, Chairman of the Hai Dynasty 13 Divisional Committee of the Fujian Military Region and Director of the former 1st Group Military Political Department. In 2017, Wang Zhibin became Director of the Military-Political Work Department of the 73rd Group, under the Central War Zone Army.
After the National Conference in 2018, the Ministry of Veterans Affairs was inaugurated, and the first Political Committee of the 81st Group was appointed. He was appointed as an Assistant to the Director of the Political Work Department of the Central Military Commission and Deputy Minister of Veterans Affairs. Currently, he serves as a political member of the army in Xinjiang.
Meanwhile, there has been no improvement in the situation on the border since the 15th Corps Commander-level meeting between India and China in March 2022. However, it looks like China would allow a few Indian students to resume their studies after a two-year gap on a “need-assessed basis”, Indian officials said this month.
An agreement to allow their return was reached following the meeting of External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on March 25 in New Delhi, the Indian Embassy in Beijing said in a statement. Confirming the agreement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said China had “shared with the Indian side the procedures and experience of other countries’ students returning to China.”
On the trade front, a sharp increase in India’s imports of Chinese goods in the first quarter of 2022 lifted bilateral trade by 15% to a record $31.96 billion, trade data released by China show. Imports surged 28% from the year-earlier period to $27.69 billion. India’s exports, however, slumped 26% to $4.87 billion.
Meanwhile, check this very interesting report by Recorded Future on Chinese state-sponsored targeting of Indian power grids. The report claims that in recent months, Chinese network intrusions targeted at least 7 Indian State Load Despatch Centres (SLDCs) responsible for carrying out real-time operations for grid control and electricity dispatch within these respective states. Notably, this targeting has been geographically concentrated, with the identified SLDCs located in North India, in proximity to the disputed India-China border in Ladakh. One of these SLDCs was also targeted in a previous RedEcho activity. This latest set of intrusions, however, is composed of an almost entirely different set of victim organisations. In addition to the targeting of power grid assets, we also identified the compromise of a national emergency response system and the Indian subsidiary of a multinational logistics company by the same threat activity group.
The report also highlights that this targeting is likely a long-term strategic priority for select Chinese state-sponsored threat actors active within India. Chinese state-linked groups' prolonged targeting of Indian power grid assets offers limited economic espionage or traditional intelligence-gathering opportunities.
We believe this targeting is instead likely intended to enable information-gathering surrounding critical infrastructure systems or is pre-positioning for future activity. The objective for intrusions may include gaining an increased understanding of these complex systems in order to facilitate capability development for future use or gaining sufficient access across the system in preparation for future contingency operations.
To understand more about China’s cyber force postures, capabilities and activities, I would very highly recommend Dr Fiona S. Cunningham’s dissertation’s fifth chapter on China’s Cyber Force Posture. (Do read chapter one on a theory of strategic substitution for framework before reading the fifth). She argues that China adopted a calibrated escalation posture in late 2014 that would allow it to use cyber weapons to gain strategic leverage without triggering uncontrolled escalation. Under command and control arrangements for a calibrated escalation posture, only top military or civilian leaders could authorise strategic attacks, but they may delegate authority to use tactical cyber weapons down the chain of command. If tactical and strategic attacks are subject to different command and control arrangements, the state will separate its strategic and tactical attack capabilities into different units. This organisational division allows top leaders to exercise stricter authority over the use of its most disruptive capabilities and signal its restraint to an adversary.
She also argues that China could continue credibly threatening to use cyberattacks to gain strategic leverage, despite its more equal exposure to cyber-attacks. The PLA is pursuing the necessary cyber capabilities to control escalation from the first use of cyber weapons. The PLA has four main priorities for its cyber capabilities: to improve the precision and effectiveness of its offensive capabilities, improve attribution capabilities, reduce its reliance on foreign technology, and develop a more skilled cyber workforce. China is also developing its attribution capabilities as part of its investment in cyber "situational awareness."
Finally, outside of the PLA, China has also taken some diplomatic steps to help control escalation in cyberspace by clarifying conflict thresholds. Most importantly, China has also demonstrated tacit approval for a norm against cyberattacks on critical peacetime infrastructure since 2014 by consenting to the 2014-5 U.S. Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) report, which included a norm against peacetime cyber-attacks.
This point is extremely interesting and could be a part of a broader study on whether China has walked the talk on important norms and agreements that it has adhered to.
There is much more in Dr Cunningham’s dissertation, and I would highly recommend reading it. It is available on MIT DSpace.
1) Dr Jabin Jacob’s interaction with Dr Happymon Jacob on India-China relations and Wang Yi’s recent visit
2) Prof M Taylor Fravel interview India-China border problems with the Print.
3) Outgoing Indian Army Chief Gen Manoj Naravane’s interview: Indian Express
VI. Taiwan and China
Finally, the US and China’s defence chief spoke this month. The United States should not underestimate China’s determination or ability to defend its national interests and dignity. Stressing that the self-ruled island is an inseparable part of China, China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe told US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin that the PLA would “resolutely defend the national sovereign security and territorial integrity.” “The Taiwan issue, if not handled properly, will have a subversive impact on the relationship between the two countries,” said Wei. Here’s the full China Mod statement on the talks.
Meanwhile, Taiwan last month sought membership in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, reports Reuters. Taiwan has voiced its desire to be a "full member" of the IPEF, one part of the administration's effort to counter Beijing's increasing economic and military coercion in the region.
On the security front, it expects to strengthen its tiny military outpost on an islet off the mainland province of Fujian before the end of this year with the deployment of its home-grown short-range automated defence system. The plan to step up Dongyin's combat capability follows concerns raised in February when a small civilian aircraft from the mainland flew near the islet, which is part of the Taiwan-controlled Matsu archipelago. Taipei also expects to take the delivery of five new Tuo Chiang-class stealth multi-mission corvettes by the end of next year, its Ministry of National Defense (MND) said last week. Combat systems purchased for three of the ships from abroad -- including STIR radar systems, Phalanx close-in weapon systems, and integrated navigation and bridge systems -- will also be transferred to the shipyard during the construction process, the ministry said. Taiwan also has been studying the Ukraine war and is drawing lessons from it. In its ongoing annual Han Kuang military exercises, Taiwan will test the effectiveness of asymmetrical warfare, reports SCMP.
Meanwhile, a Taiwanese news channel accidentally broadcasted a news alert that Chinese armed forces had launched an invasion, firing missiles at cities and ports surrounding the capital. “Communist missiles hit new Taipei City, the Taipei port has exploded, facilities and ships were damaged and destroyed,” the Chinese Television Systems (CTS) news ticker read. The CTS later clarified and apologised for the mistake.
Check this report by Mark Stokes and Eric Lee on Early Warning in Taiwan Strait. They argue that Early warning systems are critical at each point along the peace-war continuum. Early warning generally includes intelligence, space-based infrared sensors, and long-range radars. Various intelligence sources, such as human resource intelligence, signals intelligence, and satellite imagery, may provide strategic warning pending military action. US Space Command provides warning through satellite-based infrared sensors that are able to detect heat signatures created by ballistic missiles upon launch. Alerts are shared with allies and partners, including Taiwan.
Taiwan relies mostly on the radar for early warning. Ground-based and airborne radars and other sensors search the air, space, maritime, land, cyber, and electromagnetic domains for indications and warnings of potential threats, including a full-scale invasion. It offers Taiwan’s national command authority an essential window of time to implement contingency plans for civil defence, mobilisation, and counterstrikes. The early warning also enables civil defence. Taiwan’s early warning system is tested through Wan’an air raid drills, which are carried out annually around Taiwan to exercise civil defence plans. Conducted since 1978, Wan’an drills increase operational readiness and civil awareness of possible threats.
They highlight that Taiwan’s highest value assets include six AEW platforms, a sizeable ultra-high frequency (UHF) phased array early warning radar, and radars forward deployed on offshore islands. Both search a large swath of airspace for flight vehicles, including airborne targets and ballistic missiles. Secondary missions may include tracking ships at sea and electromagnetic support measures. AEW platforms overcome inherent limitations of ground-based radars due to elevation.
In February 2022, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen called on the armed forces to “ramp up efforts to provide early warning and surveillance of military developments in the Taiwan Strait and surrounding areas.” At the strategic level, early warning enables a national command authority to create a window of time to organize an effective response to existential threats. The early warning also complements operational and tactical level asymmetric approaches outlined in the Overall Defense Concept (ODC). In the absence of a Mutual Defence Treaty with the United States, Taiwan’s armed forces invest in capabilities to counter all possible PLA courses of action along the peace-war continuum.
Also, check this commentary by Prof Andrew Erickson and Dr Gabriel Collins on lessons for Taiwan from the Russia-Ukraine War (Must read). Similar article: Jamestown China Brief: Lessons of Ukraine raise doubts.
Competition in Gray Zone: RAND Corporation: Multiple Authors
RAND Corporation’s recent research document/monograph, Competition in Gray Zone, attempts to understand China’s approach to coercive activities, which are short of direct use of military force for escalation or a conflict. Using Chinese language sources, they argue that the Chinese scholars do not typically use the term grey zone activities but conceptualize them as military operations other than war (MOOTW). Chinese analysts characterize coercive or confrontational external-facing MOOTW as stability maintenance, rights protection, or security and guarding operations. China believes that MOOTW should also leverage nonmilitary actors and means. Such activities balance China’s pursuit of a more favourable external environment by altering the regional status quo in its favour with a desire to act below the threshold of a militarised response from the United States or China’s neighbours.
Important highlights from the report:
China views grey zone activities as natural extensions of how countries exercise power and employs such tactics to balance maintaining a stable, favourable external environment with efforts to alter the status quo in China's favour without triggering major pushback or conflict. Four factors—centralisation of government power; growing geopolitical, economic, and military power; linkages between military and economic growth; and co-optation of a variety of actors for military operations—enable China to engage in a variety of grey zone operations. Over the past decade, China has employed nearly 80 different grey zone tactics across all instruments of national power against Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, India, and the Philippines. But since the mid-2010s, China has continued to rely on military tactics, exercised caution in using high-profile tactics, wielded more influence in international institutions or via third-party actors, and expanded its grassroots activities via local proxies or influence operations. On the nonmilitary side, China has emphasised geopolitical and bilateral tactics. On the military side, China has relied heavily on air- and maritime-domain tactics.
There is much more in the report, and I particularly found three chapters – Framework, India and Taiwan very interesting. Do take a read!
Urban Warfare: Elsa Kania and Ian Burns McCaslin
Kania and McCaslin’s latest report on the PLA’s evolving approach to urban warfare is a must-read. Authors have studied the PLA’s thinking, preparation and study for the urban warfare over the past decade. Among the drivers for this interest in urban warfare is that any Chinese campaign to force “(re)unification” with Taiwan could involve intense fighting in Taiwanese cities. However, beyond the possibility of invading Taiwan, the Chinese Communist Party is also concerned about terrorist threats, whether real and imagined, within China’s cities or against the security of Chinese citizens and businesses worldwide. The document goes back in the history and studies the Chinese civil war and lessons for the PLA from the Red Army’s campaign. Then the document studies the Korean War, PRC’s intervention in Vietnam and how these campaigns have helped develop its approach to urban warfare. The document also studies the role of information warfare, precision strikes, close combat and mobility and public opinion’s role in urban warfare. Finally, the document highlights how the PLA has been training since the turn of the century and especially under Xi, for urban warfare. Use this link to read the full document.
VIII. Other Stories
PLA and the Space
This month, Xi visited the Wenchang Space launch site. Since the establishment of the launch site, it has successfully completed a series of major space launch missions, such as the first flight of the Long March 5 and Long March 7 rockets, and successfully sent the Tianhe core module of the space station, the Chang'e 5 lunar probe, and the Tianwen-1 Mars probe. Meanwhile, China reveals the crew of Shenzhou-14 and Shenzhou-15 missions. Both crews will stay in orbit for six months. The Shenzhou-14 crew will cooperate with ground control to complete the assembly and construction of the space station and gradually develop it from a single-module space station into a three-module combination. They will enter the Wentian and Mengtian lab modules. They will also cooperate with ground control to carry out tests on the two-module complex, the three-module complex, the station's large and small mechanical arms, and the exit function of the airlock cabin in the lab modules. The Shenzhou-15 crew will carry out several extravehicular activities; assemble, test and debug the payloads inside modules; and control the mechanical arms to install extravehicular payloads. They will also operate, manage and maintain the largest complex composed of three modules and three spacecraft.
Recently, China also launched five satellites into orbit on a rocket that lifted from a platform at sea, setting a new distance record for the country's offshore launches. A Long March 11 solid-fueled rocket successfully launched from an ocean platform in the East China Sea to deliver its payloads into orbit. The sea launch marked the farthest offshore liftoff yet for China. It was the third sea launch for the country, which has launched Long March 11 boosters from its De Bo 3 platform since 2020.
Podcast Recommendation: Understanding How Adversaries Think: China and Russia in Space
Reading Recommendation: RAND report on the Future use of Space out to 2050.
A team of Chinese military researchers claim that China has developed an invisibility cloak that can hide ground military targets from spy radar satellites. The new device, produced by a team at the Air Force Engineering University in Xian, Shaanxi province, is a piece of cloth that can be stretched to fit almost perfectly over a wide range of different items such as tanks, artillery or radar stations. It is this unusual flexibility that can help make the object near-invisible even to radar satellites, according to lead researcher Xu Hexiu and his team.
Meanwhile, the PLA is overhauling its promotion, recruitment and training of soldiers to develop a more professional armed forces to tackle combat in an increasingly complex international environment. The overhaul includes regulations on non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and conscripts that came into effect in late March, with a senior military officer saying combat effectiveness was now “the only and fundamental criterion”. The new regulations are meant to improve professionalism and reduce turnover among NCOs. Furthermore, the lower-ranked officers in the PLA would soon have more scope to supervise senior brass, under new rules that experts say are aimed at better securing the Chinese military’s loyalty to President Xi Jinping. An amended regulation for servicemen committees was approved by the Central Military Commission (CMC) took effect from May 1. The move comes just months ahead of the 20th party congress.
IX. Additional Readings
NBR publication: Meeting China’s Military Challenge: Edited by Dr Bates Gill
NDU publication: PLA Beyond Borders: Chinese Military Operations in Regional and Global Context:
PLA in the South China Sea: Recorded Future
Suyash Desai is a research scholar studying China’s defence and foreign policies. He is currently studying the traditional Chinese language at National Sun Yat-Sen University, Kaohsiung, Taiwan.