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Archive for June, 2011

A commentary, accessed here, by colleagues Alan Chong and Nah Liang Tuang, on cyber warfare. They argue that the increasing frequency of cyber attacks purportedly mounted by state and non-state actors is causing worry worldwide. However policymakers need to steer carefully between their offensive and defensive dimensions in discussing options for cyber defence.

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This is exactly what I mean about China-hysteria. In the words of Democrat Senator Jim Webb, on 26 June 2011 on an MSNBC Meet the Press interview, “this is something that does not get discussed, as we have focused for the last 10 years on this part of the world, our situation in East Asia with respect to China and China’s expansionist military activities has deteriorated. We are at a point in the South China Sea right now where we are approaching a Munich moment with China, and it’s not being discussed.”

Is the modernisation of China’s military forces a potential problem? I definitely think it is something that must be monitored carefully and rigorously. Is China’s current behaviour in the South China Sea something to worry about? Again, yes, it is something we must continue to monitor carefully. But to use the Munich analogy? Seriously?

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Colleagues Ron Matthews, Alma Lozano and Pathikrit Payne argue in this RSIS Commentary that India’s impending decision on the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft – the two remaining contenders being the Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon – may seem to tilt against recent developments in the India-United States relationship. On the other hand, India has also placed orders for 10 Boeing C-17 GLobemaster III aircraft. This, the authors argue, represents a delicate balancing act that India has undertaken, one that appears to have been quite successful.

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China’s military modernisation has been in the news over the last couple of months, from news suggesting the not-too-far-off launching of the ex-Soviet Varyag aircraft carrier, the Chinese statements in the recently-concluded Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore earlier in June 2011, the recent statement of a Chinese general saying that China’s defense posture is wholly defensive in nature, that China does not seek hegemony over anybody. Hot on th heels of these developments is the rising tensions over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Three things that seem to jump out, at least to me, from these developments.

One, the Chinese claim that their strategic posture is defensive in nature: several questions begin to emerge. Who is China being defensive towards or against. Against Japan, India, Southeast Asia combined? I know I sound like I am being facetious, and probably I am. Let’s be clear – when China says its strategic posture is defensive in nature, this statement is targeted primarily at the United States. That being the case, my response is, “Well, d’uh!” Of course China’s stance is going to be defensive: the United States spends on defence almost as much as every other country in the world combined! If the Chinese wanted to take an offensive posture against the United States, good luck to them!

That being said, I seriously doubt that the Chinese will adopt a defensive defence strategic posture against the United States. First of all, while I personally think that the defensive defence/non-offensive defence thesis is something worth resurrecting (I believe it is increasingly technologically feasible, which means it is strategically and tactically supportable; it promises to have a much less destabilising effect on regional security and stability) I seriously doubt anyone in Beijing believes this to be so. As far as I know, just about no strategic or military planner believes in non-offensive defence, so why should the Chinese be among the first to subscribe to defensive defence? Which means that while the Chinese can legitimately claim a strategic posture that is inherently defensive, this does not preclude some limited forms of offensive capability and power.

It makes sense! The Chinese have always insisted that the Taiwan issue is a purely domestic issue. Yet, in the Taiwan Straits crisis in the 1990s, the United States Navy intervened in a very public manner, with the deployment of aircraft carrier battle groups in the Taiwan Straits to force both Taiwan and China back from the brink. If China really intends to make Taiwan a domestic political issue, it will therefore have to be able to deny the United States Navy access to the waters around Taiwan, such that the latter can then project power to intervene in a future crisis in the Taiwan Straits. The denial of access is a strategic posture that will require some limited forms of offensive capability and operations.

However, if the message was targeted at even India or Japan, let alone Southeast Asia, then the message is disingenuous. Maybe the Indians might be able to stand up against the weight of China’s military power, but I doubt very much that anybody else in Asia can do likewise, not even Japan. China therefore has nothing to be on the defensive about with regards to the rest of Asia, as such! China’s limited offensive capabilities designed to provide it with an anti-access strategic posture with regards to the United States is more than sufficient to be a very potent (and potentially strategically sufficient) offensive capability with regards to just about any Asian country.

So how do we begin to make sense of Chinese intentions? As I have argued before in this blog and elsewhere, we cannot just look at a country’s material capabilities – how many tanks, ships, aircraft, guns its armed forces has. We also seriously need to look at intentions, even though I will be the first to admit that discerning intentions is next to impossible, at least from the standpoint of being able to verify perceptions of another country’s intentions.

China says it is a peaceful nation, that it is committed to the peace and stability of the Asia Pacific region. Specifically in relation to the islands dispute in the South China Sea, China in the past agreed with proposals to shelve sovereignty issues and focus on joint exploration (notice, joint exploration, not joint exploitation of any resources found in the seabed of the South China Sea, although I am prepared to stand corrected). But have these words been commensurate with China’s actions? I am no China-hand, so I admit I have no evidence to address my own question (so if anyone has the answer, please let me know, thanks). More importantly, as China’s maritime powers have grown, has there been any commensurate change in China’s words and actions as well? I suggest that this might begin to give us an insight into the otherwise opaque issue of intentions.

Interestingly a colleague today informed me that at a recent meeting on the South China Sea issue, he was informed by petroleum company officials at that meeting that the petroleum companies are coming round to the conclusion that whatever energy resources they might find in the South China Sea, the amounts are expected to be so small as to be economically insignificant; as a consequence, these petroleum companies are apparently starting to shift their focus to other bodies of water.

If this is indeed accurate, then how can we begin to understand China’s quite bellicose stance over the current South China Sea tensions? Surely the Chinese will have also known what the petroleum company representives apparently now believe about the issue; so why the continued belligerance? What I am going to now say is admittely purely speculative, but bear with me for the moment. I am coming round to the view that China’s stance on the South China Sea has always been driven by more than just the belief in energy resources in the seabed. Rather, I am starting to wonder if the main motivation might not always have been more strategic than economic. If the Chinese can claim all of the South China Sea as their territorial waters, then this surely should facilitate their stance with regards to the Taiwan issue.

In other words, maybe the South China Sea issue has always been, at least for China, more strategic than economic. Whether Beijing sees the South China Sea as territorial waters or EEZs does not really matter. If I am right, then all the more reason that we in Southeast Asia have to worry about China!

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So China is about to launch its Varyag-class aircraft carrier. Finally! I can almost hear the cries of alarm ringing out around the world, certainly in the Asia-Pacific region.

Lest anyone accuse me of being sympathetic to China, let me assure you I am not. I do believe that an economically, politically and militarily powerful China might not be a positive development for security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. It is entirely plausible that such a powerful China might start flexing its muscles, to the detriment of everyone else in the region. At the very least, it certainly presents the conditions for an Asia-Pacific version of Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue – a statement of power politics, where the strong can do whatever they want, and everyone else must suffer the consequences.

All these things are plausible enough future scenarios. But I think we should also be honest in admitting that while we fear these future scenarios, there is nothing that says that such bleak future scenarios are the only ones that can or will emerge. However much we think them unlikely, it is also plausible enough that such a powerful China might not flex its muscles. A powerful China does not have to be a bullying China.

One aircraft carrier, I do not care what anyone else might say, does not a blue-water navy make. Just because China will in the not too distant future have a working aircraft carrier does not mean it will possess the capacity to project power into Southeast Asia in a manner that would undermine the security of the region.

As I have written before, several considerations need to be included into our strategic calculus before we can definitively say that this powerful China will be a negative influence on the region. China may have what appears to be pretty cutting-edge weapons systems and platforms, but however good a technology may be, it is only as good as the operator behind the system. My 3G mobile phone is capable of many things, but all I know what to use it for is three things: make calls, send short messages, and use the electronic diary in it to organise my working life. I am certainly not maximising the full potential of my otherwise impressive 3G mobile phone!

Similarly with China. For all the apparent whiz-bang high-tech appearances of the PLA, just how skilled are their soldiers? That surely is a question that can onyl be answered if the PLA ever fires another shot in anger. As long as the PLA never does this, then what the PLA has is latent or potential military power.

Secondly, the capability of the PLA is also shaped by the coherence of its strategic and tactical doctrines. I suspect it will be quite some time before the PLAN can come up with a coherent doctrine that maximises the warfighting potential of its aircraft carriers.

Maybe what we ought to be doing is to weigh these considerations first before pressing the panic button!

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Here is something that has been bugging me for some time. Why does the SAF sometimes get the classification or the name of specific weapons systems or platforms wrong?

Case in point: the recent launching of the Terrex Infantry Fighting Vehivle. The Straits Times reported the Minister for Defence’s speech as saying the Army was now a fully motorised army. A motorised army is one that travels most of the time by lorry/truck, infantry get off close to a combat zone and then proceed to the combat zone on foot. The Terrex does not do that! It allows infantry to be inserted in relative safety right into a combat zone. That makes the Army a mechanised army!

Then there was the Endurance-class LST (at least that is what the vessel is officially known as). But the platform is not an LST (Landing Ship, Tank). Rather, it is more precisely an LPD (Landing Platform Deck). Either somebody is getting it wrong – and horribly wrong! – or there is some disinformation campaign going on. If it is disinformation, it is a sadly amateurish attempt though.

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