M.L. Sondhi and Ashok Kapur

When the former Soviet Union collapsed, China appeared to be in the driver’s seat in Asia.  Not only was it the most powerful communist state in the world, but it also had a privileged status as Bill Clinton’s strategic partner in Asia and as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.  Japan’s economy was in a crisis, India was tied up with Pakistan and debilitated by its Nehruvian legacy, while China’s reforms were attracting attention and foreign investment from American, European and South Asian companies.  China’s military modernization programme was moving ahead slowly but surely, stimulated by its ambition to be the foremost power in Asia.

In the circumstances, Beijing’s leaders could comfortably talk about China as a supporter of peace.  Its “independent policy of peace” was frequently advertised, but this was misleading.  China’s aim was to instil complacency in its neighbours from East Asia to South and Southeast Asia and central Asia while it continued with the modernization of its military.

Two international events shattered Beijing’s smug over confidence.  The Indian nuclear and missile tests of 1998 and the defence minister’s declaration that China was India’s potential enemy number one signalled that the nuclear proliferation problem had not been laid to rest in Asia and that India could not be contained by international pressures.

Then came signs of a North Korean interest in a space launch, and Japanese defence preparations to improve its satellite communications technology, together with the heightened defence consciousness in the Japanese political establishment following North Korea’s missile tests.  Although Tokyo was reacting to North Korea, it was also conscious of the need to prepare for rivalry with China in the economic, military and the diplomatic spheres and to help protect the sea routes from the Sea of Japan to the Persian Gulf.

India’s nuclear tests showed that Beijing’s policy of public detachment and private contempt of India was no longer sustainable.  China was learning the hard way that its neighbours were not being lulled by its peace diplomacy.  It was being engaged militarily, by the developments in its neighbourhood.  The power game was intensifying even though the Cold War was over.  Beijing started to miss the predictability of the Cold War’s triangular game between the Soviet Union, China and the United States of America.  The end of the Cold War was meant to transform the triangular game into a bilateral US-China contest in the Nineties.  Instead, international events were making diplomacy and strategy a many-cornered game with players like the US, Russia, India, Japan and of course, Taiwan.

September 11, 2001 was the other event which helped change China’s belief that it was the natural leader of Asia and brought about an awareness that the Asian strategic neighbourhood was quite complex.  Beijing’s carefully laid plans to project its influence internationally, especially in Asia and the Persian Gulf region, were being undermined.  Samuel Huntington in Clash of Civilisations points to Beijing’s promotion of a “Confucian-Islamic” linkage.  China developed a pattern of targeted and strategic military sales including missiles and nuclear components to Muslim countries, especially Pakistan, Iran and Syria.

Pakistan was China’s strategic gateway to the Muslim nations in the Indian Ocean region.  Myanmar, which is primarily Buddhist, was the other bridge between China and South and Southeast Asia.  Beijing’s game-plan, thus, had a strategic and a religious aspect.  Its strategy was to slowly and subtly undermine American, Russian and Indian political and military authority in the region with its military, economic and diplomatic activities.  Also, by creating an Islamic-Chinese nexus, it would focus attention on the clash of civilizations between the West and Islam, Russia and Islam and the Hindus and Islam.  To succeed in this plan however, Beijing’s leaders required a sub-critical regional environment as well as ample time to complete their military modernization and diplomatic initiatives.

China’s plans were first dented by the Indian tests and the new activism of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.  Even more significant, Beijing’s capacity to act was hampered by the US’s sharp response to the September 11 terrorist attack and by its strengthened military presence in the region.  The centre of gravity of international conflict had shifted to Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean regions.  The US had a network of bases and allies from Georgia to central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Arabian Sea as well as its old network in Japan, Taiwan, the Pacific islands, Australia and Southeast Asia.  India was a new ally.  For Beijing, this distribution of military power and the emerging pattern of relationships were confining.  Its diplomatic and military strategy was in distress.

The key to an understanding of Beijing’s strategic dilemma lies in the role and functions of China’s armed forces.  The Chinese army has a number of missions: to protect the authority of the Communist Party, to guard the borders, to ensure internal security, to guard the maritime zones including the South China Seas where there are oil and territorial disputes, and to be alert in areas where the US navy is powerful.

China also needs to show that it has the capacity to take Taiwan by force, as well as maintain its authority in Tibet and other troubled frontier zones.  Finally, China’s economic and military interests and its international prestige require that it be able to project military and economic power outside its borders, especially in the sea routes.  However, the Chinese armed forces cannot handle all these tasks at present.

Three trends now negatively affect Beijing’s strategic calculations.  One, Japan’s possible economic collapse, which would undermine China’s growth rate and its economic reforms.  Two, internal unrest, in part the result of growing unemployment because of economic reforms.  The growth of religion (Falun Gong, whose followers outnumber the members of the Communist Party) and democratic forces also puts pressure on communist rule.  Regional economic advancement creates barriers between various regions in China.  Further, the long distances and economic differences weaken central political authority.

Finally, the US’s increased power and influence in Asia and its network of alliances inhibit China’s ability to project power outside its borders.  The US’s anti-terrorism campaign against the al-Qaida’s international network – from Afghanistan to the Philippines – has also blocked off China’s ambitions.

Thus China is faced with a military dilemma.  Should it emphasize internal security or project its regional power capabilities in a increasingly militarized and crowded strategic neighbourhood?  Beijing’s political class faces yet another problem.  If a crisis in the Japanese economy disrupts China’s economy more than it did during the 1997 Asian crisis, should Beijing emphasize economic security or military security?

Indian strategic interests are also tied to China’s policies.  The build-up of China’s military and nuclear presence in Tibet is being buttressed by the development of a new rail network in Tibet which can be linked with other major transport links in the region.  This is a serious challenge to Indian security interests.  A new strategic alignment is needed between the Tibetan government-in-exile, India and the US which is an expression of the George W. Bush administration’s new orientation towards India.  Washington’s India and Tibet policies do not depend on its China policy at present.

After September 11 and December 13, India too has reviewed its threat perceptions because the centre of gravity of international conflict has shifted into its immediate neighbourhood in the north-west and the north, and security of the sea route in the Indian Ocean has gained sharper emphasis. 

India needs both land as well as a sea orientation in its strategic planning.  Along with other areas, Tibet must be a strategic focus of India’s policy because of China’s integrated military and diplomatic activity in the region from central Asia to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet, Kashmir and India’s north-eastern states.  The presence of old Maoist maps revealing Chinese ambitions in the Himalayan areas, as well as Pakistan’s gift of a part of Kashmir to China also reveal Beijing’s attempt to maintain a foothold in Kashmir affairs.

The international community is coming to realize that the Tibetan problem is not so much about human rights, religious freedoms and development aid as it is about finding a strategic understanding of Tibet’s importance in the wider scheme of China’s military planning.  Steps should now be taken to show Beijing that its professions of peace should be based on peaceful internal change within China, and that any projection of its military capabilities in India’s north will be met with counter-measures.

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