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China’s Two Birthday Wishes: Strategic Stability and Disruptive Innovation

BLOG - 1 October 2019

Beijing celebrated the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China’s foundation with the largest-scale military parade ever hosted in the capital. Senior Colonel Wu Qian, the spokesperson of the Chinese Defense Ministry, had preventively criticized the "strange logic" of analysts who "hype things up untruthfully". According to Colonel Wu, those who call the parade a "show of force" are also those who complain of a "lack of transparency" from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). If the parade is not a show of force, is it an admission of weakness? And what does it tell us about the level of transparency of Chinese military power?

China’s recently published Defense White Paper, China’s National Defense in the New Era, contains a statement in stark contrast with the otherwise triumphant communication of the PLA under Xi Jinping: "China’s military security is confronted by risks from technology surprise and growing technological generation gap".

This sense of vulnerability is particularly acute in the nuclear domain, a threat perception reflected in the equipment displayed at the parade. The PLA Rocket Force has showcased some of the newest models of China’s missile industry – once identified by Deng Xiaoping as a "pocket of excellence". The center piece of the show is traditionally nuclear deterrence and the 70th anniversary is no exception. The Chinese press has commented the first appearance of the road-mobile DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile as the demonstration of China’s ability to "gain control through a second strike" (后发制人). Thought to be capable of carrying 10 independently targetable re-entry vehicles at a range exceeding 12,000 km, its display in the streets of Beijing reflects China’s quest for "strategic stability" (战略稳定) with the United States.

China’s parade reflects a deep-rooted sense of vulnerability, a political culture that places disproportionate importance on the emotional mobilization of the masses, and an obsession with the US-China military balance.

What does the concept mean? The latest Sino-Russian joint statement on "strengthening global strategic stability" describes the deployment by the US of "strategic missile defense facilities" in "various regions of the world and in outer space", as a quest of "absolute security" that aims at gaining "unlimited opportunities for military-political pressure on opponents". Therefore, China needs to constantly upgrade the land-based component of its nuclear deterrence, especially as its undersea component lacks reliability given the superiority of the US-Japan alliance in anti-submarine warfare.

The DF-41 for its range and multiple warheads, the medium-range DF-17 that launches a maneuvering hypersonic glide vehicle precisely developed to overcome missile defense, the submarine-launched JL-2 displayed for the first time (even as the JL-3 is known to currently being developed): all signal China’s determination to maintain an assured retaliation capacity. Yet, they also reflect unavoidable doubts in Beijing regarding the future of the offense-defense balance in the nuclear domain.

China’s current structural inferiority limits the range of its options in East Asian hotspots like Taiwan and the South China Sea. It is important to keep in mind that China’s assertive maritime policies under Xi Jinping and the intimidation of Taiwan are conducted from a position of strategic vulnerability vis-à-vis the United States. This inferiority also extends to the conventional domain. This raises the question of how China would behave in a situation of parity or superiority. 

Can China overturn this unfavorable military balance? This depends a lot on the capacity of the country’s arms industry to achieve "disruptive innovation" (颠覆性创新). The People’s Liberation Army Daily defines as disruptive "technologies that can fundamentally change the balance of military power quickly, so that the opponent loses its combat capability, thereby forming an unconventional or asymmetric operational advantage". Military analysts from National Defense University quoted in another PLA Daily piece place particular emphasis on "robotics, new materials, hypersonic weapons, directed energy weapons, quantum information, and synthetic biology breakthroughs", but also on the possible game-changing applications of artificial intelligence and deep-learning in the areas of reconnaissance and situational awareness, including through the use of unmanned combat platforms. 

The equipment reviewed by the Chinese leadership on Tian’anmen square only partly reflects this quest for disruption. A lot depends on fundamental research. Unmanned platforms have indeed been showcased, but questions are yet to be answered regarding their true capacities. For example, the DR-8 supersonic reconnaissance drone has been displayed for the first time. Its role is to penetrate air defense systems to collect intelligence, to support target acquisition for missile strikes or to assess the damage. The DR-8 could support strikes against enemy aircraft-carrier battle groups as part of China’s access-denial strategy, but there is nothing disruptive about the use of drones for tactical reconnaissance. Lockheed produced a supersonic reconnaissance drone in the 1960s. The Chinese drone’s technological level depends on its actual capacities in terms of detection evasion, target acquisition, communication, and integration with space intelligence assets at the level of command and control. The Sharp Sword drone has also attracted attention as a stealthy Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle to be launched from aircraft-carriers. Its development raises tactical questions regarding how China plans future carrier operations. Can armed drones replace multirole combat aircraft? So far, the PLA Navy is at an early stage of conception of its future carrier battle groups, even though it has achieved impressive progress since the acquisition of the Varyag from Ukraine.

This Chinese obsession for strategic disruption points to a persisting transparency issue that the parade does nothing to solve. How much does China really spend on military R&D? Its announced military budget is US$175 billion in 2019, and the country officially spent US$293 billion in R&D in 2018. But China’s defense budget does not include R&D spending, leaving analysts with the difficult task of producing estimates.

What other countries do is a useful indicator. The US Senate recently approved US$105,1 billion in military R&D, or about 15% of the US$695.6 billion allocated for 2020. At a similar proportion, the Chinese military R&D spending would be approximately US$25 billion. The Republic of Korea, an arms exporter and the tenth largest military spender in the world, spent 7% of its 2017 defense budget on R&D. By a Korean standard, China’s R&D spending would be around US$12 billion. To put these numbers in perspective, US$12 billion is larger than the 2018 total military spending of Pakistan, and US$25 billion is close to Australian military spending, according to SIPRI data.

Its announced military budget is US$175 billion in 2019, and the country officially spent US$293 billion in R&D in 2018. But China’s defense budget does not include R&D spending, leaving analysts with the difficult task of producing estimates.

To the domestic audience and the international community, the parade intends to demonstrate the impressive achievements of China’s arms industry and the progress toward Xi Jinping’s goal to transform the PLA into a "world-class military" by 2050. At no other time has the Chinese military released as detailed information regarding its new equipment, from the first indigenously-built aircraft-carrier and the anti-ship ballistic missile to the first official photo of the J-20 stealth fighter jet

China’s parade reflects a deep-rooted sense of vulnerability, a political culture that places disproportionate importance on the emotional mobilization of the masses, and an obsession with the US-China military balance. The Chinese strategic community is obsessed with disruption but it may lose the technological race to the United States. And technology alone does not overturn the balance of power overnight. As recalled by the PLA Daily, the British were almost disruptive when they invented the battle tank, but the real disruption came from Germany’s Blitzkrieg doctrine.

 

Copyright : GREG BAKER / AFP

 

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