(This continues Richard Scotford’s insightful Guest Posting on the Chinese military.)
With the pressure to achieve full Informationization of the PLA increasing yearly, China certainly is looking for its ‘shock and awe’ moment and an opportunity to test out all its hard work and brand new kit on a pliable enemy. The good news for the US is that bar any unforeseen incidents that irrevocably escalate tensions in the near-term, the initial recipient will not be the US Navy. More than likely it will be Vietnam. Make no mistake though, the ultimate target of China’s Informationization push is the United States. The driving motors that are moving this ideology forward is the need to counter the US military’s strengths and exploit its perceived weaknesses.
You do not need to be military strategists to realize this.
The big gorilla in the room
The US specializes in distant force-projection that protects freedom of navigation, especially through the use of aircraft carriers. Therefore Informationization aims to counter this by creating a sophisticated network of information flows that can pinpoint and target a carrier thousands of miles off the coast of China. Much is lauded about China’s new satellite and missile strike capabilities. Even Reuters is now reporting that China could soon pass the US in satellite targeting. Yet, this is only half the story. To truly understand Informationization, one should understand that its goal is to network low-tech devices, such as innocuous fishing boats with high-tech devices, like military satellites. The idea is to create eyes and ears everywhere, all controlled by a central, untouchable core. In a wartime situation, an all-seeing net will be cast out from China across the seas, leaving the US Navy with nowhere to hide. Sun Tzu would be proud.
So, when China’s Military White Paper announces that it is working diligently to create Informationization, it means it is sewing together an indestructible web of information-interconnectivity that links up lowly, civilian fishermen, with military UAVs and intercontinental missiles. Whose ultimate aim is to blood the US military before it can get within striking range of Mainland China.
Should you be worried?
Well, yes …… and no.
Firstly, any country, including China, has the freedom and independence to develop its military in any way it wishes. But, if a country sets up its military in such a way that is obviously designed to counter another’s, then one should be worried. After all, the US is not and has hardly ever been an enemy of China. In fact, the US’s history of supporting China is second to none. In colonial days, it was the US that championed the Open Door Policy. In World War Two it was the US that propped up China in its fight against the Japanese. In the Chinese Civil War it was the US that urged reconciliation between Chiang Kai Shek and Mao’s Communists. After China’s self imposed isolation, it was the US that brought China back into the fold and finally it is obvious to all, that China’s spectacular rise could never have happened without full engagement from the US economy. So, the very fact that the Chinese military’s primary stance is designed to counter the US military is both perplexing and worrying. As mentioned previously, China is investing enormous resources into creating its Anti Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) and at the heart of this is the concept of Informationization. The very notion of such a weapon is so obviously anti-American that it is now a bad joke when Chinese generals openly deny it.
An equivalent example would be if the US military announced that it would be investing significant money and resources into an intercontinental, dam-busting MOAB. (MOAB meaning Massive Ordnance Air Blast or colloquially, Mother Of All Bombs. Yes, they do actually exist.) If the US military actively lauded such a weapon system, showcasing its destructive ability at destroying mega-dams at international air-shows. Just like the PLA does with its ASBM, then it would be clear to all who the potential recipient was, China, despite every country in the world possessing dams. If this were the case, no doubt you would hear cries of indignation from the CCP about the US’s hostile designs and its duplicitous intentions.
So, there is great need to worry that a so-called ‘friendly nation’ is investing so much time and energy into offensive systems that are obviously designed to attack you. One can only wonder, if this is what the Chinese military thinks is acceptable when relations are congenial, what would happen if relations soured? With friends like this, who needs enemies?
So, what possible reason could there be NOT to worry?
Well, back in the real world, the lofty ambitions of Informationization aren’t so easy to achieve. Creating networks that link together fishing boats, UAVs, maritime defense forces, navy, space satellites, the 2nd Artillery and a twitchy, paranoid government is no easy task, especially in corrupt China. One party states certainly are great at launching huge projects, take the Three Gorges Dam and the new high-speed rail links as examples. But this doesn’t mean that the finished result works to the required standard that everyone was expecting. So, there really is no proof that the Chinese military can put this all together into a coherent fighting system and not trip over its own feet in the process. The Third Front comes to mind as a military strategy that was completely loopy, unachievable and a total waste of time and money.
On top of this Informationization has other inescapable problems that are hard to ignore. Firstly, a battered, old truck connected to a multi-billion dollar, Chinese made GPS system is still a battered, old truck. A bean-can tank with an indigenous, battle-awareness system is still just a bean-can tank, and a fishermen acting as the intelligence point man in the South China Sea is still only fisherman in a wooden boat. Even the A-10 analogy is erroneous, because the PLA doesn’t even possess an indigenous fighting platform that comes anywhere close to the A-10. So, the Informationization concept may well be a good enough reason for the US Air Force to keep the old Warthog spitting fire, but can it really help to integrate China’s creaking Ming class subs with its modern Shangs? Its ageing Jianwei class frigates with its Type52 Destroyers? Or its T80s with its T99s? None of which have any combat pedigree.
To conclude, Informationization certainly is a lofty goal and a big ask, but it needs to be. It is designed to overcome a formidable opponent, the US. Interestingly China is no stranger to trying to overcome monumental obstacles with big ideas. However, there is a very real possibility that just like The Great Wall, The Great Leap Forward, The Third Front, The Three Gorges Dam, high-speed rail and Hu Jintao’s Harmonious Society Informationization will not be equal to the sum of its parts and will probably be found wanting at crunch time.
Richard Scotford is a freelance writer living in HK.
He holds a Master’s Degree in Chinese Studies from CUHK and writes the China Rising blog at: http://chinarisingblog.blogspot.com/