Few Indians have read Chinese writer Sun Tzu who, 2,500 years ago, wrote the Art of War. Sun Tzu wrote: “The art of war is of vital importance to the state — a matter of life or death, a road either to safety or ruin.” Some Indians may be vaguely aware of Chinese sea power, with the world’s second largest navy, its largest merchant fleet, the largest Coast Guard, the largest fishing fleet, 52 major ports, 16 inland ports and an unique fishing trawler-based force known as the maritime militia. In stark contrast, Indian sea power is 25 per cent that of China, and the gap between the two navies is widening in China’s favour.
Examine how China uses Sun Tzu’s lessons to press its claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea, and its growing reach into the Indian Ocean region. Had our leaders read Sun Tzu and studied China’s growing military heft, our defence budget (1.65 per cent of GDP, lowest in percentage terms since the 1962 war) should have been at least three per cent of GDP (specially as we are the world’s fastest-growing economy, at 7.6 per cent). This year the finance minister for the first time added “Pensions & MoD staff” to the defence budget, inflating it to 2.26 per cent of GDP ($51 billion). Unlike India, China is racing ahead with military modernisation and in late May announced its “Jin” class strategic nuclear submarine (SSBN) with 12 nuclear-tipped JL-2 ballistic missiles had sailed out of Sanya naval base (Hainan island) on its first deterrent patrol in the Pacific, with a second-strike capability to target the US mainland.
Incidentally, Hainan island is also a big tourist destination, holds international beauty pageants, besides being the home base for Chinese military aircraft, nuclear submarines and warships. China continues to take India and the world by surprise due to its meticulous long-term planning, hard military power, diplomacy, surprise, deception, economic power and ruthless execution of plans, which are the basic elements of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. All nations involved in the South China Sea and East China Sea disputes are strengthening their navies, but also realise that to reduce the chances of open conflict, it’s preferable to use lightly-armed Coast Guard ships. This Coast Guard “faceoff” is a regular feature in the ECS’ disputed Senkaku islands, where Chinese Coast Guard ships escort Chinese trawlers near the disputed islands, while the Japanese Coast Guard asserts Japanese sovereignty on the islands it holds.
A new competition for large Coast Guard ships has begun. The US Coast Guard (the world’s second largest) has 4,500-tonne ships, while the Japanese Coast Guard (the third largest) boasts of 6,500-tonne ships. The Chinese Coast Guard is the largest in the world, and it is building two massive 10,000-tonne ships to deliver non-military “shock and awe” to the Japanese in the ECS. In SCS, where China faces lightly armed small regional navies or Coast Guards, but a potent US Navy carries out freedom of navigation operations and the US Air Force patrols it from airbases in the Philippines, the innovative Chinese have introduced a paramilitary maritime force known as the “Maritime Militia”.
This comprises dozens of Chinese state-owned trawlers, operating from fishing harbours in China, since the founding of the Communist republic in 1949, and initially substituted for the almost non-existent Chinese Navy and Coast Guard. Founded in 1985, it operates from Tanmen fishing village in Hainan island and is manned by highly-motivated local fishermen and retired Chinese Navy veterans. In April 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the Tanmen Maritime Militia, in recognition of its role in claiming Chinese sovereignty in the disputed SCS.
These vessels frequently try to harass US Navy warships and obstruct Philippines Navy efforts to access the disputed Scarborough shoal in SCS. This innovative and unarmed militia is escorted by lightly-armed Coast Guard ships and since no agreement has been signed between different countries on the conduct of coast guards at sea, it tries to do some muscle-flexing without weapons, such as when a CCG ship deliberately collided with a small Indonesian patrol boat to “rescue” a Chinese trawler that was arrested for intruding into Indonesian waters.
In April 2014, at the Chinese port city of Qingdao, the navies of over 20 Pacific nations, including China, the US and Japan, approved a non-binding agreement called Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) to prevent incidents at sea. Of course, the Americans now want a similar agreement to include Coast Guards and a Chinese major-general, speaking at the recent Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore (also atttended by Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar), said a CUES for Coast Guards should be possible. But even if that were to happen, the Chinese Maritime Militia will be available to press home its claims in the SCS-ECS.
Using the Art of War, China created doubts in the minds of the US Navy by talking of two shore-based non-tested “aircraft-carrier killer” ballistic missiles, called DF-21D, about which I had written earlier in this newspaper. The DF-21D threat is taken seriously by the Americans, though no test against a sea target has been conducted. If the Chinese were to base it at Gwadar port in Pakistan, it could well pose a major threat to Indian aircraft-carriers, or if these carriers were to venture into the SCS-ECS. A Chinese admiral recently announced China had a new 2,500-mile-range aircraft-carrier killer ballistic missile named DF-26. This weapon too has not yet been tested against a sea target, but what worries the Americans is that these two missiles, if successful, will be game-changers and might make aircraft-carriers obsolete, thus greatly diminishing American sea power.
To conclude, take a sentence from the Art of War: “All warfare is based on deception.” The Chinese moves can be better understood and predicted if one understands Sun Tzu’s book. India-China relations will “normalise” for mutual benefit, only after India’s economy, military power and political will are respected by Beijing. At present, India doesn’t figure very prominently on China’s strategic radar, so Prime Minister Narendra Modi must pay the same attention to defence that he devotes to economic growth and foreign affairs.