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Chinese Merchantmen or Man o’war?: Flagging The Advent of Strategic Uncertainty

Rudraprassana Writes :

The Delineation of First Island Chain-The Pacific Theatre.

There is an old saying about revealing your cards. It is why we have the term-poker face. So in what way is this move of China to talk on one hand about ‘Fortified Tibet’ as if it were defending and to also show clips where a merchant ship capable of carrying piles of containers is also a launch pad for a missile of IRBM ( intermediate Range Ballistic Missile) class We have a narrative that can justify somewhat the use of neanderthal spike rods and clubs, as the PLA used in Galwan clash with the Indian Army’s Bihar Regiment soldiers led by their Commanding Officer Colonel Santhosh Babu, even the pushing of soldiers into the Galwan river, the firing of shots in the air, over Spanggur Gap area where now it appears that Indian Army has obtained tactical surprise by occupying features of the Kailash Range. For all that fits is with the PLA narrative of Tibet under threat. Even the entire Eastern Ladakh adventure of the PLA this summer can be called a probing salient to occupy tactically features that would make defensive operations in these rarified altitudes easier for the PLA, all in sync with President Xi’s declaration no less of ‘Fortifying Tibet’. (A military veteran views Sino Strategy from Ladakh perspective.)

But what can justify this reveal of using merchantmen to fire ballistic missiles? It would be grandstanding of the sort a desperate Chinese PLAN leader would resort to, in order to show results to his ‘bossman’? Imagine as a Naval leader whose roll out of platforms for carrying out missile launches as stealth frigates has run into rough weather, then in the face of death over dead lines would you not pull of such a stunt? The flip side is now, if these videos are true, then any Merchant Man bearing the Chinese Flag could be a security risk and subjected to screening at harbours by nations that are at this stage of undeclared hostility with China, or nations that are already at Cold War with her.

It brings us into a rather unique issue with China, that as a rising super power, China is showing the least respect for the ‘Global Order’ in the last few years, identifiable with the rise of President Xi and his consolidation of power. So if you see how China is attempting to throttle the SLOC concept in the SCS, by her unilateral actions in converting several disputed reefs and shoals into pucca air strips with adjunct military stations to man them, renaming them and ‘annexing’ them for all practical purposes, this pattern now extends beyond nine dash lines to what we saw yesterday when Taiwan Straits midline was no longer held as limiting zone for Chinese naval and air patrols. So when PLAAF aircraft tried to ‘buzz’ Taiwan the island was hosting another American official, the Under Secretary for State ( Assistant as the Americans call this official) the rubicon was enjoined for such flagrant violations were no longer a ‘zero sum game’. For now every time countries at the receiving end of China’s adversarial policies do not respond by physical force, they conceded what they have lost to Chinese through adverse possession and beyond that, allowing China to play the rubicon, a winner takes all concept! Imagine how President Xi as most dictators are wont to must be portraying the steady encroachment across the South China Sea and and now in Eastern Ladakh and portraying these as not conquests but as fortification moves, to position these as simply an expanding defensive tactical move, when strategically, this is nothing but Chinese expansionism?

Image source

So if merchant men are going to be capable of surprising us, what about the Low Earth Orbit Beidou Series of satellites which China is launching to complete its version of GPS satellite system? What if apart from commercial use of navigation this is used for missile telemetry and tracking and terminal guidance by the PLA’s Rocket Forces ( Now called Special Artillery)? Actually that would not be surprising to analysts for that is the military intention of this project. What would be expected actually is the use of some of these satellites as Trojan Horses, as platforms for some kind of satellite killer technology, which the Chinese could use to target US military satellites in LEO configuration or even GeoStationary Orbit. If you see the US military as a system of systems hyper war operator, the loops of information gathered from platforms like F35s to Naval warships are part of those created by Satellite based sensors and all of this are treated as inputs for a command suite that offers solutions to commanders within the Theatre of operations. Theatre Missile Defence is already a concept getting inducted into the US battle formations, so if key satellites get knocked out, this would cripple the operational capacity of such systems and stun the US forces into a crippling daze and make them easy pickings.

What President Xi’s Thought has done to the Chinese PLA group of organisations is revealed how anything goes. We know that an Assam Rifles patrol met a barbaric fate in 1975 near Se La, and Indian Army retrieved them a few weeks later from Chinese PLA after a diplomatic channel opened and conditions were placed for hand over of the mortal remains. We are also aware that after this, Chinese PLA in this sector have returned soldiers and recently ‘porters’ ( local youth employed by the Army) in the Eastern Sector unharmed, likewise Indian troops too have returned the cattle that strayed into Indian held positions. If you see how Doklam of 2017 was and compare with Galwan of 2020, you can very well say that PLA of Galwan Valley 2020 was similar to that in 1975, crude and barbaric, while the other encounters suggest a more professional military. So is PLA actually not a uniform force, but with a deadly cocktail of crude impressionist militia who are indoctrinated , and interspersed with regular and more professional military units of PLA? Has PLA now in seven years under President Xi altered military doctrines and responses and accommodated indoctrinated officials of CCP to the command function at select tiers like Soviet Style Commissars?

It is important for India and the South East Asian comity of nations to get some kind of Humint on this aspect of the Chinese military organisation and strategic thought caucus within the Central Military Commission. Whether a composite can be built up that offers clues or debriefs after meeting with Chinese officials can lend to a picture of posture of these officials, which can be backed by more sophisticated ELINT and CyberINT, if governments at the receiving end of China’s adversarial posturing since the rise of Xi can take this important input into their perceptional matrix, they will do themselves and the larger world a great deal of good. For it immediately raises an alarm that Chinese leadership are not a ‘reasonable’ leadership, that President Xi may be harbouring ambitions that the world is not in a position to accommodate, of a China that militarily annexes areas that it imagines through revisionism as its own, for which it may chose to wage a series of what it imagines are necessary tactical wars. For from whatever the EU, American and Australian assessment of Chinese intentions are concerned, the analysts seem to agree that President Xi is just more vocal about Chinese intentions unlike his predecessors. That China’s actions are primarily about what it can get done without raising the stakes and costs to its own. That China will backoff or wind down the rhetoric if it sees a greater global consensus that views China’s unilateralism as a visible threat to the global order.

Is the US and its allies ready for a China that could launch a blitzkrieg of the sort the Third Reich launched in Europe? What if China were to view that pre-emptive strikes are necessary against the US Indo Pacific Fleet ( Seventh Fleet now) including missile launches on Guam ( termed as Second Island Chain ) as simply strategic necessity of military campaign before it crosses the Taiwan straits to grab the ‘renegade province’ by an overwhelming military campaign? What if the PLA made a putsch via Depsang in Eastern Ladakh while pinning the Indian military in the forward posture they are currently holding in other sectors in a massed attack this winter?

The Depsang plains at tri junction of Tibet, Xinjiang and Ladakh

The problem with democracy and dictatorship is the speed of decision making, the consensus seeking deliberative style versus the whimsical and immediate, where rationality and proportionality are never going to dictate the matrix for the dictator. So is the Quad or the US led allies of First Island Chain countries war gaming these eventualities or still assuming that more trade and more barter with the CCP including measures like banning Apps and demanding trade reciprocity correcting balance of trade surpluses is suffice to bring Xi’s China to heel? Is it time to view China as an existential threat to world peace? Is Chancellor Merkel the current edition of Premier Neville Chamberlain? Truly the world has descended rather quickly into what Aussie Premier Mr Morrison termed “the Climate of Strategic Uncertainty”! Only as underlined by the Aussies themselves, it will take a decade for Australia to build capabilities that could help it meet the challenges from such a contingency, a luxury of time the world may not actually have…


Reproduced with the permission of the author Group Capt (Dr) K Ganesha from his blog post of 23 Sep 2020 at

Article uploaded on 27-09-2020
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.

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