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M.L. Sondhi and Ashok Kapur

April 17, 2003

Now Indian and American military specialists agree that China is the new danger in Asia including the Indian Ocean area, and it is in the joint interests of the two countries to contain the spread of the China threat.  A recent 130 pages report prepared for the American Defence Secretary clearly sees China as the economic and military competitor in the future.  The analysis is based on interviews with over 80 senior Indian and American officials.  ‘Strategic engagement’ with India is seen as an ‘investment’ in a volatile region which now, following the end of the Saddam regime, extends from the Middle East to Southeast Asia if we think of regional and world politics along East-West lines, and from China to the Himalayan region and Myanmar/Bay of Bengal if we think of regional and world politics along the North-South Axis.  The East-West axis depends heavily on the sea lanes as the lines of military and commercial communications.  The North-South axis depends primarily on the land routes which are being restored by China’s push to build rail and road links into Tibet and Nepal, its revival of the old Silk Route which passes through Central Asia, and its build up in Myanmar which revives the China-Burma road links of the Second World War.  China is the activist in building the North-South axis of military, commercial and political communications, and America, and India are the activists in building the East-West axis which relies on sea power and a political strategy to strengthen ties with traditional as well as non-traditional allies.  The political and military geography of the Asian continent is changing rapidly as a result of the economic and military competition between USA and China, and between China and India.  These two competitions now form the center of gravity of action in Asia’s landmass and its sea lanes.  The Indian Ocean is the new strategic arena for India and America and the military action against Sadaam should not be seen as a sign that America is distracted from its focus on China by the Iraq issue.  The problem remains China’s capabilities and intentions, Sadaam was a side show which is useful in creating a cover for America’s activism in dealing with the arc of crisis that extends from the Mediterranean to the South China seas.

A number of issues show the scope and depth of China’s hostility towards India and the challenge it poses to American authority in the region.

  1. It refuses to recognize India’s position in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, and it maintains military pressure in India’s north.  American interests are engaged in the Himalayas because of the fear of a communist Nepal.

  2. China insists on India’s nuclear disarmament while maintaining a supply line of nuclear arms and missiles to Pakistan.

  3. It is building defence ties with Bangladesh

  4. It is building a 12,000 ft. runaway near Mandalay.

  5. It is building a deep water port in Gwador, Pakistan

  6. It has resumed supply of arms to insurgents in India’s north after many years.

  7. The territorial dispute in the Himalayas and in Kashmir (China occupies a part of Kashmir) is unresolved.

What are American strategic needs in the region?  The USA needs to develop a long; lasting presence in the area from the Sea of Japan to the Arabian Sea/Persian Gulf to deal with multiple problems.

  1. North Korea has a missile capability to threaten Hawaii, Alaska and the western part of America.

  2. America needs to protect Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Taiwan straits – the lifeline of American, Japanese and SE Asian commerce including oil supply and military power.

  3. It needs to manage terrorism in SE Asia, particularly in the Philippines and Indonesia.

  4. It needs to contain the spread of China’s influence into Pakistan and Afghanistan, and through them to the Middle East, and to loosen China’s missile and arms supply links to Middle East countries such as Iran, Syria and Egypt.

  5. It needs to check China’s desire to build up the UN as the lead agency for the reconstruction of post Sadaam Iraq, a ploy which is meant to marginalize the USA and to bolster the UN Security Council where China has a veto and a voice.  Now that the Security Council is no longer relevant to the issues of international and regional security, China’s UN advocacy is self-serving and it is not constructive.  China does not favour America’s ascendancy in the Middle East, rather it prefers continued disorder in the region so that it can project itself as the guardian of the Muslims and the defender against US hegemony.

China’s policies favour protracted conflict in the Indian subcontinent and a power vacuum and anti-Americanism in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia, because a vacuum creates opportunities for Chinese interventions through aid, economic and military trade, and political diplomacy.

Indian and American practitioners need to learn from Pentagon’s military and political tactics in the fight against Sadaam.  The Pentagon has secured two important victories.  First, it defeated Sadaam and his ideology, and signalled America’s impatience with oppressive Middle East regimes, but the Pentagon won over Colin Powell and his State Department.  Powell lost big on two grounds.  A respectable black leader and a war hero, a voice of reason in the White House, and a seeker of peace through the UN, Powell lost in both the power structure of Washington and in the international arena.  Rumsfeld advocated a smaller invading force using precision bombing, timely intelligence, and hits in the right places and at the right time, compared to Desert Storm while Powell advocated a force with overwhelming power to fight Sadaam.  Powell was fighting the last war.  This is always a bad mistake for a general.  Rumsfeld and CENTCOM on the other hand won the war of the future, a nimble, precise military action with special force run by the Pentagon.  Secondly, Powell failed at the UN where he alienated the Europeans and the Middle East countries and could not even muster a majority of nine votes.  Powell was both too hawkish as well as ineffective.  He was neither a good general nor a successful diplomat.

So the Indian government was right to put its faith in a strategic relationship with the Pentagon and to dismiss Powell’s love in with fellow political general Pervez Musharref, and secondly to put the focus on China as its long term strategic problem.  Neither Indo-Pakistan nor Sino-Indian normalization makes sense in present circumstances.

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