First of 2 parts: Assassin’s Mace
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently issued a statement that the United States does not recognize the legality of most of China’s claim in the South China Sea.
This is followed by a statement from Defense Secretary Mark Esper that “Goodwill and best wishes do not secure freedom; strength does.”
Such fighting words were followed up by the US deployment of two aircraft carrier strike groups (the Ronald Reagan and the Nimitz) with their complete complements of cruisers, destroyers, frigates, supply ships, and submarines into the area conducting so-called “freedom of navigation” and naval exercises that included live firing.
In response to these US actions, China conducted live firing of its “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missiles; the DF21D and the DF26B in the South China Sea. Beijing reiterated that China will never be the first to fire the first shot in the South China Sea.
But the Global Times newspaper intimated that the second shot may well be either of these two missiles, or both, targeting US aircraft carrier strike groups. The DF26B has a range of some 4,000 kilometers and can destroy targets up to Guam.
To understand this simmering “cold war” that can easily turn into a “hot war” between two nuclear-armed superpowers, it is necessary to go back a little in history.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s and the US emerged as the sole superpower in the world, US strategic planners formulated a US defense strategic guideline. The gist of this is contained in the “Wolfowitz Doctrine” that goes: “Our first objective is to prevent the reemergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union.
This is a dominant consideration underlying the new regional defense strategy and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.” (New York Times, March 7, 1992.)
China may have felt alluded to by this US defense strategic guideline as Deng Xiaoping promulgated his own strategic guidelines on how to cope with this seeming threat to China’s own survival as a nation and civilization. Deng Xiaoping issued the call capsulized in a 24-character strategy: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”
This 24-character strategy was issued by Deng as one of his last acts as a public servant. When Deng Xiaoping officially retired from all his public positions in 1992, this strategy was issued that year to the whole of China. Few may have noticed, but this was perhaps the greatest contribution of Deng Xiaoping to the Chinese nation.
Deng knew that the US defense strategy was to launch a “preventive war” against any nation that would threaten to gain parity, or worse, superiority over the US in economic, military, or technological terms. Hence, the US will launch a “preventive war” that will prevent a rising power (such as China) from gaining parity or superiority.
US logic with the Wolfowitz Doctrine is to strike a rising rival while it is still weak and the US still enjoys overwhelming superiority economically, militarily and technologically.
When Deng issued his 24-character strategy in 1992, China was still economically, militarily, and technologically weaker than the US. If a war between the US and China had erupted at that time, China would have suffered a devastating defeat and driven back to the Stone Age, although both US and China were already nuclear powers at the time.
In 1992, China was still in the process of developing a weapons system that was then code-named “assassin’s mace” designed to counter US advantage militarily, i.e., the US aircraft carriers strike groups (about a dozen of them in operation); some 400 US military bases deployed to encircle China, Russia and Iran; and US superiority in satellite-based C4ISR (command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance).
Around that time too, China was still developing its strategic tunnel system following Mao’s call: “Dig tunnels deep; store grains everywhere; and never seek hegemony.”
They were developing subway systems in every major city to serve as civil defense in case of a major war. And they were also building an underwater hydroponic system along the east coast to monitor adversary submarines. China was also setting up underground hangers in many of its air bases where their most advanced aircraft are kept underground. At the time, China was also still in the process of covering its entire east coast with redundant air defense systems.
Hence, way back in 1992, China could not afford a shooting war with the US. This was why Deng Xiaoping repeated the word “calmly” twice: “observe calmly”; “cope with affairs calmly”.
If, say, the Chinese leadership failed to follow Deng’s exhortation when the US deliberately bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 (i.e., two years after Deng passed away), China would have been reduced to rubble. It was that important word “calmly” repeated twice in a 24-character formula that saved the Chinese nation and civilization from certain destruction — and possibly extinction.
“Hide our capabilities and bide our time” said Deng.
Those capabilities refer to the “assassin’s mace” weapons system referred to earlier. “Bide our time” means that they can only show that weapons system when they already have enough of them, ready for either offense or defense.
One of such “times” was when China shot down one of its satellites traveling at hypersonic speed using a ground-launched variant of the DF21. This was on Jan. 11, 2007, the first time in the world that a satellite was targeted by a ground-launched ballistic missile.
The implication of this feat is that China was then capable of targeting objects in outer space like satellite-based C4ISR, orbiting weapons systems and incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
The signal was ominous and clear. If China is capable of targeting objects in space traveling at hypersonic speeds, what more of lumbering aircraft carriers moving at a snail’s pace at sea, or fixed air bases on land harboring stealth aircraft and bombers?