It was the one-time combatant and statesman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who during his farewell address as the President of the United States of America had coined the term ‘military-industrial complex’. He had warned against its vicious portents. Eisenhower was overly concerned about the undue influence on policy-making and strategic choices that such an unholy nexus could engender. While the United States did put in place such a complex, it was able to ‘manage’ and ‘direct’ the perations of the same towards depleting the coffers of its allies and arms-export countries, as opposed to bleeding its own finances, beyond a point.
China has developed a very sophisticated ‘military-industrial complex’ and an accompanying philosophy and strategy to address its own survival and insecurities and to meet its aspirations. The wake-up call following the rather inglorious military performance against Vietnam in 1979, led Deng Xiaoping to fasttrack the construction of the ‘military-industrial complex’, which he had envisaged for the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) ‘on the basis of our steadily expanding economy, to improve the army’s weapons and equipment and speed up the modernisation of our national defence’.
As a single-party state, China has been paranoid about its internal societal fissures. Hence the urgency to constantly upgrade and invest in advanced security imperatives, internally and externally. This fear-psychosis has already made China the largest market for security and surveillance equipment. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute pegged China’s military spending at $250 billion (India at $66.5 billion) for 2018, that it made it four times that of India and the second highest in the world.
While the US is the highest spender, a very sizeable part of that expenditure goes towards maintenance of its multiple combat engagements across the globe, whereas the Chinese invest the chunk of their investments towards capability enhancement and development. While China responds extensively and controversially on various global conflicts, it refuses to commit itself in the physical interventions as the United States does. Instead it partakes the money-spinning opportunity of arms exports to countries like Pakistan and North Korea.
This undisturbed and incentivised situation has led to a thriving defence production ecosystem that is believed to account for 25 per cent of China’s total industrial capacity and up to 10 per cent of its Gross National Product (GNP). This Chinese ‘militaryindustrial complex’ is made of a combination of the wholly state-owned entities and of the supposedly autonomous ‘private sector’ organisations that are still closely controlled through an intricate web of ownership, command and direction. To accelerate this process, President Xi Jinping created a Military-Civil Integration Development Commission with himself as the head, to further access sensitive and cutting-edge technology that could be incorporated for the next-generation weaponry like attack-drones, missiles and tapping artificial intelligence.
Another aspect of the Chinese ‘military-industrial complex’ is its unmatched ability in reverse-engineering after accessing technology by hacking, cyber-attacks or even simply stealing blueprints from others. The case of Dongfan ‘Greg’ Chung who was sentenced for 24 years in the US for stealing over 250,000 documents from Boeing and Rockwell, is a case in point. Later his stolen design for the C17 Globemaster heavy-duty transporter from Boeing was eerily visible in the Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation’s Y-20 transporter. Similarly the technology and designs used in the US made the F-35 Stealth fighter. These are present all over the Chengdu J-20, the Chinese answer to fifth-generation fighter planes. Actual US weaponry has also been sourced by the Chinese from duplicitous countries like Pakistan who passed on a Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, only to be reverse engineered into the Z-10 Chinese helicopter. Even the much in the news weapon system of the UAV’s or Drones that wrought havoc in terror-attacks in Saudi Arabia recently, saw the ‘lift’ of US MQ-1 Predator Drone in the inevitability of CH-4 or Rainbow drone made by the state-owned China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics. In the Chinese calculus and narrative, the ends justify the means and as long as the Chinese are able to further their own cause and hegemonic prospects, anything goes.
The interplay of the Chinese ‘military-industrial complex’ goes beyond the manufacturing and services domain and extends to the strategic moves and investments in the geopolitical and geostrategic realm. The gargantuan infrastructural ‘Belt & Road Initiative’ has a classic dual purpose utility that doubles up for an economic and military angularity by opening up strategic arterial routes for the Chinese, across the globe. The subcomponent pieces of the ‘Belt & Road Initiative’ are the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in Pakistan and the ‘String of Pearl Ports’ that take the Chinese military-industrial footprint, well beyond the Chinese mainland.
The interchangeability of military-industrial imperatives was seen in the commercially driven investments in the strategic nation of Djibouti which later saw the emergence of a Chinese military outpost in the Horn of Africa. The seamless ability of the Chinese regime to offer commercial or military inputs, as the situation so demands, makes the attraction of Chinese ‘investments’ irresistible in times of recession.
The fact that China does not insist on societal, human rights, democratic or moral guarantees from recipient countries, eases and accelerates the transactional opportunity of Beijing with any questionable regime across the world.
As the ultimate practitioner of realpolitik, the Chinese can simultaneously charm, ‘invest’, intimidate, coerce or simply ‘buy-out’ loyalty in order to fructify the objectives of the ‘Chinese Century’. Strategic posturing is an important lever of sustaining the energy unleashed by its ‘military-industrial complex’ and the same was in full display at the recent National Day parade, marking the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic.
Up to 40 per cent of the military hardware on display was never seen before. The DF-17 hypersonic missiles and D-41 ICBM, Type 15 Light Battle Tank, ‘Hunting Eagle’ autogyro, YJ-18A anti-ship cruise missiles, DR-8 Supersonic Drone etc., were products from the fount of the sophisticated, complex and controlled ‘military-industrial complex’ in China.
The integration of the ‘military-industrial’ sensibilities are visible in both the upstream and downstream realm of deployment, and these are ably supported by diplomatic, commercial, scientific and political stakeholders to keep the Chinese juggernaut, rolling.
The writer IS Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry.