Thursday, January 23, 2014

Chinese Centers of Gravity

 Many distinguished scholars, journalists, and strategic analysts have provided compelling visions of why and how the People's Republic of China (PRC) would conduct a naval and military campaign in the Indo-Pacific basin. Several viable U.S. responses to such a Chinese operation have been articulated. These include a blockade-based “offshore control strategy” to deprive China of resources and trade, and the “Air/Sea battle” operational concept involving a joint U.S. naval and air power effort to directly combat Chinese forces in the Western Pacific littoral. Both visions suggest allied participation and perhaps can be combined into an overall military strategy. Before moving further however, it is useful to examine current and evolving Chinese strategic “centers of gravity” and look at how the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has conducted recent military actions. Past Chinese conflicts may not provide a complete picture for U.S. leaders, but perhaps offer a window into how the PRC thinks about its military activity.

                                                      Changing Centers of Gravity

Tiananmen Square Protests, 1989
The most important center of gravity for post-revolutionary China has been the survival of Communist party authority over the state. The definition of the Chinese Communist party however has changed since the official Party program of “Modernization and Stability” began in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. While the rest of the Communist world collapsed in the face of the perceived superiority of the Capitalist system, the Chinese party was able to adroitly turn the Communist system on its head and adopt the best practices of its Western opposite number. The “modernized” China now resembles a large corporation rather than the revolutionary state of Chairman Mao Zedong. Its Politburo, with orderly successions of authority, and Party Congresses filled with departmental representatives reporting on modernization efforts are similar to a Corporate Board of Directors reporting to a meeting of shareholders. The economic model fits well as the Chinese party essentially “purchased” the loyalty and support of its citizenry. The exchange of traditional Marxist patterns of life including poor quality consumer goods, overt repression, and little or no upward mobility for economic growth, security and prosperity has served to insulate the Chinese Communist leadership from pre-1989 style criticisms. One wonders if Mikhail S. Gorbachev lays awake at night wondering why he did not attempt the Chinese method for the Soviet Union. While the Party itself remains the principle Chinese center of gravity, the continuing prosperity and support for the party from the PRC citizenry is nearly equal in importance to that of the party itself since both are mutually dependent on each other's support.
Leaders of a fictional "corporate state" from the 1975 movie "Rollerball"
"And now, our Corporate Anthem!"

     The growing prosperity of the average Chinese citizen is supported in large part by the vast system of ocean-going trade that fuels “Wang Q. Public’s” accelerated standard of living. Heritage Foundation analyst Dean Cheng has stated that as of 2010, 85% of all Chinese trade moves via ocean routes. The upward trend in the percentage of China’s maritime trade as part of overall Chinese economic activity shows no sign of abating as Chinese citizens now expect and demand a higher standard of living. Any disruption in this seaborne trading system for a significant length of time could call into question the Communist Party’s ability to deliver its promise of better living standards. A maritime blockade of China, either from distant chokepoints like the Strait of Hormuz or from closer locations such as the Malacca Strait could over time seriously reduce confidence in the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to deliver prosperity.
     China appreciates these challenges and has sought to minimize disruptions, especially in the supply of petroleum products to its hungry industries. In recent years the Chinese have invested large sums of money in Pakistan. Just last July the Chinese signed an agreement with the Pakistanis to build an 1200 mile long “economic corridor” from the port city of Gwadar on the Indian Ocean to the Chinese city of Kashgar, first by road and later by rail. China would like to avoid having to send so much valuable economic traffic by vulnerable sea routes and this connection would alleviate some of their concerns. 

                                                How Has the PRC Fought Past Wars?

Disputed area of Kashmir occupied
by China in the 1962 Sino-Indian
China has fought four significant military conflicts since becoming a Communist state in 1949. Two distinct strategic concepts figure in all four wars. China first “covered its six” by ensuring it was potentially angering only one of the superpowers by its actions. China also sought to contain each war as a limited conflict, but dispatched more than enough forces to ensure victory and/or attainment of its objectives. In addition, the Chinese state was willing to endure significant military casualties in pursuit of strategic objectives. In China’s Korean War intervention, Chinese leader Mao Zedong first confirmed support from then Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin before undertaking action against United Nations (U.N.) forces in Korea in October 1950. The Chinese military effort did not destroy U.N. forces but its action met Chinese objectives by preserving the North Korean state. Some U.S. figures suggest the Chinese suffered over 400,000 dead in the course of the Korean War.
Time magazine cover from the
period of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese
     China has fought three additional short “border wars” since 1953 against India, its former Soviet ally and its sister Communist state of Vietnam. In the October 1962 Sino-Indian conflict fought over disputed territory on India’s Northwest frontier, the two superpowers were occupied in the standoff over Soviet missiles in Cuba and did not play a role in the conflict. Casualties on both sides were light but the Chinese took all of the Indian border territory of Aksai Chin. The 1969 Sino-Soviet conflict over an island in the Amur River claimed by both states was relatively minor compared with the fighting on the Indian border. The Chinese, however,  fought fiercely and suffered heavy casualties in order to capture a disabled prototype Soviet T-62 tank. The Chinese supported reconciliation attempts made by the United States during the increasingly poor Sino-Soviet relations that followed the Amur River incident and allowed Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to visit in 1971, beginning the U.S. rapprochement with the People’s Republic. Finally in its 1979 “punitive expedition” against Vietnam, the Chinese sought to prevent the Soviets and their Vietnamese allies from altering the Cambodian-Vietnamese border. They committed a large force to invade Vietnam and threaten its capital of Hanoi. The Soviets were too distant to support the Vietnamese war effort and the United States was courting Chinese favor and acceptance of its Cold War aims against the Soviets. The battle-hardened Vietnamese Army fought well, but was pushed back, as the Chinese desired,  after a fierce four week campaign. The Chinese then pulled back to avoid a wider conflict. The Cambodian border issue remained unresolved until the end of the Cold War and China suffered somewhere between 8000 and 28,000 soldiers killed in action.
     The People’s Republic of China is well aware of its strategic centers of gravity, and is actively working to mitigate risks to their security. These changes include continued growth in standards of living for the average citizen, moving petroleum product supply lines to inland routes, and the modernization of  military forces to avoid potential heavy casualties such as those suffered in conflicts from 1950-1980. These losses might not be as supportable by the present Chinese population accustomed to continued growth and prosperity vice war and potential rationing. China continues to secure its land borders and thus has promoted favorable relations with Russia. It also supports Pakistan as a counterweight to India. Careful observation of these elements of Chinese strategy is most useful in determining the PRC's next geopolitical move on the chessboard.

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