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October 1st parade signals China's strategic deterrence against USA

ANI  |  Asia 

Loyal Chinese citizens are still fizzing with excitement and pride after the largest ever People's Liberation Army (PLA) parade replete with impressive weapons of war rolled through Tiananmen Square on October 1, a spectacle that featured 40 per cent new equipment never shown in public before.

Of course, the parade was designed for both domestic and international audiences. For the Chinese populace, it was meant to instil pride and assurance. For neighbours and would-be opponents, it was designed to overwhelm and send a message of military might so that none dare to stand in China's way.

The key instrument for sending China's message, straight from Xi Jinping, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, to Washington was its intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) as well as other types.

According to Andrei Chang, editor of Kanwa Asian Defence, the primary overseas target for the 70th-anniversary parade was the USA, a country with whom China is locked in an acerbic trade war plus a persistent battle for cultural and political influence around the globe. Indeed, as in the Cold War, it is a competition between opposing Western and communist ideologies.

Chang believes that the weaponry on display during the spectacular event on 1 October, including no fewer than four different types of ICBMs, reflected three layers of deterrence that China has carefully developed to deter or prevent any military action by the USA against the authoritarian communist state.

In an exclusive interview, Chang told ANI: "I think the overall military parade is a story of deterrence, focusing on the Taiwan issue and of course including the South China Sea. There are three layers, three levels of deterrence, that I saw in the military parade. The first is attacking and invadingTaiwan. China showed so many short-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles in previous parades, though not this time because they know it is enough."

For example, in the 2015 victory parade commemorating the defeat of Japan at the end of War II, the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) rolled DF-15B and DF-16 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) as well as DF-21D anti-ship ballistic and DF-10A cruise missiles through the symbolic and physical heart of Beijing. In 2009, in the 60th-anniversary parade in Beijing, China showed off its DF-11A SRBMs and DF-10s.

None of these aforementioned missiles, each capable of attacking Taiwan, was shown in last week's parade. Chang concluded that "there's no need to show them every time".

Chang elaborated further on the importance of the first and initial deterrence layer in China's military thinking. "If China attacks Taiwan first, it's probably concerned about US involvement. In the first American response level, this would probably be US jet fighters and warships launching missiles from aircraft carrier battle groups.

"That's why the Chinese priority is to separate and isolate aircraft carrier groups from the battlefield of Taiwan. So now they showed us a very fast ballistic missile with the hypersonic vehicle, the DF-17. For longer distances, they can also use the DF-26 to combat aircraft carrier groups. This is the first level of deterrence for the USA. Of course, Japan is also a factor too if Japan supports US involvement - because they have a treaty and maybe Japan will face military attacks, especially US army, air force, navy bases in Japan - places like Yokosuka because a carrier is based there."

Chang teased out a potential future scenario where China might decide to attack and subjugate Taiwan. "In the case of US combat aircraft carrier groups being shot at by the Chinese, the US will retaliate for sure. They can launch attacks by cruise missiles against bases in Mainland China, and it means direct war has occurred."

This kind of eventuality would signal the involvement of the middle tier in China's deterrence strategy to sideline the USA or to make it unwilling to get involved any further.

"So up to the second level of deterrence, the Chinese will probably use the DF-26 as a longer-range weapon and maybe supersonic cruise missiles at targets such as Guam and other aircraft carrier groups. Guam is US territory, so it's completely different than [firing at] navy targets."

Naturally, the USA would respond by launching "more massive strikes from the air, from aircraft carriers and missiles because the INF Treaty has already gone". He added, "They have a right to do it."

The Canadian editor of Kanwa was referring to the bilateral 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between Moscow and Washington, which the US withdrew from recently. Without the treaty's restrictions, Chang said the USA will be "very fast" in introducing new categories of intermediate-range missiles (the treaty covered weapons with a range of 500-5,500km, which is ironically the range bracket that the majority of Chinese missiles falls under). "We'll see it next year or two years later; the USA will deploy intermediate-range missiles, even in Asia."

Continuing his assessment of Chinese strategy, Chang raised the possibility of the USA using nuclear warheads against China if Beijing directly attacks territories such as Guam and more of its much-vaunted aircraft carriers. Such a move would not be taken lightly, however.

"They must think about this with the Chinese because, for each US combat aircraft carrier group, it maybe carries nuclear warheads. And even in Guam and the Indian Ocean military base of the US [Diego Garcia], they have storage of at least tactical nuclear warheads. In this case the US will probably launch a nuclear attack, or perhaps a massive conventional attack."

It was fear of retaliation and annihilation that prevented global conflagration in the Cold War, and the same is true in the current era. China certainly has the tools at its disposal to respond more heavily to US military actions, however.

Kanwa's founder pointed out: "The Chinese will probably use DF-31 [available in DF-31, DF-31A and DF-31AG variants] and DF-41 ICBMs. This is the third layer, the third level of deterrence, to attack the US mainland. In case it's conventional warheads that the USA uses, the Chinese can use conventional warheads on their ICBMs as they've studied this technology for a very long time. And especially now with satellite guidance, BeiDou and midcourse guidance, it makes them more precise."

Of course, firing ICBMs armed with conventional warheads is bound to end in disaster, because the country being targeted cannot identify what warhead is installed when ICBMs are streaking through the atmosphere towards them at lightning speeds.

In effect, this is the whole calculus of threat and retaliation that kept the Cold War in check. It was called MAD, mutually assured destruction, and the fear of it prevented the first country pushing the shiny red button.

This then brings us full circle back to the most important posturing message by China's 1 October parade. Astonishingly, the PLARF displayed no fewer than 48 ICBMs capable of targeting the USA or any other nation in the Indeed, the culmination of the parade was 12 JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, 16 DF-31AG mobile truck-mounted ICBMs, four silo-based DF-5B ICBMs with multiple independent re-entry vehicle (MIRV) warheads, and 16 of the newest and most powerful DF-41 ICBMs mounted on 16x16 launchers.

Chang explained the obvious, "If the US launches nuclear weapons, the Chinese will launch nuclear too, so the whole military parade showed us the full story of deterrence."

However, despite the most impressive collection of ICBMs in a single event that the has ever seen - although of course the actual missiles and warheads would not have been fitted in their transport-erector-launchers - it remains questionable how high-tech the PLARF's missiles actually are.

When asked what weaknesses the PLA still has to overcome and eliminate, Kanwa highlighted one of them as being "strategic weapon systems, including ICBMs". For example, "I don't think they can carry more MIRVs than the US or Russia," he surmised. Based on the missile size and shape, Chang believes that the new DF-41 ICBM, making its debut in Beijing, does not carry more than four MIRV warheads, of which one or two would be decoys in any case.

After witnessing the weapons that were on display in Beijing, the emphasis that the Chinese communist leadership is placing on the PLA, and Xi's use of the phrase "military struggle preparation" that is being uttered with increasing repetition, Chang is becoming very anxious.

He assesses that China's military trajectory is "very, very, very dangerous. It's not that we 'should be alarmed', but we 'must be alarmed' because China has many, many technologies and items that the US hasn't deployed - such as hypersonic missiles like the DF-17, a series of supersonic cruise missiles and strategic high-altitude and high-stealth reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles."

He warned, "Even in the US, such weapon systems are still only under testing. But only the Chinese have tested and deployed them without any restrictions under international law." Not only that but China is doing this whilst it is also developing a national missile defence system that would thwart any missiles aimed at it.

China is thus emphasizing both its defensive and offensive capabilities, and Chang firmly believes China will one day be prepared to use both to achieve "national rejuvenation" and "reunification" in the pursuit of the "great struggle".

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Mon, October 07 2019. 17:19 IST