The Chinese Dragon in recent times has created turbulence and raised several concerns, both at the global and regional levels. This has resulted in several commentaries by defence analyst and strategic community. Recently I penned two articles – “The Clash of Strategic Culture and Managing Future Conflict Situations” and “Dragon’s Fang and Strategic Underpinnings”. While I was overwhelmed by the positive response, one commentator asked me to pen, India’s tactical response to the Chinese forays across the Line of Actual Control (LAC). My immediate response was, one, we need to understand the conceptual mismatch, while we focus on tactical responses, the Chinese focus on strategic outcomes, and two, we have capable commanders and troops on the ground to effectively deal with the tactical situation. It only reinforced my perception that greater strategic understanding is necessitated for dealing with the dragon. This in no way undermines the imperative of a resolute response to Chinese “salami cutting” on the LAC, which is equally critical, both for strategic messaging and making sanctity of LAC inviolable. This article thus focuses on the psyche and strategic intent of the dragon, behind the causative factors of its antagonistic behavior. It also defines the global and regional course to deal with a belligerent Dragon.
Dragon and Mythology
The dragon is a mythological powerful and benevolent symbol of the Chinese culture. Chinese dragon traditionally symbolizes potent and auspicious powers. It was said that thousands of years ago, Yandi (a legendary tribal leader) was born by his mother’s telepathy with a mighty dragon. With the help of the dragon, and allied with Huangdi (a legendary tribal leader), they opened the prelude to Chinese civilization; so Yandi and Huangdi were considered to be ancestors of the Chinese people. Emperors in ancient China were thus identified as the sons of dragons. They traditionally symbolize potent and auspicious powers and good luck. During the days of Imperial China, the Emperor used the dragon as a symbol of his imperial strength and power. It is believed to be able to appear in a variety of shapes and is often depicted as human, indicative of its ultimate evolution. It is thought to reign in all directions and planes, indicating its ambition. The Chinese dragon has attributes belonging to nine other creatures: eyes like a shrimp, antlers like a deer, a big mouth like a bull, a nose like a dog, whiskers like a catfish, a lion’s mane, a long tail like a snake, scales like a fish, and claws like a hawk. Do these relate to its guile, revisionist, fierce and intimidating behavior of bellicose China of today? Do these attributes also define the dragon’s intent and focus? Indeed the dragon’s DNA is here to stay and redefine the world equilibrium. The Chinese Dragon has indeed transformed from a mythological benevolent symbol of ancient times to a belligerent prodigy in the present times. One thing seems clear in this volatile world of “Dragon Play”. There are no choices, where the strong preyed on the weak. The strong are respected, only when you truly display your strength. Indeed “Enter the Chinese Dragon”, of the 21st Century! The challenge remains – How do we contain, curtail, tame, or manage this Dragon?
Interestingly, dragons are also found in Indian mythology. The tale of Lord Indra slaying Vritra a dragon with scaly skin and tentacles finds mention in both the Rig Veda and Puranic literature. Vritra had taken control of all the water in the world by blocking the path of rivers, leading to a drought. Indra battled him for 360 days and ultimately killed him using a weapon devised from seafoam at twilight. A “Good Prevails over Evil’, fable. Are the lessons for taming the Dragon, from Indian mythology relevant today?
Dragon’s Strategic Culture
Dragon’s behavior is a manifestation of its strategic culture. The culture of China is one of the world’s oldest and most complex cultures. Chinese history, as documented in ancient writings, dates back some 3,300 years. China thus perceives itself not as a nation-state but rather a “state of civilization.” Chinese strategic culture and history have several distinctive characters and varied narratives ranging from the “Middle Kingdom” mentality, the weight of the past narrative of “Century of Humiliation” and Confucianism. In defining China as the Middle Kingdom as early as the Song Dynasty, Shi Jie (1005-45), drew upon cosmology reasoning saying “heaven is above, the earth is below, and that in-between heaven and earth is called China”. The weight of the past shaping the strategic culture is also embedded in the narrative of the “Century of Humiliation” defined by defeat, unfair treaties, loss of territory, and humiliations at the hands of western powers before the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949. Chinese nationalism in its basic form thus encompasses the pride of being Chinese, the collective memory of the humiliations of the past, and the aspiration for a return to world supremacy.
As a state it reflects inward-looking cloaked defensive behavior focused on nationalism, externally it professes the revisionist doctrine of foreign policy, militarily it focuses on power for strategic coercion, economically it professes neo-imperialistic policies with global supply chain dependencies and strategically it aims at being the next Super Power. Thus, contemporary China reflects defensive, revisionist, and aggressive expansionist designs all at the same time while professing a peaceful rise. China’s aggressive behavior thus reflects its ancient strategic culture and multiple historic narratives, affecting its foreign policy and outlook today. In short, it reflects coercion as a strategic tool against those who violate China’s authority and hierarchical order in the region. This also explains the Dragon’s outlook to Sino-Indian border disputes, besides its incremental expansionist policy in the South China Sea.
Dragon’s Strategic Outlook
China’s Strategic outlook of the rejuvenation of the “Great Chinese Nation”, is characterized by a complex psyche of self-grandiose, punctuated by victimhood insecurity and strategic trust deficit with the existing world order. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seems to envision a new world order, in which China enjoys supremacy in a space that would be free from overwhelming western influence and foundational on a China-Centric Asia. The goals of the CCP, as described in Jonathan Ward’s “China’s Vision of Victory”, may well be ambitious, but envisions a future in which China ascends to the top of every major industry and technology, in which most of the world markets are linked together with China as the economic and strategic center, and in which China’s military might can secure China’s overseas interests. China had chosen “economic aggression” and “military assertiveness” when engaging with the world and “debt diplomacy” to spread its influence. The key critical drivers for its goal of becoming the world’s dominant power and restoring the power status held before its “Century of Humiliation,” are thus driven by sustained dominant economic growth, strategic technology dominance; particularly robotics, space, cyber and next-generation information technology, and military modernization, which ultimately provides a military muscle coupled with nationalism. The “Chinese Dream”, is based on two dual goals and concepts of the Middle Kingdom. Firstly, by 2025 be a preeminent regional power; secondly, by 2050 be a global power. Xi Jinping’s “China Dream,” speaks frequently of “preparing to fight and win wars,” and thus indicates focus on building military and economic power, as the primary tool for this dream. China today is pursuing Xi’s “China dream,” building a new Asian order from the bottom up in terms of the One Belt, One Road initiative, pipelines, roads, railways, fiber-optic cables, and infrastructure projects such as ports throughout the Eurasian landmass and the littoral of the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific.
Dragon’s Military Strategy
Militarily China follows a strategy of “Active Defence” and has evolved an “Integrated War Zone Campaign (WZC)” doctrine structured to fight “Limited Wars under conditions of Informalisation”, based on both force and technology superiority. The basic tenets of “Active Defence’ strategy are embedded in the Two Ocean Maritime Power, Anti Access & Anti Denial (counter intervention), Unrestricted Warfare (Cyber, EW, 4GW), and Assured Nuclear Deterrence theory. This doctrine aims at securing politico-military objectives without having to fight a pitched battle against the enemy. Deception, concealment, and surprise often accompany China’s use of force, with Chinese leaders repeatedly claiming that military preemption was a defensive measure. The latest incursions at multiple points along the line of actual control with India are reflective of this strategy. China’s national military strategy thus seeks to achieve three sets of national military objectives: Protect the Party and Safeguard Stability; Defend Sovereignty and Defeat Aggression; and Modernise the Military (Force Modernization and Optimum Force Structuring). Militarily the Dragon seeks power asymmetry on land for its advantage, reasonable equity in the air, and credible advantage to favor its designs in the sea. This has facilitated the Chinese to switch from “Soft Power Strategies” to the use of “Hard Power Strategies” since 2009 evident both in the South China Sea and the Himalayan land borders. In the context of China, the associated term “Salami Slicing” increasingly relates to its strategy of territorial expansion in the South China Sea and the Himalayan regions. China first stakes claim on a large tract of territory and keep repeating its claim at all platforms and on all possible occasions. It launches propaganda disputing the claim of the other party to such an extent that the territory in question is recognised as a dispute between China and the other country. In resolving the dispute, China uses its military and diplomatic might to gain a part of it. This manifestation is embedded in the three warfare strategy of China, based on media warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare.
The recent Chinese July 2019 Defence White Paper defines “China’s National Defence in the New Era”, portraying China’s military focus as “Just and Peaceful”. It describes China as trying to bring Asia together in peaceful cooperation in an era perceived as bringing uncertainties and complexities in the region. It describes the modernisation and expansion of Chinese military forces as being almost defensive. These statements are certainly shrouded in Sun Tzu’s theology “All warfare is based on Deception”, and their expansionist military behavior. This leaves little doubt in the contradiction of what the Dragon preaches and what it’s practised. However, all these need to be taken with a pinch of salt to not overplay their capability as part of well-orchestrated psychological warfare. It’s no great cerebral reality, that while the Dragon shrouds all its internal contradictions in a cloak, it becomes vocal in its military muscle projection.
(To be continued)