SPECIAL: Sun Tzu Simplified: An Approach to Analyzing China’s Regional Military Strategies

Posted on Friday, April 10, 2015 by Admin

Image source: AP
By Dennis J Blasko
 The Art of War by Sun Tzu can be summarized into what I call 1) the prime objective: to win without fighting and 2) the prime directive: to know yourself and know the enemy.
All other rules for fighting in The Art of War and in current PLA doctrine follow directly from these two guidelines. Today, Sun Tzu’s prime objective and prime directive are reflected in the PLA’s continued emphasis on:
1)      People’s War focused on the defense of Chinese sovereignty by leveraging the strengths of China’s large population and land mass.
2)      Active Defense, which is based on the premise that “We will not attack unless we are attacked; but we will surely counterattack if attacked.” This principle predicts, if not requires, an action-reaction dynamic when China perceives its interests are threatened and includes the obvious danger of an unending cycle of escalation.
3)      China’s multi-dimensional deterrence posture, which extends far beyond the concept of nuclear deterrence. PLA doctrine states specifically that effective deterrence is based on warfighting capabilities which must be demonstrated to the world. It also sees deterrence as a means to achieve strategic objectives, preferably without fighting.
4)      The preference to use traditional fighting methods of close battle, night combat, speed, deception, and stratagem, all of which, in order to be successful, require good intelligence on the enemy.
All of these atavistic concepts have been adapted and modified for the 21st century. They will continue to develop as conditions change, especially as new technologies become available to the PLA.
With regards to the prime objective, “winning without fighting” is the belief that China can achieve its objectives through methods other than the use of brute military force, such as political, economic, or diplomatic means. Nonetheless, this concept permits the gradual use of force through both deterrence and other non-military government agencies, while keeping a strong military in reserve as a basis for deterrence. However, if deterrence and other non-military means fail, deadly force may be employed as a last resort and is to be used cautiously and only when China feels confident in its ability to win.
As required by Active Defense, if China is attacked or its sovereignty is challenged, China will respond even when it considers itself weaker than the enemy. Though PLA doctrine is based upon a strategically defensive posture, the PLA understands that offensive operations are essential at all levels of war in all phases of a campaign to achieve victory. If circumstances require, doctrine permits China to use military force to preempt an impending hostile action if an enemy is clearly preparing to strike first at Chinese sovereignty, territory, or core interests.
Such calculations, whether at the strategic or tactical levels of war, require a significant degree of knowledge about China and the PLA’s capabilities, as well as the PLA’s potential opponents’ intentions and capabilities. The PLA constantly assesses its own and its potential adversary’s “comprehensive national power,” which consists of many elements beyond military force. Thus, we see the enduring emphasis on knowing yourself, knowing the enemy, and the use of all elements of national power present in PLA doctrine.
Additionally, the PLA operates under several principles that most other contemporary militaries do not:
1)      The requirement that all Chinese armed forces pledge loyalty to the Communist Party.
2)      The subordination of military modernization to economic development, even though the “coordination” of the two creates growing defense budgets.
3)      The assumption of a strategically defensive posture forced upon a relatively weak PLA, though this calculation is changing for some contingencies.
4)      Developing doctrine based on the precept that “technology determines tactics.”
5)      Efforts to mobilize the entire country  if forced to fight, resulting in an emphasis on military-civil integration. In theory, this helps reduce the amount of resources necessary to be dedicated to the military.
6)      A reluctance to be involved in alliances (a dependence on others to protect China).
These principles are reinforced by the continuing role of People’s War as the basis for PLA strategic thinking in conjunction with the strategy of Active Defense. The principles of People’s War are ingrained in the collective minds of PLA leaders. Various descriptions of People’s War can be found in many sources, but they are most easily accessible in the 2005 English-language version of The Science of Military Strategy, which actually contains two different but similar lists of the “Principles of People’s War” (pp. 107-112/230-31). The various colors show parallel principles in the two lists; note the light red and green entries below, stressing caution and prudence.

Mao’s Strategic Guidance Principles of People’s War, Chapter 3

Strategic Principles for People’s War, Chapter 10

  1. To Preserve Ourselves and Annihilate the Enemy
  2. Founding Base Areas and Creating Battlefield Are Strategic Tasks
  3. Change the Main Forms of Operations in Accordance with the Development and Changes of War
  4. Fight No Battle Unprepared and Not Sure to Win, and Formulate Strategy Beforehand Based on Worst Condition
  5. You Fight in Your Way and We Fight in Ours. We Will Fight If There Is Possibility to Win; If not, We Will Move
  6. Concentrate Superior Forces to Annihilate the Enemy Forces One by One
  7. The Main Target Is to Annihilate the Enemy’s Effective Strength Regardless of the Gain or Loss of One or Two Cities or Places
  8. Be Prudent in the First Battle and Fight the Decisive Battle to Our Advantage

  1. Knowing ourselves and the enemy
  2. Preserving ourselves and destroying the enemy
  3. Striving for the initiative and avoiding the passive
  4. Employing military forces and tactics flexibly
  5. Combining closely the three battle forms of mobile war, positional war, and guerrilla war
  6. Concentrating superior forces and destroying the enemy one by one
  7. Fighting no battle unprepared, fighting no battle you are not sure of winning
  8. Being prudent in fighting the initial battle
  9. Unifying command and being coordinated and united
  10. Closely coordinating military and non-military struggles, etc

Additionally, later in the book (pp. 456-57) “five combinations” of People’s War provide additional details in general terms of how Chinese forces and resources will be used. These “five combinations” overlap in the following ways:
1) Regular troops with the masses, including capabilities found in civilian government ministries.
2) Regular naval warfare with guerrilla warfare on the sea, developing the strategy and tactics of People’s War on the Sea, including tactics of “sparrow warfare” and sabotage, as well as ambush and covering operations.
3) “Trump card” or “assassin’s mace” weapons with flexible strategy and tactics, especially in playing “hide and seek” with the enemy.
4) Combining high-tech weapons with common weapons and understanding that several generations of weapons and equipment will coexist for a long time. Both combinations 3 and 4 demonstrate that People’s War is not confined to the war of low technology only.
5) Combining military warfare with political and economic warfare in order to present the widest front possible to the enemy.
The 2006 Chinese Defense White Paper states, “The Navy is enhancing research into the theory of naval operations and exploring the strategy and tactics of maritime people’s war under modern conditions.” Needless to say, one can find many examples of the “five combinations” in PLA organization, training, and in its real world missions. Based on the location, opponent, and other variables, the “five combinations” can result in a multitude of operational methods and techniques. However, PLA leaders most likely understand that the farther away from China’s borders they attempt to apply People’s War principles, the lower the chances of success. Therefore, we now see an emphasis on building forces and creating doctrine for air and maritime operations in waters beyond the near seas.
For the last six to eight years we have been watching the Chinese government execute a maritime People’s War under modern conditions; incorporating the principles of both deterrence and Active Defense in the South and East China Seas. Beijing’s objectives in this total government effort are to demonstrate its sovereignty over disputed territories and to deter the U.S. military from conducting close-in surveillance in its Exclusive Economic Zone, utilizing all available methods short of going to war.
Two examples illustrating the combinations of People’s War are found in the case of the USNS Impeccable and in Chinese efforts to challenge Japanese administrative control of the Senkaku Islands. In March 2009, the USNS Impeccable was operating in international waters in China’s EEZ in the South China Sea when two civilian trawlers “shadowed and maneuvered dangerously close” to the Impeccable. These trawlers were backed up by a Fisheries Patrol vessel, a State Oceanographic Administration vessel, and a PLAN intelligence collector, an example of combining regular troops with the masses. They combined the low-tech trawlers with the high-tech naval intelligence collector and could have been vectored to the area based on high-tech reconnaissance or low-tech visual means. The close quarter operations to cut the towed array were an example of “sparrow warfare” or ambush. These actions, however, did not achieve China’s objective of deterring U.S. surveillance in its EEZ and, in fact, it only hardened U.S. resolve over its Freedom of Navigation missions (if that resolve needed to be hardened any more than it already was).
In the East China Sea, around the Senkakus, once again we see China’s mix of the masses with regular PLA forces with the use of Chinese Coast Guard vessels and aircrafts to patrol near the islands, coupled with a mostly over the horizon presence of the regular PLA Navy. Presumably, there is some sort of high-tech communication between these forces. What Beijing is attempting to do is send the political message that the Chinese Coast Guard can exert control over the waters around the islands in the same way Japan can. They could send the same message much more forcefully by substituting gray Navy ships for the white colored Coast Guard, which they do occasionally.
We can find other recent examples of variations of the “five combinations” in action, such as the land-reclamation construction underway in the Spratly Islands or the activities of the civilian Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig and its accompanying escort in the SCS last year.
In the East China Sea, Beijing knows that the U.S.-Japanese Security Treaty would apply if it first used military force in a hostile action over the Senkaku islands. It likely calculates the PLA could not at this time win a shooting war 300 kilometers from the Chinese coast against combined Japanese and U.S. naval and air forces.
The distances are greater in the South China Sea and the chance of U.S. involvement still remains high, therefore China’s current calculations regarding the South China Sea are most likely the same. However, China is actively working to shift that balance over the long term.
For the foreseeable future, in any of its contingency operations where the U.S. military has a potential role, the PLA’s calculations of the balance of power will not provide it with the confidence it desires in order to initiate major hostilities. However, no matter what those calculations, if China’s core interests are threatened it will respond. Though how it responds will depend on the specific situation, the time, and other international factors.
Yet, the Chinese government probably understands its People’s War at Sea strategy for the ECS and the SCS has not achieved its objectives and has resulted in an escalated spiral of action taken by both China and the countries with which it has territorial disputes. Fortunately, to date, all sides have succeeded in keeping the level of intensity below the intentional use of deadly force, but accidents and miscalculations could change that in an instant. If any participant in these territorial disputes intentionally decides to use deadly force in this action-reaction cycle, then China’s strategy will have failed and what comes next could be devastating. The best solution, desired by everyone in the region, is a negotiated settlement and while the beginning of that process may be underway with Japan, it will require the good faith support of all military, paramilitary, government, and civilian actors from all sides who have a stake in the outcome.
China’s calculations of its relative political, diplomatic, economic, and military strength will change as conditions in China and the region evolve. Unless compelled to respond to a challenge with direct military action, Beijing likely will attempt to calibrate its actions by continuing to employ a wide array of civilian, government, paramilitary, and military capabilities up to the line of the intentional use of deadly force to achieve its objectives. To do so effectively will require the Chinese government and the PLA to understand their own strengths and weaknesses as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the other players in the region. China’s use of integrated, multi-dimensional approaches that differ based on the specifics of each dispute presents an asymmetrical test to foreign governments who do not have the same range of options available but, unlike China, may have the explicit, implied, or potential support of the American military presence in the region.
(This essay is adapted from remarks presented at Project 2049’s conference on “China's Military Development and the U.S.-Japan Alliance,” March 20, 2015.)
Dennis J. Blasko, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired), was an army attaché in Beijing and in Hong Kong from 1992-1996 and is the author of The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, second edition (Routledge, 2012).


A Reverse Pivot: China’s New Grand Canal

Posted on Friday, March 6, 2015 by Samuel Krawitz

(Image Credit: The Economist)

By: Samuel Krawitz

On December 22, 2014, a groundbreaking ceremony was held in the small city of Brito on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua, marking the start of construction on the Grand Canal of Nicaragua— the world’s newest megaproject. The construction is being headed by China through the newly established Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company (HKND), led by Chinese businessman Wang Jing. The massive project will span 172 miles and cost upwards of USD 50 billion.  The construction plans include ports, power plants, and a bridge over the canal for the Pan-American Highway, as well as proposals for an international airport, free trade zone, and two concrete factories.  

China is currently working to increase its influence in Latin America; a region the United States has traditionally considered its sphere of influence. While the canal could act as a major stepping stone in balancing against the U.S. “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region, using the canal in this way is ultimately a double edged sword. Completing the canal’s construction could potentially bring economic and strategic benefits to China and Nicaragua, as well as strengthen China’s ties with Latin America; or, depending on the canal’s impact on the environment and economy in both Nicaragua and its neighbors, the canal’s construction could inflict significant damage on Chinese-Latin American relations.

China’s Pivot

This canal project is just the latest of Chinese attempts to increase its influence in Latin America. Recently, Xi Jinping announced plans for investments in the region to reach USD 250 billion in the next 10 years, with projections for trade between the China and Latin America to reach USD 500 billion. In addition to the canal, massive infrastructure projects are being discussed or are under construction throughout Latin America, including twenty-two dam projects and a transcontinental railway. Military engagement between China and Latin America has also been on the rise, mostly to promote good will in countries that are business partners with China. Many of the loan agreements between China and Latin America have very few conditions attached unlike agreements forged with western monetary institutions, making working with China an attractive opportunity.

Value of the Canal for China and Nicaragua

The completed canal is intended to capture the market of triple-e class container ships which the Panama Canal, even with its expansion, would be unable to handle. The Chinese would have the only avenue into the Atlantic which could accommodate these larger ships and could leverage that position to its benefit. The agreement between Wang Jing and Nicaraguan President Ortega also includes a concession to secure HKND’s ownership of the canal, facilities, and lands surrounding the canal for the next 50 years, with the option of renewing for another 50 years. According to experts, having a Chinese company operate the canal in a country that is not strategically aligned with the U.S. eases Chinese fearsthat the U.S. can block Chinese warships from the Atlantic. Unlike the Panama Canal, the Nicaraguan canal would be free from neutrality agreements. Chinese canal ownership also secures an avenue for China’s energy shipping from the Atlantic, potentially from off the coast of West Africa or Brazil.

For Nicaragua, the canal would catapult Nicaragua’s development forward similarly to how the Panama Canal launched Panama’s development. The canal would create thousands of jobs and put Nicaragua on track from being the second poorest nation in the western hemisphere to one of the region’s fastest growing economies, with a projected 14.6% annual growth rate. A canal that brings economic benefits to Nicaragua may entice other Latin American states to cooperate with China in the future, making the canal a worthwhile investment.

Criticisms and Impacts on Chinese Interests

Despite the canal’s potential benefits, there is also a chance the canal’s construction would obstruct Chinese and Nicaraguan interests. Domestic and international critics, including Nicaragua’s neighbor Costa Rica, fear the canal would pollute Lake Nicaragua, a major source of fresh water to Nicaragua and neighboring countries. The planned route also runs through an area with an active hurricane belt, volcanoes, and seismic activity which could further damage the canal, increasing canal costs and deterring shippers from using the riskier route. Furthermore, Colombia has expressed concern over the potential influx of commercial ships operating near disputed maritime territory with Nicaragua. Angering Nicaragua’s neighbors would be detrimental towards China’s pivot to Latin America.

Social impacts to the Nicaraguans may also lead to trouble. Around 30,000 Nicaraguans and indigenous tribesmen live along or near the proposed canal route, but no details have been released about relocation plans or compensation. Only half the labor working on the canal project is going to be Nicaraguan, with Chinese labor and foreign specialists comprising the other half. With growing protests from the Nicaraguan population, this labor divide could further exacerbate the problems between the Chinese and Nicaraguan people due to anger over lost jobs and an influx of Chinese immigrants. Many Nicaraguans also claim that President Ortega rushed the deal through the National Assembly just to sell the country to the Chinese, diminishing Nicaragua’s national sovereignty.


As the U.S. seeks to renew its focus on Latin America, China hopes the canal will increase its sway in the region, not just for the economic benefits but also as a means of demonstrating to the U.S. that they, too, are able to play in another’s backyard. However, even if the canal is not completed, the United States must not become complacent. The canal is far from the only tool in China’s repertoire to advance China-Latin America relations. And while the United States has recently taken steps to mend its relationship with Latin America—mostly notably the decision to normalize relations with Cuba—unless the United States makes significant advances in courting its Latin American neighbors, the U.S. may find itself with a China that is too close for comfort. 

Arming Ukraine: Lessons for Beijing

Posted on Friday, February 27, 2015 by kelseymb

Getty Images via The Hill

By Kelsey Broderick

If the current cease-fire agreement between the rebels and the Ukrainian government fails, as is looking increasingly likely as fighting continues, the United States will have to make an important choice about how to move forward. One of the likely options is arming the Ukrainian government. At a press conference with Angela Merkel on February 9th, President Obama cautioned, "If, in fact, diplomacy fails, what I've asked my team to do is to look at all options"options which include delivering lethal arms to the Ukrainian government. Whether or not the United States goes forward with this option will have a profound impact on not only the Ukrainian conflict but also on those watching the drama unfold in Beijing. For Beijing, the outcome of the conflict in the Ukraine could have serious implications for its own ideas of sovereignty and contested territory.

China, Crimea and Core Interests
China has thus far resisted explicitly taking sides in the Ukrainian conflict. On 1 March 2014, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, "It is China's long-standing position not to interfere in others' internal affairs. We respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine." He was, however, quick to add, “There are reasons for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today." Qin was undoubtedly referring to Western support of a February 2014 coup that ousted the pro-Russian Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, and paved the way for a pro-West and pro-NATO replacement. This was seen as a direct threat to Russia’s core strategic interests, particularly with regard to Western encroachment on Russia’s borders. Russia responded to this threat by supporting a rebel takeover of Crimea, an area on Russia’s border with a majority Russian speaking population that contains offshore oil and gas reserves and one that houses Russia’s Black Sea Naval Base. 

Beijing also knows a thing or two about core strategic interests. These include not only Taiwan, but also territory in the East and South China Seas, both of which are also internationally contested areas home to large energy reserves.  In the South China Sea, China claims ownership of a large portion of the sea, including areas that overlap with the exclusive economic zone claims of Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and others. In the East, China has laid claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, an island chain that is currently under control of Japan and lies near rich fishing grounds and oil and gas reserves.

China has repeatedly asserted that it has a historical claim on these areas and has refused to take part in international litigation regarding these claims. Furthermore, the government has made very clear it does not welcome any outside (or Western) involvement in the disputes. The United States, meanwhile, while not directly involved in any of these claims, has robust economic and security agreements with a number of the stake-holders in these disputes and has vowed to increase its presence in Asia. Beijing has undoubtedly drawn parallels between this new push by Washington and the spread of pro-Western sentiment in the Ukraine.

China’s decision not to take a stand on the conflict also reflects the continued and growing relationship between China and Russia. In May, China and Russia signed a $400 billion gas deal and in July, the two countries held a naval drill off the coast of Russia that was the largest drill the People’s Liberation Army had ever participated in. The two countries also share a mutual interest in fostering Eurasian security and hedging against the maritime alliances of the United States

US Response
A decision by the American government to become militarily involved in the dispute in Ukraine would effectively signal to Beijing that expansionist efforts or solutions to territorial disputes that rely on military strength instead of diplomacy will actually give rise to harsh consequences from the United States, particularly when the area in question is of importance to a U.S. ally. Increased U.S. engagement in the Crimea crisis would be particularly striking, as Crimea is not an area that is considered one of the United States’ core interests, much like the dispute in the East and South China Seas. In addition, Beijing might rethink a sudden or rash response to any perceived American encroachment once they see that a similar response would not simply cause America to ‘back off.’

If, on the other hand, the US decides not to pursue a hard line against Russia, then China may be inclined to deepen its friendship with Russia even more. Throwing their support behind Russia’s decision to pursue its core-interests would give China a strong ally if they choose to pursue action in the East or South China Seas. And a strong China allied with a strong Russia would appear as a formidable bloc opposite a weak United States.

China has consistently viewed the American pivot to Asia with suspicion. Xi Jinping has instead called for an ‘Asia for Asians,’ an idea that envisions the people of Asia running their own affairs and managing their own security. If the United States were to provide arms to the Ukrainian government it would send the message that regional disputes that disrupt the security and peace of a region as well as threaten U.S. allies are not actions that the United States will take lightly. China may therefore think twice about escalating conflict in the region under the assumption that they can bully weaker powers without any larger consequences. If Beijing sees that intransigence toward diplomacy and a refusal to stop aggression signals a strong response by the United States, they may be increasingly likely to search for a diplomatic and peaceful solution to their own core interests. And for U.S. allies, sending weapons would show that the U.S. pivot to Asia is not simply empty words.  

A Peculiar Panic: Russia’s S-400 SAM Sale to China

Posted on Tuesday, February 24, 2015 by Samuel J. Mun

By Ian Easton

An excellent Defense News report came out late last year with word that Russia might soon sell its advanced S-400 surface to air missile (SAM) system to China. This has understandably caused something of a panic in Taiwan security circles. Yet the threat may not be as dire as forecast. And, if nothing else, the sale raises a number of interesting questions about the logic of Moscow’s thinking.

First, is it in Russia's strategic interest to have its most dangerous potential long-term adversary equipped with a system that could defend Beijing and reduce Russia's already waning nuclear advantage? Second, will Russia install protective “black boxes” on the export variant of its S-400 SAM so China can't steal and reverse engineer the technology? Will Russia otherwise reduce the export variant's effectiveness? Or will Russia install an electronic back door into the export variant to allow for a remote access “kill switch” in time of need? Finally, what might this deal tell us about Chinese military weakness in terms of indigenous SAM technology?

As for the threat to Taiwan (if indeed S-400s do become operational across the Strait in the coming few years) it must be noted that Chinese air defenses are not invulnerable today, nor will they be in the future. There are a number of risks a Chinese S-400 unit operating near Taiwan, which is officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), would face. In peacetime, S-400 air surveillance radar, if turned on, would be subject to immediate interception by Taiwanese signals intelligence (SIGINT) units on Tung-yin Island, Matsu Island, and the Penghu Islands. It would also be vulnerable to American and Japanese SIGINT units on Okinawa and the surrounding islands, not to mention allied intelligence gathering submarines parked off the Chinese coast, as well as both manned and unmanned aircraft patrolling the East China Sea. Once radar emissions have been captured, they can be studied for the purpose of countermeasure development.         

The effective range of the S-400 system is reportedly quite impressive (if one is to believe Russian claims),  but even with such an intrusive look into Taiwan’s territorial air space, China would not have SAM coverage over Taiwan’s air bases at most operational altitudes. And when in the threat envelope, Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) pilots could fly low under the system’s radar, which is limited by the curvature of the earth and can't penetrate Taiwan's extremely mountainous geography. In addition, it is often forgotten that Taiwan has had excellent SAM coverage over much of China’s Southeastern seaboard for well over a decade. China is trying to play catch-up with Taiwan and still not there yet.

During a full-scale conflict, Chinese S-400 SAMs across the Taiwan Strait would be vulnerable to attack by Taiwanese electronic jamming and cyber warfare units, anti-radiation drones, cruise missiles, special operations forces, and "wild weasel" type aircraft.  Assuming U.S. intervention, F-22 stealth fighters would also be able to hold Chinese SAMs at risk irrespective of how advanced they may be, and the S-400 would be no exception.  

This possible SAM sale therefore highlights the growing importance of Taiwan's indigenous self-defense programs, including its stealthy unmanned aerial vehicle program, its HF-2E cruise missile program, and its Wan Chien missile program. A Chinese S-400 battalion would be useless against all of these capabilities, and thus highly vulnerable to paralyzing strikes against its command posts and radar nets. Taiwan can still neutralize single nodes of failure in China even with a growing fighter gap working against it. 

Nonetheless, it would be imprudent to be overly sanguine. Chinese S-400s would indeed put pressure on ROCAF fighters conducting routine patrols in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). They would also offer China an improved defense against Taiwanese F-16s tasked with counterstrike missions during a conflict. To defend against future Chinese SAMs it is important for Taiwan to acquire new fifth generation fighters like the F-35 or a similar indigenous aircraft.  With or without Chinese S-400s, the Taiwan Strait military environment is fast becoming one of the most challenging in the world. ROCAF's pilots have most of the training they need to deny their communist Chinese adversaries air superiority. However, Taiwan must acquire more advanced fighters, missile defense systems, and cruise missiles to keep its defensive edge in this emerging environment.  
There is much Washington could do to help improve Taiwan’s air defenses. For starters, the U.S. should grant Taiwan full participation in the air force Red Flag exercises in Nevada and Alaska. American, Japanese and Taiwanese pilots need to war-game alongside each other and learn from each other.  Each partner air force brings something to the table the others don't have, and ultimately they could all be fighting alongside each other one day in the event that known contingencies were to occur. So it would be best for them to work out the kinks early.

Yet despite the urgent need for greater interoperability between democratic partner nations in East Asia, it appears the U.S. is going to continue bowing to Chinese pressure and keep Taiwan out of Red Flag. For this reason and many others, the Pacific Command is going to find itself sub-optimally prepared to face the emerging strategic environment in the Western Pacific. American policymakers and strategists could do better in supporting Taiwan. And Taiwan could do more to highlight its concerns regarding China’s military build-up. This is no time to panic.        

Sri Lanka’s Election: Implications for China and the US

Posted on Wednesday, January 28, 2015 by kelseymb

Image source: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte

by Kelsey Broderick

The results of the January 8th presidential election in Sri Lanka took many by surprise, but the biggest shock may have been felt in Beijing. Incumbent candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is credited with ending the country’s 25 year long civil war in 2009 and the steep decline of poverty in the country from 2002 to 2009, lost to Maithripala Sirisena, a former member of Rajapaksa’s cabinet. Rajapaksa’s defeat, however, was due primarily to increased frustration with the cronyism and corruption endemic in his administration, with much of this frustration aimed at the increase in opaque loans and investment from China. Now China faces a new Sri Lankan president who will be responsible for addressing these concerns and answering to a population calling for greater transparency and a more balanced foreign policy.

China and Sri Lanka: Partners in Growth

In recent years, Chinese investment in Sri Lanka has grown considerably. Government lending reached $490 million in 2012 and the volume of trade between China and Sri Lanka exceeded $3 billion in 2013, with China becoming the second largest supplier of imports in Sri Lanka after India.  Two recent development projects in particular have gained both local and international attention. In 2013 China pledged $1.4 billion to build a port in Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo, and planned to finance 85% of a new development zone in Hambantota. Part of this zone will include a $500 million dollar port on the southern end of Sri Lanka.

Domestically, concerns have been raised over the nature of these investments and their beneficiaries. The government has been accused of handing out these multi-billion dollar projects to the Chinese without oversight, open bidding or public accounting. There have been allegations that the Rajapaksa government has been accepting commercial loans instead of low interest financing or grants in order to curry favor with Beijing and funnel money into the hands of government officials.

Internationally, China’s involvement in Sri Lanka has been viewed as an attempt by China to grow its military presence overseas. In 2014, Sri Lanka allowed China to dock both a submarine and a warship in the capital port of Colombo, which India viewed as a violation of its longstanding security treaty with Sri Lanka.  A Hong Kong newspaper also reported that as part of the investment agreement in Hambantota, a number of berths in the port would be reserved for China for 35 years. These claims have provided strong support for the idea that China’s eventual goal was not to use Sri Lanka as simply a port for refueling, but instead as a military outpost.

New Challenges for Beijing

Now that Rajapaksa has been voted out, however, any plans made by Beijing will have to go through the new government led by Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lanka’s new President elect. This may prove to be difficult as Sirisena ran on a platform that strongly criticized continuing China’s dominant involvement in Sri Lankan affairs. In his pre-election manifesto he promised that “Equal relations will be established with India, China, Pakistan and Japan – the principal countries of Asia...” Regarding the economy, he took aim at Chinese foreign investment, writing: “…I will prevent the appropriation by foreign states or companies of strategic locations that endanger the economic security of Sri Lanka.” His new cabinet has also taken a rhetorical hard line against China. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the new prime minister, has promised to cancel the new port city in Colombo, while Harsha de Silva, the economic affairs spokesman for the United National Party, has said that the government will review all major infrastructure projects for irregularities.

Looking solely at these claims, it seems clear the new government hopes to curtail China’s role in Sri Lanka in favor of more balanced international relations and a more transparent process of investment. However, in reality it is unlikely that the new government will stop relying on China as a source of easy money. In China, large state-backed banks provide ample funds for state-owned companies to invest abroad. Unlike other sources of foreign capital, the state-owned nature of Chinese companies means that profit is not always a primary goal and thus these companies are willing to take on larger investments with more risk involved. In addition, China and Sri Lanka are set to sign a free trade agreement later this year— an agreement Sri Lanka is unlikely to turn down given their large budget deficit. While it may be easy to promise more diverse foreign investment, Sirisena may be hard pressed to find an equally available source of capital.

Another reason to be wary of the anti-Chinese rhetoric coming from Sirisena’s government is the very nature of his election. Sirisena’s electoral coalition was made up of members of the opposition party, former members of Rajapaksa’s party (the Sri Lankan Freedom Party), former revolutionaries, the country’s largest Muslim party and the principle Tamil minority party. The overlapping interests of these parties may have brought him into power, but to maintain their support he will have to balance a myriad of voices and demands. He was also elected by only 51.3% of the votes, which means Sirisena does not have a strong base of support among a large portion of the country. Given these realities, it may be difficult for Sirisena to implement the reforms he feels the country needs.

Room for Others

Sirisena’s win has, however, opened up a window of opportunity for countries worried about China’s growing influence. India and the United States both took a back seat on investment in Sri Lanka after voting in favor of the UN Commission of Inquiry set up to investigate allegations of massive and serious human rights abuses against the Tamil minority. But Sirisena has repeatedly promised to reply to the allegations of human rights violations from both the UN and Sri Lanka’s 2011 domestic inquiry, take action to promote humanitarian attitudes and investigate possible war crimes. The United States and India should push Sirisena to follow through on these promises and reward progress with increased political and economic engagement. The United States can and should also take advantage of the current opportunity to push Sri Lanka toward a more open and transparent political and social environment. With foreign support from two large democracies, Sirisena may find it easier to move away from China’s sphere of influence. 

Jump to TOP