Earlier this month, this writer travelled to China as part of a media delegation invited by the All-China Journalists Association (ACJA).
An engaging feature of the trip was the visit to two Chinese military facilities, and a briefing by China’s top military spokesman, Senior Colonel Yang Yujun, and a team of military officers.
There were other meetings, with think tanks, Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials and, of course, sightseeing. But, the military component was striking because it was new.
Beijing-based journalists were first invited to visit the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) 4th Helicopter Regiment in 2012. But, the visit by journalists from India in July 2014 was a first, and the unit stationed in the Tongzhou suburb of the capital was clearly putting its best foot forward.
Visitors pose for photographs during an open day at the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Shek Kong Barracks in Hong Kong on June 29. The Hong Kong Garrison includes elements of the PLA’s Ground Force, Navy and Air Force, representing a total of around 6,000 personnel. Pic/AFP
Its commander, Senior Colonel Zhang Zhilin, told us that this 900-man unit was the first armed helicopter regiment of the army and was formed in June of 1988. It has 72 aircraft — 39 Z9WZ attack helicopters, 27 Mi 17 I and 6 fixed-wing Yuan 7 and 8 aircraft. So, clearly, its functions were both for war-fighting, as well as battlefield support.
Equally fascinating was the visit to the Shanghai Naval Garrison, which involved a briefing by Senior Captain Wei Xiaodong, the chief of staff of the garrison, at his main office at the Shanghai naval base at the mouth of the Whangpu river, as well as a ship-board visit to the Type 056 corvette Ji’an.
What was striking for an Indian viewer was that the spanking new ship, which was commissioned earlier this year, took a year and a half to build. Indian public sector yards take years to build a similar ship. The Bangladesh Navy is expected to get some of these type of ships as well.
The briefing at the Ministry of Defence was interesting because the Chinese spokespersons took on all the questions that were thrown at them, ranging from the China-Pakistan connection, the reasons for the Depsang incursions and other incursions on the LAC, to issues arising from the fact that the PLA’s Second Artillery Force holds both nuclear and conventional missiles. Not all the answers were clear or satisfactory, but the Chinese intention to engage was.
The question that obviously arises from this is: Why? In my view there are two reasons for this. First, as China becomes an economic and military power, it is gaining in self-confidence. The openness is a measure of the fact that it now has a well-equipped and well-led military and, in engaging Indian journalists, the Chinese are attempting to respond to the charge that their military doctrine and policy is opaque.
The other reason is more complex. It has to do with deterrence. In many instances in India, the armed forces are secretive about their facilities and capabilities because they feel a need to hide the fact of their weakness. For years, the Indian Army has bravely soldiered on with a defective personnel weapon the INSAS assault rifle.
Yet, only now has the army made a fuss and insisted that they cannot carry on with the deception and would like to get a replacement. There are several other such areas which are shielded from public knowledge and are often revealed inadvertently, as was done when General V K Singh’s 2012 letter complained that the state of artillery, air defence, and infantry as “alarming”, and that the Army’s tanks were “devoid of critical ammunition to defeat enemy tanks” and air defence was “97% obsolete”.
What the PLA is seeking to do is to show the world, through such media interactions, that it is now a confident, well-equipped military and you mess with it only at your own peril. In the past thirty years, the PLA has undertaken a great deal of restructuring and reform, and the quality of equipment has become better.
There was a time when its shoddy products had to be hidden from public view; now, through a strategy of incremental innovation of imported products, it has developed a pretty impressive array of attack helicopters, frigates, tanks, fighter aircraft and so on.
According to a report of the US President’s National Science Board, China’s research and development (R&D) activity is growing in a range of areas, and its share of global high-technology economic output has risen sharply from 8% in 2003 to 24% in 2012.
In the area of defence, China has used an array of tactics better civil-military integration, stepped up R&D, technology imports and cyber theft — to come up with a range of products like the WU 14 hypersonic vehicle, the DF-21 anti-ship missile, the J-20 and J-31 stealth fighters. Back in the 1990s, the Chinese opened up their nuclear weapons complex to an American nuclear scientist, Danny Stillman, who was Director Technical Intelligence at the US nuclear weapons complex at Los Alamos.
The Chinese convinced him, and presumably the US leadership, that the Chinese had an extensive nuclear programme, which was technologically at par with that of the US. The goal was obvious — to leave the US with no illusions about China’s deterrence capabilities.
In the case of India, China is reluctantly coming around to the view that New Delhi has its own ambitions of emerging as a power centre of sorts. While the size of its economy is well behind that of China, it is still huge.
More germane is the fact that Indian military capabilities are being enhanced with respect to China, both in the conventional and nuclear fields. China sees its primary focus as on neutralising the US-Japan challenge on its eastern seaboard. To that end, maintaining an even keel in its relationship with India makes good sense.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi