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The Takshashila PLA Insight
Issue No 5.
May 31, 2019
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The Big Story: Trade war & Chinese military 

The escalating trade war has taken a toll on China’s military modernisation, says a recent report in the South China Morning Post. The report is titled ‘PLAN being forced to rethink its spending as cost of trade war rises.’ Previously, a report by the US Department of Defence on China’s military modernisation had cautioned about the scale and scope the modernisation of the Chinese armed forces. However, the SCMP report by Minnie Chan states that the escalating trade war has a bearing on the military modernisation process, and military leaders are worried about its impact on resource allocation.

“The escalating tension between China and the United States has reminded Beijing’s leaders that they need to be careful how much they spend on new warships,” a military source, who asked not to be named, told the South China Morning Post.

Beijing has repeatedly said that the impact of the trade war with the United States is bearable. However, PLA observers are of the opinion that navy is under pressure to alter its plans due to uncertainty over the economic outlook. If reports are to be believed, the PLAN is aiming to build eight Type 055 destroyers. Construction of one such ship costs around 6 billion Yuan, which is twice as expensive as Type 052 D- the current main warship of PLAN. Reportedly, PLAN is also aiming to get three aircraft carriers operational in next five years and mastering the technology of multipurpose take off from Type 075, its helicopter carrier.

According to PLA observers, besides construction costs, the maintenance cost of these vessels puts immense strain on the PLA's budget.  In past three decades, PLA defence spending has risen at a double digit rate. According to a report by Centre of Strategic and International Studies, PLAN had more than 300 ships compared to 287 of the US navy. However, recent Reuters
special report  claimed that the PLA had almost 400 warships and vessels.

Shangri LA Dialogue

The biggest security dialogue in Asia, the Shangri La Dialogue, starts this weekend. Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe will be attending the event this year. This is the first time that a Chinese defence minister is attending the event since 2011. Wei will address the forum on June 2. His presence is viewed in the context of rising tensions between US and China in the Indo-Pacific region. This is also expected to be a dominating theme at this year’s summit. There have been a series of moves by the US which has upset China. This includes Taiwan Assurance Act in the US’ House of Representatives, increased presence of US naval vessels in the South China Sea and passage of US ships through the Taiwan Strait.

Before Wei's speech, acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is expected to present the US’ new strategy towards the Indo-Pacific region on Friday. The strategy would be keeping China’s military modernisation in mind. China has neither accepted nor declined the meeting between Wei and Shanahan.

Unsurprisingly, Chinese official media
has been lashing out at the US for its zero sum mentality in the Asia Pacific region. They claim that the changing US approach would lead to complexity of regional issues and disrupt the pace of development in the Asia Pacific region.

Important Stories

- China’s Information Warfare force gets a new Commander

According to Adam Ni, a China security and defence policy observer, the PLA’s Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) has now got a new commander. Ni's assessment is based on footage from Chinese state broadcaster CCTV. The footage shows Lieutenant General Li Fengbiao wearing the PLASSF insignia during the National Public Security Work Conference. According to Ni, this indicates that he has been reassigned to the force and will replace General Gao Jin as a new commander of the PLASSF. Established in late 2015, the PLASSF is China’s information warfare force, responsible for conducting space, cyberspace, electromagnetic warfare and psychological operations. It provides information support to military operations as well as conducts information operations against adversaries, including counter space and cyber operations.

- Vietnam would be ideal warm up fight for the PLA

Often there are questions raised about the PLA's limited war fighting experience. The last major war which the PLA fought was against Vietnam in 1979. It had resulted in an embarrassing defeat. Under President Xi Jinping, the PLA has repeatedly been ordered to undertake extensive combat training to enhance its combat readiness. However, Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at Rand Cooperation, writes that such training is very different from real conflict. The PLA needs to assess its military capabilities, war fighting skills and training results. According to him, a war with Vietnam would be an ideal warm up battle. But this time, the theatre of operation would be the South China Sea, he writes.

So, why Vietnam? Here are Grossman's reasons:

* PLA must prepare for naval and air battle, and fighting India on Himalayas does little good to this.

* Vietnam is not under the security umbrella of the US, and since the PLA is not a world class force yet, it must stick to Vietnam.

* PLA must fight a winnable battle and Vietnam is the only option in the region.

Such a test run conflict, he cautions, would have devastating impact on Beijing’s economic prospects. Thus, China might not look for a war. However, if the regional situation were to warrant a use of force, then Vietnam would be an ideal choice.
- Maritime tracker

The Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) under its Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative has installed an island tracker along the South China Sea. Under this initiative, artificial islands, outposts, disputed reefs and islets spread across the South China Sea are monitored. In its recent update, CSIS claims that China has 20 outposts in the Paracel Islands and 7 in the Spratlys. It also controls Scarborough Shoal, which it seized in 2012, via a constant coastguard presence, though it has not built any facilities on the feature… Follow the link for updates, information and photos.

Drills and exchanges

- China, Laos to hold first joint anti-terrorism drill

The Southern Theatre Command of PLA and the border defence forces of Lao People's Army will hold the first joint anti-terrorism drill in June, the Ministry of National Defence announced in its regular press conference. The drill is a part of the China-Laos border defence friendly exchange activities and will be held along the border of the two countries on June 5 and 6.

-China, Russia to have sound military exchanges in 2019

To mark the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and Russia’s military forces, the two countries have decided to maintain in-depth exchanges in 2019. They have decided to engage in high-level exchanges, real-combat training and military competitions and would have sound interaction and collaboration on international multilateral occasions, the ministry's spokesperson Mr. Qian said at a press conference.

Other Stories

- JS Izumo, Jap’s largest destroyer tours East and South China seas

Japanese Navy has deployed its largest destroyer and helicopter carrier to tour the Pacific Ocean. The ship anchored at Singapore’s Changi naval base for second time in the last week. This was followed by President Trump’s visit to the ship during his Japan’s tour. In December 2018, Japanese government had announced plans to enhance capabilities JS Kaga and JS Izumo to launch American-made F-35B stealth fighter jets. The conversion would effectively give the vessels many of the same capabilities as aircraft carriers. Trump praised the decision, along with the announcement that Japan plans to purchase 105 American-made F-35 fighters. SCMP in a report accuses the US of fuelling arms race in the East Asian region through such deals.

- Vietnam and China’s Defence Min hold talks at Hanoi

The talks were held between General Ngo Xuan Lich, National Defence of Vietnam and General Wei Fenghe, Minister of National Defence of China in Hanoi, Vietnam. The two sides discussed current affairs in each country and defence relations, particularly the implementation of the 2003 protocol on bilateral defence cooperation and the 2017 joint vision statement on defence cooperation until 2025. The ministers shared the view that recent progress in defence ties demonstrates the high political trust between the two countries.

Podcast on China

General Prakash Menon and Suyash Desai join Manoj Kewalramani to discuss China’s international political machinations and its military strategy through the lens of two new books, Julia Lovell’s Maoism: A Global History and M. Taylor Fravel’s Active Defense. Click for the Podcast. 

The Takshashila PLA Insight is written by Suyash Desai, a research analyst at The Takshashila Institution
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Suyash Desai · 2nd floor, 46/1, Cobalt Building, Church St, Haridevpur · Shanthala Nagar, Ashok Nagar, Bengaluru · Bangalore 560001 · India

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