A Relentless War on Corruption… and Political Rivals

A lot has been written recently about the Chinese Communist Party’s anti-corruption campaign under President Xi Jinping, particularly following the arrest this week of Zhou Yongkang, former member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the highest executive body of the Party, where he served as head of the security apparatus, with powers reaching into the courts, police, intelligence and paramilitary forces.  Some have called this unprecedented arrest of a high official “tearing up the rulebook” in Chinese politics.  But I wish particularly to respond to this video by StratFor, an American think tank known for its geopolitical determinism.

It describes the anti-corruption campaign as going deeper than ever before, and even as a break with the consensus-driven, gradualist model of party governance instituted by Deng Xiaoping following the death of Mao and the end of the disastrous Cultural Revolution.  Not surprisingly, they attribute the change to a crisis in Party legitimacy.  I would like to look at some of the reasons behind this apparent innovation which are rather more complex than one might suspect.

 

Crisis of Legitimacy?

Is the Party truly losing the support of the people?  It depends on how you put the question.

After Mao’s death, the Party gradually shifted the basis of its legitimacy from Communist dogma to nationalism, specifically, the promise of reviving China’s lost status in the world, rectifying the “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers, and of course, bringing economic prosperity.  On every count, it has delivered astounding results while maintaining what, after the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution became the prime value of an entire generation: stability.  The Party, therefore, has unparalleled legitimacy.

On the other hand, despite continued attempts at reform, the problems of environmental degradation, labour abuses resulting in shortages of willing migrant workers, virtual theft of land undertaken in the name of development, regional inequality, inadequate social infrastructure and a host of other problems remain rampant.  The most damaging of these for the Party’s image is corruption on the part of high party officials and their families, who inherited the majority of the economy when it was privatised.  The damage done by these officials is palpable and economically significant.  The Party, therefore, has limited and diminishing legitimacy.

Both sides of the coin are entirely valid.  It’s a Schrödinger’s cat type of situation.

 

Shifting Rules of Politics

For ten years, President Hu Jintao did next to nothing about these problems, despite passionate speeches on the subject by his premier, Wen Jiabao.  Many now believe that this inaction was the result of the fact that they belonged to the wrong camp within the Party.  Neither was a princeling, a descendant of the founding members of the party, and neither was of the same conservative camp as Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who was the silent elder of the Party.  Hu, always a compromise candidate, never had the personal influence to make significant reforms.

Xi Jinping, on the other hand, is a princeling and almost certainly sponsored by Jiang’s wing of the Party.  If only Nixon could go to China, then only Xi or someone like him could both establish significant personal authority over the Party and keep it in line while implementing reforms.

On the one hand, the prolonged and visible anti-corruption campaign is necessary for public relations, but it is also a means for Xi to secure his own position.  Indeed, it should be thought of less as an anti-corruption campaign than an exemplary purge.  Almost every high official, especially from the ranks of the princelings, probably has some skeletons in the closet- corruption being very much part of the social culture of Chinese officialdom.  The choice of high-level targets, however, has been both exemplary and strategic.

First came Bo Jilai, a protégé of Zhou Yongkang and a strong candidate for Standing Committee membership.  He was also the most prominent figure in the movement to return the Party to socialist values after years of unchecked demolition of the welfare state.  Whether Bo was motivated by any sort of conviction or merely the political advantage of traditionalist iconography, the idea of judging the actions of the Party by its own founding doctrine was seen as profoundly threatening.  Bo’s implication in the murder of a Westerner may have made his downfall inevitable, but it was also a convenient opportunity.

Another high-level target was Jiang Jiemin, a senior figure in both the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation and the administration of the powerful State-Owned Enterprises.  His career was also facilitated by Zhou Yongkang, a fact that led some to predict that Zhou himself was the ultimate target, as head of a power bloc in rivalry to Xi Jinping’s own.  Then there was General Xu Caihou, retired Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission, the senior military officer under Hu Jintao’s government.  Now, we have a former head of the security services.  These three elements, the security services, the army and the state-owned enterprises, represent the three legs which support the Party in power, and the message is loud and clear- Xi can go after anyone he wants to in any of the three on the pretext of corruption, and the people will support him.  Not since Mao has personal loyalty to a leader been enforced so emphatically.

 

What Course?

Whatever course Xi plots for the Party and the state, it is fairly clear that liberal reform is not a part of it.  Between the tightening of censorship and the arrest of anti-corruption demonstrators and other pesky intellectual types, and virtual silence in other problem areas at the very moment when China is struggling to make up for lost offshore manufacturing with high-tech industries and domestic consumption, the picture of the future does not look promising- and that future is increasingly Xi’s to shape.  As for the anti-corruption campaign, it is a rousing success, having delivered to Xi both a much-needed dilution of public cynicism and the chance to firmly secure his own position.

Casualties of Budget and Strained Relationships

With the US government in partial shutdown, publicly-owned shipyards are furloughing workers and restricting activities to critical maintenance. This sort of thing will have far-reaching implications for the readiness of the world’s largest navy.

Time may be running out for the A-10, the world’s best close-support aircraft. The Chief of US Combat Air Command has said that if sequestration continues, the “Warthog” will be sacrificed to fund the F-35 and the role passed to that aircraft. The Army, understandably, is not happy. It isn’t just an issue of the A-10’s famous 30mm Gatling cannon- the F-35 is a more delicate platform with a higher minimum speed, and would have to carry out the close support role from a distance and at speeds that make it difficult to distinguish the situation on the ground. It will also of course be much more expensive, something that will become instantly apparent the first time an F-35 takes ground fire. An A-10 can be shot to pieces, fly home with its pilot safe and be repaired and back on the line in a matter of days or weeks. An F-35 in that situation would be a total loss.

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Tom Clancy, author of such classic techno-thrillers as The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising, has passed away at the age of 66. In his memory, USNI republishes his 1982 article advocating hovercraft as nuclear launch platforms. Not perhaps the tribute he might have wanted. Clancy was a man with a clarity of vision about his country’s potential and role in the world, which the country unfortunately did not share.

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Argentina is replacing old Mirage IIIs in its inventory- with used Mirage F1s from Spain. The Argentine armed services have been unable to recoup their aging equipment stocks for decades, and that seems unlikely to change.

China’s J-31, the “other” stealth fighter, is likely destined for export, filling demand for stealth aircraft created by the F-35 among the sort of countries America doesn’t sell to.

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The Diplomat on tensions in the Russo-Chinese relationship- still rosy on the outside, but Russia is struggling to show its neighbour that it is still a great power to be dealt with. Russian suspicions of China’s strategic intentions go back to the Mao era, and are compounded by Russia’s history of invasions from the east and geographic indefensibility. Paranoia, perhaps.

Meanwhile, Russia is irritating China through its enhanced strategic ties with Vietnam and its involvement in that country’s offshore drilling exploration. Vietnam has ordered Su-30MK2 aircraft from Russia as well as a new batch of Kilo class submarines. If the Americans were making those sales, China would call it containment. Although Vietnam’s navy and air force are in no position to take on China, Vietnam plays on its previous record of fighting against the odds to intimate that it could raise the cost of hostilities prohibitively.

At the 65th anniversary of the founding of the South Korean Armed Forces, the ROK Army paraded a new land-based cruise missile (caution, the picture in the BBC article was of old Nike Hercules SAM variants). South Korea already has a land-attack cruise missile capacity.

After years of hemming and hawing on both sides, Taiwan is again saying that it wants to buy new American weapons, including a replacement for its F-16s. Taiwan, which held undeniable military superiority over the People’s Republic of China at the turn of the millennium, now faces a People’s Liberation Army that has modernised in every dimension and holds vast numerical and technological advantages.

Air-Sea Battle Debate Picks Up, South Korea Heads For Silent Eagle

Further to my posts on military doctrine and naval warfare in East Asia, and Mark’s posts on Air-Sea Battle, James Holmes reports over at the Diplomat on a debate that’s been heating up. Specifically, the question is whether Air-Sea Battle is needlessly escalatory, and whether, surprise surprise, a naval blockade approach (as for example the one suggested by Kline and Hughes a while ago) might be the better approach to a notional future conflict with China. Holmes provides some good sources and analysis, but unfortunately doesn’t seem to have heard of Kline and Hughes’ take, dubbed “War at Sea,” going with Hammes’ somewhat less innovative “Offshore Control” concept instead. Some of the caveats that arise toward the end of the article might be better answered under the former framework than the latter.

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Meanwhile, South Korea’s fighter competition seems to have reached a point where Boeing’s Silent Eagle is the last bird flying. The F-35 broke the bank, and the Eurofighter consortium seems to have fudged some of their paperwork.

The Silent Eagle is an untried, radar cross-section reduced F-15 variant. Its low-observable characteristics depend on carrying missiles internally in what used to be the F-15 conformal fuel tanks, which both reduces range and provides only a four-missile capacity. Of course, it has all the expected goodies in terms of avionics, but it still lacks the various aerodynamic upgrades tested on the F-15 airframe. What’s so great about that? Well, for one thing, the Koreans really wanted a stealth aircraft, since China and Japan will both have stealth aircraft. While it is highly doubtful that Silent Eagle is any more stealthy than any other Generation 4.5 fighter (bearing in mind the F-15 layout was not designed for low-observability, unlike the Typhoon), the name might carry some weight. Also, South Korea already has a fleet of relatively new F-15Ks, so there are advantages in standardisation.

China, Drones and C4ISR

The US Air Force has a new idea for reconnaissance in Chinese airspace. Forget the U2s, the SR-71s, the recon satellites- the future is in drone bugs, tiny, self-recharging, semi-autonomous UAVs, or so Air Force reps told the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s annual conference. The reasoning is simple: you can’t shoot down a swarm of bugs with an S-300 missile (and even if you could, you’d look pretty silly doing it).

I’ve argued elsewhere that drone technology is a Pandora’s box, not only or even primarily because of its ethical implications for warfare, privacy and government abuse, but rather because the more governments fund drones’ development, the more the technology will proliferate and come within economic reach of unstable regimes, terrorist groups and the general public- the latter is already happening in commercial applications. The smaller and lower-altitude the drone, the harder to contain or control it becomes, and self-sustaining insect drones are from this perspective just about the worst thing one could invent, precisely because they are likely to become cheap and widely accessible at some point.

Another question is in what circumstances this capability would be used. It is one thing to confine it to crisis situations, but to use it in peacetime would guarantee a similar response. Constant low-level drone warfare is not a good idea or a good precedent, especially between great powers.

Meanwhile, as Shane Bilsborough reiterates over at The Diplomat, China isn’t so very far behind in either drone warfare in particular or the field of information dominance in general. This should come as no surprise- the 1991 Gulf War was a tremendous wake-up call to a number of rising militaries, and the lessons of the information-age battlefield translated very quickly in China into a new set of command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) doctrine on the one hand, and a corresponding offensive doctrine to disrupt these capabilities in an attacking force. These trends are well-represented in the book Chinese Views of Future Warfare , an anthology of translated Chinese articles.

China regards electronic, cyber and space-based warfare as the new “high ground” of naval warfare, assuming the place that air power has held since the Second World War. For the cyberspace part, see Richard Stone’s in-depth account of China’s development of offensive cyber capabilities in the March 1st 2013 issue of Science Magazine. A second aspect of this trend is China’s development of a wide range of relevant equipment, including Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft such as the KJ-2000, which are believed to be a generation ahead of American AWACS in sensor capability. And of course, China has developed and is believed to be mass-producing a full range of drones, from small battlefield models up to Global Hawk equivalents. The latter are of particular concern if they should be used for naval strike. There are other, equally dangerous missions which have been tested in recent exercises, including disruption of enemy communications and facilitation of friendly ones. Target-finding and designation are equally important- as China’s array of long-range anti-ship missiles, including ballistic missiles, grows, finding and coordinating strikes against target vessels becomes a networked function. In addition, China now has a full range of surveillance satellites for situational awareness and soon, targeting functions.

In short, China is no pushover in any aspect of C4ISR, least of all drone warfare. Its one major problem is coordination and equipment compatibility between different branches, exacerbated by inter-service rivalries.

Back the United States, which is beginning to introduce a new generation of tactical network, Rockwell Collins’ Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT). The idea is to create a jamming-resistant, frequency-hopping, secure ad-hoc network over a large battlespace with long range and low latency. It is being installed on the E-2D Hawkeye AEW aircraft, the EA-18G Growler Electronic Warfare Aircraft, and is the control link for the X-47B carrier UCAV. In future, it may supplant current systems such as Link 16. The Growler installation is particularly interesting, since one of the touted abilities of the aircraft is to jam enemy communications links while maintaining friendly ones. The significance of TTNT is its presumed capability to resist electronic warfare measures, such as those China is keenly developing. One wonders how many ways the electromagnetic spectrum can be sliced and diced before becoming useless to everyone.

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On a different note, James Holmes’ article in Foreign Policy (and related note at The Diplomat) does a good job highlighting some of the imponderables of China’s naval development, as well as some of the differences in naval thinking between China and the West.

I’m not one to wade into the debate over America’s future as a world power, but if you’re interested in the state of the issue from an academic perspective, here’s an article that summarises it fairly well.

Japan’s Carrier and China’s Bullish Insecurity

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Japan has formally unveiled its newest helicopter carrier Izumo (Japan uses the old DDH helicopter destroyer designation, because everything is a destroyer in Japan). With an announced complement of 14 helicopters, it is a formidable patrol and anti-submarine warfare asset. At 248 metres in length, it is comparable in size to the old American Essex class carriers (or the current American Wasp-class assault ships). Its predecessor in production, Hyuga, was smaller at 197 metres, closer to the size of V/STOL carriers, though of course neither class has any fixed-wing armament planned- yet.

Given China’s carrier program, which includes one fixed-wing carrier in commission and others building, it is tempting to see Hyuga and Izumo as a direct response. However, it is a decidedly confusing one. On the one hand, Japan has just demonstrated proof of concept that it can build carriers of any size in very short order, which should come as no surprise, and with help from the United States, there is little doubt that they could be converted for fixed-wing operations. On the other hand, the ships’ current ASW mission is valid given the advancement of China’s submarine fleet, though Izumo is rather large for the role. The other issue is why Japan would bother with this kind of subtlety rather than simply commission these hulls as fixed-wing carriers.

And that leads us to the basic confusion of Japan’s defence policy, predicated on self-defence, facing economic recession and reluctance to remove traditional budgetary constraints on the one hand, and on the other facing a less than friendly neighbour with a growing military and an historical animus toward Japan deeply embedded in popular nationalism. The current Japanese government has been branded militarist by China and South Korea for comments in the most recent defence white paper, and yet in concrete terms has made no procurement plans that would allow Japan to keep its edge at sea and in the air, as against China’s increasingly ambitious procurements. Izumo looks impressive, but without addressing the widening gaps in numbers of modern surface combatants and aircraft, it is a very big nil.

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China is effectively scuppering ASEAN’s latest attempt to unite in the face of Chinese bullishness in ongoing island-chain disputes. China has essentially told ASEAN to forget any agreement on a code of conduct in such disputes anytime soon. China has a policy of discouraging any attempt at multilateral negotiation on such issues, or heaven forbid, international arbitration.

Ruan Zongze, Chinese diplomat and senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, has warned that Japan and the Philippines are making a serious mistake by allowing the United States to embolden them into challenging “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China” by daring to lay claim to islands which China has unilaterally declared that it owns. “No one in this world will try to contain China and no one in this world is capable of containing China,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute blogs about China’s maritime strategy challenges. While I don’t agree with all of their arguments (such as the contention that China could not assert control of the Taiwan Strait against US forces, or conversely the idea that the US would be quick to intervene against Chinese attempts to seize islands in the South China Sea by force, an odd argument considering that the US has already stood by while China did exactly that), the post does something important in emphasising the inherently tenuous nature of the Chinese maritime position.

As I’ve argued previously, China is looking at an economic umbilical cord that runs from the oil fields of the Middle East and Africa, across the Indian Ocean and through the Malacca Strait, through which a great deal of China’s trade runs. While China can try to ease its complete energy vulnerability (especially to India, whose mastery of the Indian Ocean China could not easily contest) by building trans-Asian pipelines, the fact remains that any major navy could cripple Chinese trade, and with it the Chinese economy, in a matter of weeks by sitting at one end of the Malacca Strait. To overcome this vulnerability, China would have to outmatch the United States, Japan and India combined. China can try to dominate the waters within the “First Island Chain”, but in the end, they are dependent on the good will of others, and there is nothing they can do about it.

CBC News on Modern Espionage

A fairly decent video report from CBC News on the modern espionage boom and its effects on Canada. There are two important takeaways that, while not surprising to anyone who has studied the current state of the intelligence world in any depth, would probably surprise many people who have not.

Although awareness of the fact of economic espionage from China is spreading, people do not realise the far-reaching economic and geopolitical effects that come with it. This is not just about stealing the Blackberry. This is about stealing billions of dollars worth of investment, research and development that underpins major high-tech industry in North America and Europe and shifting that knowledge to China for nothing. Beside that huge espionage-based economic shift, the theft of military technology seems almost trivial.

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“Seems” because the other major takeaway from this video is the spread and ease of military and military-industrial espionage. The GRU, Russian military intelligence (ironically most famous in the West for plagiarising the Batman logo), has always been the quieter and more competent of Russia’s two major covert intelligence agencies, and it never closed shop. It appears that the Delisle espionage case is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the access they have. Russian intelligence in particular was always a little secret-happy, and it appears there’s a push on to extract as many secrets from the West as possible. China, of course, has not only vast cyber-espionage resources, but it has been publicly acknowledged that the Chinese have stolen plans for everything from nuclear weapons (see video) to the F-35. Combined with the fact that China makes a great deal of the electronics for the US military, it is a very uncomfortable situation.

Although the report focuses on Russia and China, other countries (this is where people in the intel world might cover their mouths and whisper “France!”) do exactly the same thing on a smaller scale. The point is that in a high-tech world, covert intelligence seems to have gained a palpable edge over counterintelligence.

In the News: Yakhont Goes Boom and Sugar-Packed MiGs

Explosions on July 5th in the Syrian port city of Latakia may have been a shipment of Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles, allegedly destroyed by a cruise missile launched from an Israeli Dolphin-class submarine.

Japan is catching flak for criticising China’s defence buildup and strident unilateral behaviour in ongoing island territorial disputes in this year’s defence white paper. The Defense News article does a good job of examining all sides of the issue.

For the Chinese (and the South Koreans, who also have an island in dispute with Japan), this comes across as advancing the militant nationalist agenda of the Abe government. To the Americans, it is a signal that Japan may be willing to increase its investment in its own defence, a sore point for the Americans who are essentially spending $80 billion a year providing defence to Japan.

An objective observer might note, however, that the Japanese are acknowledging a real problem in calling out China’s unilateral actions and violations of Japanese territorial waters and airspace (hundreds of instances every year). One might also note that the Americans are unlikely to get what they want. Japan seems to have no plans to expand its military forces in any meaningful way. It has fallen behind China in production of naval air defence ships, new combat aircraft acquisitions and now carriers as well, and there are no plans to redress the balance.

Panama has impounded a North Korean freighter found to be carrying two MiG-21s, assorted spare parts and a number of obsolete surface-to-air missile systems from Cuba, concealed under bags of sugar. Defense News presents a history of North Korean sanction-busting. Frankly, if MiG-21’s and SA-2s are all it’s got them, let them have it.

The CSIS think tank published its annual in-depth analysis of the US defense budget.

The Washington Post published a very interesting interview discussing the direction of China’s economy. The bottom line is that even this quarter’s 7.5% growth was massively subsidised through government underwriting of unsustainable (and uneconomic) capital investments, and any attempt to change current policies in order to develop domestic consumption could trigger an economic crisis.

George Freidman of Stratfor writes very perceptively on the NSA and the problem with surveillance today:
“The problem with the war on terror is that it has no criteria of success that is potentially obtainable. It defines no level of terrorism that is tolerable but has as its goal the elimination of all terrorism, not just from Islamic sources but from all sources. That is simply never going to happen and therefore, PRISM and its attendant programs will never end. These intrusions, unlike all prior ones, have set a condition for success that is unattainable, and therefore the suspension of civil rights is permanent. Without a constitutional amendment, formal declaration of war or declaration of a state of emergency, the executive branch has overridden fundamental limits on its powers and protections for citizens.”