‘Blue is the new Yellow’ – a very modern Chinese major-general on becoming a ‘maritime power’

On 8 November outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao  made a keynote speech at the opening of the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress in Beijing.  Hu was set to begin  handing over power to his successor, Vice President Xi Jinping.   The world’s most populous country’s direction has a clear maritime slant. ‘China will enhance its capacity for exploiting marine resources’, Hu said, ‘develop the marine economy, protect the marine ecological environment, and resolutely safeguard the country’s maritime rights and interests. We will build China into a maritime power’.

I had a chance to find out what he meant, exactly,  shortly afterwards at a lunch-time talk at the Royal United Services’ Institute (RUSI) in Whitehall on Tuesday, 27 November.  The Institute was hosting Major-General Gong Xianfu (retd), who has been Vice-Chairman of the China Institute for International Strategic Studies (CIISS) since he retired as a soldier in 2001.  General Gong, whose English is superb, joined the PLA in 1960 and has been an interpreter for the People’s Liberation Army (the Chinese Armed Forces which includes the ’People’s Liberation Army Navy’!) and served in diplomatic postings in France, Iran and the US. 

General Gong set out a comprehensive National Security Strategy, defining National Security interests and goals. The main security concerns, he said,  were both internal and external. 

The  first internal one comprised the ‘independence movements’ in ‘Taiwan, Tibet and east Turkestan’ (Xinjiang)’.  China was determined to hang on to the latter two, although he did not indicate any enthusiasm for reclaiming the first – more for enhanced cooperation.  The second internal problem was the growing gap between rich and poor and the uneven distribution of wealth in the rapidly growing Chinese economy.  The third, picking up on a core theme of Hu’s speech, was corruption.  Hu had warned that a failure to deal with corruption could bring down China’s ruling Communist Party and the state it controls.

Within the internal context General Gong identified non-traditional security threats: economic security, energy security, terrorism, transnational security including the fight against transnational organised crime, cyber-security and public health security.

Under external threats he cited, first,  the security dilemma posed by other people’s perceptions of China’s economic growth and military modernisation. ‘Many states regard China as a strategic adversary’, he said. ‘The US is worried about China’s challenge to its position in the world.  China is the strategic pivot of Asia. So the US is strengthening its strategic deployment.  People want to contain China. [As a result there is increasing] reconnaissance against the Chinese coast by the US.’

‘Japan’, he continued, ‘is set to revise its pacifist constitution and move to a “normal country” position with the right to self defence.The limitations on the overseas deployment of troops are to be ended. [This could lead to] the resurrection of militarism’.

He then focussed on the ‘territorial disputes between China and neighbouring countries and the islands and continental shelf in the East China Sea. People have occupied some of China’s islands in the South China Sea. The border dispute between China and India [in the Himalayas]  has not been resolved.’

Furthermore, ‘non-traditional threats represented by terrorism are on the increase’.  There were, he said ‘three “evil threats” – terrorism, separatism, extremism’, all of which he linked to Central Asia. 

He added that China was also concerned about the continuing stand-off between North and South Korea and indicated  that China was not in favour of North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons.

He concluded his treatment of external problems and challenges with ‘more diverse military tasks commensurate with realities’ of  which the obvious example was China’s operation  to evacuate some 36,000 Chinese from Libya in February-March 2011. By way of background, some 35,860 Chinese citizens had been evacuated from Libya up to 23:10 Beijing time (1510 GMT), on Wednesday 2 March,  according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. it was the largest and the most complicated overseas evacuation ever conducted by the Chinese government since 1949. On Wednesday morning 2 March 2011  local time, the Greek-flagged merchant ship El. Venizelos carrying 2,141 Chinese evacuees from Libya had docked at the southern Greek island of Crete, which meant that by then  14,000 working staff of Chinese companies in Libya, including Bangladeshi and Vietnamese employees, had been evacuated by Chinese cargo ships or Greek liners chartered by the Chinese government.

Having outlined the strategic assessment, General Gong set out Chinese Security objectives for the Fifth Generation Government to be led by Xi Jinping.  These were:

  • To maintain fast development of the national economy;
  • To preserve national stability, unity  and territorial integrity;
  • To preserve world peace and promote common development;
  • To promote relations with developing countries;
  • To achieve a ‘moderately prosperous society’ in all respects.

Three  objectives – reform, stability and development,  were all interlinked. Reform would be facilitated by, and facilitate, development. Fast development would facilitate stability.

Economic development, he explained, is the foundation of national security. China would place emphasis on’ handling international situations properly’. It would promote a stable international situation – a ‘harmonious world with mutual trust, mutual benefit and all-round cooperation’.

Stemming from these broad objectives he turned to Chinese military modernization.  This would be stepped up, he said. ‘We will build a strong military commensurate with China’s [international] status’. Chine needed ‘lean Armed Forces with high efficiency, research and development, highly trained officers and men’.

General Gong suggested that the purpose of Chinese military development was to close the military gap with the US. This, he explained, would be far from easy or quick, as the US was so far in the lead of everyone else in the military field. ‘There’s a long way to go before the Chinese economy catches up with the US’, he added.  Improving China’s military capabilities should not be seen as a threat, as China was, for a country its size, so far behind.  It was not just a question of the expanding GDP, he explained. ‘It’s research and development, it’s the qualities [note qualities – not quantity] of people.’

Turning to the maritime question he said ‘China is not an “inland” country. It has an 18,000 kilometre coastline.’  And then, referring to outgoing President Hu’s  ‘We will build China into a maritime power’, he said:

‘There are three points about “maritime power”:

  • To maintain China’s economic development, China needs to exploit resources in the sea and make the most of new sources of growth;
  • Besides having a maritime economy we also need to protect  maritime ecology;
  • From a military perspective, [we need] to safeguard Chinese Military Security Without a Navy China has been invaded by many powerful countries from the sea [the First and Second Opium Wars with Britain of  1839-1842 and 1856-1860, still rankle with the Chinese].  To become a maritime power China must develop  a strong Navy.  We must not only be able to safeguard maritime territory but also to defend our rights. To develop a powerful Navy will be conducive to world peace and development. It will protect maritime communications,  combat terrorism and combat piracy.  This will not only for the benefit of China but of the world.  I want to stress one point. To develop its Navy is totally defensive in nature.  To defend maritime security’.   

So, a great and prosperous nation undergoing economic development  needs to trade with the world and keep its Sea Lines of Communication open.  To do that it needs an efficient Navy that is principally defensive in purpose, but which enables flexible response to global strategic problems.  I wonder who gave China  that idea?

Chris Bellamy

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