China and the Effectiveness of Economic Sanctions on North Korea

Sudarshan Gupta, Research Intern, ICS

Economic sanctions are imposed to coerce the target country to alter its policies or change its behavior. If the cost of sanctions to the target country is not substantial or if the threat is not credible, then there is a high chance that sanctions will fail to alter the behavior of the target country. This is what seems to be happening in the North Korean case. In October 2020, during a military parade, North Korea unveiled what experts believe to be one of the world’s largest road-mobile, liquid-fueled Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), possibly with a capability of carrying multiple nuclear warheads. International economic sanctions have failed to produce the desired result of denuclearization of North Korea, and instead, have increased politico-military instabilities in the region.

The United Nations Security Council passed resolution 2397 in December 2017 in response to North Korea’s launch of ICBM Hwasong-15, imposing wide-ranging economic sanctions on the country. In addition to multilateral sanctions by the UN,  the US has imposed unilateral sanctions on North Korea to impede the development of missile and nuclear technology. Given North Korea’s high economic dependence on China, for sanctions to be effective, China’s active and honest participation and cooperation are extremely crucial. China has asserted time and again that the North Korean issue should be resolved through dialogue and has supported a step-by-step process in which sanctions relief and security guarantees are provided in exchange for denuclearization. Most of the Chinese scholars argue that the improvement of geo-economic conditions and closer economic ties between North Korea and China is the only way to gradually induce North Korea to give up its nuclear program and open up to the world.

Following UN sanctions on North Korea after the 2016 nuclear test, China released a comprehensive list of sanctions imposed by it. Many items were allowed to be traded for “public welfare purposes,” while other items whose trade benefitted “livelihood purposes” and did not support the nuclear or missile program were also allowed. Importantly, there has been no clear definition given out by the Chinese as to what exactly constitutes such items, making the enforcement of UN sanctions difficult, if not impossible.

China is the largest trading partner of North Korea, and its continued economic engagement (both overt and covert) with North Korea has ensured the survival of the Kim regime. The relationship between the two countries is symbiotic and beneficial to both of them. For North Korea, illicit coal exports (banned since 2017) to China are a huge source of foreign currency, generating about a third of its exports by value. Apart from coal, in a blatant disregard to UN sanctions, Chinese companies are trading with North Korea in a wide spectrum of goods such as sand, seafood, textiles, iron and steel, industrial machinery, vehicles, and gravel. In December 2020, Deputy Assistant Secretary for North Korea, Alex Wong, accused China of subverting the UN sanctions regime aimed at achieving denuclearization of North Korea, warning sanctions against China-based individuals and entities in response. Wong further added that the US had identified 555 separate occasions in the past year alone of ships transporting coal, sand, and other sanctioned goods from North Korea to China. According to one estimate, in just the first five months of 2020, North Korea imported more than 1.6 million barrels of refined petroleum through numerous ship-to-ship transfers of oil at sea (the 2017 sanctions imposed a limit of 500,000 barrels per year). China has repeatedly turned a blind eye to such illicit activities in its neighbourhood.

Over the years, North Korea has developed a sophisticated web of illicit financial networks to launder money in order to circumvent sanctions. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and NBC highlighted in their report of September 2020 that Chinese firms played a prominent role in laundering large sums of money through several American banks to shell companies in other countries like Cambodia between 2008 and 2017. The money then finally reached North Korea.  According to a US Army report, China is possibly supporting North Korean illicit cyber activity through training and academic support, as there are hundreds of North Korean students who study in China and have access to advanced technology.          

A report submitted to the UN Security Council by a Panel of Experts highlights the prohibited transfer by North Korea of its fishing rights to third countries, thus acting as a source of income for the country. The report further claims that hundreds of Chinese boats can be observed in North Korea’s fishing zones, indicating that the country has circumvented sanctions by selling permits to Chinese fishermen. Remittances from North Korean migrant workers in China and Russia also constitute an important source of foreign currency for Pyongyang. The 2017 UN sanctions banned all such migrant workers and set a deadline for December 2019 for their repatriation. China, which employs more than 60,000 migrant workers, mostly in provinces adjacent to North Korea, has conveniently disregarded the deadline set by the UN.       

Kim Jong-un’s rare acknowledgment of the mistakes in the government’s five-year economic strategy from 2016 to 2020 at the eighth congress of the Worker’s Party of Korea indicates the gravity of economic problems that North Korea is facing. The disruptions in economic activities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and devastation of the country’s infrastructure by typhoons have much more seriously impacted North Korea’s economy in 2020 than the economic sanctions. However, the regime in North Korea remains pretty safe, stable, and unchallenged. Multilateral and unilateral sanctions by the US and its allies have been ineffective and miserably failed to achieve their goal of denuclearization. China has made sure that North Korea remains stable and has continued to undermine the sanctions regime, making the so-called US policy of “maximum pressure” an utter failure. US President-elect Joe Biden’s administration is expected to be tougher on human rights issues and will cooperate more closely with allies, including South Korea, in the context of increasing tensions with China. It is unlikely that North Korea will get sanctions relief anytime soon. However, cooperation with China in enforcing these sanctions will be quite difficult, and Beijing will continue to undermine them.            

China-Japan Relations: From Economic collaboration to Strategic contestation.

Abhyoday, Research Intern, ICS

Japan and China have for a good part the 2010s been able to maintain a relationship which was mutually beneficial. The economic collaboration between the two countries has kept on increasing and it was the Japanese investment which has played a big role in the rise of China as the world’s manufacturing center. However, since the trade war between the USA and China, Japan is struggling to balance its economic interests with China and strategic interests vis a vis the United States.

The two countries have their fair share of problems, be it the seasonal Yasukuni shrine problem, or the constant increase in Chinese activities in the East China Sea’s areas which are claimed by Japan as an incursion. While the Japanese have a huge dependence on the manufacturing from China and the supply chains emanating out of it, the transformed foreign policy approach of Chinese in 2020 has made it all the more difficult for Tokyo to maintain its economic interests without jeopardizing the strategic quotient.

The conundrum was in full view when in June, the Trump-led US government lashed out at the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) for their new national security legislation in Hong Kong, and as a result of which, the USA wanted to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and Mainland China. USA wanted a joint statement of G7 nations condemning China, however, only four countries came forward, them being, USA, UK, Australia and Canada. The absence of Japan raised many eyebrows. Some analysts and news reports mentioned that Japan wanted to condemn these acts by China, but not to a level to jeopardize its economic interests.

As the Chinese military maneuvering in the East China Sea has seen an uptick coupled with the larger change in Chinese diplomacy, which has become highly aggressive, popularly known as wolf warrior diplomacy, Japan finds itself in a difficult situation.

In dealing with the tensions in the East China Sea, both the countries are treading a narrow line. On the one hand, China wants to continue its activities to the extent that Japan finds it within its comfort zone to deal with it bilaterally, and on the other hand, Japan wants to maintain its sovereign rights of the Senkaku Islands (as declared in 2012) without compromising its economic interests with respect to China. Both countries maintain a level of complex interdependence, add this to their proximity and the military capabilities each one of them possesses, both want to get the largest slice of the East China Sea cake without agitating the other party beyond reconciliation.

Thus, as Japan wants to unchain from these shackles of complex interdependence to have a more independent China policy, it is looking at options to nullify this interdependence. In line with this, the Japanese have been trying to diversify their supply chains and move to manufacture away from China and to South East Asia and India.

In the process, according to a report by Bloomberg, 57 companies would receive 57.4 billion yen or $536 million in subsidies from the Japanese government to move to manufacture away from China. In addition to this, thirty other firms would receive money to move factories to Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries stated the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The payments would come from the 243.5 billion yen that was earmarked by Government in Tokyo to reduce dependency on Chinese supply chains.

In addition to these steps for economic diversification, Japan is also taking up military modernization. Be it, converting Helicopter carriers into Aircraft Carriers or military pact with Australia (which is Japan’s second agreement on allowing a foreign military presence in its territory, the first being the 1960 Status of Forces Agreement with the US). In addition to all this, Japan has also increased its engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.

The whole visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also has confirmed that both sides are not willing to relent on their respective positions. The differences have only widened and the fact that the two countries shied away from discussing the controversial yet important issue of Senkaku Islands means that Japan will keep on increasing its military strength, to increase its position on the negotiation table. Just recently Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi has invited German warships for naval drill with their Japanese counterparts and Japan has also decided to hold naval drills with France.

Japan, for a long time, has been constrained by its economic interests. Thus, it has not been able to act out its strategic interests. For perspective, the trade with China of Japan’s total trade in 2019 was 21.3 percent. However, as the country diversifies its economic options, the Chinese will lose the Achilles Heel (Japan’s supply chain dependence) and could increase the probability and intensity of strategic contestation. In the meantime, the attempt to showcase things as normal is in Japanese interest as it gives it time for the companies to move their manufacturing out of China and diversify its supply chains, thus, gaining the ability to act out its strategic interests and deter China’s activities in the East China Sea.

For undoing New Delhi’s US-backed ‘world power’ fantasy, Beijing must rethink on India’s SCO, BRICS membership: Chinese Scholars

Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS and Associate Professor, JNU

“Japan is manageable, Australia will soon fall in line; that leaves India, which is already feeling jittery with Trump certain to never return to the White House,” according to a recent Chinese commentary. Moreover, how can New Delhi ride in two boats at the same time, i. e. be part of anti-China Quad and/or “mini Asian NATO” and also remain in SCO and BRICS, some Chinese analysts are already asking.

Shanghai Cooperation organization  

With the United States currently in a state of limbo, thanks to soon to be “removed” President Trump, China’s strategic affairs commentariat, it seems is having a field day throwing pins at their new found object of ridicule – India. To understand what is being suggested, a mere glance is enough at the numerous op-ed pieces in the mainstream Chinese media in the past few weeks – not even suggesting you look at the loose cannon The Global Times. The news and current affairs platform alone, influential and widely read App among China’s urban, upward mobile nouveau riche, carried almost two commentaries-a-day on average on India since the signing of the much coveted Asian regional trade pact, RCEP. Recall India’s last minute dropping out of the world’s largest 15-nation Free Trade Agreement.

Interestingly, following the sudden Indian decision to stay away from the RCEP deal, announced last year by Prime Minister Modi in Bangkok during his 3-day visit to Thailand, the authorities in Beijing, though surprised, but reacted suspecting India’s intentions. Some Chinese analysts later on did draw a connection between the Bangkok announcement and the India provoked escalation of tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – de facto international border between India and China – in eastern Ladakh region a few months afterwards, i.e. in April 2020. Unlike in the similar border standoffs on several occasions in recent past, the border skirmishes in the Galwan Valley region soon snowballed into potential heavy military confrontation. As a result, amid accusations of belligerent aggression into each other’s territory by both countries, India started deploying massive military build-up along the LAC in the region.

As tensions with China along the border remained high, some Chinese experts began to describe the deployment of additional 35,000 more troops by India in the region as what is generally referred by scholars of international relations a “security dilemma.” Citing Robert Jervis, the world renowned IR theorist and former president of the American Political Science Association (APSA), who popularized the “security dilemma” theoretical concept whereby “actions meant to increase a state’s security can be perceived as hostile,” the Shanghai Institute of International Studies (SIIS) researcher Li Hongmei wrote in a widely debated article: “For quite some time now, India has been implementing a policy of ‘encroachment’ and ‘nibbling’ toward the Chinese side of the LAC.” Li went on to say: “India’s purpose is to unilaterally alter the status quo of the border by blurring the LAC.”


Most other Chinese commentators have attributed India’s this new-found audacity to militarily challenge China in the increasing defence and political backing India has been “offered” from the US, Japan and Australia. Moreover, the Chinese analysts believe the so-called US-led Western seducing of New Delhi (against China) will remain unabated under the president-elect Joe Biden.

Will India continue to get a “free ride” under President Biden? Will Biden aggressively push Indo Pacific strategy? Will Biden administration lead or promote a comprehensive US-led Western anti-China “united front”? Will US continue to “seduce” India? In geostrategic terms, India needs the United States more in order to thwart off China threat, but will India “retreat” if Sino-US relations show signs of easing up under Biden? These and many more “ifs” and “buts” are currently confronting both China’s US experts and India specialists respectively. Apparently, a “determined” India is becoming a dilemma to most Chinese experts.

Further, even if the President-elect’s top six foreign policy picks are those who served in Obama administration and when Biden was the Vice President, at least some Chinese observers are unwilling to dismiss Joe Biden as mere “old oil fritter.” “Biden was elected as a Senator at the age of 30. He has been in Washington politics for almost 50 years. He has served as the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Chairman of Committee on Foreign Relations respectively. He was the US vice president for two consecutive terms in the Obama administration. He is aware of the bipartisan consensus in the US Congress on China policy. Unlike Trump, Biden is too sophisticated and elegant to be unrealistic in completely reversing the previous administrations’ “anti-China policy,” is how Wu Zhifeng characterized Joe Biden in an article on the day the US media declared the vice president as the US president-elect.

Wu, a lead researcher at the China’s National Development Bank, pitched for Biden adopting a concerted policy to “tame” China, in a special column he wrote for China’s financial daily, 21st Century Business Herald (Ershiyi sheji jingji). “The Biden government will gradually return to organizations that the US withdrew from. This, in order to strengthen the US leadership position in the international organizations on one hand, and to repair the damaged relationship with the US allies caused by the Trump administration on the other,” Wu wrote. According to Wu, on the trade front, while the new US administration will quickly return to the erstwhile TPP, or now Japan-led CPTPP, at the same time it will also strive to revive the TTIP with Europe.


Echoing similar sentiments, another Chinese analyst’s view led to a new debate among China’s strategic community circles, that is, the Biden administration will strive hard to convince Japan, Australia, South Korea and other staunch US allies to delay the implementation of the recently signed the world’s largest free-trade agreement RCEP. “If successful,” the scholar observed, “this move combined with twin revival of the trans-Pacific TPP and trans Western Pacific TTIP, is sure to achieve the ultimate goal of squeezing from all sides China’s economic and trade relations with the world.”

No wonder, following the success of India-initiated Malabar joint military exercise with participation from the other three QUAD members – the US, Japan and Australia, several IR scholars in China have now realistically acknowledged the existence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, at least militarily if not politically. A recent article in the Chinese language Chongqing Morning Post, entitled “Has anti-China ‘mini Asian NATO’ really arrived? An essential move in US-Japan-Australia-India military cooperation,” seems to suggest likewise.

Moreover, it is quite evident from several commentaries in the Chinese media, especially in past few weeks, that Biden administration is generally expected to continue with Trump’s China policy; that Biden administration aims to put China under mounting political as well as economic pressure; that Biden administration is not going to reverse or dilute the previous US administration’s efforts in seeking the emergence of a “mini Asian NATO” directed against China; that Biden administration will pursue allies in the Pacific Rim region to carry out a concerted “contain” China policy by combining together “TTP-TTIP-Pivot to Asia Policy-Indo Pacific Strategy.”

To sum up, perhaps it is this never-seen-before Indian “resolve” to risk enter “anti-China” US-led political and military alliances which is touching a nerve in the Chinese psyche. Or, it may well be that Beijing is feeling rattled by the near consensus arrived at by the Indian political elite in the wake of last year in mid-June Galwan “massacre” leaving 20 Indian soldiers brutally killed.  Add to this China’s stubborn refusal to return to status quo ante in Ladakh which led India to admit, relations with “expansionist” China have reached an inflection point and that India must teach its northern neighbour “a good lesson.”

    BRICS leaders            

This year China will be celebrating the CPC centenary. Beijing would not like to see military conflict with India, or with any other country, escalate amid the Party’s hundredth birthday celebrations. It is no surprise some scholars in China are already advocating “desperate measures” to prevent India from joining QUAD or “mini Asian NATO,” i.e., Beijing should seriously consider expelling India from either SCO or BRICS, or from both.

The article was originally published as Beijing must rethink on India’s SCO, BRICS membershipon January 4, 2021 by NIICE.

New PLA Commander Across Our Northern Border: What Does General Zhang Bring to the Table?

KK Venkatraman, Research Fellow, ICS

On 18 December 2020, President Xi Jinping promoted four officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Armed Police Force to the highest rank of General.  This includes Zhang Xudong (张旭东) newly appointed Commander of the Western Theatre Command (WTC) which looks after the Line of Actual Control with India.  While the exact date when General Zhang took over from Zhao Zongqi is not known, it can be confirmed that General Zhao Zongqi tenanted the appointment till as late as end-September 2020, despite being due for retirement in April 2020. 

Not much is known about General Zhang Xudong.  His date of birth – Mar 1962 and native province – Liaoning reflected in Wikipedia cannot be corroborated from other sources.  This article deals with the knowns before proceeding to the realm of analysis and prognosis.


Promoted as Major General in 2012, Zhang commanded the 115 Division which was part of erstwhile-39 Group Army* before being promoted as Chief of Staff of 39 Group Army and was appointed as its Commander in April 2014.  As Commander of 39 Group Army, he is credited with introducing standards for precise evaluation of combat effectiveness and conducted a Joint Campaign Planning Exercise of the 39 Group Army at Horqin, Inner Mongolia in October 2014.

Post-2016 reforms, he was appointed as Commander of Central Theatre Army prior to 18 Mar 2017 and later Deputy Central Theatre Commander in early-2018.  He was promoted as Lieutenant General on 01 Aug 2018 and was Deputy Commander of the Military Parade commemorating the 70th Anniversary of founding of China in 2019.

From the party status perspective, his elevation is unusual as he is neither a member nor an alternate member of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.  In fact, other than Wang Chunning, Commander of the People’s Armed Police Force who is an alternate member of the Central Committee, the other three generals who have been promoted are neither members nor alternate members of the Central Committee. It is also known that he was Deputy Party Secretary of 115 Division and later 39 Group Army. 

He is likely to have co-authored an article titled Use the Party’s Innovative Theory to Focus on Military Education (用党的创新理论贯注部队教育官兵要做到这四点) with Zhou Wanzhu, then Political Commissar of Central Theatre Army, which was published by the PLA Daily on 22 Mar 2017. The article talks about the implementation of party’s innovative theory as expressed through speeches of Xi Jinping, using the Chinese dream to strengthen the Army, improvement of combat effectiveness to meet traditional and non-traditional threats and educating officers and soldiers on the same.


PLA officers generally spend their complete career in the same military region. Thus, General Zhang would have spent the bulk of his career in the erstwhile-Shenyang Military Region, which covered the North Eastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning and was responsible for the Russian Far East and Korean Peninsula. The 39 Group Army (including the 115 Division), a Type A Group Army** was responsible for contingencies in Korea and was amongst the first armies to fight UN troops in the 1952 Korean War.  While the terrain and weather are not comparable to North-Western Plateau, the Eastern part of Korean Peninsula is mountainous with sub-zero temperatures in winters and provides adequate experience for operations in mountainous terrain.

His command of 115 Division and 39 Group Army is also significant as Korean Peninsula underwent a period of heightened tensions around the same time, with North Korean nuclear tests in 2009, 2013 and 2016, sinking of South Korean naval ship Cheonan by a DPRK submarine in 2010, death of Kim Jong-Il and the political transition in North Korea in 2011, failed satellite launch by North Korea in 2012 and the joint US-South Korean announcement of deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) in 2016.  In response, the Shenyang Military Region enhanced its military preparedness to intervene in the Korean Peninsula, if necessary, and both 115 Infantry Division and 39 Group Army under Zhang Xudong would have had a significant role if the PLA had intervened in the Korean Peninsula. 

The Central Theatre Command is responsible for defence of Beijing, providing security to CCP leadership and acts as the strategic reserve.  Thus, General Zhang as Army Commander and Deputy Commander of Central Theatre would be well versed with operational plans of WTC as well as shortcomings identified during the current crisis. It would also attest to his political reliability as the Theatre is also responsible for the security of Beijing.

The Jinan Military Region served as the testbed for PLA Army’s reforms in pre-Reforms era. It is likely that the Central Theatre Command, as its successor, is in the forefront of PLA’s experiments in Joint Operations in the post-reforms period providing him with significant experience in preparing for Joint Operations in addition to his earlier experiences with Joint Command Planning in 39 Group Army.

Change of commanders*** indicates that Beijing does not view conflict as imminent. However, it is likely that WTC would carry out a deep introspection of its operational plans and preparedness based on the current crisis. With the PLA issuing its Outline of Joint Operations recently and the Fifth Plenum Communique stressing the need to improve strategic ability to defend national sovereignty and achieve Centennial goals of PLA by 2027, PLA and WTC will undergo further reforms.

His appointment also confirms two trends observed in China and PLA.  One, of promoting little known personalities to higher levels to ensure their loyalty to President Xi Jinping. Two, of transferring senior PLA officers to other theatres on promotion to ensure that they do not create/ strengthen their power bases.



General Zhang brings with him expertise on mountain warfare, joint operations and crisis-management skills, tag of political reliability as well as the backing of Xi Jinping. He is well placed to rectify shortcomings identified in operational plans in the past eight months as well as ensure success of reforms in WTC. Thus, it can be expected that WTC under General Zhang would focus on preparing for a potential conflict with India at short notice****. In the interim, it can be expected that barring misunderstandings, WTC would not trigger a crisis, which it is not capable of handling. Two aspects however, need to be watched out for; one, the de-induction of formations which have inducted from other Theatre Commands to WTC during the current crisis and two, the elevation of General Zhang to the 20th CPC Central Committee in 2022.

Author’s Notes

* The 39 Group Army was redesignated as 79 Group Army and became part of the Northern Theatre Command following the 2016-reforms.

** The 18 Group Armies in the pre-reform era were classified into Type A and Type B Group Armies, with Type A Group Armies, well-equipped and fully manned with a higher state of operational preparedness. 

*** On 13 Oct 2020, Lieutenant General PGK Menon took over as General Officer Commanding of the Indian Army’s Fire and Fury Corps, responsible for operations in Eastern Ladakh.

**** This does not necessarily mean war.  However, it must be kept in mind that prior to the 1962 War, formations had inducted as early as 1959 and by 1962, they were well-prepared.  The final decision for war was only taken (p.117) on 6 Oct 1962, just four days prior to the war.

The views expressed and suggestions made in the article are solely that of the author in his personal capacity and do not have any official endorsement.  Attributability of the contents lies purely with the author.

A Critical Outlook on PLA’s AI Development Philosophy

Megha Shrivastava, Research Intern, ICS

People’s Liberation Army (PLA) strategists have recognized Artificial Intelligence (AI) as part of the ongoing military revolution, which has immense potential to change the metrics of military power balance in the future and makes AI central to its military modernization plan. Lieutenant General Liu Gouzhi (刘国治), Director of Central Military Commission’s Science and Technology Commission, recognized the disruptive nature of the technology and warned that whosoever does not disrupt will be disrupted. Recently, the fifth plenum of the CCP released its Communique (October 2020), which has emphasized completing informatization and intelligentization by 2027, highlighting the applications of AI in its military modernization plan.

PLA defines AI weapon in its official dictionary as “a weapon that utilizes AI to pursue, distinguish, and destroy enemy targets automatically; often composed of information collection and management systems, knowledge base systems, decision assistance systems, mission implementation systems, etc.” Some PLA thinkers anticipate that future warfare may be fought fully with unmanned autonomous and intelligent weapons systems, including robotic weapons.

PLA’s Initial Trajectory and Long-Term Plan

PLA’s careful study and analysis of the USA’s Third Military Offset Strategy has guided its approach towards AI. It has focused on developing advanced capabilities like unmanned swarms to gain a strategic advantage over the Pentagon’s military potential. Having a competing vision with the US, it is actively planning on accelerating and advancing its technological development with the strong support of the civilian sector through its ambitious Military-Civil Integration (军民融合) program to narrow the gap with US defense capabilities.

While the goals of both countries endeavour to reach the ‘Commanding Heights’ ((制高点), their paths are not the same. Rather, the PLA has adopted the strategy of ‘Overtaking on the Curve’ to catch up and bypass the US and Russia. Beijing will strive towards prioritizing defence innovation through military intelligentization (智能化) and Chinese ‘Superintelligence’ (Brain-inspired intelligence), which creates the fear of shaping an entirely new domain of cognitive warfare.

To catch up with its overwhelming aspirations, China’s 2019 Defence White Paper emphasizes early informatization (信息化), which will facilitate intelligentization in warfare (智能化作战). The PLA strategists visualize military applications of AI from intelligentized command and control or support to decision making. Some PLA strategists believe that in the future, the intelligentization of warfare may result in battlefield singularity (奇异), which will help in making the best use of human and machine capability.

Leveraging AI for Warfare

PLA defines war as a scientific concept that can be deconstructed, and AI is more suited to predict calculated outcomes or to identify the adversary’s vulnerable systems. Thus, the asymmetric thinking of targeting adversary’s vulnerability will remain a central theme in leveraging AI applications.

It is likely to leverage AI to strengthen its military capability not only towards intelligentization but also to gradually develop advanced autonomous and unmanned vehicles, war-gaming, and data fusion. Further, it will leverage the potential of associated technologies like 5G, Quantum computing, the internet of things, etc. to assist its strategies related to warfare in general and Information Warfare (cyber and electronic warfare) in particular. It can support and enhance PLA’s psychological warfare capabilities to target combatant’s behaviours and emotions.

PLA thinkers argue that AI should be used both kinetically and non-kinetically to dominate the information domain and target the enemy’s information networks. They believe that a ‘system of systems’ warfare will occur as a result of ubiquitous networks. These networks will diminish the distance between action, decision-making, and perception. With PLA recognizing that modern warfare is “system’s confrontation” (系统浓度) (a system versus system conflict) and information dominance is essential to achieve dominance in other domains, the emphasis on the application of AI to achieve information dominance can be understood. With such an edge, PLA seeks to pursue the style of mosaic warfare with Chinese characteristics. Its ultimate goal of leveraging AI is directed toward achieving a cognitive advantage over its adversaries while being able to defend its system of systems.

AI in Decision Making

On the question of keeping humans ‘in the loop’(在循环) of decision making, it is quite uncertain and may be too early to predict. However, strategic thinking towards AI predicts that PLA might increasingly favour intelligible and cognitive decision making rather than human judgments. They believe that PLA is likely to integrate command-and-control systems into built-in systems by designing and operationalizing plans in advance. Also, the PLA’s historical analysis of warfare is based on its study of military science that is focused upon war-gaming and simulation to arrive at critical military concepts. It will thus incorporate AI to formulate appropriate military theories and tactical decisions. This may also disrupt the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act) loop given by Col. John Boyd, and that is also frequently discussed by PLA thinkers. Former US Deputy Secretary of Defence Bob Work believes the authoritarian regimes and those who believe in the weaknesses of humans and rely heavily on machines are more inclined to move toward fully autonomous weapons and to keep humans out of the loop. It is likely that the decision to put human ‘in the loop’, ‘on the loop’ or ‘out of the loop’ shall rather be determined based on the lethality and criticality of the system, and PLA may adopt a combination of all three to meet the perceived threat.

The Bigger Picture

At this stage, the extent to which militaries will be able to harness the potential of AI in decision making is difficult to predict. However, the ongoing military modernization process suggests that PLA will emphasize integrating AI in its reconnaissance and surveillance system, weapons systems and, command, control, and communication structures apart from training and supervision of personnel under its efforts to make PLA truly modernized by 2027. The High-End Laboratory for Military Intelligence (HELMI), which was set up at Tsinghua University in 2018, is serving as a breakthrough point for developing what China calls “AI superpower strategy”. Today, China is behind in AI and semiconductors, and present trends suggest that the gap will narrow soon in the future. These are the key government priorities, receiving enormous attention and investment.

Disruptions led by militarized AI will be decisive for the future of warfare. AI is here to stay and develop to surprising levels in times to come shaping military innovation, nature of the conflict, and warfare in the 21st century. Only time will tell whether the disruption will be China-led or American. If the PLA succeeds well in materializing the potential of AI, it will turn out to be a game-changer, thereby placing greater challenges for future military power balance, peace, and stability.

Book Review: Xi Jinping, 2020. The Governance of China III (English Version).

Beijing: Foreign Languages Press

Sreemati Chakrabarti, Vice-chairperson and Honorary Fellow, ICS

Writings and speeches of leaders of countries around the world and mainly in socialist states are normally called Selected Works. President Xi Jinping’s speeches have been  published with a different kind of name ‘The Governance of China’.  Perhaps someday a detailed explanation may come from the publishers and other political analysts about this title, however I will not make any guess why it is so.  This volume comprises mainly of writings and speeches delivered by the Chinese President who is also the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, between October 2017 to January 2020.Very much like the writings and speeches of his predecessors Xi’s style is simple and intelligible to the ordinary person.

 To understand contemporary China such a volume can be a very important primary source material for research as well as to understand the priorities in terms of policies of the ruling dispensation. The volume’s first section is Xi Jinping’s speech at the 19th Party Congress on 18 October, 2017. Many scholars and analysts have already commented about this speech which runs into many pages and covers a wide range of subjects which President Xi considers significant for both the Chinese nation as well as the Chinese Communist Party. All through this Report President Xi refers to “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. Whereas ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ as a guiding  principle was upheld since the 1980s by Deng Xiaoping and the communist party of that period but adding the words ‘new era’ shows that Xi jinping wishes to recreate and rejuvenate some old policies taking into account the new and emerging realities of the Chinese social, political, economic, cultural and environmental situation. The long speech which runs into 79 pages in its English translation while covering a whole range of issues from innovations to culture to the armed forces to national reunification and so forth, seems to give a lot of stress on the role and significance of the Party. While it is natural that at the party congress which meets only once in five years the supreme leader will emphasize on party work to inspire and energise the junior most party worker yet the extent and intensity of Xi Jinping’s continuous stress on the party is almost unparalleled in the history of communism. The speech gives due importance to many other aspects of the social, economic and political life of people in the PRC but his call to the youth, I thought, was, remarkable. Towards the end of the speech, he says: “A nation will prosper only when its young people thrive; a country will be full of hope and have a great tomorrow only when its younger generations have ideals, ability, and a strong sense of responsibility. The Chinese dream is about the past, the present, and the future. It is the dream of our generation, but even more so a dream of the younger generation” (p.75).

A young Indian political scientist, Dr. Bhim Subba, who studies politics in China while summing up the Report has made the following comment, “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ also called as Xi Jinping Thought has been enshrined into the party doctrine/constitution as a guiding ideology. This is a part of a continuum which indicates that Xi like his predecessors wants his ideological innovation to be added to the party charter but after his name. The Report stressed on the party leadership to guide towards socialist modernization and the national rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Further, the Report also stressed on the Chinese people and the Party not to forget the ‘original mission’ (bu wang chuxin) of the Chinese communists through the alertness of the cadres, continuing by deepening reforms (rule of law) and strict governance (anti-corruption and rectification continues to make waves until this day). However, the most important pronouncement was the mentioning of the Belt and Road Initiative (OBOR) more than five times. This has become the bed-rock of Xi’s grand strategy of economic and foreign relations since 2013 and more vigorously post-19th party congress in 2017.”

Other noticeable points that Xi Jinping makes in his speech include supporting a new generation of entrepreneurs and giving a boost to the private sector (p.315). For readers who may be interested in knowing President Xi’s ideas on diplomacy and foreign policy it is necessary to point out that here also he focusses on strengthening the CPC’s leadership role (pp.489-499). The volume includes Xi’s speeches at all major international events like the SCO, BRICS Business Forum, APEC CEO Summit, G20 as well as the Asian Civilizations Dialogue, (which this reviewer had the opportunity to attend), among others.

In my opinion, however, the most significant, relevant and with far-reaching consequences are the Chinese President’s views and policies on ecology and environment. Speeches  and writings on these issues are in the section called ‘Harmony between Humanity and Nature’.  Speaking at the National Conference on Eco-environmental Protection in May 2018, he states at the beginning of his speech that the major challenge facing Chinese society today “is the gap between the unbalanced and inadequate development and the ever-growing expectation of the people for a better life”. Since people of the country and their support are top priority it is absolutely necessary to promote environmental protection, preserve the ecosystems and provide more quality eco-products (p.417) When it comes to economic development it is important to adhere to the principle of giving priority to “conservation, protection and the restoration of nature. We should not think of taking from nature without giving back, developing without protecting, and consuming without restoring” (p419). One cannot overstress the significance of the above-mentioned statement. Development and progress without adequate precautions to keep the environment healthy is already haunting mankind. At this stage if corrective measures are not taken the future of humanity will be jeopardized. In this speech the President urges and pleads to protect the environment as one protects one’s eyes and life. Insisting that environmental quality cannot be allowed to drop further, it should only improve, he warns that local Party and government functionaries will be held directly accountable if in their areas of work ecosystems are badly damaged and there is deterioration in the quality of the environment (p.420). In this speech he mentions that “each and every individual is a protector, builder and beneficiary and so  should not be a bystander, an outsider or a critic” (p.421). Towards the end he makes a commitment that China will be heavily involved in global environmental governance and actively take part in the transformation to help form global solutions to eco-environmental protection and to sustainable development. (p.423). 

In the same speech President Xi refers to the ever-important issue of air and water pollution. Stating that air pollution is top priority he reminds the audience that China has made a promise to the international community that before hosting the 2022 Beijing winter Olympics air quality will be improved. Specifically targeting the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Region and its surrounding area, the Yanztze River Delta, and the Fenhe-Weihe river Plain would be essential for a substantial improvement in air quality which he calls an “unconditional requirement ….to bring back blue skies” To achieve this it will be necessary to eliminate individual coal-fired boilers and suspend operations of outdated coal-fired power plants and then transform and upgrade them. On controlling water pollution Xi Jinping suggests that all urban water bodies need to be cleaned up and in particular the Bohai sea water must be improved and the Yangtze River ecosystem should be protected and restored. In addition, soil pollution control can be done through promulgating and implementing a law to enforce the action plan (pp.427-29).

This section on environment and ecology also consists of the inaugural speech President Xi delivered on April 2019 at the International Horticulture Exhibition in Beijing. Since this event was attended by many foreign heads of governments and other dignitaries he urges all nations to join hands to meet the common challenges, he says “Only together we can effectively address climate change, marine pollution, biological conservation, and other global environmental issues, and achieve the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” (p.436). Towards the end of this speech he mentions that China is prepared to work with other countries “to create a better homeland and a global community of shared future.” (p.437). The last sub-section on this subject is the Chinese president’s speech at the Forum on Eco-conservation and quality Development of the Yellow River Basin. Here he emphasizes on improving water conservation and preventing potential hazards due to too much sediment in the Yellow River.

Overall, the selection of speeches on ecology and environment made by the publishers is rather commendable as it gives the reader a very comprehensive picture of the policies and priorities of the Chinese leadership on a matter which has world-wide consequences.