This week’s DRI Asia Review is centered around a new Pentagon report to the U.S. Congress on Chinese military power. We begin by reviewing controversies sparked by the report’s alarming remarks about China’s nuclear-weapons ambitions. The edition then moves on to Taiwan’s leading pro-mainland Kuomintang party, and what one commentator acidly described as its “bipolar swing syndrome” in a recent opinion piece. This week’s DRI Asia Review also looks at just how much money China’s leading arms companies are making through weapon sales, and at Beijing’s complicated relationship with the new Taliban regime in Kabul. And we leave you with a crisp definition of a technical term that gets thrown around often in strategic circles, especially within the context of China’s rapid military modernization: artificial intelligence.
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DRI Asia Review
November 5, 2021dri.thediplomat.com
Chinese Checkers Baffles Many—Again
Chinese nukes and a new Pentagon report
Taiwan and the Kuomintang
Big players in Chinese arms sales
Beijing and the Taliban: uneasy allies
What is artificial intelligence?

Welcome to the newsletter of Diplomat Risk Intelligence, the research and consulting division of The Diplomat, your go-to outlet for definitive analyses from and about the Asia-Pacific.

This week’s DRI Asia Review is centered around a new Pentagon report to the U.S. Congress on Chinese military power. We begin by reviewing controversies sparked by the report’s alarming remarks about China’s nuclear-weapons ambitions. The edition then moves on to Taiwan’s leading pro-mainland Kuomintang party, and what one commentator acidly described as its “bipolar swing syndrome” in a recent opinion piece. This week’s DRI Asia Review also looks at just how much money China’s leading arms companies are making through weapon sales, and at Beijing’s complicated relationship with the new Taliban regime in Kabul. And we leave you with a crisp definition of a technical term that gets thrown around often in strategic circles, especially within the context of China’s rapid military modernization: artificial intelligence.

THE BIG ONE

New Pentagon Report Reignites Debate on China’s Nuclear Capabilities
— Flick, Digi_shot

On November 3, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) released the annual report to the U.S. Congress on China’s military and security affairs. The unclassified version of the Congressionally-mandatory report— following a law passed in 2000— comes closest to providing a public window into how the United States military views the activities, capabilities, and strategy of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). As such, it is keenly studied by China watchers around the world. As the Biden Administration pursues a self-avowed course of “extreme competition” with China amid sustained Chinese military pressure on India and Taiwan—not to mention unabated scale-up of its naval capabilities with an eye towards the western Pacific—this year’s edition is no different.

Many analysts have already noted the report reiterating what is increasingly becoming a commonplace assertion made by the Pentagon: China seeks to dramatically increase the size of its nuclear arsenal as well as expand its delivery capabilities. The report notes: “The accelerating pace of the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China] nuclear expansion may enable the PRC to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027. The PRC likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the DoD projected in 2020.” But it is another observation when it comes to Chinese nuclear-weapons capabilities that has raised eyebrows among many analysts, “that the PRC intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force.”

Many analysts have already noted the report reiterating what is increasingly becoming a commonplace assertion made by the Pentagon: China seeks to dramatically increase the size of its nuclear arsenal as well as expand its delivery capabilities. The report notes: “The accelerating pace of the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China] nuclear expansion may enable the PRC to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027. The PRC likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the DoD projected in 2020.” But it is another observation when it comes to Chinese nuclear-weapons capabilities that has raised eyebrows among many analysts, “that the PRC intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force.”

Commenting on this observation on Twitter, Georgetown professor Caitlin Talmadge noted that the report’s assessment that China has a “nascent” nuclear triad and has also numerical increased the number of nuclear weapons (and seeks to continue to do so) do not sit well with the claim that China is moving towards a LOW stance. “LOW doesn't make a ton of sense to me because their forces are moving in direction of improved survivability. Silos don't help with that, but mobility, penetrability, and higher numbers do,” Talmadge wrote, though adding “I'm not saying they're not doing it, but I find it odd.”

Explaining her remark further, Talmadge noted that if China was truly concerned about the survivability of their nuclear forces in face of a potential U.S. nuclear first-strike, instead of expanding their silo-based nuclear capabilities, China would focus much more rigorously on mobile-launch capabilities, presumably both sea- and ground-based, the former through nuclear ballistic missile submarines and latter through transporter erector launchers. (For those interested in understanding the dilemmas in front of nuclear powers when it comes to ensuring the survivability of their nuclear weapons—through hardening their missile silos, concealing their delivery systems, and/or through multiple and often redundant delivery mechanisms and warheads—in face of dramatic improvement in technologies that aid counterforce targeting, a 2017 International Security paper by Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press makes for essential reading.)

Of course, what is making matters considerably murkier—bolstering the arguments of China hawks at the Pentagon and other “like-minded” defense ministries across the Indo-Pacific—is China’s continued pursuit of hypersonic capabilities, the latest demonstration of that apparently happening in August this year when China tested a rocket carrying a hypersonic glide vehicle that circled the earth before (almost) hitting its target. This apparent test— “demonstrating an advanced space capability that caught US intelligence by surprise,” as the Financial Times put it in an October 17 article, and described by the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley as being close to a “Sputnik moment” for the U.S. —has also had its fair share of skeptics. The New York Times quoted Harvard space expert Jonathan McDowell as saying: “Every aspect of this story has question marks.” The October 19 Times article also contained a valuable history lesson: a weapon that travels over a part of the earth through space before moving towards its target (in jargon, a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System) was first developed by the erstwhile Soviet Union in the 1960s. Other experts maintained that, technically speaking, the Chinese test does not constitute a significant technical breakthrough in itself.

But irrespective of the test—and what it may or may not have achieved or even signified—what we do know is that China does have demonstrated hypersonic capabilities, and will continue to pursue them in face of an equally committed American pursuit of missile defense systems, as many experts (including Carnegie scholar Zhao Tong) point out–a quest that comes in the way of China reducing its nuclear vulnerability. When asked about China’s nuclear modernization ambitions—and a concomitant growth in capabilities—in an interview to The Diplomat October last year, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Vipin Narang said:

My main reaction to Chinese nuclear modernization is: What took it so long to start? For decades, it lived with a posture of “plausible retaliation” with maybe two dozen ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] that could range the continental United States. With growing conventional and nuclear counterforce capabilities, and the unrelenting pursuit of national missile defenses — which can in combination threaten to neutralize China’s second-strike capability, by eliminating a large portion of the ICBMs and relying on missile defenses to intercept the residuals — the question is why China only started investing in mobility and numbers and penetration aids/hypersonics in the last decade or so. To me, all of these developments are China’s delayed effort to guarantee assured retaliation.

It is worth keeping in mind that unlike the U.S. and the erstwhile Soviet Union, the United States and China do not ascribe to the notion of mutual nuclear vulnerability. And that may indeed be the root cause of what looks like an arms race playing out in slow motion.

BABEL

Taiwan’s Kuomintang Party: Past Perfect, Future Uncertain?
— Flickr, Olaer, Elmer Anthony

Independent of the debate around what China may or may not be planning when it comes to its nuclear weapons, what is crystal clear is this: the People’s Republic intends on maintaining sustained military pressure on Taiwan, as demonstrated by the record number of violations of Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) by PLA air force early last month: an astounding 149 violations of the country’s southwestern ADIZ in the first four days of October alone, sitting on top of 116 such probes the month before.

The November 3 DoD report on Chinese military power notes: “In 2020, the PLA added a new milestone for modernization in 2027, to accelerate the integrated development of mechanization, informatization, and intelligentization of the PRC’s armed forces, which if realized would provide Beijing with more credible military options in a Taiwan contingency [emphasis added].”

Given that 2027 is still a little more than five years away, what China seeks to gain from such actions right now—and the extent to one can gauge the PLA’s intent behind them—remain unknown. After all, a direct invasion of Taiwan by the PLA, especially now if Taiwan’s partners are convinced that such an invasion can be repelled at a relatively low cost, will not only draw the United States in militarily but also allied powers such as Australia (as one close observer of the Australian military privately told DRI).

Meanwhile, the domestic debate within Taiwan about the future of once-torchbearer of Taiwanese independence, the Kuomintang party (KMT), remains heated, as exemplified by a trenchant opinion piece published on Taiwan News on October 29. “Within 20 years, the [KMT] and its followers have swerved from being anti-communist, anti-China, during the era of Chiang Kai-shek and his son to being pro-communist, pandering and groveling to the Communist Party of China, starting with Ma Ying-jeou,” academic Zhang Guocai wrote, describing the KMT’s shift from its origins to emerging as a leading pro-mainland party as an example of a “bipolar swing syndrome.” Zhang was particularly critical of a retired KMT general who apparently “claimed that PLA fighter planes circling Taiwan are not provocative and that Chinese planes entering Taiwan’s air defense identification zone are not considered a nuisance to Taiwan.”

Experts maintain that much of the KMT’s recent flip-flopping on its position on the mainland stems from domestic political reasons following a resounding rout in the presidential election January last year. Towards the end of September this year, the KMT elected Eric Chu as its leader which—as a Nikkei Asia piece described the result—would “[keep] the party on a China-friendly trajectory that is at odds with a majority on the democratic island.” Chu replaced Johnny Chiang whose position on the mainland was tougher than his successor’s (relatively speaking). At the time of Chiang’s election last year, Beijing had quite visibly expressed its displeasure, with Chinese President Xi Jinping refusing to congratulate him on his victory.

DRI TRENDLINES

The Soundless Wailing Water, Climate Change, and Security Risks in the Asia-Pacific

In the context of national and international security, climate change acts as a threat multiplier and exacerbates existing issues and geopolitical conflicts such as conflicts between states over natural resources (most commonly, water), migration due to scarcity/sudden extreme weather events (floods, droughts) causing undesirable/illegal influx of “climate refugees,” and conflicts over territories with abundant natural resources (for example, conflicts over upper riparian regions). Climate change will also give rise to new, unprecedented situations which could potentially lead to competition and conflicts among nations. In this edition of DRI Trendlines, we analyze multiple streams of data to show security in the Asia-Pacific stands to be transformed by climate change.

Read excerpt

Access report here

CHARTED WATERS

China’s Thriving Arms Companies
Arms sales of Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CTEC), China South Industries Group (CSIG), and China North Industries Group Corporation (NORINCO), 2018 and 2019
— Data: SIPRI Arms Industry Database. Graphics: DRI

FROM OUR STABLE

China and the Taliban: Past, Present, and the Future
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin, China on July 28, 2021
— Ministry of Foreign Affairs, People’s Republic of China

A new Diplomat Risk Intelligence Monthly Report “Afghanistan and Taliban 2.0: International Security and Geopolitical Implications”— the second of a two-part series on Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban mid-August—examines Beijing’s changing equation with the new regime and geopolitical variables shaping it. Highlighting the metamorphosis in China-Taliban relations, the report traces Beijing’s cautious attempts at nurturing ties with the outfit in recent years, identifying a growing convergence of interest between the two despite historic misgivings. For Beijing, a friendly Taliban regime in Kabul addresses cross-border terrorism concerns regarding Uighur militants, while the Taliban stand to gain from potential Chinese economic investments in Afghanistan, bringing the regime much-needed economic respite and therefore a certain degree of public support.

As a major regional power, China could also play a substantial role in granting the Taliban a veneer of international legitimacy, provided, of course, that its own interests (primarily security-related) are guarded. Experts interviewed for the report pointed out challenges in front of the Taliban when it comes to imposing its will on anti-China groups, potentially jeopardizing China-Taliban ties. The report predicts that China will seek to play a major role in shaping the Taliban’s foreign policy.

DRI Report

Afghanistan and Taliban 2.0 International Security and Geopolitical Implications

In this edition of the DRI Monthly Report—the second and concluding part of a major Diplomat Risk Intelligence project on Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15, and based on exhaustive in-house research and interviews with 10 leading experts—we look at the Taliban’s relationships with key terrorist organizations and Afghanistan's neighbors. We also examine the Taliban’s convoluted relationships with major regional powers who could prove to be key in granting the new regime in Kabul a veneer of international legitimacy provided, of course, that their own interests are guarded by Taliban 2.0.

Read excerpt

Access report here

DIGESTIF

Artificial Intelligence
— Flickr, Ars Electronica

The new DoD China military power report makes what has become quite a predictable claim in the recent years— that China’s strides in artificial intelligence (AI), among other emerging technologies, is a crucial military asset for the PLA. But surprisingly enough, the precise meaning of the term “AI” continues to baffle many, including strategic analysts.

Simply put, AI is the science and technology of teaching computers to make inferences about the world and act accordingly based on symbolic inputs in a way consistent with how humans interact with their environment and optimize their survivability in a given context. AI systems are built either using a set of formal rules and knowledge bases about a fixed domain that are programmed into them,  or through algorithms that iteratively sift through data to build rules about the domain leading to a model that can make inferences – or in some cases, through a combination of both.

While the desire to build intelligent machines that perceive and act in a fashion akin to human beings is old, AI as a branch of computer science dates to 1956, to a summer conference at the Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. After an initial burst of activity and enthusiasm, the field remained relatively dormant for decades, albeit ones during which key theoretical advances were made. However, AI got a fillip with the advent of cheap, powerful computers and with a renewed focus (after a long period of being dormant following a fundamental advance by psychologist Frank Rosenblatt in 1958) on creating machine intelligence based on how the human brain functions, in terms of layered neural interactions and networks. This led to what is now often—misleadingly—used as a synonym for AI: deep learning.

Deep learning is a subset of statistical or machine learning which, in itself, is a subfield of AI. As Terence Sejnowski, one of the fathers of deep learning, puts it: “Deep networks learn from data the way that babies learn from the world around them, starting with fresh eyes and gradually acquiring skills needed to navigate novel environments.” In 2016, AlphaGo–an AI system based on deep learning as well as a preset knowledge base–defeated the strongest human Go player, setting a milestone for AI.

Machine learning thrives on data, both to create models and test their accuracy. The more data that is available to train an algorithm, the better the resulting model is. One key source of data on which AI models are trained is the “digital exhaust” of internet users that encode their preferences. Therefore, it is not a surprise that companies like Google– which have unsurpassed access to search and other data–are at the forefront of AI research and deployment. For analogous reasons, surveillance states with strong control over technology companies, like China, also have a natural edge in AI. As an example, a large-scale surveillance apparatus along with a pliant public naturally helps with the development of AI-based facial recognition systems.

DRI’s Director of Research Abhijnan Rej, DRI Research Analysts Malvika Rajeev and Rushali Saha contributed to this edition of DRI Asia Review. Translation of the Taiwanese media article was provided by an in-house linguist.

Diplomat Risk Intelligence (DRI) is the research and consulting division of The Diplomat, the Asia-Pacific’s leading current affairs magazine.

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