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China’s Military Modernization Comes of Age



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In November, the US Congress received its annual defense department report outlining military and security developments in China, as mandated by the 2000 National Defense Authorization Act of 2000. The report mainly focuses on the technological aspects of the People Liberation Army’s ongoing expansion and modernization, though areas of engagement and cooperation are also highlighted. However, such examples are few and far between in this most recent iteration, which broadly paints a picture of a military balance that is rapidly shifting toward parity between the two global powers.


Strategy and foreign policy

The report doesn’t pull any punches in describing China’s long-term goals and foreign policy. Beijing’s objectives are openly dubbed ‘revisionist’ insofar that they seek to overturn the present rules-based international order under the pretense of enacting ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.’ Interestingly, and in a departure from past reports, the 2021 iteration notes that China views the international system as not just a competition between powerful nation states, but opposing ideological systems as well.

A section of the report is devoted to China’s Military-Civil Fusion Development Strategy, which is a broad plan to make the social and economic spheres also serve the objective of national rejuvenation. More specifically, this strategy involves: 1) fusing the defense industrial complex with the civilian industrial base; 2) integrating technological developments in the military-civilian domains; 3) cultivating talent between both domains; 4) leveraging civilian construction for military purposes; 5) leveraging civilian logistics for military purposes; and 6) expanding the national defense mobilization system.

In terms of defense strategy, China pursues an ‘active defense’ concept and seeks to create a ‘world-class’ military by 2049. Active defense, as defined by the CCP and PLA, is somewhat of a paradox in that it can involve pre-emptive attacks if they’re ultimately deemed to be in China’s interest; the ‘defense’ aspect lies in the preference of avoiding conflict whenever possible. Overall, armed forces modernization and planning efforts remain squarely focused on area-denial along China’s periphery, which seeks to repel a ‘strong enemy,’ presumably the United States, in the event of a conflict over Taiwan.

PLA military bases overseas

In an effort to expand its global power projection capabilities, Beijing is seeking new military bases in Asia and beyond, adding to its preexisting facility in Djibouti. Such bases would support a variety of capabilities, including naval, air, ground, cyber, and space power projection. Some countries that are cited as possible sites include Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, UAE, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan.

PRC influencing operations

A section of the report is devoted to PRC influence operations, which ‘target cultural institutions, media organizations, business, academic, and policy communities in the United States, other countries, and international institutions, to achieve outcomes favorable to [China’s] strategic objectives.’ Such operations are overwhelmingly intended to massage public opinion in a way that synergizes with Beijing’s favored narratives, and are arguably facilitated by the open nature of democracies. The report also notes the PLA’s longstanding ‘three warfares’ concept, comprised of psychological warfare, public opinion warfare, and legal warfare.

PLA Army developments

The report notes that the PLA accelerated its training and fielding of new equipment through 2020, despite the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key developments include:

  • Fielding PCL-171 120 mm and PCL-181 155 155 mm self-propelled howitzers, as well as the field testing of the Z-8L heavy-lift transport helicopter.
  • Holding extensive joint training exercises through 2020, primarily focused on improving the realism of training conditions.
  • Tanks remain a laggard in terms of military modernization; around 40% of the PLA Army’s tank force is between 20-40 years old. Infantry brigades also still use outdated equipment.

PLA Navy developments

The PLA Navy continues to feature prominently in China’s overall military modernization. This is due to the importance of the PLA Navy in the context of two of China’s territorial disputes – in the East China Sea, and the South China Sea – and its central role in the event of a hypothetical clash with the United States.

Key developments include:

  • Unlike the PLA Army, 2020 saw the PLA Navy being equipped with largely modern, multi-role platforms.
  • The PLA Navy now has 355 ships and submarines, 145 of which are major surface combatants. There are plans currently in place to achieve a force structure of 460 ships by 2030, with growth primarily coming from new major surface combatants. The United States, by comparison, will field 305 ships by the end of 2021, and expects to increase its fleet size to 355 by 2049.
  • The PRC commissioned its first domestically built aircraft carrier in late 2019, and its first Renhai class cruiser in early 2020. A second domestically-built carrier is expected to follow in 2024. Once deployed, the Renhai class (Type 055) will significantly bolster China’s anti-air and anti-ship capabilities around the periphery; four such ships are expected to be deployed by the end of the 2020s.
  • The PLA Navy deployed its second Yushen class amphibious assault ship (Type 075 LHA) in 2020, with a third now under construction. Though these ships would not tilt the balance of power in a Taiwan-related conflict per se, they would hypothetically be used to ferry over large amounts of PLA troops to occupy the island.
  • The PLA Navy appears to be on the brink of being able to launch long-range cruise missiles from submarines and surface combatants, enhancing long-range power projection capabilities.
  • Anti-submarine warfare has been identified as a short-term priority in order to enhance protection of carriers and ballistic missile submarines.
  • Submarines have also been a modernization priority; the PLA Navy now operates six nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, six nuclear-powered attack subs, and 45 diesel-powered attack subs. The plan is to maintain 65-70 subs through the 2020s. By comparison, the US Navy currently operates 68 submarines.

PLA Air Force developments

Taken together, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the aviation wing of the PLA Navy constitute the largest air force in the Indo-Pacific region. The PLAAF specifically has been modernizing and expanding such that it is now considered a formidable peer to Western air forces.

Key developments include:

  • The PRC has unveiled an airborne component to its nuclear deterrence in the form of the H-6N bomber, a long-range aircraft that is nuclear capable and able to receive air-to-air refueling.
  • The PLAAF and PLA Navy now boast a combined 2,800 total aircraft (not including UAVs), of which 2,250 are combat aircraft.
  • The report notes that the PLAAF modernization program is “gradually eroding longstanding and significant US military technical advantages vis-à-vis the PRC in the air domain.”
  • The PLAAF’s UAV program has been expanding rapidly, and the 2018 Zhuhai Air Show revealed a wide variety of new offensive and surveillance platforms.
  • The PLAAF now has one of the largest long-range SAM systems in the world, composed of Russian S-300 battalions and the domestically-produced HQ-9s. Recently, the air force acquired one newer S-400 system from Russia.

PLA Rocket Force developments

The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) is the wing responsible for the PRC’s land-based nuclear and conventional missile forces. It has long been a priority in modernization programs due to the importance of an initial ballistic missile strike in the event of a hypothetical attack on Taiwan.

Key developments include:

  • The PLARF’s inventory of DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles continues to grow. The platform is capable of conventional and nuclear strikes on ground and naval targets at ranges as far out as 5,000 km.
  • New ICBMs are being tested that will quantitatively and qualitatively improve China’s nuclear deterrence. Three new ICBM silo fields are currently under construction, and the number of land-based ICBMs that could strike the United States is expected to grow to 200 in the next five years.

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The World’s First Islamic Art Biennale Shines a Light on African Artists




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By Sumayya Vally

The inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale is underway in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Biennales are large and prestigious international art exhibitions held every two years.) This important new event for the Muslim world features numerous African artists. And the biennale’s artistic director is Sumayya Vally, a South African architecture professor and principal of Counterspace design studio. A rising star in the art and architecture worlds, Vally was intent on creating the biennale to connect with the diverse experiences of being Muslim through ritual, practices and philosophies. The Conversation Africa asked her five questions about the biennale.

What is the importance of an Islamic biennale?

The field of “Islamic art” was defined by Europeans in the 1800s – and hinged on geography, style and historical chronology. So it was inherited from definitions outside the faith. It’s my hope that this biennale puts forth a different definition of and for Islamic arts – one that recognises Islamic philosophies for our present and future, and one that honours the daily lived experiences of the Muslim world.

It is important that we acknowledge that Islamic faith, Islamic practice and Islamic tradition can and should be making a creative contribution to the world. The biennale’s theme of Awwal Bait refers to the reverence and symbolic unity evoked by the Ka’bah in Makkah (often referred to as the Kaaba shrine in Mecca), the centre of Islamic rituals.

A big part of what this biennale aims to demonstrate is that Islamic practice is rooted in collective rituals and experiences of community and belonging. I believe platforms like this have a role to play in understanding the profound cultural and artistic heritages around us; and in nurturing and promoting understanding between communities.

Why is this significant for African artists?

It is not often that the opportunity comes along for artists to fully immerse themselves in work that is expressly Islamic, or rooted in its rituals, philosophies and practices. In highlighting the diversity of Islamic ways of being, participating African artists contribute to the many notions of what Islam is and can be.

Men stand looking at an artwork that is an ochre coloured painting with sculptural circles raised from its surface.

Grammar Of The Earth by Moroccan artists Fatiha Zemmouri and Soukaina Aboulaoula visualises the sound of prayer. Image courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation

Could you walk us through the show?

interpreted the entrance area in the Hajj Terminal of Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport as a reception area for the world – what the city and the site has always been. It’s the gateway to hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage, and the terminal is able to accommodate up to 80,000 pilgrims. For the biennale, it contains an array of contemporary and older artefacts associated with those who service pilgrims.

From there visitors move to the indoor galleries. Their principal theme is that of the sacred direction (qiblah) to which Muslims point in prayer five times a day, every day of the year. And the focus of those rituals, the Ka’aba in Makkah. It describes the construction of our daily spiritual belonging.

Starting in a dimly lit room and ending in a brightly lit space, viewers go on a journey from darkness to light. It moves up in scale. From the call to prayer – sound on the vibrational scale – to the scale of the limbs and the body in prayer. To bodies in gathering – both in life and death. The climax of the exhibition is the scale of infinity – the door of the Ka’aba itself. The works include sound installations, ancient artefacts, religious manuscripts, photographic works and diverse contemporary installations ranging in scale.

In the outside space, within the Hijrah (migration) theme of the biennale, the works reflect on the construction of home and belonging no matter where we are in the world – the building blocks of community created through our rituals of food, sound, festival, time and season, work, worship, memory and imagination.

Many contemporary migrations in our world are synonymous with loss and displacement, and rituals become a remaking of home. Outside, works increase in scale to sculpture and built structures. Each of these is an invitation for an activation. Throughout the biennale, they will host gatherings, performances and discussions.

Could you discuss some of the African works?

It is very hard for me to single out any one piece, as each of them hold their own power in telling a unique, individual story. However, I will share some detail behind just three. Through performance, sculpture and installation, South African tapestry artist Igshaan Adams’ piece Salat al-jama’ah explores aspects of politics, race and religion as they have affected both his personal history and that of his community.

His intricate woven artworks employ a range of natural and synthetic materials, but many draw inspiration for their form and pattern from traditional Islamic textiles. For this work he collected a number of used prayer rugs from close friends and family living in the Bonteheuwel district of Cape Town. In this district, many Black and Coloured families were forcibly moved by the apartheid authorities in the 1960s.

Each rug records the imprint of its owner’s body in the act of prayer over many years. Adams has interpreted these patterns of wear using beads and semiprecious stones to create a series of new textile pieces. They speak of the value of collective worship.

Tablet shaped forms are placed together, each a different shade of black, white, browns and yellows, to form a vast mosaic.

Kolona min Torab by M’barek Bouhchichi uses clay and natural pigments from across Morocco to address diversity. Image courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation

The scale and story of Amongst Men by fellow South African artist Haroon Gunn-Salie stands out. He is named after Abdullah Haron, a South African imam (Muslim cleric). An outspoken critic of apartheid, Haron was murdered while in police custody in 1969. His funeral was attended by over 40,000 mourners, acting in defiance of the apartheid authorities.

Developed by Gunn-Salie in collaboration with Haron’s widow, Galiema, and daughter, Fatiema Haron-Masoet, Amongst Men conceptually re-creates this event. A thousand individually suspended kufi caps (headpieces worn by Muslim men across Africa and South Asia) evoke the scene at the Cape Town cemetery where Haron was buried. The accompanying audio includes extracts from one of his sermons and from a poem by his friend, South African writer James Matthews, and the voices of his daughters. Amongst Men invites the onlooker to consider the intersecting histories of Islam and resistance to colonialism and apartheid.

A couple stand in silhouette viewing a tapestry of work that is constructed from prayer rugs of different colours and textures.

                                    Salat al-jama’ah by Igshaan Adams. Image courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation

An installation by Tanzanian artist Lubna Chowdhary celebrates generosity and hospitality in Islam, and communal rituals of eating and praying. Its form – a long, low table – draws on the traditions of the majlis (sitting room), a place where guests are entertained, often sitting on cushions or carpets. As more guests arrive, more carpets are added, symbolising a welcome that can be extended infinitely.

The theme of boundless sharing is reflected in the structure of the table, which is inspired by open-source furniture design.

What have you taken from this experience?

Through the biennale, I hope to convey the timelessness of Islamic thinking and practice, and the diversity and breadth of the Muslim world. The philosophies of the Islamic faith offer the potential to think about the future differently.

The biennale runs until 23 April 2023.

Sumayya Vally is a Honorary Professor of Practice, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

Courtesy: The Conversation

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Why the Earthquake could bring Down Turkey’s Government




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By Nimo Omer

It has been three weeks since a devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit southern Turkey and north-west Syria. The total death toll now exceeds 46,000 – over 40,000 of whom are in Turkey. A number of cities and towns have been destroyed and at least two million people have lost their homes, prompting the government to set up a makeshift network of tent camps and temporary container homes. On Saturday, Turkey announced that it had ended rescue efforts in all but two of the hardest hit provinces, in the cities of Antakya and Kahramanmaraş.

As time has gone on, shock around the disaster has turned into anger and frustration, with Turkish citizens accusing the government of evading accountability over poor building standards. The delayed and disorganised emergency response has not helped the situation, putting president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in an increasingly precarious position as the country heads towards its next general election. I spoke to Dr Karabekir Akkoyunlu, a UK-based expert in Turkish politics and lecturer at SOAS University of London, about the impact the earthquake has had on Erdoğan’s chances for another term in office. That’s right after the headlines.

What was Erdoğan’s position before the earthquake?

Over the last two years, Erdoğan has not been doing well politically. “Even though he has control over the judiciarythe media and the executive, the opposition has managed to form coalitions that work fairly effectively in key moments that have damaged him politically,” Dr Karabekir Akkoyunlu says. “For instance, in the 2019 local elections, they managed to get the municipalities of Istanbul and Ankara out of the hands of the ruling party after 24 years, which was a huge setback for them.”

Erdoğan’s falling popularity has, in large part, been because of Turkey’s weakening economy: the lira has been collapsing in value for years, recently hitting record lows against the dollar. And while inflation has fallen over the last two months, the average person in Turkey is unlikely to feel immediate relief as the country has consistently had some of the highest inflation rates in Europe – in October it reached a 24-year high of 85.5%.

To combat his poor polling, Erdoğan started announcing “last ditch populist measures,” Akkoyunlu says, that he might not be able to deliver. In October he unveiled what he called “the biggest social housing project in the history of the Turkish republic”, promising to build 500,000 new homes. “He started pulling these policies out of the bag even though they would obviously have huge costs for Turkey’s already empty state coffers,” says Akkoyunlu.

What do the public think now?

As buildings that should have been able to withstand the earthquake collapsed, the government has faced scathing criticism about the lack of oversight of construction firms that were allowed to skirt safety regulations in favour of speed and cost. “None of these were hidden things, they were flagged by civil society groups, activists and coalition politicians in the past, but they were oftentimes ignored, or, in certain cases, put in prison because of their activism,” says Akkoyunlu. Now, with a number of Turkish towns and cities reduced to rubble, the focus has moved back to what many are calling systemic corruption.

While public opinion will change as the country starts to rebuild, and Erdoğan likely takes all the credit for getting Turkey back on its feet, the government will not be able to shake this crisis off, like it often has been able to in the past. “From this vantage point of less than two weeks since the disaster, I think the government will not escape unscathed in terms of public opinion. I believe it’s going to lead to a landslide loss in public support,” says Akkoyunlu.

The elections

Erdoğan has made it clear that he has no desire to relinquish control and will do everything that he can to stay in power, and that might not always be within the framework of the democratic process. Currently, the official plans are that the elections will go ahead in May, or at the latest June, and if that happens Erdogan’s prospects do not look good. This is perhaps why he has been pushing ahead with unconstitutional moves to delay the election, saying that Turkey cannot hold an election in these conditions. “But there’s roughly five months until June and elections have been organised regularly in this country in very adverse conditions, so this is a clear attempt to evade accountability,” Akkoyunlu says.

As the centenary of the Turkish republic approaches, this coming election is a critical juncture for the country. Five more years of Erdoğan’s government would mean a further slide towards authoritarianism and cronyism. “This election will determine whether there is a last exit before the bridge for saving Turkish democracy.”

Akkoyunlu also notes that it is important to place Turkey within the global economic system. “Many international organisations have praised the drive of the Turkish economy towards growth and the construction sector has been at the centre of Turkey’s economic boom.” Akkoyunlu adds, “Turkey’s a particular case of what happens when neoliberalism and democratic erosion come together.”

The opposition – a six-party coalition – has it’s own uphill battle to climb, and is yet to announce who will be their presidential candidate. If they win, public institutions could easily still be filled with Erdoğan loyalists, which would make it difficult for them to govern. Or they might inherit hollowed out government departments that are simply not functional. Akkoyunlu says, however, that this is less “about things becoming perfect and more about taking one step to stop the worst from happening.”

Erdoğan’s government came in two decades ago promising to clean up Turkey, after a series of corruption scandals, economic crises, and a devastating earthquake. “I think it’s a very tragic picture,” Akkoyunlu adds. “It seems Turkey has come full circle, and in some ways, in terms of democracy, it has backtracked.”

Courtesy: The Guardian

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From Mud-Brick Structures to Modern Masterpieces: The Incredible Evolution of Mosque Architecture!




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The entire earth is a mosque for Muslims, but the physical masjid has also played an important spiritual and educational role for Muslims throughout Islamic history. The architectural evolution of mosques is a fascinating journey through time, tracing the development of Islamic art and architecture from the humble beginnings of mud-brick structures to the grandeur and splendor of modern mosques all around the globe.

Masajids are places of worship for Muslims and are an integral part of Islamic culture and history. They serve not only as places of prayer but also as centers of learning, community gathering, and social events. As such, the architecture of mosques has evolved to reflect the cultural and artistic traditions of the regions in which they are built, as well as the technical and technological advances of their eras.

Architectural Evolution of Masajids

The earliest mosques were simple mud-brick structures that were built by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his Companions in Mecca and Madina in the early 7th century. These early mosques consisted of open-air courtyards with a covered space for prayer, facing Mecca. The architecture of these mosques was simple and functional, reflecting the modesty and simplicity of the early Islamic community.

Over time, as Islam spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula and beyond, mosque architecture began to evolve and develop its unique style. The Umayyad Caliphate, which ruled from Damascus between 661 and 750 CE, was responsible for the construction of some of the most iconic early Islamic buildings. The Qubbat al-Ṣakhrah, in Jerusalem, built by an Umayyad caliph ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān in 691 CE, is one such example and is considered to be one of the earliest examples of Islamic architecture.

During the Islamic Golden Age, which lasted from the 8th to the 14th century, mosque architecture reached its pinnacle of beauty and sophistication. This period saw the development of a unique Islamic style, characterized by intricate geometric patterns, calligraphy, and vegetal motifs, as well as the use of materials such as marble, stone, and tile. This era gave rise to some of the most iconic masjids in the world, including the Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain, the Alhambra Palace in Granada, and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

As Islamic civilization declined in the 15th and 16th centuries, mosque architecture went through a period of stagnation. However, with the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, mosque architecture once again flourished. The Ottomans developed their distinctive style, characterized by the use of domes and minarets, intricate tile work, and the use of calligraphy and Islamic motifs. The most famous example of Ottoman mosque architecture is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, in Istanbul, which was built in the early 17th century.

In the modern era, mosque architecture has continued to evolve and adapt to changing times and cultural influences. Many modern mosques are designed to incorporate traditional Islamic architectural elements while also incorporating modern materials and technology. One such example is the Faisal Mosque in Pakistan, which is built entirely out of steel and glass and features a striking modern design.

The evolution of mosque architecture is a testament to the cultural and artistic traditions of Islamic civilization. From the simple mud-brick structures of the early Islamic community to the grandeur and splendor of modern mosques, the architecture of mosques has evolved to reflect the changing times and the artistic and technological advances of their eras. Today, mosques continue to be a central feature of Islamic culture and society, and their architecture remains an important part of Islamic art and culture.

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