The Strait of Malacca is one of the world's hottest and most crucial strategic choke points. It is considered by experts to be one of the ten most vulnerable objectives which neutralization by hostile forces not only will cause tremendous harm to the well being, perhaps very existence, of the economy of the West, but is also very easy to accomplish. Controlling the Strait of Malacca is presently a key strategic objective of the PRC to the point of risking armed conflict with the regional states and even the US.
The Strait of Malacca is a narrow waterway between Malaysia and Sumatera island of Indonesia. Virtually the entire commercial sea traffic between the Far East and Europe, the Middle East, and India and passes through the Strait of Malacca. The entire fuel and gas shipments purchased from the Persian Gulf for the Far East passes there. Further more, the region's largest oil fields are virtually in the eastern mouth of the Strait. Moreover, Singapore -- the region's largest commercial and communications center and key port -- lies at the eastern mouth of the Strait of Malacca.
The Strait of Malacca dominates more than the commercial and economic life lines into and out of the rapidly expanding economies of East Asia. The global strategic growth and expansion of aspiring powers can be contained and regulated through the mere control over the movement of their naval forces through the Strait of Malacca.
For Beijing, this reality is increasingly a vital interest. Any Chinese naval and military surge into the Indian Ocean -- a major strategic priority of Beijing -- must pass through the Strait of Malacca. Beijing considers its surge into the Indian Ocean as part of a strategic surge of global proportions aimed at consolidating military posture in a hostile environment (from a both global and regional strategic point of view), and in a strategic grand design that anticipates the possibility of a major military clash with the US in the foreseeable future.
This grim assessment and the resolute commitment to resolve it were not reached hastily. Back in 1992, the CMC had already resolved, at least in principle, to establish a high performance blue water fleet, including the acquisition of an aircraft carrier. However, at the time, the strategic principles and priorities had not been determined. Nevertheless, several promising PLA officers were already sent to study the principles of modern high-technology naval and aerial warfare. Back in 1992, the CMC envisaged the completion of the first phase of this build-up to be between 1997 and 2000.
In early 1993, the naval build-up and modernization plan decided upon by the CMC was getting shape. The PLA was instructed to operate on the principle that China was committed to building "the world's most powerful navy." The PLA navy already had clear strategic priorities and tasks in mind. "In the short-term, the central strategic task of naval construction must be to transform the navy from a coastal defense force into an offshore fleet capable of defending territorial interests." China's ship designers and builders were told that the PLA navy had already resolved that the only way these national interests could be defended was through an assertive military surge. This concept should determine the character of the PRC's future navy. "This fleet's main tasks will be to control nearby waters, notably by exercising air and sea control in the East China and South China Seas to protect territorial waters and to defend shipping lanes." However, these instructions and policy guidelines covered only the first stage of a far larger and more ambitious strategic surge already decided upon.
The PLA's commitment to a regional assertive strategy based on a naval breakout southward was also stated explicitly by the PLA High Command in early 1993. Zhao Nanqi, director of the General Staff Logistics Department of the Chinese Navy, issued a top-secret memorandum that explained in great detail the PLA's strategic plans to consolidate control over the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean under the new doctrine of "high-sea defense." Zhao stated that "We can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as only an ocean of the Indians." In order to enable the PRC to consolidate the strategic posture Beijing spires to, Zhao envisages a massive naval build-up and assertive use of sea power. Only activist use of sea power can be considered the primary means to enable the PRC to finally secure its control over the oil-rich South China Sea. Beijing has no doubt that its strategic surge would be opposed by its neighbors. "We are taking armed conflicts in the region into account," Zhao stated in his top secret memorandum.
By 1993, the PLA High Command was already considering the surge toward the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca the greatest and most urgent strategic challenge facing the PRC. This threat assessment was stated in the July 1993 milestone book Can the Chinese Army Win the Next War? which outlined authoritatively Beijing's perception of future wars. The book stressed the inevitability of a strategic clash with the US over the future of East Asia, to be waged primarily through numerous local wars involving the PLA in clashes with US allies and proxies, as well as the US itself. The book stressed that "the Chinese Army is making active preparations for coming local or regional wars." Despite the existence of numerous treaties between the US and local powers that might compel the US to intervene militarily on their behalf, the PLA High Command singles out the situation in the Spratly Islands as the primary catalyst for a US military intervention in the region against the PRC. "Once China uses force to protect its national sovereignty in that area, a quite large scale local war will be unavoidable, at which time the South China Sea will become a second Persian Gulf!"
Thus, Beijing had committed itself already in 1992-93 to this massive naval build-up. Examining the prevailing strategic posture in the region, the allotted time frame envisaged at least five years for the completion of the first phase of build-up. The ensuing build-up has been more than just acquiring weapon systems and training their crews. The PRC has simultaneously embarked on an all-out surge throughout the region to create the regional circumstances so that the impact of the Chinese new military power will be maximal. This surge includes a host of covert operations including sponsorship of terrorism by China's close allies. This campaign was accelerating as of mid 1994. However, in early 1995, a sense of urgency was suddenly introduced into Beijing's assertive strategic grand design.
In early 1995, Beijing concluded that its apprehensions about a hostile US policy were fully justified. US East Asian strategy is based on evoking the "China Threat" in order to remove potential competition. Moreover, Washington now intended to use India in order "to help contain China." This was only a component of an effort to form ties with China's neighbors in order to encircle China. The PRC's naval threat analysis in the summer of 1995 specifically pointed to the growing naval cooperation between the US and India as well as to India's own naval build-up programs and other naval activities of India's Eastern Naval Command. These were identified as reasons for strategic apprehension that the PRC must take into consideration. After all, the emerging strategic posture in the Indian Ocean, if permitted to evolve, would significantly challenge Beijing's ability to carry out its strategic naval surge planned for the end of the decade.
Therefore, in the spring of 1995, as these strategic calculations were being made, Beijing resolved to markedly expedite its surge, at the least parts of it, so that it would be impossible for its enemies to forestall its rise to global power. The most urgent task identified by the PLA strategic analysts is to consolidate control over the Strait of Malacca so that no other power is capable of blocking the surge of the Chinese Navy the moment it is capable of surging into the Indian Ocean and Beijing gives the order to do so.
While the PLA High Command has no qualms about the CMC's policy decision that it is imperative for Beijing to control the Strait of Malacca, they know that it is not that easy to accomplish in peacetime. Presently, the PRC cannot just occupy the Strait of Malacca -- take on Singapore, Malaysia or Indonesia by force of arms. Therefore, the CMC instructed the PLA High Command to come up with a practical strategy of attaining as much of the original goal within the confines of prevailing world conditions. Beijing concluded that what the PRC can do is to encircle the Strait of Malacca and, through covert operations, create intolerable conditions for potential enemies and opponents in the region.
Consequently, it has become imperative for the PRC to consolidate direct control over both approaches to the Strait of Malacca while neutralizing the states in between through covert action. The approaches to the Strait of Malacca can be dominated from the Spratly islands and Burma's coastline on the Bay of Bengal (most of the region's islands being Indian territory). The key to the covert action is having Beijing's close allies -- Iran and Pakistan -- either win over the Muslim governments of the key regional states or subvert the Muslim population of other key states in the region so that the internal crisis and instability will prevent them from resisting the Chinese strategic surge and rise to hegemonic position.
And so, in the fall of 1995, Beijing is proceeding on an accelerated implementation of its ambitious and multi facetted program to consolidate control over the Strait of Malacca as a key to controlling the China Sea, the eastern Indian Ocean and chocking Western commercial traffic. Even the completion of the first phase, in which Chinese forces stay out of the Strait themselves, will put Beijing in effective control over this major choke point. Subsequent steps by the PRC and its allies to complete the surge have demonstrated a sophisticated combination of use of military power in peacetime with the exploitation of state-sponsored terrorism to achieve strategic tangible results.
The Spratly Islands -- the Nansha Islands in Chinese -- is a multitude of small islands and reefs, mostly uninhabited, that spread over a vast area (700km by 600km) between the coasts of Vietnam and the Philippines (Palawan island), just north of Malaysia and Indonesia (Sabah island). These islands have long been claimed by numerous countries, each of which presently occupies a few islands and reefs within the huge ocean space.
The importance of the Spratly Islands grew in the late 1980s following the discovery of huge oil fields -- conservatively estimated at 100 million barrels -- just underneath the ocean space. The importance of these oil deposits will significantly grow, both economically and strategically, as the overall economy and especially industrialization of east Asia continues to expand at a rapid pace. The new era of the importance of the Spratly Islands was heralded in 1988, when the PLA Navy in two brief clashes (March and November) seized six positions near Johnson Reef from the North Vietnamese and attacked Vietnamese naval patrols respectively. The Johnson Reef is placed at the center of the Spratly Islands.
By the early 1990s, the PLA High Command was operating in accordance with Beijing's growing sense of urgency. One of the first major projects reflecting growing interest in activities in the South China Sea was the major upgrading of SIGINT collection capacity. At first, the large SIGINT complex on Hainan Island was vastly expanded. Then, the PRC built another SIGINT station on rocky Island (Shi-tao) near Woody Island (Lin-tao) in the Paracel Islands. This is the highest point in the area, and the local station vastly improves coverage of the entire Spratly Islands area, the Philippines, and the Strait of Malacca. These new facilities were largely operational in the summer of 1995.
Meanwhile, the PLA began taking a closer look at contingency plans to consolidate control over the Spratly Islands. They found them to be a daunting challenge because of the PLA's acknowledged military shortfalls -- particularly the absence of high performance air power (from aircraft carriers or far away land bases). Indeed, the milestone July 1993 book Can the Chinese Army Win the Next War? stressed "how urgent and complex the Nansha Islands question is for China's Naval leaders. However, the new generation of leaders, filled with a strong spirit of nationalism, will never abandon their efforts to bring about the return of the Nansha Islands to the bosom of the motherland." The professional analysis of the PLA's options stressed the dire implications of the lack of an aircraft carrier and ensuing limitation on the all too crucial air power. The study concluded that under present conditions -- early 1993 -- the PLA could occupy the entire Nansha Islands basin. However, the true challenge would be holding them and to them against a determined naval blockade. Considering the PLA's preoccupation with the ramifications of the use of air power in such a blockade, Beijing's strategic calculations were based on the assumption that only the US Navy can put such a blockade while using locally available naval and port facilities.
Beijing's preoccupation with the mounting crisis Spratly Islands, including the PLA's deficiencies in air power, were quickly addressed. In 1992, the PRC reached an agreement with Russia for the speedy supply of 24 Su-27 fighters -- the only non-Western fighter which range can permit it to operate over the Nansha Islands without aerial refueling. The absorption of these fighters progressed rapidly, befitting Beijing's sense of crisis.
Already in early February 1993, the first 24 Su-27s acquired from Russia began flight testing in a PLA Air Force base at Wuhu near Nanjing. Flight training was conducted in the border area between Anhui and Jiangsu provinces. Russian pilots, military instructors, and technicians assisted the PLA to study the Su-27 and enter it into operational use as quickly as possible. Despite the major technological advance over existing weapon systems in the PLA arsenal, the Chinese did not have too many problems with learning the aircraft. However, early progress was slow. In February 1993, only 12 of the 30 Chinese pilots in the first conversion course, run by Russian Air Force instructors, passed their exams and were qualified on the Su-27. The PLA technical crews were doing better, and by February already succeeded to maintain about 70% serviceability.
Meanwhile, a joint command of the PLA Air Force and Navy was busy building the permanent base for the Su-27 -- clearly demonstrating Beijing's intention for the long-range fighter. The permanent base of the Su-27 is on Hainan Island -- at the Yulin naval port, near Sanya City, the southernmost city of Hainan Province -- slightly more than 1,000 nautical miles away from Zengmu Atoll, the southernmost part of the Nansha Islands, but barely within the Su-27's operational range. However, in order to make better use of the Su-27 in its optimal configuration which reduced its range to about 810 nautical miles, the PLA embarked on the construction of a forward base in the Paracel Islands. In the summer of 1993, the PLA completed the first phase of a runway construction in Xisha Airport in the Paracels. More then 8,202ft (2,500m) long, the new runway was ideal for extending the already impressive reach of the Su-27s. By early 1995, when the crisis over the Spratly Islands broke into the open, the Xisha Airport facilities were expanded to support other PLA aircraft including the J-7 and J-8-II fighters, A-5 "maritime bombers," and H-6 bombers as well.
The true expression of both the growing determination and self confidence of the CMC and PLA High Command came in their "Walking Towards the Deep Blue" endeavor in the fall of 1994 with the nomination of, and growing importance given to, PLA Navy Deputy Commander He Pengfei. More than many other PLA senior commanders, He Pengfei personifies "the strategic conceptions of the PLA Navy in its rush to the high seas." In September 1994, during the transitionary period in the rise to his top command position, he was "the overall site commander for this East China Sea Shensheng (Sacred) major exercise." It was one of the largest scale naval warfare exercises conducted in the PRC, using the Choushan Islands as the site for dress rehearsals for amphibious operations into the Nanshas Islands. The mere selection of He Pengfei to first command this exercise and then immediately be nominated as Deputy Commander of the PLA Navy testifies just how central is the acquiring of military capabilities in the Spratly Islands.
Meanwhile, also in late 1994, Pan Shiying, a highly authoritative though ostensibly unofficial Chinese expert on the Nanshas Islands warned US officials in Hong Kong that the PRC was adamant on reclaiming its territorial rights on the Islands. If Vietnam, or anybody else would try to resist the Chinese claim, Pan warned, "China will have no choice but to take control of the islands forcibly."
By now, early 1995, the PLA was ready to begin raising the ante in the Spratly Islands. This development reflected a profound transformation of the Chinese interest in, and commitment to, the Spratly Islands. In ADDITION to the still valid and growing economic interest, Beijing has concluded that a surge into the islands constitutes a key to the PLA Navy ability to reach and ultimately dominate the Strait of Malacca.
Significantly, Chinese officials considered the US Navy as the primary potential threat necessitating the PLA's surge into and reinforcements in the Spratly Islands. "The Nansha Islands are at a strategic point in the sea lane between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. Among the 16 strategic wartime channels announced by the US Navy in 1988, two are in the Nansha region (at the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Sunda). In the 1980's, 270 ships passed through the Nansha waters every day, and a very large proportion were carrying petroleum and strategic materials."
In the spring of 1995, the military assessment in Beijing remained that the PLA was capable of seizing any island from the regional powers, but that the PLA will face great difficulties if the US Navy joined operations in the area because of the air power challenge the US Navy will be introducing into the theater. Therefore, considering that the US vacated its bases in the Philippines in 1992, it was now imperative for Beijing to get a true reading of the US commitment to its allies in the region.
Therefore, Beijing launched in early 1995 a political provocation that, if successful, will be of military importance in case of future military escalation. In January 1995, the PLA established an advanced post on Mischief Reef in the eastern Spratly Islands just 100 miles (170 kms) west of the Philippine's island of Palawan. Some eight Chinese ships, including armed merchantmen and fishing trawlers, as well as naval vessels, also deployed to the area. Manila, as well as other regional governments, did virtually nothing except for protests. Beijing's swift and harsh reactions in February and March to the efforts by the Philippines to demonstrate sovereignty over the disputed islands, culminating in the late March meetings in Beijing between senior officials of the foreign ministries left no doubt in Manila as to Beijing's determination to escalate the crisis, including the use of force.
Beijing has thus begun a still evolving strategic test of Washington's resolve. The PLA seized Mischief Reef not just because the Philippines are the closest ally of the US in the region. The Subic Bay installations are still the best military facilities from which the US can quickly deploy and project air power into the Spratly Islands. Therefore, it is imperative for the PLA to have early warning on such activities as preparations proceed for a surge toward the Strait of Malacca.
Indeed, as the political crisis surrounding the Chinese presence on Mischief Reef was peaking in the spring, Beijing began to state its strategic reading of the situation in the Philippines in order to ensure that it elicited the right response from Washington. In April, Beijing stressed its conviction that Manila's strong stand over the Spratly Islands dispute was serving other powers, thus alluding to US interests. Beijing was gratified by denials by American officials. In late June, with the PRC's military preparations progressing, Beijing raised the Subic Bay issue explicitly. Chinese officials pointed to a series of recent developments to suggest that an effort to establish a US-inspired encirclement of China is underway. They specifically brought up the example of the possible return of the US Navy to Subic Bay in the Philippines as part of challenging the PRC over the Spratly Islands. An alarmed Manila not only denied such a possibility, but, in mid August, hosted Sino-Philipino high level negotiations on the international status of the islands, thus in fact virtually surrendering to Beijing's pressure.
By now, Manila, as all other capitals in the region, was witnessing the marked expansion and up-grading of the PLA's military capabilities. Since initiating the dispute with the Philippines over the Chinese Post established on Mischief Reef in early 1995, there has been a transformation in the PLA priorities and modus operandi in the Spratly Islands. In the spring and early summer of 1995, there was already a distinct modification of the PLA Navy's approach to the Spratly Islands challenge as new forces and tactics were introduced to better cope with the new strategic importance and direction.
Once the crisis broke in early 1995, the PLA immediately began to reinforce and strengthen its garrisons throughout the region. According to Chinese officials, the declared objective of the initial build-up was to create an early warning system against possible escalation. "China's coastline is long, its littoral islands are spread all over, all the islands in the South China Sea are far from the mainland, and it is very difficult for the surveillance network of shore-based air corps radar and aircraft to cover all of the area. This has created an opportunity for an invasion, even an unbridled invasion -- such is the situation today in the Nansha Archipelago."
The specifics of the build-up suggested more assertive designs. The Chinese Marine Brigade took part in the engineering projects on Yongsu Reef, Nansha Islands, and other reefs and shelves -- building camps, guard positions, and other installations. Elite troops from the PLA Marine Brigade were now deployed to garrison the new installations, reflecting on their growing importance. In the spring of 1995, anticipating escalation, the South Sea Fleet organized a fully integrated rapid resupply system to the various garrisons on the islands. The system is capable of sustaining operations in both peace and war. The PLA claims that it takes about one fifth the time previously required to reach the islands from the mainland.
In the summer of 1995, the PLA troops in the Nanshas [Spratly Islands] belong to PLA Navy and Marine. They operate in 33 groups of officers and enlisted men. They hold a few fortresses on the Yongshu, Huayang, Chigua, Nanxun, Dongmen, and Zhubi reefs. In addition, the PLA operates naval patrols in the waters of the South China Sea which interact with the island garrisons. Because of the challenges in the area, a special branch of the Communist Party ensures the high spirits, reliability and commitment of the troops. The Nanshas garrisons and installations also supervise and track down the high volume of international shipping passing through the area, making sure they cannot harm the vital interests of the PRC. Local officers are fully aware of the crucial importance of the undersea oil and mineral for the future development programs and economic growth of the PRC.
The rapidly accelerated military actions and preparations since the spring of 1995 have been based on Beijing's assessment that "the Nansha Islands are in a tense situation in which six countries and seven parties have entered into rivalry. ... As events develop, there is a greater and greater possibility that countries such as the United States and Japan will meddle in the South China Sea situation to protect the important routes and their strategic interests in the southern Asian-Pacific region." Beijing was pessimistic about the prospects of a peaceful settlement of the disputes. "Due to serious differences over the issue of sovereignty and the sharp military confrontation, it seems that it will be very difficult to bring the Nansha issue within the peaceful orbit ... while there is a greater possibility of an outbreak of military conflict."
Moreover, the PLA was arguing forcefully that if military action was required, it should be launched in the immediate future. Examining the rate of military build-up throughout East Asia, the PLA identified a dangerous period at the beginning of the 21st century where the local countries will have absorbed the new generation of weapons acquired from the West before the next generation of PLA equipment and major weapon systems, primarily the aircraft carrier and new generation of combat aircraft, is operational. The PLA High Command stressed that the Nansha Islands crisis must therefore be resolved soon, or else "the overall strategic situation may be unfavorable to China's qualitative changes. Hence, the last five years of the 1990s are the critical period for settling the Nansha issue and China may miss an historic opportunity beyond that." Subsequent PLA military actions throughout the Spratly Islands confirm that Beijing accepted the PLA's reading of the situation.
In March 1995, with the tension surrounding the Spratlys growing, the CMC and the PLA High Command convened a series of policy formulation sessions in Beijing. The sessions also covered the issue of Taiwan and other major national security challenges facing the PRC. Concerning the Nanshas, the main decision was to conduct large scale military exercises in the Spratly Island -- the first large scale PRC naval activity since the clashes with Vietnam in 1988. High officials participating in the March meeting explained that the logic behind the planned exercises involved both a demonstration of might and testing of the PLA's ability to deploy forces and conduct key missions. "The Spratlys manoeuvres conducted by vessels based in Guangdong and Hainan provinces, would involve pursuit drills using live ammunition," they explained. "China's South Sea Fleet, based at Zhanjiang in southwestern Guangdong, includes two escort vessels and one mine warfare squadron, plus about 300 patrol and coastal vessels. The exercises would meet the CMC's overall training objectives, which called on the navy to 'strengthen training in warship combat tasks and in the actual use of weapons'." Politically, the exercises in the Spratly Islands are intended to be used by Beijing to reiterate the PRC's "indisputable" claim to the entire region and sea space.
Indeed, soon afterwards, in March-April, the PLA Navy already calculated the size of a naval task force it would need to deploy in order to conduct a major war in the Spratlys. The PLA correctly identified their greatest weakness "in providing air cover for any task force." Therefore, they based their ability to provide air cover, beyond the limited fighter assets, through denial. Another major consideration in organizing the task force is speed. Chinese military sources provided a detailed assessment of the PLA approach and the required preparation time. They believe that "the shortest preparation time for completing the formation of a special task force fleet ... is about seven days." The specific composition is based on the vital missions the PLA is determined to accomplish and the anticipated enemy forces. "Taking into account its rivals' military strength and the required scope of operations, the Chinese special naval task force should have the following lineup:" In the spring of 1995, the majority of the assets required for the special task force, particularly missile-equipped surface combatants and submarines, were already allocated to the South China Sea Fleet.
Special attention was paid to providing amphibious warships for Marine landings. According to Chinese sources, the PLA "trains the Marine Corps to be a strong force suited for amphibious assaults. In the South China Sea and the Nansha Islands, the Marine Corps will be a dynamic, decisive armed force." Chinese military sources estimate that at least "two to three battalions" from the PLA Marine Brigade will be among the very first used in the Nanshas.
Air power constitutes the main problem facing the PLA primarily because of the acute shortage of air bases and runway volume. The only two viable bases are on Hainan Island, at the Yulin naval port, near Sanya City, the southernmost city of Hainan Province, and Xisha Airport in the Paracels. The PLA is determined to deploy as many aircraft of as many types as possible into the area, but, given the range problem, it is aware of the great difficulties ahead. Indeed, deficiencies in air power might play a key role in the emerging Chinese doctrine. Chinese military sources explain: "Since the Chinese Army is quite weak in employing the airborne early warning methods, it will be difficult to quickly discover any missile attack launched by the enemy. Therefore, No.7 [J-7] fighter-bombers should try their best to hunt down enemy guided missile ships and destroy them in a preemptive way."
The PRC anticipates a lengthy and complex war evolving from the fighting in the Spratly Islands. Region-wide escalation is not excluded, giving a new meaning to the recent missile launch exercises. Indeed, Chinese military sources stressed the strategic role of ballistic missiles under such considerations: "Part of the medium-range DongFeng No.3 [ballistic] missiles of the Second Artillery Corps should be refitted with regular warheads to train on our rivals' naval and air bases, but they should not be employed unless it is inevitable to do so. However, if the war does not progress smoothly, launching a direct missile attack on the very soil of our enemies will dampen the morale of their armies and peoples and hopefully bring the war to an early close."
Being sensitive to political nuances, Beijing stresses the defensive character of the future war in the Nanshas. However, the Chinese military sources repeating this doctrinal tent do not conceal the PLA's intention to seize the initiative and widen the war beyond the deterrence element. "As long as the Chinese Army deals a severe blow to the first aggressor who invades its territory and, by taking advantage of the opportunity, recaptures territory and territorial waters occupied by the aggressor, it will serve as a warning to others and will play a positive role in China's recapturing of its lost territory and territorial waters and to stabilize the situation in the South China Sea."
The PLA is fully aware of potential complexities that such a war would entail. "Of course, war is not the game of a single side, and the enemy will also launch a counter-offensive when an opportune moment comes, but if the Chinese Army can keep its losses within the limit of 20 percent, it could be considered as successful. The biggest problem is how to defend the Nanshas after recovering them? This is precisely the most difficult problem." This is exactly the deficiency and the most daunting problem originally identified in the summer of 1993. At the time, the PLA planners could see no alternative to a Chinese aircraft carrier. In the spring of 1995, the military sources also identified the urgent need for a carrier as the sole viable solution for the PLA's air power requirements. However, although the PLA High Command, and their political masters, are fully aware of this grave deficiency and vulnerability, they are nevertheless determined to be ready to operate in the Spratly Islands in the very near future. This decision is so important because it was reached despite the fully acknowledged carrier-factor -- thus reflecting the urgency felt in Beijing.
Indeed, in the summer of 1995, the PLA was ready to vastly expand the areas of military exercises and other military preparatory activities in the Spratly Islands zone. All the planned activities both serve as political strategic signaling as well as have direct military ramifications. These exercises are the outcome of the March series of policy formulation sessions followed by the professional planning work done by the PLA High Command. They do not seem to be a reaction to subsequent events. Thus, this intensifying military activity strongly expresses Beijing's determination to initiate and pursue the consolidation of control over the Spratly Islands in the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, Beijing revived threats of the dire ramifications of the new US-led provocations in mid July -- once the PLA completed its initial preparations of intensified activities in the Nanshas.
The PLA's Navy demonstrated intense activism in and around the Spratly Islands in the context of exercises in the South China Sea in the summer of 1995. Starting late July 1995, there has been a series of intense exercises of the PLA naval forces in the South China Sea, in the Spratly Islands and in related ocean spaces. These exercises included unannounced live firing maneuvers of both naval artillery and cruise missiles launched from ships into the South China Sea in areas claimed by the PRC.
The summer operations were spear headed by a destroyer detachment of the East Sea Fleet running "coastal waters and deep sea" exercises. It was a unit with a larger than usual number of commanders and senior technical personnel because it is intended to serve as the core for mobilization and activation of reserve crews and vessels. This destroyer force completed a complex long-range exercise that included "single-vessel and combined offensive and defensive drills in the Pacific Ocean. They also conducted supply drills in the Indian Ocean; passed through the four major channels of Taiwan, Qiongzhou, Gonggu, and Balintang to patrol the Xisha [Paracel] and Nansha [Spratly] Islands; and reviewed troops in Zengmu Ansha." During the exercise, the commanders also exercised the activation and running of wartime headquarters as well as command and control of naval task forces. The operational tasks included "surge from coastal waters to the deep sea," as well as "ship-to-ship, ship-to-aircraft, and ship-to-submarine confrontation." Some of the participating destroyers were brand new, having made "their maiden voyages to the Pacific and Indian Oceans" during this exercise.
In early August, with the destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, the exercise developed into a live fire phase. In the course of this phase, a PLA destroyer fired a cruise missile -- most likely a SILKWORM -- that detonated very close to an American-owned natural-gas drilling platform south of Hainan Island. The shockwaves in the water nearly caused and ignited a high-pressure gas leak -- the ensuing explosion would have destroyed the entire project. Interestingly, this drilling site is a Chinese project intended to feed Hong Kong area for the next two decades via a 778-km long underwater gas pipe. Yet, the missile firing was not an accident. The PRC risked their own project in order to demonstrate that this was their own territorial water where they can conduct live fire exercises without an international warning, as well as to demonstrate their resolve to fight for the Spratly Islands irrespective of the price.
In mid August, Rear Admiral Wang Yongguo, then deputy commander of the Guangzhou Military Region of the Chinese People's Liberation Army and commander of the South Sea Fleet of the Chinese Navy, led a naval formation on a visit to Jakarta's Tanjung Priok port. It was the PLA Navy's first visit to Indonesia and as such served as a demonstration and reminder to local powers of the PRC's naval reach and might.
Then, in late August, PRC was getting ready to conduct yet another air and naval exercises over the Spratlys Islands. The exercise took place in the eastern Spratly Islands area, close to the Mischief Reef and other areas claimed by Manila -- Beijing's way of stressing who is the local hegemon. Indeed, in the aftermath of these exercises, the PRC has not shown any indication of vacating its growing garrison on Mischief Reef.
The importance of these exercises is best understood in the context of a major study by Luo Yuru, the Honorary Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Chinese Maritime Academy, on the Chinese sovereignty rights to the Spratly Islands. The Islands are "in the South Sea area which is under China's jurisdiction," is the study's premise. Luo criticizes that in the West "such things as the Chinese navy's normal training and legitimate patrols, escorts, and protection of fishing are looked upon as a 'threat.'"
Beijing argues that it was only after the discovery of oil and other raw materials in the area that other regional countries "discovered" their claims of rights to the islands while China has verified historical rights. Luo stresses that "China's sovereignty in the Spratlys and nearby sea area cannot be disputed by any country, and no words or actions of China in safeguarding its sovereignty in the Spratlys constitutes the slightest threat to any country. This is determined by China's basic foreign policy. ... China cherishes its sovereignty in the Spratlys and definitely will not permit anyone to use any excuse to interfere with or infringe upon Chinese sovereignty."
Luo laments that despite Beijing's preference for a negotiated settlement, the other regional countries "unscrupulously continue to expand their military occupation and intensify their unilateral petroleum exploitation, and use various arbitrary means to obstruct Chinese fishermen from fishing on the sea and interfere with Chinese scientists' observation and study." Luo concludes that the situation cannot be tolerated for long, and not just because of the local peculiarities, but because the precedent it is setting:
"China is a continental country as well as a coastal country. It has more than 18,000 km of coastline and more than 6,500 islands, as well as numerous reefs, shoals, and sandbars, and various scientific and technical forces that use the ocean for development and exploitation, and China's own maritime resources to be used for exploitation. It has developed strong maritime defense forces to safeguard China's own maritime interests and protect Chinese fishermen who fish on the sea and Chinese scientific observation and study teams' work on the sea and guard against foreign aggression. This is completely the internal affair of a sovereign country. From this it can be seen that spreading the argument that 'China is a threat to the South China Sea' is a sinister attempt to sow discord in China's relations with some surrounding countries to limit the development of China's navy (including other maritime forces) and weaken China's maritime defense forces. So, under the pretense of opposing 'the threat that China creates for the South China Sea,' they create the excuse for the countries concerned to seize and swallow up China's Spratly Archipelago and attempt to make their seizing of China's Spratly Archipelago permanent and legal."
By now, starting the summer of 1995, Beijing has been warning that the US is reviving the spirit of the Cold War, using the "China threat" as an excuse for a military build-up and the drive for "world leadership status." The struggle for the Nansha islands is a central point in Washington's new onslaught. "There are indications that the United States is tentatively playing the 'Nansha card' and inciting relevant neighboring states to oppose China." Beijing stresses that the US "is ready to provide help to any party making territorial claims [on the Spratlys]."
Moreover, Beijing argues, Washington is looking for new ways to increase tension with the PRC having failed to intimidate the PRC with the "Taiwan Card," consequently "seriously harming the foundation of Sino-US relations and throwing bilateral relations into a 'danger zone.'" The ensuing US policy in East Asia gave Beijing reason to fear that "the United States is exploring ways of playing the 'Spratlys Card' to incite neighboring countries to oppose China, in order to implement its policy of containing China." Beijing considers these developments to be of great strategic significance. "Sino-US relations are at a crucial stage."
Burma is the other main surge point of the PRC. With a very long coast line stretching along the Bay of Bengal and a few islands offshore, Burma offers a strategic staging point for controlling the western approaches to the Strait of Malacca. The only other strategic facilities in the area are India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Beijing has long been aware of the strategic importance of Burma for surging into the Indian Ocean. Although the PRC has been a great and staunch supporter of the military regime in Yangon (Rangoon) from the late 1980s, primarily because of their anti-West policies and confrontational policies in the region, the build-up of strategic infrastructure did not expand until the early 1990s, as the PRC's regional strategy began to take shape. The extent of the Chinese military assistance reflects Burma's growing strategic significance. Since deliveries started in August 1990, the PRC has supplied $1.0-1.2billion worth of weapons and other military equipment, including J-6 and J-7 fighters, radar and radio equipment, surface to air missiles, tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery anti-aircraft guns, multiple rocket-launcher systems, trucks, and naval ships. Most of the weapons supplied have already proven useful in the regime's relentless counter-insurgency campaigns. Indeed, the pace of weapons delivery is growing.
However, what is of strategic importance is the Chinese development of the military infrastructure in Burma, particularly naval facilities, including the local naval forces, and electronic intelligence sites. The present work, impressive as it is, is only the beginning of a long term ambitious projects decided upon in late 1994. In mid December, Hou Jie, the PRC Minister of Construction, visited Rangoon and signed a major memorandum on comprehensive long-term cooperation in major joint construction programs. His visit was followed, in late December 1994, by a visit to Rangoon by Li Peng, the PRC Premier and the driving force behind the Trans-Asian Axis doctrine. In Rangoon, Li Peng highlighted his visit, calling in an "important event" for Beijing. Indeed, he signed on Chinese strategic commitments to the regime in Burma, as well as provided guarantees stemming from the far reaching ramifications of the specific Sino-Burmese construction agreements signed earlier that month.
By now, the PRC was already completing the first phase of the modernization of Burma's strategic infrastructure.
Since mid 1990, Beijing has been upgrading and modernizing the air force, including an air bases infrastructure exceeding the size of the local air force. The first J-7 squadron was delivered in May 1991, and two more in May 1993 and May 1994. Burma is also in the process of absorbing two squadrons of A-5M ground attack aircraft, which are suitable for counterinsurgency operations. In order to sustain this growth in air power, PLA technicians vastly expanded the Meiktila air base, south of Mandalay. They also upgraded a smaller air base at Lashio, in the northeast, as a forward facility for aircraft refueling and resupply. While presently used as a forward base in Burma's counter-insurgency, the Lashio air base is of crucial importance for a rapid deployment of PLA Air Force assets from the PRC into Burma.
A Chinese deployment into Burma will also be expedited by the recent upgrade of the road and railway system from Yunnan to several ports along the Burmese coast of the Bay of Bengal. The extent of the expansion of the transportation infrastructure, all in harsh jungle and mountainous terrain, exceeds by far the needs of even the most optimistic outlook for Sino-Burmese commercial relations.
In mid 1991, the PRC and Burma began specific discussions on naval modernization and cooperation. To demonstrate Beijing's commitment, the first six HAINAN-class fast attack craft (FAC) were delivered later that year. Consequently, in the summer of 1992, Beijing and Yangon (Rangoon) agreed that the PRC would provide major assistance in modernization of Burmese naval facilities in return for building major naval facilities on Hainggyi Island and Great Coco Island. (More on these highly significant sites below.)
Since then, there has been a close correlation between the continued increase in the Burmese navy and the growing Chinese military presence in, and, to a great extent control over, Burma's coastal infrastructure. By the time the PRC took over, Burma's naval facilities were limited to a number of bases built during World War II and hardly changed since then -- Sittwe (Akyab) in Arakan State in the west, Bassein in the Irrawaddy delta, Monkey Point near Rangoon and Mergui in the southeastern Tenasserim Division. Starting 1992, Chinese experts vastly improved and militarized the Burmese port facilities in Akyab, Kyaukpyu and Mergui -- all on the Bay of Bengal. The PRC not only upgraded the naval facilities in Sitwe (Akyab) and Mergui, but installed there new support bases capable of handling far larger forces than Burma has.
Meanwhile, the size of the Burmese navy continued to increase. Another four HAINAN-class FACs arrived in 1993. They were accompanied by some 70 Chinese naval experts, with over half of them mid-rank officers. Officially, they were to assist the Burmese in operating the boats, training local crews and maintaining the equipment. In reality, they were also involved in maintaining newly installed radar equipment -- the beginning of the PRC's still growing electronic intelligence system in Burma. In the summer of 1994, with the naval infrastructure expanded, Burma purchased two SSM-equipped JIANGHU-class frigates from the PRC as the center of a major naval modernization program, as well as two additional HAINAN-class FACs. Ultimately, this major "naval modernization" was not more than a ploy to increase Chinese naval presence in Burma. Indeed in the summer of 1995, even the older PRC-supplied patrol boats of the Burmese navy were still run and maintained by Chinese technicians.
But, with the modernization programs advancing rapidly, the PRC was ready to upgrade its strategic presence in Burma. In the summer of 1994, General Li Jiulong, the commander of the PLA's Chengdu Military Region (CMR), visited Burma. The Chengdu MR is more than the command headquarters and major supply base for the Chinese troops in Tibet. Since the early 1990s, the CMR has also been responsible for the Chinese military supplies and assistance to Burma. These activities were but a component of a strategic activity of greater importance. Indeed, General Li paid special attention to Burma's naval facilities during his visit -- an important event considering that the Chengdu MR is landlocked. Indeed, it was during General's Li visit that Rangoon agreed that the PRC would get the new naval bases in Hainggyi Island and Great Coco Island.
The PRC has been constructing major naval base in Hainggyi Island near the Irrawaddy river delta for sometimes now. Work on the deep water port in Hainggyi Island in the delta of the Irrawaddy river began in late 1992. By 1993, Chinese technicians were helping the Burmese to build new bases both at Hainggyi and in the old base near Bassein -- a base that would soon be swallowed by the sprawling Hainggyi facilities. Massive construction has accelerated since 1994. The Hainggyi base is already capable of providing support and services to visiting Chinese naval vessels much larger and sophisticated than what the Burmese have. If build-up continues at the present pace, it will soon include support facilities to sustain submarines, most likely nuclear submarines with SLBMs.
By far the most important strategic development in and out of Burma is the rise of the PRC's electronic intelligence system.
Among these installations, the most important is the maritime reconnaissance and electronic intelligence station on Great Coco Island in the Bay of Bengal, some 300 kms south of the Burmese mainland. Along with the Small Coco Island where the Chinese Army is also building bases, these two islands are in the Alexandra Channel between the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea, and they lie north of India's Andaman Islands and are thus located at a crucial point in traffic routes between the Bay of Bengal and the Strait of Malacca. The Coco Islands are also an ideal place for monitoring the major Indian naval and missile launch facilities in Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the south toward the Strait of Malacca, movements of the Indian Navy and other navies throughout the eastern basin of the Indian Ocean, as well the overall western approaches to the Strait of Malacca.
Work in the Great Coco Island station began in late 1992 with the construction of a 45-50m antenna tower, numerous radar sites, and other electronic facilities. Essentially, the PRC was building a comprehensive ELINT/SIGINT collection facilities station. Significantly, all the material used in this project were Chinese made and specially brought over -- even the most mundane items that are readily available locally. In mid 1993, some of the 70 Chinese naval personnel that arrived in Burma began operating and maintaining the then newly installed radar equipment. In the summer of 1994, the PLA completed building the radar and signal intelligence bases, and considered them ready for use. Burmese sources readily acknowledged that the Chinese technicians were working for Beijing's intelligence agencies in order to monitor this sensitive maritime region. According to Japanese intelligence sources, the two islands in the Indian Ocean -- Great Coco Island and Little Coco Island -- have been "on lease to China" since 1994.
The strategic importance given to the facilities in the Great Coco Island is demonstrated in the marked up-grading of the local harbor facilities from a desolate fishing harbor to Burma's most improved military port facilities, up to handing of LUHU-class destroyers. As of 1994, the Chinese have been conducting massive dredging operations in order to construct a port which can accommodate the PLA's largest-class vessels. Once completed, the PLA's main warship, the LUDA-class missile destroyers, will be able to dock there.
The intelligence collection facilities on the Great Coco Island are only the beginning. In the summer of 1994, Rangoon permitted Chinese intelligence access to other islands -- Sittwe in Western Arakan state, and Zedetkyi Kyun or St Matthew's island off the Tenasserim coast in the southeast. The latter island is especially sensitive because it is located off the coast of Burma's southernmost tip -- Kawthaung or Victoria Point -- close to the northern entrance to the Straits of Malacca. A military base there would enable the PRC to threaten the approaches to the Strait of Malacca. Also in 1994, Chinese technicians built a series of smaller ELINT/SIGINT stations along the Burmese coast of Bay of Bengal, thus achieving a thorough and overlapping coverage of the Bay of Bengal and Strait of Malacca.
In 1995, there were reports of revival/reactivation of a Chinese SIGINT site near Sop Hau in Laos -- a site used during the 1960s and early 1970s. The activation of the site will complete coverage of the entire Strait area -- from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean.
The case of the Islamist terrorism in and around the Strait of Malacca is extremely important not just because of the strategic ramification of the distabilization of such countries as the Philippines and Thailand. Taken together, this terrorism campaign is a classic case of the true meaning of state-sponsored terrorism. In this specific case, the Islamist subversion of several countries is intensified because of the strategic interests of a third party -- the PRC -- and, to a lesser extent, of its close allies. However, it is the close allies -- Pakistan and Iran -- who bear the brunt of the sponsorship of, and support for the terrorist escalation. They do so more because of the strategic calculations concerning the PRC than having vital interests in the Far East.
This is not to say that the bulk of the locally active terrorist and subversive are completely artificial. On the contrary. Local issues, outstanding grievances of the local population, existing indigenous terrorist and subversive organizations are exploited by the sponsoring states as the basis for their operations and a source for local support and legitimization. Once the sponsoring states take over an indigenous subversion and terrorist movement, the intensity of the armed struggle markedly rises and the character of the modus operandi of the local forces is altered, at times drastically, in order to serve the interests of the sponsors.
The local forces are active and willing participants in this cynical game of nations because it is in their self-interest to escalate their own fight against the local governments. In order to affect the desired escalation, the sponsoring states provide tremendous all around assistance -- training, expertise, weapons, and funds -- which the local organizations use for both the pursuit of their own indigenous objectives as well as for operations on behalf of the sponsoring states. Moreover, it should not be ignored that in principle, the intelligence services involved -- mainly the Iranian VEVAK and the Pakistani ISI -- the various Islamist operatives that they use to organized local on-site networks, and the local terrorists are all ideological brethren and genuine solidarity does exist among all the participants.
The mere presence of operatives and terrorists of the sponsoring states in the ranks of the local organizations legitimizes and sanctifies the close cooperation in what is essentially the furthering of the global strategic interest of the PRC and the Trans-Asian Axis (of which the Islamists are a major component). As will be discussed below, one of the outcomes of this state-sponsored escalation is the consolidation of a major forward base for exporting Islamist terrorism into the United States itself.
Indeed, Islamist forces sponsored by Iran and Pakistan and spearheaded by thoroughly trained local 'Afghans' are distabilizing the local states overlooking the Strait of Malacca. The Islamists are currently winning in Indonesia and Malaysia, influencing policies of local governments that are otherwise pro-Western. The Islamists are subverting Thailand -- using both the local Patans in the countryside and spectacular operations by experts terrorists arriving from the sponsoring states -- while also maintaining subversive infrastructure in Indonesia as deterrence for Jakarta, as well as taking over the struggle of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma to exercise additional pressure on Rangoon to cooperate with Beijing.
Moreover, because of the direct strategic bearing of Philippines on the issue -- Manila's claim to the Spratly Islands -- there has been a marked escalation of Islamist subversion and terrorism as well -- again both the uprising of the Moros in the countryside as well as spectacular and highly lethal operations by a combination of Philipino Abu Sayyaf forces and experts terrorists arriving from the sponsoring states -- made possible by a large infusion of sophisticated weapons and expertise in the fall of 1994. Indeed, it is NOT by accident that at the very same week in mid August 1995 that Philipino and Chinese negotiations on international law concerning the Spratly Islands were being concluded in Manila -- significantly, the mere fact the Manila agreed to these negotiations is one step away from surrender to Beijing's pressure -- a major terrorist alert was declared in the Philippines concerning a major surge of Abu Sayyaf and other Islamist militant groups.
The Moro struggle in the Philippines is one of the longest Muslim separatist struggles in East Asia. It emerged from a local resistance to the penetration of Christian Philipino settlers and a growing socio-economic plight of the indigenous Muslim population. Since the Second World War, the Moros' struggle has been characterized with surges of extreme sectarian violence. However, it was not until the 1980s, with the expansion of the first cycle of state sponsorship, and especially the mid 1990s, when the regional strategic interests necessitated the further distabilization of the Philippines, the local Islamist terrorism and subversion markedly expanded and escalated. By then, the Philipino Islamists have already been thoroughly penetrated and subverted by the Iran-controlled Islamist terrorist system. This effort was conducted out of Tehran's genuine commitment to pan-Islamic causes. However, it was the emergence of tangible regional strategic interests -- mainly the PRC's -- that made the sponsoring states -- Iran and Pakistan -- dramatically increase the extent of their material support for and direct intervention in the operations of the Philipino Islamist terrorists.
The majority of the Philipino Islamist forces operate under the banner of the Moro Islamic liberation Front (MILF) and their armed forces -- the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF). In the early 1990s, there were major improvements in the overall military capabilities of the MILF/BIAF primarily due to assistance from Philipino 'Afghans,' Pakistani, Afghan, and Iranian instructors. The key development was the institutionalization of a system of camps and secure lines of communications. Upon the completion of the modernization process in mid 1994, BIAF has about 120,000 mujahideen in six divisions and an elite "National Guard" comprised of 6,000 veteran fighters and Philipino 'Afghans'.
It was not by accident that the marked up-grading of the BIAF military capabilities was taking place in the fall of 1994 -- just when Iran and Pakistan were getting ready to escalate the subversion of the Philippines in conjunction with Beijing's building pressure on Manila in connection with the Spratly Islands, as well as furthering plans of the terrorism sponsoring states to use their local bases to support a new wave of terrorist operations against the US and Latin American states.
In October 1994, Iran arranged for massive weapon supplies. A shipload of RPG-2s, six 75mm dual-use guns, numerous ZU-23-2 dual-use automatic guns, 81mm mortars, a few Stingers, and large quantities of ammunition of all types was safely unloaded on the Mindanao coast. These supplies also constituted the beginning of a second phase of the BIAF's build-up to 180,000 troops. The political objective is the completion of the MILF's control of the rural areas of Mindanao by 1995-96 preferably through encroachment small scale insurgency and political pressure rather than a massive military confrontation with the government forces. By the spring of 1995, this method was working very effectively. An Islamic religious, political, and educational system sympathetic to the MILF is already dominant all over Mindanao. A flow of new recruits, all vetted and cleared through the local mosque system, to regional MILF camps and on for training with the BIAF is rapidly growing.
This marked escalation of Islamist terrorism and subversion throughout the southern islands of the Philippines has a major effect on Manila. The security forces and the government were increasingly preoccupied with the escalating subversion and growing instability. Larger assets of the military and security forces, including Naval and Marines forces, were allocated to fighting the Islamist subversion. With Manila's attention focused on the Moros, the government was completely surprised by the Chinese surged into the eastern Spratly Islands -- islands that the Philippines claim sovereignty on. Moreover, by the time the crisis erupted in the spring of 1995, the Philipino Navy and Marines -- the services responsible for dealing with the Chinese surge -- were already thinly stretched by, and completely committed to, the fighting against the escalating Islamist subversion. Consequently, Manila found itself lacking viable military option to assert its sovereignty in the disputed reefs. Manila had no alternative by to gradually acquiesce to the Chinese bold surge.
Moreover, by now, the ISI and VEVAK have already established a high quality and tightly controlled Islamist terrorist force in the Philippines specifically in order to carry out spectacular and highly lethal operations aimed at distabilizing the government in Manila and support international terrorism throughout the region and world.
Since the mid 1980s, Tehran was spearheading the establishment of alternate extremist fringe organizations. They received close support from the HizbAllah. Tehran believes in the dual approach combining extreme violence with active acquisition of popular support through extensive social services. While the MILF was gaining widespread popular support, the extremist organizations were challenging the government through the use of terrorism. As the terrorist struggle was escalating, Tehran markedly upgraded its on-site level of expertise by nominating Kamal Sajjadi, a veteran Pasdaran intelligence official, as the Iranian head of mission in Manila. His primary mission is to support the escalation of the HizbAllah-led Islamic struggle and terrorist operations.
The hard core of the most important terrorist organization was established in the early 1980s by three young Islamists with different backgrounds. Most important is Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, a.k.a. Abu-Sayaff (Father of the Sword), a radicalized commander in the MNLF who became the overall commander of the new group. Amilhussin Jumaani, a graduate of the training camp for "revolutionary preachers" in Borujerd, Iran, became the movement's spiritual guide. The third, still unidentified, military commander is a highly experienced Philipino 'Afghan,' one of the first to be trained by the ISI. (He returned to Pakistan/Afghanistan repeatedly during the 1980s to gain more combat experience and expertise.) They began organizing small high-quality strike units made of sons of MNLF mujahideen killed in fighting with the government security forces in the 1970s. Initially Abu-Sayaff led them on blood vengeance raids on government facilities, and gradually expanded their missions to include daring, though localized, strikes. These fledgling terrorist cells first became known as Abu-Sayaff's, and later the Abu Sayyaf Organization.
In the late 1980s, veteran Philipino 'Afghans,' as well as Pakistani, Afghan, and Iranian experts became available for the establishment of a truly professional Islamist terrorist organization in the Philippines. Large quantities of weapons and explosives, primarily from supplies to the Afghan resistance earmarked by the ISI for Islamic international terrorism, were organized in Karachi for clandestine shipment to the Philippines. These supplies permitted the rapid expansion and initial professionalization of the Abu Sayyaf Organization. By 1990-91, the ISI and VEVAK established an organized and comprehensive support system for Abu Sayyaf, ranging from the supply of advanced weapons and funds to providing expert training to key cadres on site and training camps in Iran and Afghanistan/Pakistan.
The surge of Abu Sayyaf's audacious terrorist operations had a dramatic effect on the situation in Mindanao. The government security forces diverted most of their assets away from confronting the spread of MILF and into fighting the Abu Sayyaf Organization. Moreover, many Muslim youth, especially in the urban slums all over the Philippines, were exited by the Islamist terrorist operations and volunteered to join the MILF/BIAF. Therefore, the MILF leadership decided to tacitly support Abu Sayyaf but in a deniable manner.
In early 1990s, MILF handed over the small Basilan Island off Mindanao coast to Abu-Sayaff and a cadre of 300 elite terrorists. They are professionally organized and all unit commanders are veteran Philipino 'Afghans'. They use Basilan Island as their rear base for operations all over the Philippines. At the same time, the BIAF maintains civil order for the local Muslim population, and MILF provides the social services.
As with the BIAF, the dramatic upgrading of the military capabilities and weapons' arsenal of the Abu Sayaff Organization took place in the fall of 1994, just when Beijing, Islamabad, and Tehran were getting ready to escalate their strategic surge.
In mid 1994, the Abu Sayyaf Organization was closely inspected by Iranian and Pakistani intelligence officers and found to be sufficiently solid and professional to support spectacular terrorist operations against key targets in the Far East and the US. They also recommended a marked up-grading of the overall military capabilities of the Abu Sayyaf forces. In the fall of 1994, Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani emerged in Basilan Island, personally in charge of an intense effort to recruit and train some 40 new candidates pending escalation and expansion of operations. In November, these trainees were already undergoing rigid and sophisticated training. Meanwhile, also in November 1994, the first major arms shipment was delivered to Basilan Island, including ZU-23-2 dual purpose automatic guns and a few Stinger SAMs, as well as sophisticated sabotage equipment, large quantities of small arms and ammunition. Several shipments arrived by early January 1995. Most ships sailed from Malaysia. It was a highly professional job, for the ships circumvented large presence of the Philipino Navy at sea, long-range aerial patrols, and large Marines presence on the coast. As discussed above, the mere tie-up of the Philipino Navy and Marines in such anti-terrorist operations put Manila at a distinct strategic disadvantage once the Spratly Islands crisis erupted in the spring of 1995.
In the summer of 1995, the Abu Sayyaf organization began preparations to strike "new targets" in Mindanao. These activities were but a component of an overall improvement in their capabilities which made them, in the words of an intelligence report prepared by the Philipino Southern Command in late July 1995, "a serious threat to security." Most worrisome was the threat of emerging capabilities of the Abu Sayyaf Organization to "foment aggressive actions" in the southern Philippines, thus challenging the strategic initiative from Manila. There were also indications that both the MNLF and the MILF were preparing for the imminent resumption of the armed struggle. Most worrisome the recent and rapidly accelerating increased training activities and arsenal build up of MILF. By early October, the expansion of MILF's forces was immense. For example, on the Basilan Island MILF forces have increased from 100 to about 1,000 armed terrorists. These new fighters were new recruits and did not come at the expense of Abu Sayyaf. The MILF armed units in the Muslim dominated municipalities of Maluso, Lantawan, Tuburan, Tipo-Tipo, and Sumisip also grew up considerably.
Indeed, in the early fall of 1995, just as the tension over the Spratly islands was growing, there was a concurrent escalation of the Islamist terrorism in the Philippines. It was a twin track escalation -- on the one hand an overall improvement of MILF's military capabilities, and, on the other, a sharp escalation of Abu Sayyaf's activities and especially direct confrontation with the military -- keeping them away from dealing with the Chinese threat.
In the fall, there was growing evidence that Abu Sayyaf "linked up" with MILF "to launch a series of attacks" particularly in Mindanao. Philipino intelligence learned that Abu Sayyaf "has already dispatched covert operatives to conduct surveillance and casing activities on their prospective targets." Meanwhile, senior Philipino security officials acknowledged that the "Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has not only succeeded in gaining the attention of the military but is now being considered as the number one threat group in Mindanao." In early October, General Arturo Enrile said the MILF's recent "posturing" in Southern Philippines has become "the military's primary concern." The Philipino military is increasingly worried by "the massing up of MNLF and MILF troops in some areas in Mindanao, as well as their recent arms procurement activities."
Meanwhile, as of early October the Abu Sayyaf forces have escalated their assaults. On October 1, an Abu Sayyaf commando under the command of Montong Sali, the acknowledged leader of the Abu Sayyaf in the Basilan island province, ambushed and killed six soldiers in the southern island of Basilan. Seven Islamist terrorists were later killed in a subsequent fire fight with the Army.
Clashes with the Army continued. On 2 and 3 October, government troops and a force of Abu Sayyaf clashed in a forested area in Sumisip, Basilan, with the Army claiming to have inflicted "heavy casualties" on the Muslim terrorist group. The battle started in a chance encounter between an Army patrol and a guerrilla force in a densely forested area that exploded into a 20 fierce fire fight. To elude government reinforcements in pursuit, the Abu Sayyaf terrorists split into small groups and they fled into the mountainous region. The Army then called in air strikes "to flush out the bandits from their well-entrenched mountain hideout and to clear the way for the assaulting ground troops." But these proved only marginally effective, for by the time the ground forces advanced, the main Abu Sayyaf terrorists had already melted into the forested mountains.
A most disturbing outcome of these clashes is the confirmation of the growing cooperation between MNLF, MILF and Abu Sayyaf. In the aftermath of the major clash, MNLF cadres aided or granted refuge to the Abu Sayyaf terrorists. MNLF denied such cooperation, but intelligence data leaves no doubt to the existence of close cooperation, essentially reflecting the growing radicalization of the MNLF. However, Philipino military officials attributed the escalation in Abu Sayyaf's operations to "the support of the community," and went even further to define this popular support "the main reason for the continued existence of the Abu Sayyaf extremist group, which has become active again." There has been a rise in the size of Abu Sayyaf's forces to about 500. The support and shielding Abu Sayyaf receives from the MNLF and MILF forces make it nearly impossible for the security forces to hunt down the Abu Sayyaf terrorists.
The clashes of early October, and particularly the ability of Abu Sayyaf's terrorists to evade the security forces revived the intelligence of the organization's growing capabilities. Brigadier General Leo Alvez, head of the Presidential Security Group, admitted that Muslim terrorists have a strong capability to kill President Ramos.
These newly acquired impressive capabilities are the direct result of the close cooperation between Abu Sayyaf elite terrorists and the Islamist expert terrorists deployed to the Philippines mainly from Pakistan for both local and international operations. Starting the fall of 1994, several cells of expert terrorists, mainly Arab 'Afghans', arrived in the Philippines and established operational cells all over the country, mainly in large cities. The key commanders arrived from Pakistan while many of the other operatives arrived from Sudan and several Arab countries in order to reduce the threat of early exposure. Among the senior commanders of this effort was Ramzi Ahmad Youssuf of WTC fame. Their objective was to prepare for both spectacular operations in East Asia and operate as a base for launching terrorist operations in the United States.
The key operations planned for execution in East Asia were to assassinate the Pope during his visit to the area, and to blow up two US airliners simultaneously. Toward this end, Rami Ahead USAF conducted a trial explosion on board a Philippine Boeing 747 on December 11, 1994. The network also planned and prepared for several spectacular operations in the US starting the spring of 1995, including to strike the CIA headquarters in Langley, VA, with a light aircraft loaded with powerful explosives. While in the Philippines, the expert terrorists were also to assist Abu Sayyaf in the conduct of sophisticated operations for local gains. Indeed, the "Manila force" of Abu Sayyaf Organization would later claim these operations and plots in the name of "the Islamic liberation struggle against the Manila government and the Catholic Church." The reason these elaborate plots did not materialize was because a Manila-based cell of expert terrorists, including USAF, had an operational accident in early January 1995. The key operatives had to escape Manila in a rush, leaving behind details of their plans.
This network was but one of a growing number of high-quality Islamist terrorist networks operating in the Philippines in cooperation with local assets. These networks are considered sufficiently loyal and professional to support and sustain spectacular operations overseas. Indeed, by the spring of 1995, primarily because of Tehran's interest to avoid unnecessary crisis in Western Europe, the Far East, and especially the Philippines, has become the support center for dispatch of Islamist terrorists not only to the US but also to the Iranian-HizbAllah networks in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. The new headquarters and operational center in the Philippines oversees secondary cells and networks in Thailand, Indonesia and Australia -- all established solely for deploying and inserting terrorists across the Pacific.
Thailand is another country where the subversion of the local Muslim minority -- the Patens -- serves both regional interests and international terrorism for the sponsoring states -- Pakistan and Iran. Since the mid 1980s, Iranian intelligence has maintained a quality network of operatives in Bangkok, including hitmen squads that conducted a series of successful attacks on Saudi intelligence officers in 1988 and 1990. Pakistan, for its part, tried to establish a deniable command center for Sikh terrorists in Bangkok. However, the rush of Khalistanis to Thailand was an ISI mistake because some were arrested pending extradition to India.
That setback did not diminish the promise of Thailand operations. Indeed, Iran and Pakistan soon transformed Thailand into a safe haven for Islamist terrorists for the entire East Asia. Dozens of networks with members from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Syria are operating in Bangkok alone. Others are based in tourist resorts in predominantly Muslim area, primarily Pattaya, Phuket and Hat Yai (northern and southern Thailand). In early 1994 there were rumors in Bangkok that key Islamist terrorists -- including Muhammad Farooq and Rami Ahead USAF -- arrived in Thailand from Pakistan. A Thai customs official believes that he had seen Kansi entering Thailand from Malaysia on 15 March using a Pakistani passport now believed to be a fake one. Other "Arab looking" terrorists entered Thailand the same day through the same border crossing. They were not found by the Thai police so that there is no record of their presence. Initially, the network they were associated with attempted to blow up the Israeli embassy with a car bomb driven by a suicide terrorist. The attempt failed because the driver had a car accident, panicked and left the scene, deserting the car bomb.
Meanwhile, growing numbers of Islamist terrorists arrive in Thailand, using real and forged passports. They seek and receive refuge in Bangkok and in Muslim areas in the south. In addition, numerous terrorists, including Palestinians, arrive clandestinely by crossing the border from Malaysia to the Muslim parts of southern Thailand. Others, mainly south Asians, arrive using false Indian and Pakistani passports. Upon arrival at their safe havens they burn their travel documents and receive false Thai papers from the local Islamists. These terrorists are mainly expert bomb makers. They both train local Thais as well as carry out terrorist strikes at their behest. In case police narrows on the foreigners, they cross the border back to Malaysia where they receive third country travel documents for a return trip to Pakistan or elsewhere in the Middle East. In Bangkok, the centers of the foreign terrorists are in the main mosques as well as a tourist district frequented by tourists from the Middle East.
The cumulative impact of this infusion of expert terrorists into Thailand began showing soon afterwards. Indeed, there was a spate of bombing in the spring of 1994, demonstrating improved skills and expertise of the Islamist terrorists. These bombs were claimed by the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO). Reflecting current Islamist priorities, PULO started striking at tourist areas. PULO also provides safe havens for Islamist international terrorists, especially Shi'ites in the south of Thailand as well as safe transportation to and from Malaysia. PULO provides these services as part of a deal. Iran and Pakistan provide PULO with experts and expertise to run operations under their name. In return, the Thais assist the ISI and the Iranians in running operations into India. However, considering the material retrieved by the Thai police alone, the bombings of late March 1994 were nothing but a weak prelude to the spectacular operations currently planned and prepared for by the Islamists terrorists in Thailand, as well as their Iranian and Pakistani sponsors.
This early cycle of terrorist operations in Thailand was a prelude to a marked escalation conducted in the fall of 1994, and more so in the spring of 1995. The primary objective of this initial run was to strengthen the cooperation and relations between the foreign operatives expert terrorists -- all sponsored by Iran and Pakistan -- and local Pattani Islamists. The anticipated escalation would require closer cooperation with local assets than before. However, as the timing of the escalation demonstrates, the beginning of the new cycle of Islamist subversive activities coincided with the overall rise of tension throughout the region -- a time frame befitting Beijing's grand strategic interests and not any local development.
Meanwhile, with the eastern basin of the Indian Ocean becoming a key strategic objective of the PRC, Beijing urged Islamabad to escalate the subversion of eastern India. The ISI did not need too many prodding as it has been trying, albeit with varying degrees of success, to gain a foot hold in the various simmering local disputes in eastern India. Moreover, as part of the close Sino-Pakistani alliance, the ISI was providing support to a host of local Maoist organizations on behalf of the PRC. Now, with support from Beijing, the ISI expanded operations from vastly expanded camps in both Burma and Bangladesh as of the fall of 1993. The ISI terrorism support infrastructure in Bangladesh not only supplies and trains on PRC-made weapons and explosives, but the Bangladeshi military officers acting as instructors had received special commando and mountain warfare training in the PRC. The deployment of these assets has increased markedly since the fall of 1994.
It is not by accident that the first action in the long awaited escalation of terrorism in eastern India was the bombing of an Indian troops' train in India's northeastern state of Assam in late February 1995. The bombs were attributed to the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) on the basis of use of RDX and other bomb-technology details. These new and vastly-improved capabilities of the NSCN terrorists are the result of intense preparations in over a year now. Since the fall of 1993, there has been an expansion of the ISI support for all forms of terrorism in north east India, especially Manipur. At least five senior ISI operatives cooperate closely with the NSCN (The National Socialist Council of Nagaland), providing instructions and guidance. As of mid 1994, the ISI provided the NSCN with "huge quantities" of weapons, ranging from small arms, to rocket launchers, to anti-aircraft missiles (including a few Stingers). Thus, the February 1995 lethal bombing, made possible by the introduction and activation of ISI-trained expert terrorists, had dual objectives -- to distabilize the Indian authorities and also test the terrorists' ability to hit the strategic transportation network in eastern India -- both of which can be crucial in case of a major regional crisis or war.
The Chinese preparations for a regional escalation and major crisis under conditions short of a major war are thorough. For the conduct of covert operations inside India, Bangladesh and the PRC run their own training program at Kalapara and Munakata on Bay of Bengal and especially at the 25 Bangladesh Rifles at Khulna and Teknaf Island in Chittagong. There, Chinese instructors are directly involved in training Tamils and other Indians for terrorist, sabotage, and espionage operations. In the summer of 1994, Indian security authorities confirmed the existence of direct contacts between Beijing and separatist terrorists in Assam already known to be ISI-sponsored.
Already in the spring of 1995 it was becoming clear that the uppermost leadership in Beijing was actively preparing for the post-Deng Xiaoping days. Most significant was the emerging impact of these preparations on the PRC's national defense polity. Numerous sources in the PRC and throughout the rest of East Asia stressed unanimously that Deng's death will change everything. They all believed that Jiang Zemin and the PLA leadership were convinced that a cataclysmic Taiwan crisis was inevitable the moment Deng dies. They noted that Jiang Zemin had already elevated many military personnel into his immediate coterie because he trusts them and values their proficiency. The PLA high command will further increase their influence once Jiang assumes power after Deng's death.
By early summer, Beijing was actively preparing drastic solutions for the "military option" for the Taiwan problem to be carried out after the death of Deng Xiaoping. The PRC elite was, and still is, convinced that this action, just like Deng's attack on Vietnam in 1979, will serve to consolidate the new supreme leader in Beijing. And self-preservation has always been the ultimate objective of the Communist elite in Beijing. Indeed, the militarization and modernization of the PRC's leadership in preparations for the major challenges ahead began picking up pace.
In the late summer of 1995, Beijing embarked on a large-scale reshuffle in the PLA's most senior ranks, particularly in the General Staff, preparing the grounds for elevation of younger generation to be responsible for future crises or wars. By the time the first phase of the reshuffle was completed in mid October, the key positions in a revamped and elevated CMC were being held by leading members of the "Fourth Generation," including close confidants of both Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. These younger generation leaders, especially these involved in national defense issues, know that their surge to the top is now unstoppable. This is clear from the recent Chinese doctrinal writing, concurrent military activities and statements of Beijing's supreme leaders.
The younger "Fourth Generation" of Chinese leaders come to power assertive and self-confident about a very strong China. They are committed to "renewing China," which, according to Wang Jisi of the Chinese Academy of Social Science, means building "a politically, economically and culturally unified nation-state when foreign and largely Western influences are seen as eroding the nation-state's very foundation." The young leaders are preoccupied with finding for their China the appropriate place at the top of world affairs -- a dominant power leading the Trans Asian Axis on land and surging into the southern oceans. These up and coming military leaders have already defined their political theories justifying China's inevitable expansionist surge. "The military has no interest in war, but they have an interest in a permanent state of instability in the region" if only "for ensuring their irrefutable place in the power structure," argues a former Beijing-based diplomat. Indeed, in early November 1995, Hong Kong based experts warn that "China's neighbours fear a growing assertiveness on territorial claims, especially in the South China Sea."
These are not unfounded fears. Back in early 1995, Lt.Col. Cui Yu Chen at the Research Office of the Chengdu Military Region authored a book called A New Scramble for Soft Frontiers which reflects the thinking of the PLA's elite about the PRC's national interests and spheres of influence. Lt.Col. Cui Yu Chen distinguishes between the reaches of a state's hegemony and influence -- which he defines as "soft frontiers" -- and the limits of state sovereignty by "geographic frontiers." He stresses the difference between the two concepts. "Expansion of frontiers is the driving force of human history. Changes in soft frontiers often precede achievements in technology, culture and other areas. While geographic frontiers are fixed, soft frontiers are variable." What Cui means is that before the PRC can leap forward technologically, economically and culturally to become the global power it deserves to be, it must expand its "soft frontiers" through a hegemonic surge.
The younger leaders in Beijing are convinced that the near future provides a historic window of opportunity for such an expansionist and hegemony-consolidating surge. In the spring of 1995, in a conference in Bangkok, a Chinese scholar named Chen Qimao delivered a paper that amounted to presenting Beijing's view of the strategic future of the Asia-Pacific region. Chen explained that the "relative decline of America's economic strength" means that the "heyday of US hegemony has gone." There will be two other major developments which will affect East Asia -- Japan will be adversely affected by commerce wars with the US and the reverberations of the US economic downtrends, and Russia will be increasingly preoccupied in internal troubles. China will thus rise to assume a pivotal position as "an important political stabilizer in East Asia." However, this posture will not come on its own. The consolidation of Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea and littorals will proceed. And, Chen explained, before a peaceful arrangement is reached and consolidated in the south China Sea zone, "some skirmishes may occur."
Indeed, areas adjacent to the mainland, most notably Taiwan and the Spratly Islands, are Beijing's preferable and initial objectives. The younger leaders do not consider their occupation aggression or expansion, but righting of old wrongs. Lt.Col. Cui Yu Chen emphasizes that in the specific case of China there is yet a third intermediate category of frontiers -- that of land and ocean spaces that historically belong to China but were seized by foreign powers in the corse of history, and which China must reclaim in order to ensure its development and rise. Chui warns that failing to do so is of grave consequences because of the demise of China's ability to feed itself with its current territory. "In reality, China's lebensraum is diminishing. ... After 100 years, all our cultivated land will disappear totally." To Lt.Col. Cui Yu Chen, there is no other option but to surge and reclaim China's own territories and assets. "Our area of survival is shrinking. Therefore, where will our new borderland be? Actually, [we have to] reclaim sovereignty and sovereign interest in the oceans," he concludes. And there lies the essence of the threat to the Strait of Malacca, Taiwan and the rest of the Western World.
By the summer of 1995, Beijing already resigned itself to the fact that irrespective of the posture of Sino-US economic relations and political rhetoric, the respective national and vital strategic interests were conflicting and essentially irreconcilable. Therefore, there is no escape from continued deterioration of US-Sino relations to the point of adverse impact on national security posture. Beijing resolved to center the overt component of Sino-US relations on economic issues for as long as it is advisable to postpone confrontation. Li Zhongcheng, a leading Chinese expert on US-Sino relations explained the inherent contradiction in this approach:
"The Sino-US relations have entered a new phase where economics holds the central stage and where the bilateral relationship moves in a zigzag pattern as the two countries desire cooperation with one another and, at the same time, tend to antagonize each other. The bilateral relationship, however, will face a new period of difficulties in the future. On the one hand, the United States of America is now the only superpower in the world; on the other, China is emerging to be the largest developing country. Having completely different social systems, even though the two countries share common economic, political, and security interests, they also differ in their policy goals, which leads to a complicated situation where the two countries want dialogue and cooperation with one another but also tend to contradict and antagonize each other."
However, Beijing was already fully aware that ultimately both the PRC and the US will concentrate on pursuing their respective vital interests -- a point when confrontation, perhaps military, will be inevitable. What the summer 1995 studies of Sino-US relations now proved was the imminence of the crisis and, possibly, escalation. Beijing concluded that its assertion of regional rights and influence were bound to incite a US reaction, which, in turn, will only increase the regional tension. Therefore, Beijing concluded, "problems and frictions are inevitable as the two countries deal with their mutual relations. With China's composite national strength continuing to increase, problems and frictions between China and the United States have begun to become aggravated day by day."
This grim realization and assessment of relations of the US was well within the PRC's overall perception of emerging trends in its global posture. The growing apprehension in the summer of 1995 of crises ahead sent Beijing to better define the tenets of the PRC's national security and threat analysis.
The PRC's initial assumption is that it would be in the interest of the US-led West to avoid "a world war or a war between big powers" in the next 15 years. Instead, at the behest of the West, "a new type of cooperative security setup will be continuously established and the intensity of regional conflicts will be controlled to a certain extent, but they will continue to occur and become complex and long-lasting." Given the overall dynamics in the world, this global course will have an adverse effect on the PRC despite its achievements. "In the next 15 years, China's international status will continuously improve and its role in international affairs will increase. But China also will face several external challenges." Foreign interference will be the decisive element affecting the degree of China's assent and the extent of challenges and crises it will have to face. Therefore, the only instrument of improving the PRC's strategic posture is the increase in military might. "With the development of China's overall power, China will play a more important stabilizing role in international security, especially the security of the Asia-Pacific region." Beijing is adamant that by 2010, "China will be able to invest quite a few forces for use in maintaining world peace, especially strengthening its part in the security and stability of the East Asian region." Foreign powers, especially the US-led West, are bound to object to, and resist, this trend.
Indeed, the Chinese experts have their doubts that the PRC will be able to realize its full regional and global potential in the coming 15 years. Beijing stresses that the above assessment is based on the assumption that the West, and especially the US, will not try to contain the PRC and hinder its assent. However, the Chinese experts expect the US to recognize the inherent danger to their regional and global-economic interests, and therefore attempt to block the PRC's rise to global power. "In the next 15 years, China will still be facing an international environment with numerous challenges. A few Western countries do not want China to become powerful too fast and inevitably will plot in many respects to divide China." The challenges facing China will be political, economic, world opinion, as well as military. Moreover, additional changes in external and regional circumstances might prompt the PRC to act even if the containment of China is far from successful. "There could be factors such as changes in the policies or in the situations of surrounding countries; if after Japan becomes a major political country, it adopts tougher diplomatic policies; or if political turmoil occurs in Russia, there is the possibility that if could lead to a great nation chauvinist coming to power; and certain major regional powers such as India developing economic and military power, all could raise various new challenges for China."
The multitude of potential threats and the lingering possibility of an active US resistance to the PRC's global ascent convinced Beijing that only a proactive strategy might ensure the PRC's ability to realize its national potential and prevail in the next 15 years. Beijing's approach to the post-cold war security strategy stresses active confrontation with a US-inspired containment strategy. "The rapid expansion of China's overall power after the Cold War has caused widespread concern around the world. For their own respective reasons, politicians everywhere have been pondering a single question: Will a resurgent China adopt an expansionist foreign policy? Since 1992 the 'China peril' theory has gained currency among China hands world-wide." At the same time, Beijing stresses that there are unique opportunities for the PRC to surge strategically. "It [Russia] has neither the will nor the power to expand its sphere of influence in Asia. As for the United States, its power has declined in relative terms and isolationism is on the upswing at home where political forces opposed to US involvement in overseas military conflicts are getting stronger by the day." It is therefore imperative for Beijing to overcome its apprehensions about growing external threats and self-restraining circumstances, and act resolutely and boldly.
At the same time, the experts in Beijing are fully aware that the threats to PRC are growing despite the vast improvement in the PRC's military might and posture. "The disappearance of the threat of direct military invasion does not mean that security has become a non-issue for China which is still plagued by ethnic separatism and border disputes. Ultra nationalism has made extensive inroads among separatists in China after the Cold War with separatist activities picking up notably in Taiwan and a number of minority regions." The latter comment alludes to the inherent danger in Islamist revivalism. However, Beijing considers the Spratly Islands to be the foremost security and crisis generating challenge it is presently facing:
"For historical reasons, there is a fair amount of border discord between China and its neighbors, discord that has not completely disappeared after the Cold War. The dispute over the Spratly Islands in South China Sea, in particular, has been overblown by the Western media. Several nations are parties to the dispute over the islands' sovereignty and the governments of both Japan and the United States have expressed their utmost concern for the situation there. The fact that offshore oil recovery contracts entered into by Western national oil companies, on the one hand, and some of the nations involved, on the other, overlap geographically has only fueled the dispute."
Beijing concluded that "in the foreseeable future the focus of China's security interests has shifted from survival to economic security. From now on the leading task of national defense is to prevent a war of aggression from undoing the existing achievements of China's economic construction, that is, 'create a peaceful international environment for the nation's modernization.'" Although defensive by definition, the Chinese experts stress the realization of this strategy demands assertive and pro-active military operations. The principal task facing the Chinese military system is therefore to vastly expand the defensive perimeter of the PRC well beyond its actual borders.
"With the end of the Cold War, the Chinese military has achieved a measure of agreement on one strategic issue which is that if the accomplishments of economic construction are to remain safe from destruction in a war the Chinese forces must keep the enemy at the nation's doorstep. The kind of war China is most likely to be involved in during the post-Cold War era is a high-tech war. To keep the enemy out of China in such a war requires the military capability to win a limited high-tech war. It follows that active defense -- improving the nation's rapid response capability and its readiness to wage a limited high-tech war -- logically becomes the military defense strategy of China. The objective of this strategy is to prevent the outbreak of a war or to keep it out of China."
What the PRC now calls "the active defense strategy" amounts to a spread of regional hegemony based on the presence of military might, long-range military intervention and power projection capabilities, and the creation of conducive political environment, namely, the eviction of hostile Western powers, mainly the US, from East Asia. "After analyzing China's perception of security and its security strategy, we see that changes in the security environment and in security interests after the cold war as well as the impact of traditional culture on China's security strategy all complement one another. The result is perfect harmony among the objectives of the three facets of China's security strategy, namely accelerating defense modernization, establishing mechanisms for regional security cooperation and developing friendly relations with its neighbors. All three facets seek to improve China's own security and defense coefficient and not to engage in aggrandizement abroad." It is Beijing's ensuing reexamination of the essence of "border defense" that brings to the fore the true nature of Beijing's "active defense" doctrine.
And so, Beijing came up in the summer of 1995 with innovative analysis and definition of the strategic status of modern border defense. Beijing stresses that "modern border defense is large border defense," that is, "that the border defense region is a border zone with great depth." For example, a maritime "defense line" no longer means preventing enemy landings on one's shores, but maintaining "sea defense" which amounts to denying the enemy ability to operate there. The Chinese experts argue that "the use of 'cross-border' high-technology weapons in border defense combat demands that modern border defense update traditional 'border pass' thinking, expand the depth of border defenses, the area controlled, and the warning angle of vision, and structure border defense systems in a wider border region within the border to adapt to the requirements of national security interests and the development of modern weapons."
Under Beijing's new doctrine, "Border defense is the military protective screen maintaining national sovereignty and territorial integrity." Further more, the concept of border defense now extends to the whole spectrum of interests affecting the well being of a state, not just the prevention of invasion or other forms of military threats. Therefore, "strengthening border defenses is the military protective screen safeguarding and maintaining this [PRC's] fundamental interest. Border defense combines politics, economics, foreign relations, and military affairs, and is an important component of the national interest and a forward position in maintaining national security interests."
In this context, Beijing raised the Spratly Islands issue as the first test case of the new border defense strategy, and, as such, the primary national security concern. The PRC reasserts that "historically large pieces of Chinese territory have been invaded and ceded, numerous islands and reefs have been swallowed up, and large amounts of natural resources have been plundered, but a direct cause was that border defense forces were not strong and did not have the power to resist enemy nibbling and invasion. Now, with China still facing serious superpower subversion and sabotage, and surrounded by many threats and numerous border territorial disputes and controversies over maritime rights and interests, it is even more necessary to establish an important place for border defense in national defense. By developing border defense, externally we show our national strength and our military strength and effectively frighten the enemy and check the 'peripheral expansion' and 'peripheral nibbling' of foreign enemies and guard the security of the inhabitants of border territories and maintain a peaceful and stable environment so that border defense can truly become a military protective screen safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity."
Examining the future course of the PRC's national strategy, the Chinese experts concluded that "Border regions will be the strategic forward positions for winning future local high-technology wars." In the summer of 1995, Beijing was already convinced that "for a rather long historical period into the next century" the primary national security and military challenge will not be a total nuclear war but rather "the possibility of the outbreak of local high-technology wars on the border and at sea. This is because such issues as territorial disputes, religious disputes, ethnic antagonism, and resource contentions have become important leading causes of local wars in today's world." The moment both sides are refusing to yield on any of these issues, any of the above factors can become "a major cause of local high-technology border and maritime wars." In this context, Beijing singles out "border disputes and contradictions over such things as ownership of islands and maritime boundaries sufficient to cause local border and maritime wars and military conflicts. If these contradictions become acute, it will be difficult to avoid serious local wars or military conflicts involving China's territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests, and nationalities. At that time, the border defense region will become the strategic forward position determining victory or defeat. In view of this, based on overall planning, the state's national defense should focus on strengthening border defense regions, especially hot spots where there are territorial or island ownership disputes, and improve the rapid reaction and independent combat capability of border defense troops, so that in future medium-sized or small-scale local wars, they can effectively deal with emergency situations and, without affecting the overall situation, and by a forward position test of strength determine overall victory, using local area strategic combat to gain peace and tranquility for the entire nation."
Significantly, in the summer of 1995, by the time these doctrinal tenets were defined at the highest levels in Beijing, the PLA Navy was already conceptualizing its future contingency plans and ship-building programs on the basis of this concept. Yu Guoquan, the Director of the Department of Naval Equipment Technology, Warships Division, stressed this aspect discussing the future of the PLA Navy. Yu is convinced that "in the next 10 years, into the next century, the status and role of the navy will continue to grow stronger with the rapid rise in value of the seas. The global struggle for the seas will grow increasingly more intense, and armed conflicts and regional wars on the seas will occur more frequently than they do now. Therefore, naval construction will develop rapidly in each of the world's principal nations."
The key to the modernization and build-up of the PLA Navy is the evolution in the concept of the "the mission of China's Navy." Yu explained that "the Navy's objective is to protect marine rights and interests. Marine rights and interests are the nation's rights and interests, and to accomplish our historical duty to protect marine rights and interests, we must do a good job in naval equipment construction." Yu anticipates a marked expansion in Chinese naval power, specifically the acquisition of aircraft carriers. Carriers are so important, he stressed, because they are an "attack weapon to first secure controlling power of the air over the ocean, and then secure controlling power on the ocean surface. Our naval equipment is still for the most part defensive, and while it is not very sophisticated at present, we are confident that in a modern high-tech war we could rely on our existing equipment to protect the motherland's marine rights and interests."
Yu leaves no doubt that the primary mission of the PRC's modernized Navy will be wrestle control over the disputed ocean spaces and initially the Spratly Islands. However, once the Naval modernization is completed, the PRC will strive to assert regional hegemony through the use of its naval might. Yu declared that for the PLA Navy "to protect the nation's marine rights and interests, they must have sophisticated modernized equipment. At present, our equipment does not match our status as a major marine nation; we must have large-scale surface warships which can constitute a significant threat to an enemy. ... If our naval equipment is developed, our marine resources will no longer be stolen, and our nation's marine rights and interests will have reliable protection."
As discussed above, the formulation of a more coherent doctrine and strategy for the near future was followed by the unprecedented reshuffle in the ranks of the PLA High Command -- a reshuffle bringing to the top the younger and assertive Fourth Generation generals who will ultimately implement this strategy.
In October 1995, Beijing returned to examining the role and position of the United States in this vision of the future. Beijing concluded that while the US will remain a central and focal player in the evolving strategic dynamics, there is a limit to what the US could do to the PRC even in cases of a major strategic setback for the US. Beijing's threat analysis now stressed that "the United States does not have the power to encircle and contain China." The main challenge ahead, Beijing reasoned, is the Sino-US struggle for regional hegemony. "If US relations with China deteriorate and Washington adopts Cold War tactics to contain Beijing, both China and the United States will have to seek supporters from Asia to start a fierce diplomatic contention, and it is not certain that the United States will be the victor!"
Beijing no longer fear adverse ramifications to Sino-US relations as result of the emerging strategy because it sees little chance for improvement in the near future. "Sino-US relations recently reached their lowest ebb since the two countries established diplomatic relations 16 years ago," explains an authoritative official. He accuses Washington of castigating "China as a 'new evil empire,' a 'belligerent and temperamental emerging superpower.' They alleged that 'there is no more important strategic challenge for the 21st century than how to handle the rise of China.'" The official, who clearly writes for the highest levels in Beijing, stresses that changes in the PRC's foreign policy will have little or no effect on the further deterioration of US-Sino relations. "The United States, harboring deep hostility toward China's social system, does not wish to see a developed and strong China," he, and the Beijing elite, have concluded. Indeed, after the Jiang-Clinton talks in New York in mid October, Chinese officials "leaked" that "Sino-US political relations have not improved; they just have stabilized on the road to getting worse."
It is not by accident, therefore, that simultaneously with the renewed attention to the US posture, also in September-October 1995, the PRC returned to a very visible preoccupation with the improvement of its strategic military capabilities. In particular, Chinese leaders stressed naval power and power projection capabilities. Beijing's interest in these forces expresses the unprecedented preoccupation with the issues of local wars, as well as military and naval intervention.
A Japanese expert, Professor Shigeo Hiramatsu, noted the trend and its importance. "The 3-million-square-km sea area, which stretches over the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea along the Chinese coast, is regarded by Beijing as 'Chinese seas.' Thus, China is actively trying to expand its sphere of influence to this area. Chinese naval leaders believe that limited warfare will break out in this sea area from the end of this century to the beginning of the next century. It seems that the possibility of such a war is growing gradually." This threat perception is also reflected in the development of ground forces. Major components of the future PLA forces are a "composite corps" and a "scramble unit" which were recently formed for the first time. For power projection, the "scramble unit" is of significance. "The scramble unit is mainly composed of airborne troops. China is now accelerating modernization of the naval and air forces, as well as the development of long-distance deployment capability."
Meanwhile, since mid September, prominent leaders highlighted their inspection visits to key military units related to the strategic surge.
Liu Huaqing, CMC vice chairman, visited an Airborne Force Unit -- the core of the Scramble Unit -- in Zhengzhou on 11-13 September 1995. During his inspection, Liu specifically asked to be briefed on "command automation in airborne combat, wartime communications and liaison [with other combat arms]." He also "conducted checks on the utilization and maintenance of weapons and equipment for reconnaissance, communications, artillery, anti-chemical, transportation, parachute, ordnance, and other purposes." Liu also various drills and exercises "including training in basic reconnaissance skills for scouts, and light arms range practice and tactical training for infantry." At the conclusion of his visit, Liu told the officers:
"We must fully understand the position and role of the Airborne Force in future wars, and enhance our sense of urgency and responsibility in grasping the building of the Airborne Force. We must work on the comprehensive development of a high-standard Airborne Force with a focus on improving our capability to cope with contingencies and in mobile operations. We must also attach great importance to and strengthen studies and guidance on the building of the Airborne Force, and form step by step a path of army building which shows the characteristics of our army."
In early October, Zhang Wannian, the newly appointed CMC Vice Chairman, Fu Quanyou, CMC member and Chief of the General Staff, and other senior defense officials addressed force modernization in a summit in Beijing. Their meeting "focused on exhibiting new equipment and the Army's achievements in logistical science and technology and on outlining the strategy for logistical development through science and technology." Zhang and Fu attended and spoke at the meeting. Their inputs were devoted to outlining long-term modernization and build-up in view of challenges of future warfare, and the aggravated world state of affairs.
By mid October, there were reports that the PLA was planning to soon conduct a military exercise in the Yellow Sea. Sources in Beijing noted the overall importance of this exercise. "Many pieces of high-tech equipment will be tested in the forthcoming exercise, being referred to as the most modern military exercise so far. As the imaginary enemy in the exercise has been clearly defined, the exercise is also regarded as one of substantial importance." Zhang Wannian was put personally in charge of the exercise. Zhang explained the importance of this and comparable exercises: "Military training should aim at a limited war using high-tech weapons. It is necessary to conduct training reform through military exercises, to analyze the way wars are fought under high-tech conditions, and to foster confidence in winning a modern war."
The great significance of this exercise was reflected by the fact that Jiang Zemin personally inspected the PLA naval and air force, and "watched their war exercises on the sea." Numerous senior officials, including Liu Huaqing, Zhang Then, Zhang Wannian, Chi Haotian, Fu Quanyou, Yu Yongbo, Wang Ke, Zhang Lianzhong, Yang Huiqing, and "leading comrades of the three general departments of the People's Liberation Army and relevant state organs" took part in the inspection tour and observed the exercises. The senior delegation was flown by helicopters to personally inspect some of the Navy's newest warships, especially their missiles. The next day, Jiang and the senior officials "boarded a command ship to watch the naval troops' war exercise on the sea. Chairman Jiang gladly sat on the platform for viewers and watched the maritime exercise of the warships, air planes, and marines on the sea attentively." Beijing stressed the complexity and magnitude of these maneuvers. "The naval exercises ... involv[ed] a group of surface vessels, submarines, aviation, including new types of guided-missile destroyers, guided-missile escorts, nuclear submarines, conventional submarines, guided-missile patrol boats, helicopter gunships, reconnaissance planes, fighters, and bombers. Missiles, torpedoes, and cannons were all used by the ships and aircraft, after which a landing exercise was carried out, all of it featuring the use of electronic warfare devices."
Speaking to the crews around him, Jiang "has stressed the importance of improving the navy and speeding up its modernization to ensure China's marine defense and promote China's reunification." Soon afterwards, Jiang Zemin made "an important speech" to the senior officers and command echelons on the command ship. He not only stressed the magnitude of the challenge of military modernization and build-up, but, significantly, added a note of urgency: "The Navy has achieved marked results in organizing high-ranking and intermediate-ranking cadres to study high-tech and new equipment knowledge and to develop new tactics according to the new situation. The new situation sets new and higher requirements for the Navy's construction. We must attach importance to the construction of the Navy and quicken the pace of the Navy's construction in order to guarantee our country's coastal defense and to promote the accomplishment of national reunification."
Back in late September, Jiang Zemin spoke to senior officers in Beijing about imminent challenges. According to a source in Beijing, Jiang Zemin told his audience that "to increase the Army's cohesive force and combat-effectiveness, it is first necessary to educate all levels of military officers so that they will clearly understand the herculean task history has entrusted to them and enhance their dedication and sense of responsibility." According to a PLA source in Beijing, Jiang Zemin stressed the need for the PLA "to be vigilant in times of peace." He told them that the CPC authorities resolved: "Though the Cold War is over, some people in Japan are still trying to restore militarism; hostile forces in the West have not given up their attempts to 'westernize and split' China; and the two sides of the Taiwan Strait remain separated. Not all is well in today's world. So it is necessary to be prepared for danger in times of peace to preserve the peaceful environment which has not come easily." Jiang Zemin concluded on a somber note: "We should be soberly aware that though the Cold War is over, not all is well in today's world. Hegemonism and power politics still exist; hostile forces in the West have never given up for a moment their attempts to 'westernize and split' China; and some people ... abroad always miscalculate the situation, and keep thinking about interfering in China's internal affairs, harming China's sovereignty, and sabotaging China's reunification."
On October 1, the PLA's comments on 46th anniversary of the PRC echoed Jiang Zemin's growing apprehension of national security challenges and crises: "The just concluded Fifth Plenary Session of the 14th CPC Central Committee has drawn up a cross-century blueprint for China's national economy and social development-the Ninth Five-Year Plan and the Long-Term Target for the Year 2010. The future is bright and the task is arduous. As loyal guardians of the republic, we are more aware of our great responsibilities. We have soberly noticed that despite the absence of major war in the world today, local wars break out continuously, regional conflicts have been on and off all the time, and hegemonism and power politics still constitute a major danger causing turmoils in the world and threatening peace. In the changeable international environment, if we want to carry out the socialist modernization drive smoothly, advance with giant strides into the 21st century, and attain the magnificent objectives laid down by the Fifth Plenary Session, we must fulfill satisfactorily the sacred mission of our Army and make greater contributions."
Faced with such challenges and with determination to assert and ensure China's rightful place in the region and the entire world, Beijing is markedly escalating its saber-rattling. Beijing hopes to deter potential adversaries from challenging its regional surge. "'The intimidator should clearly show the targeted person that he is fully determined to translate his words into action,' Jiefang Ribao once said. This view is strongly reflected in China's recent military activities," explained Professor Shigeo Hiramatsu. And, should deterrence fail, the up-and-coming leadership in Beijing is determined to be able to attain what they consider rightfully China's through the use of force, even if such a crisis would lead to a confrontation with the US.
The overall strategic importance of these strategic developments continue to grow. In the fall of 1995, Beijing finds itself in a quandary on how to approach the imminent and inevitable clash with the West, particularly the US, concerning hegemony over Asia. On the one hand, there is a sense of urgency in Beijing to fully exploit and capitalize on what the CMC considers a strategic window of opportunity. On the other hand, the CMC is fully aware that it would take the PLA several years to have the full-fledged naval capabilities to properly conduct the required military tasks as well as truly use the Strait of Malacca.
The situation is further compounded by the growing inner tension at the upper echelons in Beijing, especially the younger officials aspiring for power in the post-Deng Xiaoping era, to demonstrate resolve through external achievements. Pressure is also felt in Beijing because of internal crises among key allies in the Trans-Asian Axis -- especially Pakistan and Iran -- whose governments look to external crises as the preferable means to shore up domestic support. Moreover, the escalating confrontation with the Republic of China (Taiwan) adds strains on the Chinese naval build-up and military mobilization in the southern PRC.
Consequently, Beijing is increasingly tempted to assume the middle way -- conduct an incremental, though resolute, escalation; to sustain the strategic push through a myriad of means short of a major war -- terrorism, subversion, raw pressure, etc. The aggregate impact of such a posture can be of global strategic significance. Moreover, Beijing is convinced that by the time the PRC is in a position to exert real pressure for tangible strategic gains, the countries surrounding the Strait of Malacca will have been either overtaken by, or thoroughly subverted and terrorized by, the PRC's Islamist allies. Incapable of calling in on the US to save them, for fear of untenable domestic ramifications, these governments will succumb to Beijing's pressure and the PRC will be in a position to consolidate its hegemony even through the use of incomplete and somewhat backward military forces.
The inherent danger in pursuing such a convoluted and multi facetted strategy is that one step too many could lead to a major war. Beijing and its allies are ready for that eventuality. The West is not!
1. Yossef Bodansky is the Director of the Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare of the U.S. Congress, as well as the World Terrorism Analyst with the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies (Houston TX). He is a contributing editor of Defense and Foreign Affairs; Strategic Policy, the author of three books (Target America, Terror, and Crisis in Korea), several book chapters, and numerous articles in several periodicals including Global Affairs, JANE's Defence Weekly,Defense and Foreign Affairs; Strategic Policy, Business Week. In the 1980s, he acted as a senior consultant for the Department of Defense and the Department of State.
The opinions expressed in these articles are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, U.S. Congress, or any other branch of the U.S. Government.