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Shock and awe – China’s military strategy is a Xerox copy of the Germans’ during World War

But Germany made a crucial mistake – no matter how much territory it captured or sea and air power it built.

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Every day, when I go for a walk, I listen to the latest episode of Shekhar Gupta’s ‘Cut the Clutter’ videos on YouTube. On 26 January, I listened to the episode on the Chinese military strategy document, ‘Science of Military Strategy’. The episode analysed the difference between the 2017 and 2020 editions of this document.

China now thinks, as this document suggests, that it has both the economic and military wherewithal. It is a very loud growl of warning, which reminded me of the German security doctrine of the 1930s.

I am not a military man or even a military buff. But like many others of my generation, I started reading about the Second World War when I was in my early teens in the 1960s. So, I have a fairly detailed, even if very amateur, idea of the German military thinking of the 1930s, the core of which was technological superiority by integration of land and air forces, and tactical surprise.

So, listening to Mr Gupta, I was struck by the several similarities between how the Germans had thought then and how the Chinese are thinking now. I am not going to give a one-to-one correspondence between the two. But there’s enough to think that the Chinese military strategy document is just a Xerox of the old German one.

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‘Germany over all’

 I’d like to divide the first of these similarities into two parts.

First, the bedrock of both the German and Chinese thought is an ideology of manifest destiny that calls for muscular expansionism, preceded and accompanied by deceit and ruthlessness. The Germans fooled first Britain and then Russia. The Germans of the time thought, or were told, that Germany was destined to rule the world, and that it needed lebensraum, literally, living room, to achieve it. The German national song was Deutschland über Alles — Germany over all.

It is not clear what the Chinese call their version of lebensraum, but the desire to expand borders by claiming territory — which they call reclaiming — is unmistakable. It has become part of their stated national doctrine now.

The second part of the first element was crucial to the entire German enterprise: the total and unquestioning loyalty of all the armed forces to the supreme leader of the ruling party. The armed forces thus became an instrument of the ruling party, which then, in 1935, became an instrument of the supreme leader. There were no equals or rivals who were eliminated. The entire national edifice rested on just one man.

Capturing territory

The remaining similarities lie in the details of how to achieve manifest destiny via military means, tactics and strategy. As I said earlier, for the Germans, these depended heavily on size, scale, technology, surprise and deceit.

The determined pursuit of this policy ensured that the growth of German military and economic might between mid-1933 and end-1938 was astonishingly rapid and massive. Germany, in those years, embarked on a massive rearmament programme accompanied by an equally massive programme of building infrastructure. It also built huge buildings and hosted the 1936 Olympics in Munich.

Germany’s single-minded pursuit enabled it to become so powerful militarily that in 1936, it was able to peacefully take back the German territory of the Ruhr Valley, which it had lost after the First World War; and in 1938, again peacefully annexe some territories that were contiguous, namely, Sudetenland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. Think Taiwan; think Arunachal, which China thinks is a part of Tibet that is now annexed to it; think the Air Defence Zones over the South China Sea.

Not a shot was fired until 1939 because Germany, like China now, had become so strong that it was considered impossible to oppose it. In any case, it was not directly threatening Britain and France, the pre-eminent world powers then. Nor, as Germany correctly surmised, was there any will in Britain and France to do so. The First World War had exhausted them.

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Shock and awe – Germany to Galwan

Meanwhile, German trade with the rest of the world stood at an all-time high and German savings were invested abroad. Germany thus had real global influence and had become the alternative power pole.

A general called Heinz Guderian had crafted Germany’s military strategy. The doctrine was based on technology and what Colin Powell would later call ‘shock and awe’. He persuaded the German High Command to use the air force in its blitzkrieg (lightning war) role of first softening the targets and then aiding the army in offensive operations. It was in this context that the Germans thought up the massed tanks — panzers — strategy to overwhelm opposition. The awe came from the skies. The shock came with the panzers, with as many as 1,000 rolling across. It was all about intimidation — give up or be destroyed.

The new Chinese document also relies heavily on the technological superiority of its massive armed forces, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — over immediate neighbours only, though. The unstated message is the same: obey or else.

In Germany, as in modern China, sea power was also enhanced. But unlike the British and the French who had concentrated on surface ships, the Germans focused on submarines. The Germans, in fact, built just one aircraft carrier, which was never put into service. Again, the thinking behind going for submarines was the need for stealth and surprise at which, as we in India have seen in Galwan and Pangong, the Chinese PLA is very good.

The piece de resistance of the German forces, the sexy thing as it were, was its air force. It was the German equivalent of the Chinese missile force now — modern and in huge numbers. And just as the Chinese document appears to have suggested the unthinkable of not abjuring the use of nuclear weapons, the Germans also introduced a new dimension: they obliterated the difference between civilians and soldiers by using their bombers to attack cities. War became total. Indeed, faced with this possibility, France capitulated in 1940, instead of seeing Paris bombed to rubble.

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The mistake the Germans made

One final similarity is that the Germans never, even for a moment, thought that they would have to fight in German territory or on German soil. If I have got it right from Mr Gupta’s summary, so does China now.

One result of this German belief was the focus on offensive aircraft—first bombers and later rockets. But when the air war came to Germany, it didn’t have enough fighters to defend itself from bombing. Its cities got reduced to rubble, as a result.

The point should be clear by now but there is a moral too: a six-pack is useless if you are unwilling to fight and are signalling that by saying “we are so strong that you won’t have the courage to fight us”.

That’s exactly the mistake the Germans made. They underestimated the British doggedness and the Russian winter.

The author is a senior journalist and columnist. He tweets @tca_tca Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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