Observers spotted China’s FC-31 “Gyrfalcon” fighter jet at a naval aviation training facility.
The FC-31 has been around for nearly 10 years without securing a role in the Chinese military.
The jet will likely replace China’s current carrier fighter, the Shenyang J-15.
A fighter jet that China’s military once considered a white elephant appears to have finally secured a role as the country’s newest carrier fighter.
Observers recently spotted the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation FC-31 Gyrfalcon (formerly known as the J-31), which has been in development since the early 2010s, at a naval aviation training facility in Wuhan. The fighter bears a strong resemblance to American fifth-generation fighters like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The fighter was parked on an enormous, landlocked model of an aircraft carrier near a pair of mockups of the Chinese Navy’s current strike fighter, the J-15 “Flying Shark,” as well as a mockup of a Z-8 carrier-based helicopter.
The FC-31 first appeared in 2012 with the designation J-31; in time, the F-31 designation (initially applied to export models) overtook the name. The fighter kept a low profile throughout the last decade, with observers believing the Chinese Air Force and Navy weren’t particularly interested in the design and its reportedly weak engines.
Nine years is a long time in the world of the Chinese military, and now, the FC-31 may finally be nearing production. In 2020, Pop Mech reported there were indications the FC-31 could enter service with the Chinese Navy as a carrier-based fighter, now called the “J-35.”
The new fighter’s emergence at the Wuhan test facility is a clear sign the plane is headed to sea, but we don’t yet know if the fighter’s designation is really J-35. For now, we’ll keep calling it the FC-31.
The front end of the FC-31 resembles the F-35, while it has the flat tail and twin engines of the F-22. The Chinese fighter also features internal weapons bays, and the robust tricycle landing gear with two wheels up front suggests it’s designed for carrier use.
China’s existing carriers, Liaoning and Shandong, fly the J-15 “Flying Shark” strike fighter. The J-15 is derived from the fourth-generation Sukhoi Su-33, one of Russia’s two carrier-based fighters. The fifth-generation FC-31 would be a definite upgrade, boosting the air wings of both carriers with a stealthy fighter.
The FC-31 will also probably fill the flight decks of China’s third carrier under construction, tentatively named 003, from the outset. Ultimately, China might operate as many as six carriers, with FC-31s flying from the decks of at least four, if not all of them.
The FC-31 fighter probably isn’t the F-35’s equal, but it’s a significant upgrade from the J-15, and that will make the Chinese Navy happy. China is taking a pragmatic approach to the dangerous—and expensive—world of naval aviation. Instead of rushing to match the U.S. Navy from the outset, it’s learning to crawl, and then walk, and then eventually run. It’s an approach that’s likely to pay off for decades to come.
It is very likely that the J-31 will be inducted as a carrier-based naval fighter. In an interview with China’s state-run media, FC-31’s chief designer Sun Cong expressed that the aircraft would follow his J-15 onto China’s aircraft carriers. However, officials from AVIC only said that the aircraft was intended for export as a competitor to the F-35. There has also been reports that the PLAAN has urged Shenyang to develop a carrier-compatible version of J-31.
In 2015, Jiangsu A-Star Aviation Industries Company marketed its EOTS-86 infra-red search and track as a possible addition to the J-31. An improved prototype, with modifications to the vertical stabilizers, wings, and airframe, an electro-optical targeting system, a larger payload, improvements in stealth, and upgraded electronics, made its maiden flight in December 2016.
In November 2018, an Aviation Week article stated that the FC-31 program has received government funding and is being sought after by both the PLANAF and PLAAF, according to official sources. In June 2020, reports surfaced that a third variant of FC-31, albeit a more production-ready version with smoother lines, bigger radome for bigger radar, and a closer alignment of control surfaces for reduce radar signature, has been developed. The “new fighter’ has been referred to by some as J-35.
Recent updates (2020)
The maximum take-off weight of this J-31 increased from 25,000 kg to 28,000 kg.
Shenyang Aircraft Corporation has officially confirmed that J-31 is installing WS-19 engine, which has a maximum thrust of 12 tons, compared to WS-13 whose thrust is 9 tons. The total thrust of the jet has been increased from 18 tons to 24 tons. The maximum range of this jet was also extended to 1250 km. It can also cruise at supersonic speed.
The J-31 is now using stealth coatings instead of “baked in” fiber-mat stealth.
Because the aircraft is in development, these specifications—based on available imagery—are approximate and preliminary.
It was not entirely unexpected that the Chinese would attack. The Indians had observed a massive build-up across the border and there had been several encounters between the Indian Army and the Chinese PLA in the days before the main attack, including bombardment of Dhola and Khenzemane on 19 October 1962. But the ferocity and the sheer co-ordination of the Chinese attacks on 20 October 1962 and the days that followed stunned the Indian security establishment as well as international observers. At daybreak on that day, artillery guns and mortars began intense bombardments across the Thagla Ridge.
According to Brigadier John Dalvi,
At exactly 5 on the morning of 20th October 1962, the Chinese Opposite Bridge III fired two Verey lights. This signal was followed by a cannonade of over 150 guns and heavy mortars, exposed on the forward slopes of Thagla…this was a moment of truth. Thagla Ridge was no longer, at that moment, a piece of ground. It was the crucible to test, weigh and purify India’s foreign defence policies.
Dalvi called it ‘The Day of Reckoning—20th October 1962’. The all-out assault on Indian positions north of Tawang was on.
On the western front in Aksai Chin, the fighting was spread out over a swathe of land from north to south, covering a distance of approximately 600 kilometres. But the thrust of the Chinese towards the south was confined to a relatively narrow area, which measured approximately 20 kilometres from west to east. Most of the attacks by the PLA seemed to be confined to dislodging Indian troops from the outposts that had been established as a result of the government’s Forward Policy rather than for capturing territory. According to Indian military analysts, ‘In the Western sector, [the] Chinese had a limited aim. They were already in occupation of most of the Aksai Chin plateau through which they had constructed the Western Highway connecting Tibet and Xinjiang. In this war, their aim was to remove the Indian posts which they perceived were across their 1960 Claim Line.’ They had no intention to move forward deep into Indian territory, as they did in NEFA.
The Aksai Chin plateau was and still is virtually unpopulated; this had made it possible for the Chinese to build their highway there in the mid-1950s without the Indians finding out about it until a year after it had been completed. The name Aksai Chin means ‘the desert of white stones’, and the altitude varies between 4,300 and 6,900 metres above sea level. In the past, some Ladakhi villagers used the area for summer grazing and made it part of the Cashmere wool trade, but otherwise there has been no commercial activity worth mentioning in the area. Whatever ancient trade routes that existed were secondary, and the only valley, if it may be called such, is along the River Chip Chap that flows from Xinjiang to Jammu and Kashmir. During the 1962 War, the Chinese captured several Indian positions in the valley and have since controlled most of the area.
During the weeks of fighting in this western sector of the theatre of the 1962 War, it became obvious that the Chinese knew exactly where the Indians were, how many there were at each position, and what kind of weaponry they had. As was the case in the NEFA in the east, pre-war intelligence gathering had been carried out in the Aksai Chin area by small teams of surveyors who could move freely and, presumably, undetected on the barren plateau.
A contentious issue on the eastern front was the location of the Indian outpost at Dhola in the River Namka Chu gorge, where the borders of India, Bhutan, and Tibet intersect northwest of Tawang. The post was created on 24 February 1962 and, according to the Henderson Brooks–Bhagat Report, the site ‘was established north of the McMahon Line as shown on maps prior to October/November 1962 edition. It is believed that the old edition was given to the Chinese by our External Affairs Ministry to indicate the McMahon Line. It is also learnt that we tried to clarify the error in our maps, but the Chinese did not accept our contention.’ The Chinese, in any case, would not have paid much attention to Indian maps. Their objective was entirely different: to teach India a lesson.
This remark in the Henderson Brooks–Bhagat Report is anyway a far cry from the claim by Neville Maxwell and others that the establishment of the Dhola outpost triggered the 1962 War and that India was the aggressor. Chinese troops had crossed the Namka Chu on 8 September, surrounded an Indian outpost in the gorge, and destroyed two bridges on the river. The nearby Dhola Post was reinforced and firing from both sides continued in the area throughout September. Three Indian soldiers were wounded when the Chinese threw hand grenades at their position, but otherwise, there were no casualties.
When the final attack came on 20 October, the Indians found that the Chinese had cut all their telephone lines the night before. In preparation for the assault, the Chinese had also taken up positions on higher ground behind Indian defences and were thus able to attack downhill on the morning of the attack. After the Chinese artillery barrage from the Thagla Ridge overlooking the Namka Chu, the PLA destroyed all Indian artillery positions and surrounding fortifications. The Indian border posts as well as Dhola and Khenzemane were overrun by ground forces within hours, and their defenders either lay dead or were captured alive. The strength of the Chinese attacking force was estimated at 2,000, while the Indians at those outposts numbered only 600.
Simultaneous attacks were launched on other positions, and the 2nd Rajput Regiment, which was also in the area, suffered horrendously. Of the 513 members of all ranks, 282 were killed that day, 81 were wounded and captured alive, and 90 were captured unwounded. Only 60 men, mostly rear elements got away. A Gurkha regiment, also in the area, lost 80 men, with a further 44 wounded, and 102 taken prisoner by the Chinese. The 7th Brigade lost a total of 493 men that fateful morning of 20 October.8 The total strength of the PLA units that were deployed for the operation on the Dhola and Thagla front was at least 10,000, supported by heavy artillery and more sophisticated weaponry than the Indians had in their arsenal.
After the Indian defences were crushed, the 7th Brigade commander, Brigadier John Dalvi, who remained a prisoner of war in China for almost seven months, described with a large degree of bitterness and in great detail how the chain of command had broken down, and how undersupplied his troops were. He quotes a fellow Indian Army officer as saying that their ‘mission was the defence of a political instead of a tactical position. The troops slaughtered along the Namka Chu River were spread out in a thin line, difficult to supply and impossible to defend.’
Apart from observing the camps that had been built by the Chinese for him and the other Indian prisoners of war, Dalvi also concludes that the ‘Chinese preparations began in earnest from May 1962’, so well before the incidents at the Dhola post. The emphasis here should be on ‘in earnest’; all available evidence points to the fact that intelligence gathering and construction projects began in the mid-1950s, when China wanted to challenge India’s role as the leading voice of the newly independent countries in Asia and Africa. The Dalai Lama’s flight to India in 1959 prompted the Chinese to switch from contemplating the possibility of a war with India to putting their ruminations into concrete action.
Dalvi also quotes, and ridicules, the Chinese version of events,
The Chinese told the world that: ‘At 7 o’clock (Peking time) in the morning of 20th October the aggressive Indian forces, under cover of fierce artillery fire, launched massive attacks against the Chinese Frontier Guards all along the Kachileng River and in the Khenzemane area.’ The poor Chinese were driven to self-defence by the fire of two out-ranged para-guns with 400 rounds of ammunition!
Maxwell is not as extreme as the Chinese in his version of events, but his pro-Chinese account of what happened in 1962 would nevertheless have been equally dismissible if it had not been accepted as the truth and often referred to in writings about the war and the border dispute, even by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger himself.
The war on the eastern front in the NEFA was going to be very different from that in Ladakh. While the Chinese may not have encountered many civilians on the Ladakh front, interacting with the local population became an important issue for them in the NEFA, where they occupied several towns and villages. Once the road down from Bumla had been constructed by the Chinese, and Tawang was secured as a supply base, it became clear that not only had scouts been sent in advance by the PLA to collect crucial intelligence, but its soldiers and officers had also been trained in psychological warfare.
Most local people in Tawang, whether Monpas or Tibetans, had fled when the Chinese began attacking the border. They had heard from relatives and traders about the atrocities the PLA had committed inside Tibet and were, naturally, afraid. But there were always two sides to the PLA. As an ideologically motivated communist force, it tolerated no dissent or opposition to the rule that it imposed on local people anywhere. But, as a ‘people’s army’, it was supposed to behave gently towards ‘the oppressed masses’. According to the Maoist doctrine of the Eight Points of Behaviour, communist soldiers were ordered ‘not to steal so much as a single needle or thread from the people’.
British missionary and writer George N. Patterson observed that in some areas the Chinese soldiers who took part in the occupation of Tibet were also ‘scrupulous in their behaviour, keeping to themselves and not oppressing the Tibetan population in any way. Heavy penalties were imposed on any Chinese soldier who was known to have made use of even a Tibetan prostitute. One Chinese soldier, accused by a Tibetan woman of raping her, was shot by his superior officer.’ In certain areas in Tibet, clinics and schools, where lessons were held in Tibetan as well as in Chinese, were built.
But there was a hidden agenda behind that kind of benevolent behaviour towards some of the Tibetans. According to Patterson,
With all the beneficent and necessary reforms being introduced one ominous factor emerged, that the innovations were not being made on a national scale but were limited strictly to the cities, towns and villages on the main route through Tibet to India. In effect, they were merely supplementary to the thrust to the Indian border; there was no attempt to develop the country outside the main arteries.
That development began a year or two after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, indicating that China was prepared for action along the border even before Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong, in March 1959, pledged to ‘settle accounts’ with the Indians.
Significantly, according to Patterson, ‘in East Tibet their approach was more often on the accepted Communist pattern’. That would inevitably mean harassment of local people and the execution of ‘reactionaries’ opposed to the new order. East Tibet was the home of the Khampas, where the first armed resistance against Chinese occupation broke out in the mid-1950s. When, in 1958, the Chinese authorities began forcing Tibetans in the central provinces to become collectivized in ‘people’s communes’, the relations between the occupiers and the occupied deteriorated even further.
The Chinese military historian Li Xiaobing, interviewing Li Weiheng, a PLA radio operator, describes the hostile reception the Chinese soldiers encountered when they entered Tibet, especially after the 1959 uprising, ‘Sergeant Li Weiheng recalled that he and his comrades felt as if they were entering a foreign country when they went to Tibet. Religious and linguistic barriers, separatist propaganda, and a backward economy had created a seemingly irreparable rift between the troops and local Tibetans.’ The sergeant told Li Xiaobing that one of the regulations for the PLA troops in Tibet was to refrain from talking to the Tibetan people without permission, ‘Any communication between the village and the radar company had to be conducted by…the company commander through the village chiefs, one of whom spoke Chinese’.
During his first six months of service in Tibet, sergeant Li Weiheng visited the village only twice. On the first visit, he and his comrades went there to see a local medicine man who had refused to come to the Chinese camp and insisted he would meet the PLA soldiers if they came to the village. Li ‘could feel the hostility around them. Children vanished into their homes…no women could be seen. Several Tibetan men sat in front of the house with knives in their hands, staring at Li without saying a word. Li felt lucky that all firearms had been collected from the Tibetans after their rebellion in 1959. Nobody could legally have a gun.’
Sergeant Li Weiheng’s second visit to the village was different. It was during the 1962 War and when a temporary camp for the Indian prisoners of war (POW) had been built at the bottom of the hill below the village. ‘Indian prisoners of war arrived in large numbers, more than the camp guard unit could handle…[Li] was surprised to see many Tibetan villagers visiting the Indian prisoners, bringing water, food and milk…Li even saw the old medicine man visiting sick and wounded Indian soldiers.’ Li and his platoon complained to the camp commander, who had been instructed not to let any Tibetans have contact with the Indian soldiers, ‘but he had difficulty feeding the large number of prisoners. As a compromise, he had decided to allow Tibetan women and children to visit the Indian prisoners.’
Despite being surrounded by an evidently hostile population, the PLA seems to have had no problem recruiting and educating enough Tibetan spies and interpreters for the campaign against India. It is often forgotten, particularly in the West, that some Tibetans, who were opposed to their country’s medieval feudal system, did side with the Chinese, at least at the beginning of the occupation. A group of young intellectuals led by Bapa Phuntso Wangye had even set up a small Tibetan Communist Party in 1939. But, like several other progressive Tibetans, he became disillusioned with developments in the 1950s, and, consequently, the Chinese became suspicious of him. Bapa Phuntso Wangye was detained in 1958 and imprisoned in 1960. Other Tibetans, however, worked for the Chinese and were fluent in their language. The thousands of porters, who the PLA mobilized during the months before the attack on 20 October, belonged to other segments of society. They were peasants who had been conscripted at gunpoint from villages all over southern Tibet.
In Tawang, the PLA quite naturally decided on adopting a ‘benevolent’ approach so as not to antagonize those who had remained in the town when almost the entire population had fled and the Indian soldiers had evacuated the area. There, the Chinese soldiers interacted with the local people and did their utmost to be friendly, according to Singye, a local Tibetan who was among the few who stayed behind. Tawang was not in Tibet proper, but it was here that the sixth Dalai Lama, a Monpa, was born in 1683. He became the Dalai Lama in 1697 and reigned until he disappeared in 1706, presumably killed by an ally of the Chinese Kangxi emperor. Tawang, therefore, was a special place for followers of Tibetan Buddhism and the Chinese had to behave exemplarily.
According to Singye, Tawang’s famous monastery was not destroyed or looted by the Chinese, as some rumours would have it. The PLA protected the monastery and gave one of the senior monks a rifle so that he could defend the monastery against looters, who were roaming the town after the Indian soldiers and most of the locals had departed. They even brought in a lama from the Rethang monastery in Tibet to lead and take part in religious ceremonies at Tawang. Private houses, which were empty because their owners had fled, were locked by the Chinese to prevent looting. Food that had been dropped from Indian aeroplanes and had fallen into Chinese hands was distributed to the locals. ‘A gift from us to you,’ the Chinese officers said.
The Chinese also had other, cruder ways of showing that they, and not the Indian soldiers and administrators from the plains, were the ones the local population should trust and identify themselves with. Residents in the border areas recall that Chinese officers showed them photographs of a bearded Sikh in a turban, saying, ‘Is this man or I your brother?’ A Chinese, of course, looks more like a local person in Tawang than a Punjabi ever would.
But those who stayed behind were still relatively few. Tens of thousands of local people had fled south towards the plains or across the border to Bhutan in the east. After the Chinese had broken through the Indian defences at the Sela Pass south of Tawang on 18 November 1962, there was panic everywhere. A day later, when a PLA unit, in a flanking manoeuvre, reached the town of Bomdila, many Indians expected the Chinese to advance south and occupy Assam.
One of those who fled was Dorjee Khandu Thongdok from Rupa, a small town near Bomdila. He and his family trekked over the mountains for days with little more to eat than Tibetan tsampa, a porridge-like dish made from barley flour and mixed with butter tea. Once in the plains, they were taken by truck to makeshift refugee camps in the Brahmaputra Valley. Three such camps were built, at Barampur, Diphu, and Dansiri, where the refugees were housed in huts and barracks.
Most local people in Bomdila and Rupa are Sherdukpens, who are related to the Monpas but still somewhat different. Consequently, they speak a dialect related to Tibetan as well. And, significantly, the PLA halted there because they would be lost further south, where they would not be able to communicate with any remaining locals through their Tibetan interpreters, and, more importantly, where the PLA’s spies had not been able to gather intelligence during the years leading up to the 1962 War. The PLA troops could now benefit from those human intelligence operations, as it was clear that their knowledge of the terrain was remarkable in all the areas into which they intruded, in the west as well as in the east, in October and November 1962. Colonel Gurdial Singh, who was taken prisoner at Rupa, recalls that the Chinese kept asking him where the foothills were. Bhalukpong, at the very foothills of the NEFA, was abandoned but never occupied.
The Indian Army was gone from all its former positions in the battle zones, and no less than two-thirds of the population of the garrison town of Tezpur on the banks of the Brahmaputra had fled by 20 November. Trains and trucks were full of people with baggage heading west, away from what they thought was an impending Chinese invasion. Prisons and hospitals were opened and patients and inmates were left to fend for themselves. This became a problem, as Tezpur had a major mental hospital, and suddenly severely mentally ill people were seen roaming about and staggering along the town’s streets. Banks were closed after they had burnt their currency notes.
But the panic was misguided. Because the PLA had no intention of occupying Assam, the same pattern as in western NEFA could be seen in the east. The attack on Kibihtoo right on the border on 22 October was probably meant to push all the Indian troops back to Walong, the main Indian base in the area located some 20 kilometres to the south. The final attack on Walong, which fell on 16 November, was also made possible because the Chinese possessed vital intelligence of the area and its terrain. Walong was attacked from all sides, even from the rear. Significantly, the local people there are the Meyor, who speak a dialect related to Tibetan and practise Tibetan Buddhism.
After the Chinese had captured Walong, India’s defences in the easternmost corner of the NEFA were obliterated. According to one Indian writer, ‘The fall of Walong would mean the fall of Haiyuliang, and there after Tezu as well. From Tezu, it was the Brahmaputra Valley. After Tezu would be Tinsukia.’ But nothing like that happened. The Chinese did not advance beyond the River Yapuk, immediately south of Walong. That was as far as the Chinese had surveyed the area. South of the Yapuk is Mishmi country, where the people speak an entirely different dialect.
The Chinese incursion into Subansiri and Siang in the central NEFA commenced on 21 October, with a main offensive being launched on 16 November. The Indian defences, as understaffed and poorly equipped as elsewhere in the NEFA, put up a stiff resistance but, in the end, proved to be no match for the more heavily armed Chinese troops. This area forms part of Pemako, which today straddles the border with a major section located on the Indian side. Tibetan tax collectors were active here well into the 1950s, so intelligence was not a problem for the PLA.31 But the Chinese did not capture any territory beyond it. The tribes in the areas south of Pemako would be Nyishis and Apatanis, whose languages are distantly related to Tibetan, but not close enough to be mutually intelligible.
The similarities between the Tibetan language and some of the local dialects had enabled Chinese agents to collect intelligence about the areas that had been selected for temporary occupation and, judging from the precision and swiftness of the operation, it is clear that this was done well before the PLA swung into action in October 1962. While the vast majority of the local population fled to the southern plains once the PLA had entered those areas, it was also important from a purely operational point of view that its officers could rely on their Tibetan-speaking interpreters to communicate with the few who had stayed behind.
After the unilateral ceasefire that the Chinese announced on 21 November, the withdrawal began and people could return home. Singye remembers how the Chinese soldiers packed up and marched single file along the road they had built from Bumla to Tawang. Chinese army trucks carried their equipment. Forty-nine days of occupation were over. The Chinese returned to their camps and bases north of the McMahon Line.
Dorjee Khandu Thongdok and his family were now able to return to Rupa. On the way from the Assam plains to their home in the hills, they saw burnt-out tanks and vehicles, and ammunition belts, mortars, rifles, and helmets left behind by soldiers who had died or retreated during the war. Once they reached their village, there was an eerie silence. Empty houses awaited them, and it was weeks before life returned to normal. Thongdok notes wryly that, before the war, a portrait of the two countries’ respective prime ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou Enlai, had hung on the wall in the local school.
But the end of the Chinese invasion of some carefully selected parts of the NEFA did not mean that anything had really changed on the ground. The McMahon Line became what the Chinese like to call the Line of Actual Control, while the Indians continue to refer to it as ‘the traditional boundary’. But India was shattered and its pride lay in tatters. No one wanted to mention the Forward Policy and Nehru himself never recovered from the humiliation and what he and many others perceived as a betrayal by the Chinese.
Nehru felt that he was grossly misunderstood. Others would argue that Nehru had placed too much trust in sweet talk by Zhou Enlai who had hoodwinked him into believing that China was a friend of India, while the Chinese, as early as 1949, had denounced him as ‘a running dog of imperialism’ and a Chiang Kai-shek-like ‘loyal slave’ of the enemies of the revolution.
To be fair to Nehru, he appears to have been unaware of what the Chinese were saying about him behind his back in the 1940s and 1950s. His Forward Policy was never meant to provoke the Chinese but to reassert what the Indians considered to be the traditional boundary and to check the continuing Chinese advance by connecting all the gaps and plugging the holes along the frontier by establishing new outposts and sending out patrols even to the remotest parts of Ladakh and the NEFA. Action was to be taken only if there were any new Chinese army camps south of where the Indians had decided that the McMahon Line should be.
Lieutenant Colonel Gurdip Singh Kler, an Indian Army officer who fought at the Sela Pass during the 1962 War, wrote after the events, ‘Many of us compared the Forward Policy with police action whereby we could push the Chinese out of our territory. The action, we thought, would not lead to war.’ The officer also remarked that although some new army units were proposed to be raised—and some were—‘insufficient funds were allotted to the Armed Forces for weapons, equipment and ammunition’. He found it ‘strange’ that in this state of affairs ‘we had to confront with one of the world’s strongest countries’.
As the Chinese had been strengthening their positions in the mountains along the frontier in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Indians decided to launch a military operation codenamed ‘LEGHORN’ on 8 October 1962 to secure its territorial claims. A bridgehead was established at Tsengjong, north of River Namka Chu, which was attacked by the PLA on 10 October. The Indians withdrew, but they were terribly undersupplied. Air-drops of supplies were landing in the wrong places; only a few days of rations were available for the troops; and many of the soldiers had only 50 rounds of ammunition each. Mortars and mortar ammunition were still in transit somewhere when the Chinese attacked across the Thagla Ridge 10 days later. It is not certain exactly how many troops the PLA had in the area at this stage, but they vastly outnumbered those at the scattered Indian outposts along the McMahon Line.
In retrospect, much has been written about intelligence failures on the Indian side, that the government was not aware of the massive build-up the Chinese had been engaged in along the border since 1959. But Nehru’s chief of intelligence, Bhola Nath Mullik, had actually repeatedly warned the government of Chinese manoeuvres along and across the border, ‘In September 1960, we sent another report of widespread Chinese activities all along the frontier in Tibet and many instances of fresh intrusions. We also mentioned that new Chinese activities had been noticed in the area bordering South-East Ladakh, which had remained quiet until then.’
But nor did Mullik entirely escape blame. The Henderson Brooks–Bhagat Report quotes ‘the Director of the Intelligence Bureau’, obviously Mullik, as saying that ‘the Chinese would not react to our establishing new posts and that they were not likely to use force against any of our posts even if they were in a position to do so’. That was obviously a gross miscalculation.
In the east, the Chinese had already advanced up to and even through the ‘gaps’ that the Indians wanted to connect—and that was long before Nehru announced his Forward Policy. The problem was that Nehru refused to believe that the Chinese were actually preparing for war against India. His firm belief in the friendship between India and China had even led him to dismiss reports of unrest in Tibet in the late 1950s. On 17 March 1959, Patterson, who was close to the Tibetans, was warned by Nehru himself in a speech in the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of the Indian Parliament, that he ‘had accepted bazaar rumour for a fact’. Patterson was guilty of sending ‘misleading and exaggerated reports’41 about the situation in Tibet, and was threatened with expulsion from India.
As Nehru was accusing Patterson of spreading falsehoods, revolt had already broken out in Lhasa. The heartbroken prime minister then had to admit in another speech in the Lok Sabha on 19 March that the revolt was real—and that Chinese bullets had struck the Indian Consulate-General in Lhasa. The Chinese, who apparently thought that the Indians were somehow involved in the uprising, ordered the diplomats to remain inside the Consulate until further notice. Patterson noted, ‘Whatever India may have thought of China’s friendship and good faith it became obvious that China placed very little value on India’s goodwill’. Even so, Nehru added in his speech that, ‘India has no intention of interfering in the internal affairs of China, with whom, we have friendly relations’.
Following the Dalai Lama’s escape to India after the March 1959 uprising, Nehru was forced to re-evaluate that friendship. The Chinese authorities now began to openly accuse India of being behind the revolt. The official, state-controlled Chinese media published reports saying that ‘Indian expansionists and British imperialists have not given up their ambition to invade Tibet and enslave its people’. The ‘commanding centre’ for this grand conspiracy was the northern West Bengal town of Kalimpong, where the British imperialists and Indian expansionists were supposed to have connived with a ‘traitorous clique’ in Tibet to conduct ‘a series of traitorous and subversive activities’.
It is hardly any secret that the Tibetans, in collaboration with the Americans, were collecting intelligence from Kalimpong, and that some Tibetan resistance fighters had been trained and were supported by the American CIA, but, judging from Nehru’s statements at the time, it is extremely doubtful that he was aware of these shenanigans. More alarmingly, although Nehru decided to grant the Dalai Lama asylum in India, he still believed that China was, in fact, a friendly neighbour and whatever problems there were between the two countries could be settled amicably. It was only at the eleventh hour that he took reports of massive build-ups of Chinese troops across the border seriously and then decided on a half-hearted, and many would argue, ill-conceived Forward Policy to counter China’s advances. Whatever that policy was aimed to achieve, the tools and wherewithal were simply not available.
The Henderson Brooks–Bhagat Report, which Maxwell bewilderingly uses to ‘prove’ that India was the aggressor in 1962, stated that, ‘it is obvious that politically the “Forward Policy” was desirable and presumably the eviction of the Chinese from Ladakh must always be the eventual aim. For this, there can be no argument, but what is pertinent is whether we were militarily in a position at that time to implement this policy.’ The still-classified report goes on to mention that
the Chinese build-up in Tibet by the end of 1960 had substantially increased and was brought out in the Military Intelligence Review 1959–60. This required a fresh reappraisal of our forces and tasks … [and] at the outbreak of hostilities if a coordinated plan had been made to meet the Chinese offensive our troops would perhaps have been more balanced and there would not have been any question of plugging holes at the last moment.
It is also astonishing to note how many Western writers, not only Maxwell and Alastair Lamb, have decided to accept China’s crude propaganda and fanciful interpretations of the border conflict and related issues such as the reason for the war in 1962. This could be because Lamb and the others who accept the Chinese view do indeed present the issues in ‘much clearer and persuasive terms than the Beijing Government’, to quote the Berkeley professor Leo E. Rose. In other words, they present the general Chinese view minus crazed outbursts about ‘Indian expansionists’, ‘British imperialists’, and ‘traitorous and subversive Tibetan cliques’.
The claim that Indian troop movements around the Dhola Post and some skirmishes between the Indians and the Chinese in mid-October determined the timing of the attack is part of this twisted interpretation of the causes of the 1962 War. A much more plausible explanation is that an event that was taking place far from the Indian subcontinent made the Chinese decide that 20 October would be the most appropriate day to launch an attack and that, of course, was the Cuban missile crisis, which lasted from 22 to 28 October.
From the Chinese point of view, it was a masterstroke to decide to wage war on India at the same time that the American President John F. Kennedy was preoccupied by such an immediate threat to national security. A direct American intervention supporting India in the war would be out of the question, but if it did happen, it would force India to compromise its commitment to non-alignment. On 26 October, as war was raging in the Himalayas, Nehru made an unprecedented appeal for international sympathy and support.
Three days later, when the Cuban missile crisis was essentially over, the United States did decide to send military aid after Ambassador John K. Galbraith had had a private meeting with Nehru. The Soviets had agreed to withdraw their ballistic missiles from Cuba after a secret agreement had been reached according to which the United States would dismantle its missile bases in eastern Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) ally of the US.
The message was conveyed through Galbraith that Kennedy had agreed to send arms to India ‘without strings and the terms would be settled later’. Nehru is also reported to have requested American warplanes, and, on 19 November, India sought full defensive intervention by the United States. That did not happen, but a US aircraft carrier had already set course for the Bay of Bengal, and a squadron of transport planes had arrived in India. It is believed that Kennedy sanctioned supplies of a million machine-gun rounds, 40,000 land mines, and 100,000 mortar rounds to India, while Time magazine at the time reported that shipments had been even more substantial and were complete with US crews and maintenance teams. But it was too little, and too late. The Chinese had already achieved their objectives by the time Western military assistance arrived.
China did not miss the opportunity to denounce Nehru as ‘a lackey of US imperialism’ and ‘a pawn in the international anti-China campaign’. The tone and content of the 15,000-word vitriolic article in the official party paper the People’s Daily on 27 October was, according to British analyst Roderick MacFarquhar, ‘consonant with that of Beijing’s anti-Soviet polemics of 1960 and prefigured in its anti-Soviet polemics of 1963–64, thus marking it as a weapon in the ideological struggle with Moscow rather than in the military struggle with India’.
Apart from condemning Nehru for seeking military aid from the United States, China also wanted to hit out at the Soviet Union, which had been closer to India than any other Western power before the conflict began—and the Soviet Union was China’s main rival for control over what it termed ‘The Third World’. The rivalry had begun in the 1950s and first came out in the open when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Peng Zhen, a leading member of the Politburo of the CCP, had an argument at the congress of Romania’s ruling communist party in 1960. Khrushchev branded Mao ‘a nationalist, an adventurist, and a deviationist’, while the Chinese denounced Khrushchev as ‘patriarchal, arbitrary and tyrannical’, and, eventually, as a ‘revisionist renegade’ who had betrayed true Marxism-Leninism. Khrushchev responded by withdrawing 1,400 Soviet experts and technicians from China and cancelling more than 200 projects in the world’s most populous communist country.
In the beginning of the conflict between India and China, the Soviet Union had been cautious. Although Khrushchev’s sympathies were with India, he could not afford to get too tough with China. On the other hand, India’s defence minister, Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon, who was known for his pro-Soviet leanings, was forced to resign on 31 October, after being held responsible for India’s lack of preparedness for the 1962 War. In the midst of the crisis, Nehru himself temporarily took over the defence portfolio. The Soviets, who had provided India with defence equipment long before the war, found themselves in a severe dilemma. According to Mohan Ram, an Indian journalist and a specialist on Sino-Indian relations, the Soviets had begged the Chinese to stop their military operations and offered mediation, for which India was ready. ‘They tried hard to prevent India from looking to the United States and Britain. Thus, years of striving for India’s neutrality went to waste and capitalists were supplying arms to India thanks to the Chinese aggression.’
Another disclosure, according to Ram, was the Soviet concern over the ouster of Menon from the Indian government. Ram quotes a rejoinder from the Soviets saying that ‘Chinese aggression also had the consequences that we lost one of our most faithful friends among the Indian leaders, and that because he relied on our help’.
Khrushchev had remained neutral during the skirmishes along the Sino-Indian border in 1959, which had angered the Chinese. As tension between India and China was brewing in 1962, the Chinese called upon the leaders of the Soviet Union to ‘denounce the Indian bourgeoisie as a lackey of imperialism’—which they refused to do. Instead, on 12 December, when the war was over, Khrushchev came out in support of India, saying ‘we absolutely disallow the thought India wanted to start war with China’. Thus, China managed to force India to seek help from the United States, and also put the Soviet Union in the same anti-Chinese camp. It was a masterstroke that placed China as the leader of the Third World.
According to MacFarquhar, ‘Nehru’s appeal for Western aid in his hour of need dented, if it did not destroy, India’s image as a non-aligned nation, thus diminishing its status both in the Communist bloc and the Third World…Beijing had also demonstrated to a deaf Moscow the unwisdom of choosing India over China as an ally.’ But, most importantly, MacFarquhar states that rising tension with India even in early and mid-1962, which eventually led to outbreak of hostilities in October, ‘had signalled to its erstwhile communist partner that the banner of militant Marxism-Leninism had once more been unfurled over Beijing’. The year of 1962 saw China, with Mao back at the helm, successfully challenging both India and the Soviet Union and, in the end, becoming the leader of the Third World’s progressive and revolutionary forces.
There has been much speculation among scholars and analysts as to why the Chinese decided to declare a unilateral ceasefire on 21 November and then withdraw to its former positions behind the McMahon Line. Some have suggested that the American decision to intervene was a factor, others that the Soviet Union had threatened to take action unless the Chinese halted their advance into Indian territory. Indian military analysts have pointed to that the fact that winter was approaching in the high Himalayas, making it impossible to maintain long and vulnerable supply lines from forward bases in Tibet.
But none of these explanations are consistent with the broader picture of China’s overall policies and strategic ambitions at the time of the war. It was a limited action aimed at punishing India, dethroning it from its leadership position in the non-aligned movement, and at forcing the Soviets to take sides in the wider conflict that had been raging within the international communist movement since 1960. There is nothing to indicate that the Chinese ever intended to hold the territory it had captured in October and November 1962. China wanted to demonstrate its military might and superiority and, by withdrawing, it had showed its ‘goodwill’ towards its neighbours and the rest of the world, demonstrating that it was not an aggressive power bent on capturing land from other countries. It was against the backdrop of these events that China emerged as the winner and the road now lay open for China to become the leader of the Third World.
The Cuban missile crisis may help explain why the Chinese decided to attack India on that precise date, 20 October, putting into action a plan that had been on the drawing board since 1959. But there were also other, domestic, factors which made them hasten the decision to launch their blitzkrieg against India. After the dismal failure of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, Mao was plotting to regain his former position as the undisputed leader of the Chinese communists.
His rivals in the Party would have to be sidelined, neutralized—or won over. Among those critical of Mao’s policies were President Liu Shaoqi, Premier Zhou Enlai, and, most importantly, the powerful Defence Minister Peng Dehuai, a hero of the Chinese Revolution as well as the Korean War in the early 1950s who, wise from his experiences during the latter conflict, wanted to reform the PLA and make it more professional, along the lines of the armed forces of the Soviet Union. This ran contrary to Mao’s doctrine of an ideologically motivated ‘people’s army’ that would be indoctrinated by studying the writings of the Great Chairman. Mao’s vision of a good soldier was to be embodied in Lei Feng, the fictitious character created later; the loyal fighter who wanted to be ‘a stainless-steel screw for the Party’.
The ideological aspect of the 1962 War and that it was part and parcel of power struggles within the CCP at the time have been highlighted by MacFarquhar in his study of China in the 1950s and 1960s, ‘The question that remains unanswerable is: if Mao had still been in retirement, would Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai have chosen to teach Mr Nehru a lesson in quite so brutal a fashion? Probably not, in the light of their support for san he yi shao.’
’San he yi shao’ was a notion advanced by Wang Jiaxiang, an erstwhile comrade-in-arms of Mao and a former Chinese ambassador to the Soviet Union. It can be translated as ‘three peaceful acts and one reduction’ and referred to his proposed conciliation with the imperialists (the United States), the revisionists (the Soviet Union), and the reactionaries (India), while reducing aid to the world’s revolutionary forces.
According to Sergey Radchenko, a specialist on Sino-Soviet relations, Mao was fiercely opposed to this idea.
Mao talked about national security and national pride. He wanted the world to know that China could not be intimidated, and that Beijing’s stern warnings to India were not a bluff. He knew that the People’s Liberation Army was in a position to inflict a shattering blow to the Indian Army and so assert China’s claim to regional hegemony. National security concerns and illusions of grandeur were very good reasons for a war with India.
India had been identified by everyone in the top leadership of the CCP as the main regional enemy as early as 1959, and could therefore serve as a unifying factor as well as a pretext for purging the Party of ‘revisionists’ and other ‘undesirable elements’. At the time India was facing a highly disciplined and brilliantly efficient war machine in the Himalayas, it was not known that China was barely recovering from one of the worst famines in its history, a manmade disaster created by Mao’s own disastrous policies.
Following the Communist takeover of China in 1949, big and small landlords had their land confiscated and distributed among poorer peasants. Collectivization of land had to wait because there would have been widespread opposition to it. It was not until the mid-1950s that the policy changed, and peasants were forced into agricultural co-operatives. By 1958, private ownership of land had been abolished altogether, eventually leading to the birth of China’s hallmark people’s communes, where thousands of farmers were expected to work together to achieve often unrealistic production quotas. Even before that happened on a massive scale, the CCP decided to replace old religious beliefs with communist ideology, which meant that old temples were abandoned and fell into disrepair, traditional festivals were banned, and old icons in people’s homes had to be replaced with pictures of Mao, Zhu De, and other communist leaders.
There was widespread opposition to these measures and criticism of the new economic policies even from within the Party even during those early days of communist rule. In very basic terms, the state was unable to take care of the harvests and make sure that people had enough to eat. Mao’s response was to launch a campaign to let a ‘Hundred Flowers Bloom’. Criticism was not only allowed, it was encouraged. In retrospect it seems that Mao wanted to let the flowers bloom in order to cut them down. Now, when the critics had made themselves known, they were arrested under a follow-up drive called ‘The Anti-Rightist Campaign’, which was launched in June 1957. At least half a million people suffered as a result. The lucky ones just lost their jobs or homes, those who were unlucky ended up in prison or were executed.
But Mao had grander plans for transforming life in China’s rural communities and purging the critics opposed to his radical initiatives. He wanted China to become a modern, industrialized nation. The origins of these policies can be traced to the mid-1950s, when Mao began to advocate rapid industrial growth similar to what the Soviet Union had achieved under Stalin in the 1930s. This was in contrast to the modest, step-by-step industrialization and comprehensive balance as advocated by Chen Yun, a leading economist who tried—in vain—to moderate the Chairman’s wild plans for later became termed as ‘the Great Leap Forward’ and turned out to be one of the worst man-made disasters in modern history.
Mao refused to listen. In November 1957, he visited the Soviet Union and encouraged by Sputnik’s recent launch into space, he declaimed, ‘The east wind is now prevailing over the west wind’. Mao was also impressed with the Soviet Union’s massive steel production and Khrushchev’s pledge to overtake the United States and Britain in economic production in 15 years. Mao wished to see this emulated in China, and, in a People’s Daily editorial on 13 November, the slogan ‘Great Leap Forward’ was actually now used for the first time. Mao wanted to be even bolder than the Soviet Union and during the second Session of the 8th CCP Congress in May 1958 it was stated that China was to be ‘going all out, aiming high, and achieving more, faster, better, and more economic results in economic construction’.68 The goal was to overtake Britain in seven years and reach American levels in 15.
Millions of people all over the country were mobilized to turn China into the world’s most modern and industrialized nation. Steelmaking was given top priority, but in the absence of raw steel, everything from tools and metal sheets to nails and doorknobs were melted down to meet the targets. At the same time wasteful irrigation projects were launched to increase agricultural production and the state-controlled media published fanciful reports of massive progress everywhere in the country.
The Henan Province became the vanguard of the Great Leap Forward policies for the supposedly marvellous progress it had achieved. In Shangqiu Prefecture alone, a million people were employed in home workshops under the slogan, ‘Every household a factory, every home ringing with a ding-dong sound’. The province’s 38,473 collectives had been converted into 1,355 bigger people’s communes with an average of 7,200 households each. Grain production, pig farming, and irrigation projects were booming, according to the state media. In October 1958, the provincial authorities announced that Henan also had 5.77 million people working at more than 220,000 smelting furnaces.
Similar, though not quite as impressive strides forward were reported from other provinces as well. China was on the threshold of becoming the industrialized nation envisaged by Mao and summarized by the slogan ‘Three Red Banners’, i.e., ‘go all out, aim high, and build socialism with greater, faster, better, and more economical results’. But it was all pure fantasy. The people’s communes were built on land previously owned by individual farmers who saw little or no reason to toil for the state and the Party in exchange for rations and handouts from the authorities. Millions of farmers who had been mobilized to make steel no longer worked in the fields. Not surprisingly, the production of grain in Henan actually declined during the Great Leap Forward. Old food distribution networks also broke down under the weight of Mao’s mass mobilization of people to industrialize the country, which was still a backward peasant society. The vast majority of the population lived off the land, even in the co-operatives that had been established after the communist victory in 1949.
In early 1959, the central authorities in Beijing received reports from the model province of Henan that many people there were ‘stricken with edema or had died of starvation’.73 One such letter, dated 20 January 1959, and sent by the masses north and south of the Liudiquan train station, is especially moving and graphic:
On the day of the Spring Festival [the lunar New Year] people covered the grasslands of Xiayi and Yucheng searching for wild plants to eat, but there was nothing left. People have died of starvation in all of the villages on the border between the two counties. Some dropped dead while waiting in line to buy food; others perished while seeking wild herbs in the fields.
The pattern was the same, or worse, all over China. People were dying from starvation everywhere, and there were frequent reports of cannibalism. In Xinyang prefecture in Henan alone, there were at least 20 cases of people eating human flesh. An 18-year-old girl drowned her five-year-old cousin and ate him. The boy’s 14-year-old elder sister was also driven by hunger and ate her brother’s flesh. In Anhui Province there were 63 cases of cannibalism between 1959 and 1960. A couple strangled their eight-year-old son, and then cooked and ate him. In the same province, a man dug up a corpse, ate some of it, and sold a kilo as pork. Those were not isolated incidents. Similar incidents were recorded in most of China’s provinces, although it is only in recent years that the full scale of the disaster has come to light. There were also sporadic rebellions in some parts of the country, but those were quickly quelled and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rebels and their ringleaders were executed by the police and the PLA.
The drive to turn China into an industrialized country also failed miserably. The steel that the furnaces turned out was useless, and the irrigation canals, dykes, and dams that had been built in rural areas to modernize China’s agriculture were of poor standard. Frank Dikötter, a professor at the University of Hong Kong who has written extensively about the Great Leap Forward, states that, ‘more detailed reports by investigation teams confirmed that materials, tools and machinery were neglected or even deliberately damaged. In the Shijiazhuang Iron and Steel Company, for instance, half of the engines broke down frequently.’ Dikötter concludes that ‘a culture of waste developed. In Luoyang, three factories alone had accumulated more than 2,500 tonnes of scrap metal that went nowhere. In Shenyang, sloppy streamlets of molten copper and nickel solution ran between heaps of scrap metal.’
It was on 25 March 1959, in the midst of all this chaos, that the expanded Politburo of the CCP met in Shanghai. The issue that topped the agenda of the meeting was, naturally, the Great Leap Forward. But the Tibetan revolt had just been crushed, and the Dalai Lama had fled to India. So, that topic was also raised. Already before the conference, Zhou Enlai had accused both Britain and the United States of having provided support for the uprising. India, as a frontline state, must have been involved as well, according to Zhou.
At the Shanghai meeting, Deng Xiaoping reiterated what Zhou had stated, but argued that the time was not yet ripe for Beijing to condemn India openly. While it was not yet clear exactly when China was going to ‘settle accounts’ with the Indians, this was an issue where everyone was in complete agreement. Deng, along with Liu Shaoqi, belonged to those who were advocating more realistic economic policies than those implemented by Mao. But Deng was as much a hardliner as Mao when it came to dealing with Tibet and what the Communist leaders considered to be national security issues. The question was only when India should be ‘taught a lesson’.
Despite the consensus on issues relating to Tibet and India, Mao was still in trouble. The failures of the Great Leap Forward had shaken his leadership position and the Shanghai meeting endorsed his retirement from his post as the Chairman of the People’s Republic, or the de facto head of state. That post was given to the much more moderate Liu Shaoqi. But Mao stayed on as Chairman of the Party and, to the best of his ability, continued to manipulate events from behind the scenes.
A major problem for everyone in the top leadership was that they could not trust their underlings in the provinces. To conceal the disastrous outcome of the Great Leap Forward, and perhaps in an attempt to avoid being punished for failures, production figures in all fields were falsified in reports sent to the centre in Beijing. But the figures were so gross and exaggerated that even Mao disbelieved them. In April 1959, after the Shanghai meeting, he sent a circular letter to the Party cadres denouncing ‘mere bragging’ and demanding production targets to be based on reality.
The well-educated Zhou Enlai, who had no difficulty in understanding what was happening, had actually been one of the first to initiate a campaign against Mao’s concept of ‘rash advance’ as early as 1956. But Zhou, perhaps feeling that his position in the top leadership was no longer secure as Mao steamrolled his policies through the CCP’s Central Committee, soon turned around. In March 1958, he even undertook ‘self-criticism’ for opposing Mao’s notions of rapid industrialization. ‘I take the main responsibility for submitting the report opposing rash advance, in effect dashing cold water on the upsurge among the masses…at the time I lacked perception, and it was only later that I gradually came to understand that this was a directional error on the issue of socialist construction.’
Here was the supposedly sophisticated statesman who had made such an impression on the public during his visits to India in the 1950s humiliating himself in front of the Party’s inquisitors. Zhou was no doubt still critical of Mao’s plans for a rapid industrialization of China, but, at the same time, he was an opportunist who had to survive in the increasingly bitter power struggles that emerged during and in the wake of the Great Leap Forward. This became obvious when the CCP convened a meeting of its Politburo and a plenum of the Central Committee at Lushan, a mountain resort in Jiangxi Province in July 1959.
Yang Jisheng, a Chinese writer and researcher, says, ‘Obliged to defend the Three Red Banners and their consequences, Zhou felt deeply conflicted. This was manifested in his schizophrenic performance at the Lushan Conference as he exerted great effort to resolve practical issues while pandering to Mao at every opportunity.’ In retrospect, it seems implausible that Indian policymakers would have got anything sensible out of Zhou when he, at the very same time, was communicating with Nehru about the border and other outstanding issues China had with India.
Zhou’s opportunism made it possible for him to survive the purges that Mao unleashed at the Lushan Conference. The most prominent leader to be ousted was Peng Dehuai, who, on 13 and 14 July, had written a private letter criticizing the Great Leap Forward. Although extremely cautiously worded, and saying that the ‘accomplishments of 1958 Great Leap Forward are absolutely undeniable’, Mao took it as an attack on himself and his policies. But Mao also made the mistake of circulating Peng’s letter, which meant that other critical voices were raised. Zheng Wentian, a party veteran and Politburo member, was outspoken in his criticism—or, rather, as outspoken as anyone could be in the CCP.
Mao’s response was fierce and swift. Peng, Zheng, and others who were associated with them were branded ‘rightists’ and ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and were purged during and immediately after the Lushan Conference. Zheng was accused of having ‘illicit relations with a foreign country’, which, presumably meant the Soviet Union, and buckets of sewage water were poured over his head as he was ordered to confess his ‘wrongdoings’.85 In September, Peng was replaced as defence minister by Lin Biao, a Mao crony who himself would be purged later. Mao appeared to have emerged victorious in the power struggle, but even so, his position was not yet secure.
There was widespread dissatisfaction with him and his rule. The Great Leap Forward had led to famine on a scale not seen before in Chinese history. The exact number of deaths is difficult to determine. Dikötter believes that 45 million people died ‘unnecessarily’ between 1958 and 1962. Yang quotes Jiang Zhenghua, a Chinese researcher, who puts the figure considerably lower at 17 million. Whatever the exact number of deaths from starvation during the Great Leap Forward, it was a disaster of unprecedented magnitude. By comparison, approximately three million people died during the Bengal famine in 1943, the worst disaster that has affected India within the twentieth century.
Even with his main rivals out of the way, and Zhou licking his wounds and now following the Party line, Mao was disturbed by the opposition that he had had to face before and during the Lushan Conference. How many ‘rightists’ and ‘revisionists’ were there still in the Party? Who could he trust? The meeting was hardly over before Mao launched yet another vigorous ‘anti-rightist’ campaign to silence his remaining critics. Even the old marshal Zhu De, the real founder of the PLA, had tried to protect Peng at Lushan by criticizing him only mildly. That was enough for Mao, who had expected Zhu to denounce Peng. Zhu was dismissed from his post as vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, but was allowed to retain some other, less important posts in the state and Party hierarchy.
It is plausible that it was at this time that Mao also decided to use the Tibet issue and the border dispute with India to enhance his still shaky position within the Party and the state. The Lushan Conference ended on 16 August, and on 25 August, a PLA unit launched a surprise attack on an Indian position at Longju on the NEFA border. Then came the firefight at Kongka La in Ladakh on 21 October. Lin Biao, the man Mao had put in charge of the military, was obviously doing his job. It is doubtful whether any of those attacks would have happened if the more professional, veteran officer Peng had still been in command of the PLA. On the other hand, China’s battlefield achievements in 1959 as well as in Myanmar in 1961, and, especially, the victory in the 1962 War were made possible because the PLA had benefitted from initiatives taken by Peng to professionalize the officer corps and make the command structure of the armed forces more efficient. These were to be reversed under Lin Biao. It was under him that the Lei Feng concept was promoted and for political and ideological reasons turned into a nation-wide cult, which survives to this day.
Mao’s gradual climb back to a position of absolute power had begun. By 1961, the Great Leap Forward was buried along with all the people who had died during the three years it had lasted. Apart from the millions who had died from starvation, there were others who had been beaten to death by Party zealots or had been executed on accusations of sabotage and other imagined crimes. It was over, and the political legacy of the Great Leap Forward was that Mao decided to replace the old principles of collective leadership of the Party with his own rule, which was not to be disputed or even challenged. He would, from now on, not tolerate any criticism of his rule or of his person.
But his struggle for a political comeback was not yet over. So, how safe was he from plots and intrigues within the Party? Dr Li Zhisui, Mao’s personal physician and confidante, wrote much later in his biography of the Chairman that his support within the Party was waning even after the Great Leap Forward. Mao was ‘depressed over the agricultural crisis and angry with the party elite, upon whom he was less able now to work his will. Mao was in temporary eclipse, spending most of his time in bed.
But then came 1962. According to Dr Li, ‘Nineteen sixty-two was a political turning point for Mao. In January, when he convened another expanded Central Committee work conference to discuss the continuing disaster, his support within the party was at its lowest.’ At the meeting, President Liu Shaoqi openly blamed the famine on ‘man-made disasters’. Liu wanted to bring back the leaders who had been purged for opposing the Great Leap Forward, which made Mao furious.
The sycophantic Lin Biao praised Mao, and the Chairman himself began counterattacking his enemies more vigorously by arguing that ‘classes continue to exist even under socialism’. The ‘class struggle’ had to be carried on and the notorious hardliner and spymaster Kang Sheng was put in charge of carrying out more purges of ‘revisionist’, i.e., anti-Mao elements within the CCP. Kang was almost inseparable from Jiang Qing, the former actress who in 1938 became Mao’s fourth wife. Together with Lin Biao, they became instrumental in bringing Mao back to power and propagating his unique brand of Communism as well as the personality cult that was advanced in the mid-1960s.
The border dispute with India proved to be a useful distraction from the power struggle and an issue that would either silence Mao’s rivals and critics or bring them back them into the fold. And that helps explain why the final preparations for a war with India began in early 1962. Lin Biao was put in charge of the operation and that alliance between Mao and his loyal de facto chief of the PLA made the attack on India possible. With China’s ultimate victory in the war, Mao’s ultra-leftist line had won in China; whatever critical voices that were left in the Party after all the purges fell silent.
By now there was also no doubt that Mao’s vision and ambitions went beyond China’s borders. He wanted to become the leader not only of China but also of all the revolutionary movements in the world. And that became a reality after the victory over India in 1962. Two years later, Nehru died, humiliated by the Chinese, a broken man. Brigadier Dalvi noted this in his account of the 1962 War and its aftermath, ‘Without a Nehru India ceased to be the moral leader of the non-aligned world. Whereas prior to 1962 she wielded immense power and influence despite her poverty and lack of military power, after the Chinese attack she was “cut to size” in the words of one unfriendly critic of Nehru.’
China was encouraged by the victory over India, and, once again, united behind Mao. A more belligerent China also emerged from the ashes of the battlefields in the Himalayas. Bombastic revolutionary phraseology was nothing new in broadcasts by Radio Beijing and articles in the People’s Daily, but the rhetoric in the Chinese media now became even more militant than ever before. And the message was directed at revolutionaries in the parts of the world Mao wanted to have on his side in the struggle against ‘the imperialists’, ‘the revisionists’, and ‘the reactionaries’.
Mohan Ram argues in his excellent study of events before and after the 1962 War that, by mid-1967, China ‘thought the revolutionary situation had turned “excellent” amidst sharpening international class struggle’ and with revolutionary flames being lit all over ‘The Third World’. Ram refers to an article in the People’s Daily, which contained a fierce attack on the Soviet Union’s then premier, Alexei Kosygin, and his call for ‘an end to war’ as well as a condemnation of ‘the greater United States-Soviet collusion against revolutionary struggles’. The People’s Daily concluded that ‘the world is full of the smell of gun powder…to hell with the theory of “dying out” of wars!’
The latest edition of Modern Weaponry—a magazine published by Chinese state-owned defense giant Norinco—contains four computer-generated images of the upcoming Xian H-20 bomber. The pictures confirm the bomber’s internal weapons bay, flying wing design, and dark grey radar-absorbent coating, according to the South China Morning Post. These are the first renderings of the H-20 bomber to be published by a semi-official source. Although the images don’t tell anyone anything that they didn’t already suspect based on prior leaks and a brief promotional clip, they do confirm some of the core concepts informing the H-20 bomber’s design.
As with its U.S. B-21 Raider and Russian PAK-DA counterparts, China’s next-generation bomber will prioritize stealth performance and deep penetration capabilities over raw speed and maneuverability. The latest details reaffirm that the H-20 bomber is not being developed as a technical successor to China’s workhorse Xian H-6, itself a license-built variant of the Soviet Tu-16 heavy bomber. Rather, the H-20 bomber is set to drastically expand China’s threat projection capabilities against its U.S. adversary. The new bomber “will be able to strike targets a long distance away, perhaps in the second island chain and beyond,” military expert Jon Grevatt explained to the South China Morning Post. “That means it would threaten U.S. assets and interests in the Asia-Pacific. If the aircraft becomes operational, it has the potential to be a game-changer,” he added.
The second island chain commonly refers to the space between Japan and Micronesia. In Chinese military doctrine, the waters and territories off China’s east coast are divided into three interlinked regions, or “chains”—Beijing’s island chain concept is adapted from U.S. Cold War-era strategic thinking. The H-20 can threaten U.S. assets operating in the second chain, notably including the American military bases in Guam, in ways that China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) previously could not. Even more alarmingly for Washington, the H-20 bomber would place Beijing within striking distance of the third island chain that starts roughly at the Aleutian Islands and extends beyond Hawaii.
The H-20 bomber’s specifications remain under wraps, though current industry insider speculation points to a payload of around twenty to forty-five tons and an operational range of 8,500 to 12,500 kilometers. The bomber is all but guaranteed to fly at subsonic speeds and is widely believed to carry as many as four next-generation hypersonic cruise missiles, but the full extent of its arsenal remains unclear. Earlier estimates speculated that the H-20 bomber may be powered by the Russian NK-321 engine, but more recent reporting points to an upgraded variant of China’s domestically produced WS-10 engine as a likelier possibility.
In keeping with the PLAAF’s focus on investing in next-generation toolkits, the H-20 bomber will likely boast extensive electronic countermeasures features and information processing capabilities similar to the F-35 fighter jet’s sensor fusion.
The H-20 bomber is expected to enter mass production into the mid-2020s, with the PLAAF reportedly to begin accepting the first serial units by the turn of the decade.
For the PLAAF, the H-20 is a luxury. An expensive, prestigious weapon that, while nice to have, probably won’t make much of a difference in the kind of war China is likeliest to fight, said Tom Cooper, an author and independent aviation expert.
“Reunifiying” Taiwan, by force if necessary, is the central aim of China’s foreign policy. And China already has all the weaponry it needs to achieve that goal, in Cooper’s estimation.
“The H-20 would become relevant only once it enters service, in about 10 years from now,” Cooper said. But Taiwan’s air-defenses “are nothing the PLA couldn’t overcome already, now.”
US Senate Armed Services Committee was told China’s newly completed naval pier in Djibouti would accommodate an aircraft carrier
China’s peacekeeping deployments in Africa perceived as possible excuse to build up military bases in Africa, says analyst
With a population of under 1 million, Djibouti on the Horn of Africa is one of the smallest countries on the continent.
But what it lacks in size, it makes up for with its strategic location, overlooking the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a choke point between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
It is that location that has made it a hub for foreign militaries. Before 2017, the United States, France, Japan and Italy had established bases for their armed forces in the country. Then China arrived, setting up what it described as a logistics facility for resupplying Chinese vessels on peacekeeping and humanitarian missions
That facility houses between 1,000 and 2,000 Chinese navy personnel, according to various reports.
About 12km away, the US’ Camp Lemonnier military base houses 3,400 personnel.
Analysts say that while the US has always welcomed China’s support for UN peacekeeping operations and anti-piracy efforts in Africa, it is concerned China plans to expand its rights to set up bases, using them to extend its military reach and grow arms sales to African countries.
Luke Patey, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, said whether in Africa or the Arctic, the US did not want to see a challenger upset its dominant global military presence.
“Chinese participating in peacekeeping missions may not turn too many heads at the Pentagon, but China’s Djibouti base has military capabilities that extend far beyond the logistical needs of any peace or humanitarian mission,” Patey said.
US Army General Stephen Townsend, leader of US Africa Command, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee on April 20 that China “continues to expand their base in Djibouti into a platform to project power across the continent and its waters – completing a large naval pier this year”.
He said the recently completed pier at the Chinese naval base in Djibouti was large enough to support an aircraft carrier.
Townsend said Beijing sought to open more bases, tying their commercial seaport investments in East, West and Southern Africa closely with involvement by Chinese military forces to further their geostrategic interests.
Reflecting those concerns, US Senator Robert Menendez has sponsored a bill proposing to deny help to governments that allow China’s People’s Liberation Army to host a military installation.
China has not responded to Washington’s latest claims. But last year, when the US Department of Defence alleged in its annual report to Congress that Beijing was planning to set up more military bases in Africa, China’s foreign ministry denied the reports and urged the US to “abandon the outdated Cold War mentality and zero-sum game mindset, stop issuing irresponsible reports year after year”.
Jeffrey Becker, director of the Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Programme at the Centre for Naval Analyses, said that for China establishing a second African base was certainly a possibility as China’s interests in Africa and the surrounding regions continued to grow.
“Places such as Kenya and Tanzania on Africa’s east coast, or Namibia along the Atlantic, have been mentioned as possible locations,” Becker said.
“A second base in Africa would improve China’s ability to conduct a range of operations, including evacuating Chinese citizens in times of crisis and protecting China’s access to key maritime chokepoints in the region, which are critical to China’s trade and energy imports.”
Even if China were to open bases in those countries, Patey said “these plans may still pale in comparison to the hundreds of bases operated by the United States, but if enacted they would still extend China’s military reach far from its mainland and near waters”.
But US concern about China’s security presence in Africa was not especially grounded in national security rationale, according to Samuel Ramani, a tutor in politics and international relations at the University of Oxford in Britain.
Ramani said China and the US broadly supported a stable continental order and neither saw insurgencies or terrorism to their advantage. But Townsend’s comments reflected the US geopolitical rivalry with China and concerns about losing influence to China, Ramani said.
“It is about losing access to oil and mining resources, further erosion of US leverage in the UNGA [United Nations General Assembly] and China gaining more influence, perhaps in concert with Russia, on Indian Ocean security,” Ramani said.
He said Beijing had been cautious about its next moves concerning naval bases in Africa.
“Sao Tome and Principe was rumoured as a naval base in 2018 and there are persistent rumours about Namibia being the site of an army base. Overall though, I see China treading cautiously and not proceeding to establish a base in the near future,” Ramani said.
David Shinn, a former US diplomat and a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said the US had always been concerned about the global expansion of the PLA Navy, including its base in Djibouti.
“Over the short and medium term, I expect China will pursue dual-use port facilities in African waters rather than new military bases,” Shinn said. “That is one reason why China is pursuing so many equity investments in African ports.”
John Calabrese, director of the Middle East-Asia Project, said the US had been encouraging China’s participation in peacekeeping as a means of showing that it was indeed a “responsible stakeholder”. But he said potential concerns included the proliferation of weapons and the possible acquisition of basing rights.
Calabrese said China’s sudden need to evacuate thousands of expatriate workers from Libya during the Arab spring drove home the need for China to develop the capacity to protect its far-flung overseas interests and assets.
Further, Calabrese said the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative extended and deepened Chinese commercial activities in the zone around the Gulf of Aden and Horn of Africa domain in East Africa, justifying the need for a military presence in and around critical waterways and choke points at the Western extremity of the Maritime Silk Road.
Besides making baby steps as a blue-water navy, China is a key player in the UN-led peacekeeping missions in Africa, known as the blue helmets.
The number of Chinese peacekeepers in Africa peaked at 2,620 in 2015 and then declined to about 2,100.
Richard Gowan, UN director of the International Crisis Group, said “there is a longer-term worry that Beijing could use its peacekeeping deployments as an excuse for building up military bases in Africa, ostensibly to support the blue helmets”.
However, he said Western fears about China’s peacekeeping ambitions were overstated and that “China has adopted a fairly cautious approach to UN deployments since 2017 when it suffered fatalities in Mali and South Sudan”.
“China’s single biggest UN deployment is in South Sudan, where it has an infantry battalion. This is, of course, in part linked to China’s energy interests there,” Gowan said.
To advance not at all, and then to dismiss the troops – what kind of reasoning is there in this plan of Our generals? We know that it is because Our generals fear the ferocious rebels that they remain in garrison. They cleverly employ words to avoid facing their crimes. Nothing can surpass this in disloyalty.
Such was the verdict of Emperor Kanmu on a notorious military debacle in 789, suffered at one of the far frontiers of his realm, in north-eastern Honshū. From an imperial force claimed by court chroniclers to have numbered in excess of 50,000 men, a number of detachments had been sent across the Koromo River to attack the home territory of a ‘barbarian’ leader by the name of Aterui. The soldiers set about their task enthusiastically, managing to burn down some 800 homes spread across fourteen villages. But then things started to unravel.
Based on a Chinese model, the imperial army was organized to fight mostly on foot. They used wooden shields for protection and deployed against their enemy a combination of bows and arrows, spears, and catapult-like devices built on top of mobile platforms. Aterui’s forces, by contrast, consisted of skilled archers mounted on horseback, capable of launching volleys of arrows before galloping away out of reach. They now counter-attacked, harassing Kanmu’s men into a hasty and disorganized retreat back across the river. Nearly 300 imperial soldiers were killed or wounded in the fighting, while more than 1,000 drowned. Another 1,250 ended up fleeing the scene half-naked, having survived in the water only by letting go of their weapons and wrestling their armour from their bodies.
The whole thing was a disgrace, as far as the Emperor was concerned. Born in 737, Kanmu had ascended the throne in 781, becoming Japan’s fiftieth emperor according to the traditional line of succession going back to the mythical Emperor Jimmu. Japanese emperors tended to have a number of official consorts. It was a useful way of maintaining alliances with important clans, but a source of endless conflict over which of an emperor’s children – by which wife – would be named heir. Kanmu’s half-brother had initially been designated Crown Prince instead of him. Kanmu’s Korean ancestry on his mother’s side perhaps held him back; only later was the succession altered in his favour.
Kanmu proved to be an excellent monarch. As a former Head of the State Academy – Nara’s training centre for future officials – he was well placed to operate the levers of a centralized imperial system of government whose inspiration the Chronicles of Japan credited to the great Prince Shōtoku. And where that system was not to his liking, Kanmu found ways of working around it. With the Dajōkan, or Great Council of State, threatening to become the means by which elite clans like the Fujiwara could compromise imperial power, Kanmu dealt with vacancies there, when they arose, either by installing members of his own family or by leaving the posts empty.
This keeping of the clans at bay helped Kanmu to become one of the most powerful emperors in the archipelago’s history, a worthy contemporary of Charlemagne at the other end of the Eurasian continent. He epitomized the kind of forceful imperial leadership, seen on and off between the late 600s and mid-800s, which was capable of pushing important boundaries in a country by this time referred to in official correspondence as ‘Nihon’ (Japan). Kanmu expanded and shored up his country’s frontiers. He advanced its religious and artistic imagination, and he corralled its wealth and manpower into the establishment of its greatest city.
Alongside Kanmu’s unprecedented political and military authority ran what his chroniclers recalled as a powerful dislike of ‘literary floweriness’. Here was a man not to be failed, and certainly not to be plied with unlikely excuses or poetic protestations. Kanmu’s military commanders discovered all this to their cost in the wake of the humiliation at the Koromo River:
Government losses are nearly 3,000! What is there to be joyous about? You say, ‘Wherever the heavenly troops were sent, there were no strong enemies before them. In their homes in the caves along the sea and bays, no more will there be human smoke; in their nests and holes in the mountains and valleys only ghost fires can be seen.’ These are only floating words; they far exceed reality.
As to the sending of victory reports to court, these should be made after the rebels have been levelled and merit made to stand. Without advancing into the depths of their territory, you boast that you have destroyed their villages and rush to proclaim your joy. Is this not too shameful?
Had Kanmu’s commanders taken their leader’s preference for straight talking and forensic analysis more seriously, they might have tried a different tack in their reports – admitting failure and blaming it on the raw materials they were given to work with. Theirs was, after all, merely a conscript army. Four years in the military – one served in the capital, three on one of the frontiers – was part of the price that a man paid for the honour of being an imperial subject. The rest of the time he would farm his state-allocated plot of rice, labour on public works projects when required (up to sixty days a year), pay his taxes and behave himself.
It didn’t always make for an easy life. Population pressure on the land could be heavy. Outbreaks of famine and disease were not unknown. And conscription tended to compound economic hardship. Little of the military equipment lining the bottom of the Koromo River after 789 had been paid for out of courtly coffers. A conscript was expected to feed, clothe and equip himself on the basis of an official kit-list – including a bow, bow-strings, arrows, quiver, two swords, leggings and boots – whose proper fulfilment could easily bankrupt a family.
When it all became too much, some farmers chose to flee to the north-east of Honshū in an attempt to escape imperial reach. Others journeyed in the same direction as official colonists: they were sent by the state during the 700s as part of a boundary-pushing exercise in which new forts were established – a combination of garrison, granary and administrative centre – and farmers were required to break and till the land around them.
Both sorts of migrant ended up in conflict with the older inhabitants of this part of the archipelago. They were a mix of hunter-gatherer and agriculturalist clans, lumped together as ‘barbarians’ and ‘savages’ by a Japanese state whose approach to outsiders was yet another of its cultural borrowings from China. In the words of the Chronicles of Japan:
Amongst these savages the Emishi are the most powerful. Their men and women live together promiscuously, there is no distinction of father and child. In winter they dwell in holes, in summer they live in nests. Their clothing consists of furs, and they drink blood. Brothers are suspicious of one another. In ascending mountains they are like flying birds; in going through the grass they are like fleet wolves.
When they receive a favour, they forget it, but if an injury is done them they never fail to revenge it. Therefore they keep arrows in their top-knots and carry swords within their clothing … If attacked, they conceal themselves in the herbage; if pursued, they flee into the mountains. Therefore ever since antiquity they have not been steeped in the kingly civilizing influences.
The present trouble with these ‘Emishi’ had begun in 774, when the old policy of slow and steady colonization, combined with some judicious alliance-making, was brought to an end by an imperial order to ‘strike down the barbarians’. Emperor Kanmu inherited the resulting conflict, its painfully slow progress and even more painful costs becoming the bane of his early reign.
A small victory was won in 801–2, when a new military commander by the name of Sakanoue no Tamuramaro managed to put sufficient pressure on Aterui to persuade him and another prominent Emishi leader to negotiate their surrender. But where Emishi prisoners taken in this way were usually dispersed across Japan, serving as slaves of the nobility or living in their own segregated communities, these two high-profile prisoners ended up losing their heads. Kanmu and his advisers had had enough of the north.
A few years later, Kanmu ended the Emishi campaigns altogether, reluctantly allowing parts of north-eastern Honshū to remain beyond his reach. The fighting had become one of two great ‘sources of suffering in the realm’, as one of his advisers put it. The other was the new capital city growing up around them.
Almost immediately upon ascending the throne in 781, Kanmu had decided to transfer his court to a new location. In the past, emperors had moved around for a variety of reasons. Some thought that a new era should begin in a new place, and ideally in a more impressive palace than their predecessor: this was a matter not merely of self-regard, but of advertising one’s role as the ‘sacred centre’ of the realm. Others found themselves facing a famine or epidemic, and sought to escape this combination of physical threat and spiritual contagion by upping sticks – literally, in terms of valuable timber structures, which could be taken down and reassembled elsewhere. Semi-regular uprisings by armed rivals offered a third compelling rationale for a hasty relocation.
Kanmu, in the end, found himself having to move home not once but twice. He first transferred his court from Nara to an area called Nagaoka, in 784. But it was quickly beset by political assassination, suicide, famine, flood and disease, persuading Kanmu to seek out a more auspicious location. This he did on horseback in 793, under cover of a ‘hunting trip’ on which he was joined by his royal diviners.
They found what they were looking for around fifty kilometres north of Nara. The topography ticked all the boxes. There were mountains to the north, west and east, offering excellent defensive potential. Chinese geomantic requirements for pleasing the gods of the four quadrants were also met: a mountainous north, a roadway to the west, a river to the east, and a large area of water to the south. The inauspicious north-east, from which it was said demons might invade, was guarded by the formidable Mount Hiei. Added to all this was rich, naturally irrigated rice-growing soil, timber aplenty in the hills, good access via river to the Inland Sea (separating the islands of Honshū, Shikoku and Kyūshū), and a generally flat central area on which to build without too much preparatory work required.
If there was a catch, it was the climate. The site was located in a basin, meaning that summers and winters would not be much fun for residents: alternating intolerably hot and humid weather with bitter cold. Kanmu endured his own first winter there in 794. From the confines of a palace that was still under construction, he issued a grand edict announcing the new location for the imperial capital alongside his choice of official name. It was to be called Heian-kyō: ‘Capital of Peace and Tranquillity’. Most Japanese would one day know it simply as ‘Capital City’ – in Japanese, ‘Kyoto’.
A city destined to be home to Japan’s emperors for more than a thousand years started life on a relatively modest scale. A rectangular-shaped grid ran for five and a half kilometres from north to south, and nearly five kilometres from east to west. Wide avenues ran along both axes, paralleled by narrower lanes in between. Most buildings were limited to a single storey, meaning that residents suffering with the climate could at least claim the consolation of fantastic views – lush, forested mountains, whose seasonal changes of colour became a favourite theme for the writers who soon flourished in Kanmu’s new capital.
And this really was Kanmu’s capital. The north end of Heian-kyō was dominated by a ‘Greater Imperial Palace’ that sprawled across nearly 7 per cent of the city’s total land area, and whose construction, alongside that of associated princely residences, accounted for up to three-fifths of central government expenditure during Kanmu’s reign. Provincial workers, here to pay their imperial labour tax, were kept busy erecting around 200 buildings, towers and corridors – including fourteen separate gateways, of which the most important was the Suzakumon: the ‘Gate of the Vermilion Sparrow’.
This was both the Emperor’s home and his place of business. A residential compound was located at the north end of the palace complex, while government offices and meeting areas, including the three buildings that comprised the Great Council of State, were laid out to the south. A large area of greenery, the ‘Park of the Divine Spring’, was maintained nearby for imperial banquets, entertainment and the occasional spot of hunting and fishing.
Southwards from the palace, all the way through the city, ran Suzaku Ōji. Possibly the broadest boulevard in the world at the time at around ninety metres wide, and terminating in the famous Rashōmon gate (two storeys high and painted red and white with a green roof), it was lauded in song for its beautiful willow trees:
Light green they shine,
Dark green they shine,
Stretching into the distance as far as the eye can see,
They glitter like jewels.
Oh, how they glitter – those low-hanging boughs
Of the willows on Suzaku Ōji!
In the centre of the city lay two shopping areas, where business was based mostly on barter and items for sale included everything from rice and fruit to writing brushes, medicinal herbs and suits of armour. Fine accommodation was created for visiting foreign dignitaries, in the hope of striking favourable trade deals, while aristocratic residents settled into expansive villas whose exquisitely kept gardens and ponds were fed from the city’s waterways – so numerous that Heian-kyō quickly became home to hundreds of bridges. Most of the population, estimated at around 100,000 people in the city’s early years, lived rather more modestly and were involved, directly or indirectly, in some kind of service to the state and the aristocratic class: from keeping accounts and guarding prisoners to brewing sake, weaving silk and reviving heat-stricken humans or their pets.
Heian-kyō had no perimeter wall worthy of the name, because Kanmu had no earthly enemies worthy of the name. Concerned instead with cosmic vulnerability and defence, he was quick to send tributes to the Upper and Lower Kamo Shrines, situated in the feared north-easterly direction, in order to seek the protection of the kami enshrined there. This offering of tributes soon morphed into an annual night-time ceremony in which priests called out to the gods in darkness, bidding them to come down into specially created structures of sand and pine logs. From there, the kami were transferred into small sakaki trees, to be carried into the main sanctuary of the shrines. This accomplished, the shrines were illuminated and public festivities were held for the kami’s amusement.
These festivities grew in scale, year on year, until the Kamo Festival became the major event in Heian-kyō’s social calendar. A Grand Imperial Emissary and a specially selected imperial princess would travel to the two shrines, the former to present tributes including dances and horses, and the latter to worship there – just as a member of the imperial family worshipped at Amaterasu’s Ise Shrine, to whose level the Kamo Shrines were now elevated. Both the emissary and the princess travelled with glamorous retinues. Senior courtiers rode on horseback or rumbled along inside ox-drawn carriages lavishly adorned with hollyhock flowers, accompanied on their journey by musicians and dancers. The whole city turned out to watch the spectacle, with vantage points varying according to the decorum demanded by one’s status. The higher-born sent someone ahead to save a good parking spot for their carriages. Humbler sorts roamed rooftops and the branches of tall trees.
Solicitous of the kami, Kanmu was rather more sceptical about the role that Buddhism might play in the welfare of his city and his country. One of the reasons for leaving Nara behind after he became Emperor had been its powerful, even overbearing Buddhist institutional presence: from great temples, grown wealthy and excessively independent of imperial and clan patronage, to a population of monks so large that Kanmu’s father had striven to weed out any who were living in the capital illegally and have them returned to the provinces whence they came. If rival clans were one perpetual threat to imperial power, Buddhism had come to represent a second. And Kanmu was determined to do something about it.
One of Buddhism’s most powerful backers after Prince Shōtoku had been Emperor Shōmu (reigned 724–49). A mixture of personal devotion and desperate pragmatism, in the midst of a devastating smallpox outbreak in 735–7, had led him to establish a protective nationwide network of temples and nunneries: one of each, in every province. The awesome Tōdai-ji in Nara was built to serve as the central temple for this network and as home to an enormous sixteen-metre gilded bronze statue of the celestial Buddha Vairocana. Its casting, said to have required 338 tons of copper and 16 tons of gold, nearly drove the nation into bankruptcy. The statue’s dedication in 752, during which its eyes were ceremonially opened, had been one of the events of the era, attended by no fewer than 7,000 courtiers and 10,000 monks.
Alongside keeping the country safe and furnishing some of its great early aesthetic achievements, Buddhism also became a way for talented individuals born into families of modest means to acquire education and enter public service. Some outstandingly wise and compassionate figures emerged in this way, amongst them a monk by the name of Gyōki (668–749) who was celebrated for his preaching and his practical aid to poor farmers – notably a number of precious irrigation projects – alongside his work as an imperial adviser.
Yet some clergy seemed to treat Japan’s legal restrictions on monastic behaviour – from taking wives to lending money and holding private property – less as a series of prohibitions and more as a to-do list. Temples loaned money to farmers, then took their land when they defaulted on repayments. One temple was said to be operating as a pawnbroker, charging an annual interest rate of 180 per cent. The biggest fear was of monks playing politics, potentially giving rise to an anti-imperial perfect storm of eloquent preaching, deeply impressive ideas and vestments and rituals, hostile clan backing and popular discontent about the direction in which the world was heading. This had yet to happen, but in the 760s a mercurial monk called Dōkyō had managed to persuade Emperor Shōmu’s daughter and successor to grant him progressively greater influence in government. Amidst rumours of intimacy with the Empress, he eventually sought the throne itself, thwarted in the end only by vehement courtly opposition and by the Empress’s death.
Kanmu fought back against all this on several fronts. He banned the establishment of ‘private temples’, a practice that was often less about devotion than tax-avoidance: institutions claiming to conduct rituals for the good of the realm were exempt from contributing to its coffers. And he banned existing temples from receiving donations without permission. At the same time he opened up temple property to provincial audits (and possible confiscation), and set the maximum interest rate for a temple loan at a comparatively reasonable 10 per cent. Kanmu clamped down, too, on clergy fathering children, claiming to be able to work miracles and engaging in ‘black magic in the mountains with the aim of harming their enemies’. All the while, he tried to raise the bar for people wishing to become monks or nuns. Character and learning were given renewed importance, the latter tested via rigorous examination.
But Kanmu’s most consequential move was the one he made against the supremacy of the Buddhist establishment in Nara, which was made up of six major sects. In this he was helped by a monk called Saichō. Born in 767 and ordained at Tōdai-ji in 785, Saichō swapped what he saw as the corruption of contemporary Buddhism for an austere life on Mount Hiei – a rare move in his day. When Kanmu moved his capital to the area in 794, he came to hear of Saichō’s life on Hiei and his study of Tiantai Buddhism. Struck by the potential of the latter as an alternative to the squabbling Nara sects, Kanmu allowed Saichō to travel to China to learn more.
Saichō arrived in China in 804, returning to Japan the next year having studied these and many other Buddhist teachings besides. The result, within a few short years, was a new ‘Tendai’ sect, established on Mount Hiei and taking its name from ‘Tiantai’ while in fact being very much more. It incorporated elements from Zen, from a set of advanced moral codes called the Bodhisattva Precepts and from esoteric Buddhism. Tiantai by itself was already an attempt to work Buddhism’s various sects and scriptures into an ambitious hierarchical whole, with the Lotus Sutra at the apex. Tendai ended up so comprehensive – across ritual, contemplation, faith and morality – that Saichō saw no need for any other sect in Japan.
Saichō dubbed his teachings ‘Buddhahood for all’. The basic idea was very much in tune with the Mahayana branch of Buddhism. Coalescing in India by around 200 CE and mixing with Chinese philosophical and religious traditions across the centuries since, the Mahayana (‘Great Vehicle’) had helped to broaden Buddhism from being the preserve primarily of monastics to a ‘vehicle’ for the salvation of laypeople too. Devotional possibilities expanded with the idea that the Buddha takes on three different forms or ‘bodies’: a cosmic, all-embracing form, akin to the Absolute; a celestial form, appearing as various gods inhabiting the realms that make up the cosmos; and more limited forms manifesting in ordinary time and space – the most famous being Siddhartha Gautama. There was great emphasis, too, on the figure of the ‘bodhisattva’: beings on the path to Buddhahood across many lives, who out of compassion seek to release all other sentient beings from suffering along the way.
For Saichō, ‘Buddhahood for all’ meant that traditional distinctions between clergy and laypeople, and between men and women, did not matter. What mattered was that the Buddha in his cosmic form resided in the depths of every person, as their ‘Buddha nature’. Enlightenment was, as a result, not something to be striven for across many lifetimes via monastic vows, complex rituals and unending austerity. It was already here, already the truth of things, needing only to be apprehended via a simple faith nourished in contemplation and everyday life – if, that is, a person really wanted it. As Saichō himself cautioned his followers: ‘There is room for food and clothing within an aspiration for enlightenment, but there is no room for an aspiration for enlightenment within the quest for food and clothing.’
In one respect, Saichō was developing here a characteristically East Asian take on Buddhism. In India, the idea of reincarnation was so deeply entrenched that moral effort across many lifetimes seemed an entirely natural proposition. In China and Japan, by contrast, where reincarnation was just one amongst many possible posthumous outcomes, Buddhism came to have a greater focus on the here-and-now; on the possibility that people, even inanimate objects, possess the Buddha nature; and on the religious practices and artistic ways of looking at the world that flow from that.
But the politics of Tendai were distinctive and clear from the start. Saichō regarded Prince Shōtoku as a great statesman and his ‘spiritual grandfather’. Where the Prince was credited with helping to establish ‘Nihon’ as his country’s name, Saichō was amongst those to use the powerful expression dainipponkoku: ‘the great country of Japan’. The cosmic protection of this great country, he claimed, and its freedom from chaos, was one of Japanese Buddhism’s most weighty responsibilities.
If Saichō was Kanmu’s ideal Buddhist – scholarly, moral, highly patriotic – he nevertheless had a rival in a second Buddhist monk arriving in China in 804 as part of the same diplomatic mission. His name was Kūkai, and just like Saichō he returned to Japan to establish a brand new Buddhist sect. Where Tendai was broad in its philosophy and ritual, Kūkai’s new sect – Shingon (‘True Word’), which came to be based on Mount Kōya – focused more closely on esoteric Buddhism. Monks studied mudras (ritual gestures, mostly using the hands), mandalas (visual representations of sacred realms), mantras (sacred phrases) and mental concentration.
Saichō and Kūkai became two of the most influential Japanese Buddhists who ever lived. Their rise might not have been good news for women, who thrived as nuns in the existing system but were, early on at least, barred from Mounts Hiei and Kōya for fear of compromising the efficacy of the rituals performed there. But where Buddhism in Japan had, in the past, relied heavily on foreign scholarship, Saichō and Kūkai were its first great Japanese innovators.
Japan’s native gods, meanwhile, remained very much in the picture. At its own request, via an oracle, the kami Hachiman had been moved from Kyūshū to Nara, so that it could pay homage to the great Buddha at Tōdai-ji. Now, the Tendai and Shingon sects turned to the kami of Mounts Hiei and Kōya respectively to help secure themselves in their new homes. Buddhism and the kami would continue to interweave – philosophically and ritually – for a millennium to come, so that eventually few Japanese would recognize them as two separable traditions.
Emperor Kanmu did not live to see the full fruits of his boundary-pushing efforts, which contributed so much to Japan’s Heian era, beginning with the establishment of the new capital and ending in 1185. Already unwell by the time Saichō returned from China in 805, Kanmu died the following year, after an esoteric Buddhist ritual intended to revive him failed to achieve its end. But in the decades following his death, Buddhism’s boundaries were steadily and radically redrawn thanks to his support for Saichō and Kūkai: from an urban system in which six sects mixed and mingled, to a mountain tradition, firmly rooted in Mahayana Buddhism, where differing sects maintained their own temples, lineages, interests and eventually even armies.
More broadly, Kanmu had helped to usher in an era of remarkable cultural confidence in Japan. He left his country on the cusp of a classical era in which contacts with China fell away and instead fashion, art, architecture, music, poetry and prose all took on distinctively Japanese forms. Tendai and Shingon had an important part to play here. The idea that Buddha nature resides in everyone and everything made possible a shift from the relative austerity of the Nara schools to a broad and enthusiastic embrace of aesthetics as yet another means of accessing the Absolute. Kūkai became famous not just as a Buddhist pioneer but also as a poet, painter and calligrapher. For centuries to come, some of Japan’s greatest artists would also be Buddhist priests.
Kanmu’s new capital at Heian-kyō became synonymous with these celebrated cultural achievements. The city was also the governmental and administrative heart of a centralized imperial realm that encompassed most of the islands of Kyūshū and Shikoku, along with southern and central areas of Honshū. Its population stood at around 6 or 7 million people in Kanmu’s lifetime. Thanks to his political achievements and his siring of three strong sons – whose combined reigns continued until 833 – Kanmu’s legacy in all these areas was given time to develop before enemies crowded in.
But crowd in they would. Clan power had been dampened down, not defeated. Before too long, successors to the imperial throne would look back on Kanmu’s era less as a practical example and more as a glorious and utterly irretrievable past.
For the past three millennia, the Chinese have looked inward, presumed and cherished their moral superiority, and disdained but feared outside marauders and invaders. Here, of course, one has to distinguish ethnic Han emperors from the Khitan, Mongol, and Manchu rulers who imposed their dominion on the Middle Kingdom for many centuries. Yet even non-Han emperors embraced the Middle Kingdom’s security assumptions and fear of collapse wrought by “inside disorder and outside calamity.” They saw no need to conquer “barbarian” territories beyond the empire but only to manage nearby neighbors as subservient vassals against more powerful, distant foes. Except when directly menaced by non-Han “barbarians,” Chinese rulers regarded these neighbors as a part of the nation’s security belt. In exchange for exacting loyalty and tribute from vassal states, the emperors pledged to protect them. Over many centuries, Chinese emperors typically regarded the use of force as the last resort.
At the strategic level, the dominant Chinese philosophy created a culture characterized by “strong secularism, weak religiousness,” “strong inclusiveness, weak exclusiveness,” and “strong conservativeness, weak aggressiveness.” These features wax and wane in a twentieth-century China wracked by war, revolution, and globalization, but the Chinese now appear to believe they are in the ascendancy and in the recent past have given primacy to diplomacy in resolving disputes. In today’s China, leaders draw on the traditional code of conduct that “peace claims precedence” (he wei gui). From Mao to Deng, Jiang Zemin, and now Hu Jintao, he wei gui is invoked to justify diplomatic negotiations and the avoidance of war. In the tradition, peace and stability ensured progress and heaven’s blessing, while war could unleash decades of strife and usher in centuries of foreign rule. That tradition finds an echo in modern Beijing’s political and military councils, and we shall encounter it again at the end of our inquiry.
The dangers of war and the opportunities wrought by enduring tranquility required skilled statesmen and prudent policies, and the Chinese held that the writings of ancient, revered sages were must-read texts for all aspiring leaders and youthful cadets in training. Those steeped in the wisdom of treasured ancestors would be best equipped to guide the ship of state away from impending disasters and toward a common ideal. Whether one speaks of the Mandate of Heaven or the authority of Party cadres, the subject always begins with learning from the past and heeding its supposed lessons.
For those charged with guarding the nation against foreign incursions and internal strife, the place to begin was Sun Tzu, the Middle Kingdom’s renowned military strategist. His Art of War, written about 500 B.C., during the Spring and Autumn years of the Zhou dynasty, summarizes the classical notion that the best prepared for war either will win without fighting or will fight and win. War must be studied. Its basic rules and principles are universal and, taken together, are an art that can and must be learned. Sun Tzu urges leaders to think boldly but to act with extreme caution because war is “a matter of life and death, a road to safety or ruin.” As Confucius later declared, “The cautious seldom err.”
In essence, the art of war is a battle of wits, and those who master the art have the best hope of winning without fighting. That mind-against-mind struggle is characterized by brilliant stratagems, active diplomacy and deception, and judicious intimidation. Yet, armed struggle sometimes cannot be prevented, and Sun Tzu’s guidance for generations of generals stipulated the priorities for achieving victory or avoiding defeat when war occurs: “What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy. Next best is to disrupt his alliances by diplomacy. The next best is to attack his army. And the worst policy is to attack cities. . . . Those skilled in war subdue the enemy’s army without battle. . . . Therefore, I say: Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated.”
The art of war blends the skills of statesmanship and generalship, though Sun Tzu warned, “He whose generals are able and not interfered with by the sovereign will be victorious.” Historians also record stories of the ruthless side of Sun Tzu that transcend this warning. One story illustrates his fierce insistence on submission to command. When challenged by the king of the state of Wu to demonstrate his skills by drilling the palace concubines, Sun Tzu divided the women into two groups and explained his demand for absolute obedience and the penalties for failure. When his new recruits merely giggled and ignored him, Sun Tzu selected the king’s two favorites and had them beheaded. The giggling ended. “In the tumult and uproar, the battle seems chaotic, but there must be no disorder in one’s own troops,” Sun Tzu wrote. From empire to revolution to the Korean War, Chinese soldiers have fought in the certain knowledge that iron obedience is their only option.
Sun Tzu’s dictums are echoed in the texts of Confucius. Wise leaders, Confucius held, must constantly reflect on war and prepare for it. The most consequential national security decision comes when selecting a military commander. A nation’s leader must pick as his generals or members of his national security team, as Washington would put it, those who understand the right mix of political and military preparations for war, approach the coming battles prudently, and act with caution. Overconfident generals or ineffectual security advisors can bring ruin to the strongest state. For Confucius, a qualified commander “must be afraid of the assignment he is going to undertake” and must be able to win by prudently planned strategies that outmaneuver and outthink an adversary.
Chinese traditionally deemed the symbols of force—swords, guns, trophies, and war medals—inauspicious. A Chinese maxim says, “Those good at war do not speak about war” (shan zhan zhe bu yan zhan). For generations, the best generals shunned boasting about their military skills and did their utmost to avoid an armed struggle. Should war break out, they would pursue and bring victory because they had so diligently made ready for it politically, psychologically, and militarily. In modern times, they typically denigrated the West’s “stress on military force” (shangwu) and adopted a “force avoidance” (rouwu or “soft military”) or low-posture stance. Veiled threats and brief-strike military “lessons” reflect this classical legacy in modern-day China. The culture disparaged the race to war and lauded its avoidance as marks of wisdom and moral strength.
The Contrast of American and Chinese Military Philosophies
Chinese strategists draw on these classical perspectives to study and assess potential adversaries, extrapolating military philosophies from their conduct on the battlefield. The didactic process of comparison and assessment of perceived differences has helped chart the equation of liabilities and assets underlying each side’s doctrines and set the stage for pitting strategy against strategy. This constitutes an exercise in the great tradition of Sun Tzu and a prelude to directing the complex process from national command decision to battlefield tactics.
Lodged in military academies and command-and-staff colleges, these comparative studies start with the basics, sometimes exhibiting considerable insight and often simplistic and biased distillations. They begin with assertions about concepts of basic human nature, and though they speak somewhat grandly of the “West,” they most often mean the United States or their characterization of its beliefs and biases. For the West, so these uniformed academics say, human nature is deemed to be evil, causing its citizens to exaggerate the importance of the law and to rely on courts for punishments and redress of wrongs to individuals. Chinese in the mainstream Confucian tradition, by contrast, hold that human nature is good or perhaps just neutral and can profit from education and the collective wisdom of the past. For Chinese, court-imposed enforcement, except to protect the state, is a last resort or a foreign artifact to be scorned. Translated to the level of strategic culture, Western strategists rely on power politics, stress individual as opposed to social misbehavior, and threaten forceful retaliation to back up negotiating demands. Chinese, generally speaking, prefer recurring rounds of diplomacy, insist on consensus building especially on matters of general principle, and consider harmony reached through negotiations and compromise to be the epitome of diplomatic skill.
This presumed or alleged contrast in worldviews applies to the exercise of military power as a means to accomplish political and economic aims. Compared to leaders in the West, the Chinese profess to place a higher strategic, even moral value on tranquility and peace, a condition long absent in their own modern history. This difference, however, could help explain why the Chinese often yield to pressures from the outside world, especially in the early stages of a crisis, and only suddenly and unexpectedly resort to force as a crisis unfolds and a head-on conflict appears inevitable. According to Chinese military scholars, Westerners often prematurely terminate talks in favor of military action and, comparatively speaking, more often refuse to patiently explore promising areas of potential agreement.
Holding the view that “offense is the best defense,” Westerners, so the Chinese argument goes, too readily have adopted an aggressive stance in order to seize the initiative, while Chinese traditionally “forsake offensive actions in favor of defensive postures” (fei gong), an approach underlying one of their basic strategic doctrines, “active defense” (jiji fangyu). An oft-used Chinese character for “force” (wu) reflects the culture’s ambivalence toward its use: the defining component or “radical” part of the character is zhi, meaning “stop,” while the second component, ge, is the name for an ancient dagger-axe. Such contradictions flourish in the Chinese language and speak in subtle ways to what is sometimes interpreted as “inscrutable” Chinese behavior. As this study proceeds, however, we shall encounter signs of that behavior changing under the demands of military modernization and the complexities of the Taiwan and American challenges.
In the language of the war room, the Chinese stress intentions, while Westerners focus on capabilities. Sometimes this Chinese emphasis is phrased as a strategy of looking for an adversary’s weaknesses as opposed to the West’s fixation on an adversary’s strengths.
In recent decades, Westerners trumpet their prowess in science and technology—their hardware—though any disparities in this respect would seem to be rapidly eroding as the Chinese scramble to achieve scientific and technological excellence and seem to rely less on the wisdom of the ages. Still the distinction between a “hardware” orientation and one proclaiming the virtues of the intellect or “software” does reflect variations in national culture, not just in the stage of development. The tradition of Chinese intellectuals to “attach importance to self-cultivation but neglect technology” (zhong dao qing qi) may be waning, but the signs of its influence are far from disappearing.
Indeed, zhong dao qing qi figures in many current internal critiques of Chinese military thinking. Military leaders and planners tend to criticize the influence of the concept for their failures to forge the People’s Liberation Army into a more capable fighting force and for the persistence of a bias that inhibits an uninterrupted concentration on advances in technology. Although technological inferiority purportedly causes PLA planners to adopt more creative strategies than their adversaries, that inferiority also reduces strategic options and magnifies the importance of strategic failures.
Finally, the two cultures face in unlike directions. China looks inward, exhibiting a certain smugness, while the West looks outward and seems restless to expand and control. It would be hard to find an American whom the Chinese have not called impatient or worse. In strategic terms, this also reflects a land-sea dichotomy, at least in modern times. For generations, Western strategists called for dominance of the seas and more recently of the air and outer space. Chinese strategists from Sun Tzu to Beijing’s generals, by contrast, have been guardians of the land. They have paid closer attention to domestic political challenges than to international crises. Foreign conflicts and crises seldom take precedence over internal stability and the political power of the established rulers.
China’s sea, air, and strategic missile units belong to the People’s Liberation Army and have never achieved genuine equality with their brothers and sisters in the ground forces. Even in the age of long-range aircraft and missiles, China’s large landmass is still thought to provide a strategic advantage even though the PLA abandoned the doctrine of “luring an enemy in deep” in the 1980s. China is essentially a continental economy, its soldiers mostly hail from landlocked villages, and alien regimes one after the other have been swallowed up in China’s vast territory. These become significant data points when explaining the Chinese military’s strategies from People’s War to “active defense under modern conditions.”
Old Ideas Versus New Concepts
Today’s Chinese strategists acknowledge and seek to modify a number of behaviors that accompany the traditional outlook. Three such unwanted behaviors stand out. First, these strategists have begun to reconsider the long-held article of faith that China has always been the innocent victim, the passive target of foreign aggression. Indeed, Mao Zedong interpreted all modern Chinese history in this light and called for the people to “stand up.” Moreover, he perpetuated both the leadership’s proclivity toward preparing for the worst when making policies in crises and its allergy to taking the initiative. In 1955, he admonished his associates, “[We] will not suffer losses if we always take into account the worst scenario,” and subsequent generations were taught to take his admonition to heart. Driven by repeated setbacks of the revolutionary years, worst-case planning carried over to the People’s Republic and only in the Jiang Zemin era in the 1990s and beyond seemed to be dying out.
From their stronger, more self-confident positions at least for the moment, Western leaders are said to be more inclined to consider a wider range of options and regard the worst case as only one of several possibilities. Where once the PLA belittled the West in this regard, it now privately admires it and increasingly strives to emulate it.
A second behavior is implicit in the first: extreme “cautiousness toward the first battle” (shenzhong chuzhan). Tradition teaches Chinese to fear that round one of the fighting could decisively influence the war’s final outcome. From their perspective, Western strategists by contrast are inclined to believe that a nation’s military superiority can compensate for any initial strategic mistakes and that by seizing the initiative they can define the battlefield and determine the nature of the battles to come. This implies that the Chinese, comparatively speaking, may be less inclined to take risks before launching major undertakings or an armed conflict and could be less flexible after the outbreak of a war. Throughout China’s nuclear test program, for example, getting it right the first time translated into far fewer tests. Some explain this by pointing to China’s poverty, but the attitude, as we shall see in our later discussion of the Vietnam border war of 1979, reflects culture as well as money. As the Chinese come face to face with modern warfare, risk taking and seizing the initiative, we shall also suggest, may become mandatory, and rising domestic prosperity may well ease the change to a more “Western style” of military conduct.
The final unwanted behavior that we should note is one of methodology more than style. PLA strategists attach importance to macroanalysis, and believe that their counterparts in the West pay closer attention to microanalysis. The variations in approach to science and technology are deemed part of this behavioral disparity, as are outlooks toward human nature, matters of principle, and negotiating techniques. Nevertheless, Chinese hold that this methodological bias is based as much on necessity as on choice. Neither quantitative nor qualitative methods alone, they acknowledge, can yield a complete and adequate strategic picture, and achieving a balance between the two methodologies in today’s world is not easy.
For the moment, the Chinese military lacks sufficient sophisticated technical means for the real-time surveillance and reconnaissance needed for accurate quantitative judgments or the nuanced human intelligence for complete qualitative assessments. China’s technological inferiority, military leaders have concluded, has crippled or delayed their plans for the nation’s security. The PLA urgently seeks to acquire those means.
In the traditional and revolutionary-era military cultures, the Chinese formulated strategic doctrines first and then determined the type, scope, and pace of weapons programs. Their lack of resources then narrowed the range of choices and the margins for error. To this day, antecedent strategic guidelines, always controversial and painful to formulate, tend to dictate the direction and scope of most arms programs and place a premium on weapons procured to match specific priorities. This approach limits the procurement of weapons optimized not only for immediate needs but also capable of flexible modification to deal with unexpected contingencies over the full lifespan of the weapon. It makes it more difficult to consider interrelated weapons systems and makes R&D on them depend principally on analyses of past Chinese and foreign conflicts, much less so on future unknowns.
While “fighting the last war” and adopting technologies developed elsewhere are not unique to China, the People’s Liberation Army only recently has begun to recognize that the profound post-Vietnam change in the U.S. military, which seeks to leapfrog over next-generation weapons and tactics, is made possible by an active synergy between imaginative battlefield theories and innovative technologies. Neither doctrines nor weapons programs necessarily comes first. Each can drive the other, a reality that has only recently been understood and embraced in the People’s Republic.
What we are seeing is that the cultural differences, so important in earlier years, have begun to narrow and their continued influence often disgusts younger, better-trained PLA officers. The reasons for this continuity, to be sure, may stem in some degree from shortages of resources as much as of vision, though examples such as the air force rejecting cheaper, more advanced satellite-based air traffic control systems in favor of outmoded radars in the 1990s suggest that the problem is one of mind-set as much as money.
The evolution that is occurring in China’s military hardware and doctrines has resulted largely from the direct application of military experience from Korea to Vietnam, from planning for a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, and from the dramatic lessons provided by the wars fought by the United States since the debacle of Vietnam. The worst-case planning, aversion to risk, and preference for qualitative or macroanalysis persist as do the artificial boundaries between military doctrine and weapons procurements, the Chinese are rectifying the problems born of rigid thinking and are steadily modifying their approach to war, making it more refined and flexible.
In the course of these changes, the critique of outmoded concepts has become more direct and open. In 2001, a senior PLA general echoed Sun Tzu’s declaration that national strategy is a matter of “life and death” and a road to “safety or ruin.” He castigated the nation’s think tanks for their failure to devise that strategy for the new century.
In response, senior military strategists began a systematic review of the “six domains” of strategy: politics, military affairs, economy, science and technology, culture, and society. They argued that China faces severe challenges in all six areas and outlined five strategic goals in the decades ahead: safeguard territorial sovereignty and “rights”; maintain domestic stability and a stable environment in the Asian-Pacific region; promote economic growth; oppose hegemony and power politics; and build a new international political and economic order.