Geopolitics

India and the US-China Great Game
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Issue Vol 25.4 Oct-Dec 2010 | Date : 20 Dec , 2010

Recently most of the flash points in the Western Pacific region witnessed activation, leading to belligerent posturing by China and its allies like North Korea; and the US and its allies, like Japan, South Korea and also its very strong potential ally, Vietnam.

The two most nightmarish scenarios in the region for the US and its allies are: a surprise nuclear attack by North Korea on South Korea, or on US allies / interests with tacit or direct support of China; and China’s seizure of Taiwan by a surprise amphibious assault. These two scenarios are in fact the key determinants of the geopolitical discourse in the East Asia region. In the ambit of this discourse are US, Taiwan, Japan, North Korea, South Korea and ASEAN countries. This ambit is now being enlarged to India and Pakistan as well due to Chinese thrust in the Indian Ocean.

“Strategic imperatives demand that India must put its weight behind any alliance, which negates Chinas inimical designs to its integrity and well-being. The evolving geopolitical discourse in East Asia is an opportunity for India to strategically encircle China by use of its maritime power. There is an opportunity to give China, the taste of its own medicine.”

The recent developments in this region are not isolated but are indicative of strategic rivalry between the two antagonistic groups, which is becoming bitter and intense with every passing day. While China adopts an aggressive posture on its land borders, its maritime assertiveness in the Western Pacific, which includes the South China Sea is being challenged by the affected powers, who are critically dependent on the ‘freedom of navigation’ in the seas that China claims to be its own.

The Senkaku Incident

The latest incident in September 2010 involving the seizure of a Chinese fishing trawler by a Japanese coast guard vessel in the waters of the disputed Senkaku island (called Diaoyutai island by the Chinese), has highlighted the mistrust, bitterness and strategic competition between Japan and China. Japan’s aggressive posturing and reaction was unmistakable and so was the Chinese reaction, which launched aggressive campaign through its netizens.

The fact that the Japanese held the Chinese Captain Zhan Quixiong in custody for 17 days, unsettled the Chinese. In retaliation, China arrested four Japanese employees of a construction company. Anti-Japan hysteria in China was drummed up by the Chinese authorities to the extent that the Chinese media reported that the Captain’s mother died because of her worry about the uncertainty of the life of her son. Beijing is convinced and concerned over the prospect of a belligerent Japan, which has been strategically restrained since World War-II by the US.

Map_South_China_SeaThe Chinese also feel that Japan’s aggressive posturing on the issue was part of a larger strategic game being scripted by the US, as its comes in the wake of the recent standoff between the two countries over US-South Korea military exercises in the waters that China considers its sensitive backyard.Taiwan also despatched its coast guard vessels, ostensibly to protect one of its activists, but the real purpose was to register its claim on the Senkaku islands. These islands considered to be rich in gas deposits are under the control of Japanese, and are also claimed by China and Taiwan.

Significantly, some US officials have categorically stated that the US-Japan treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands as well. This is despite the fact that though the US recognizes the Japanese control of these islands, it has refrained from according recognition to Japan’s sovereignty over them. Commenting on the incident, the former US Dy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage said: “My view is, what China senses is a distracted United States, who has chilled relationship with Tokyo… So they are getting away with what they can get away with”.

Also read: India’s shrinking influence

The growing China-Japan standoff has a serious economic angle as well. China and Japan are the second and third economies of the world respectively. Japan is extremely disconcerted by the Chinese purchase of a large number of Yen dominated bonds, resulting in the currency being pushed to a 15 year high, thus making Japanese exports less competitive.

While Chinas status or possible status as a military and economic superpower can be debated, its current status of a “˜fishing superpower cannot be disputed.

The other issue, generally ignored, is the rivalry between China and other countries in the region, with regard to fishing rights in the surrounding waters and the high seas. While China’s status or possible status as a military and economic superpower can be debated, its current status of a ‘fishing superpower’ cannot be disputed. Its illegal fishing activities are an endemic cause of disputes with Japan, the US Navy, Vietnam, and even Indonesian coast guard and Thailand. As per one estimate, China’s annual catch of fish i.e. 17 million tonne is four times that of its nearest competitor and far greater than that of Japan. China has an estimated 3,00,000 motorized fishing trawlers.

The Sinking of Cheonan

The sinking of South Korean naval corvette ‘Cheonan’ on 26 March allegedly by a North Korean submarine has triggered unprecedented geopolitical flux in the Western Pacific region, which includes the Yellow Sea and South China Sea and East Asia as such.

While South Korea and its strategic partner the US are convinced that the South Korean vessel was torpedoed by a North Korean submarine, the Chinese and the Russians have refused to endorse it. On the other hand, North Korea has demanded an international panel to investigate the incident. Two South Korean academics Prof Lee (University of Virginia) and Prof Sue (John Hopkins University) have expressed doubts about the North Korean involvement in the said incident.

Also read: Strategic relevance of Gilgit and Baltistan

There are also analysts, who believe that China may have scripted the incident as part of a calibrated move to expel American forces from Western Pacific and East Asia. The US military presence in Japan (32,803) and Korea (27,014 US personnel), and the US-Taiwan military relations are serious strategic distractions for China and the major inhibiting factor in China’s march to super power status.

It is a rather well understood truism that without the patronage of China, North Korea cannot survive as a nation-state. China prefers to maintain the rouge, hermit, impoverished and enigmatic status of North Korea”¦

It is a rather well understood truism that without the patronage of China, North Korea cannot survive as a nation-state. China prefers to maintain the rouge, hermit, impoverished and enigmatic status of North Korea, since it gives China the leverage to use North Korea as a proxy for illegitimate activities in the international arena, while retaining the deniability factor. The proliferation of nuclear weapons technology and missiles to Pakistan, Iran and now Myanmar at the facilitation of China are few examples. In respect of North Korea, Robert F Willand, Commander of US Pacific Command, appropriately observes, “how do you leverage with the regime that does not care how it is viewed by the rest of the world, and does not care how it treats its own people”.

In response to the sinking of corvette ‘Cheonan’, in which 46 South Korean sailors perished, the US conducted a massive joint military exercise ‘Op Invincible Spirit’ with South Korea between 25 and 28 July 2010. About 8,000 US and South Korean troops, 200 fixed wing aircraft and 20 ships, which included the aircraft carrier ‘George Washington,’ participated in the exercise. General Walter L. Sharp, Commander of the US Forces in South Korea said: “the defensive combined training exercises are designed to send a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behaviour must stop”. He also reiterated that South Korea and the US “are committed to enhancing our combined defense capabilities”.

Notwithstanding the above posturing, in what is being perceived as a placatory gesture to China, the US authorities decided to change the location of the exercise away from the Yellow Sea, wherein the Cheonan was allegedly torpedoed. It may be mentioned that the aircraft carrier George Washington participated in a joint US-South Korea exercise in the Yellow Sea as recently as in October 2009. China considers the Yellow Sea as the vital passage to the country’s heartland and claims it as a ‘military operations zone’. In this context, Maj Gen Luo Yuan, Dy Secretary PLA Academy of Military Sciences, quoted Mao: “we will never allow others to lay snoring besides our beds”.

The change in location in face of strong protests by China is being perceived as a major climb-down by the US both home and abroad. It sent signals that China was a more reliable ally, as it backed North Korea all through; while the US was seen to dilute its security commitment to South Korea under Chinese pressure. Although, later the Defence Department clarified that future exercises could be conducted in the Yellow Sea, which the US considers as international waters, the image of the US as a reliable ally surely took some beating.

Although, later the Defence Department clarified that future exercises could be conducted in the Yellow Sea, which the US considers as international waters, the image of the US as a reliable ally surely took some beating.

The Chinese also resorted to some aggressive posturing by flexing its military muscle. Just days before the US-South Korea exercise, China carried out its own military exercise ‘Warfare 2010’, which involved deployment of helicopters, rescue vessels and mobilization of tanks. Though, the Chinese maintained that the exercise was routine in nature and was designed to improve defence capabilities against long-distance attacks, the timing of the exercise was significant. During the same period, North Korea issued a nuclear threat. On the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum, the North Korean representative delivered the warning that the US should not proceed with the joint exercise if it wants to see a nuclear free Korean Peninsula. North Korea also threatened that it would use nuclear weapons to launch “retaliatory sacred war” against US and its allies.

Going by the above developments, it can be inferred that the standoff between North and South Korea has the potential to develop into a dangerous regional military conflict involving China, USA, Japan, as also many others.

Many in the US policy making apparatus are convinced that the latest nuclear posturing by North Korea was at the behest of China.

Security of Taiwan

It may be mentioned that the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 stipulates that the US will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including boycotts or embargos, a threat to peace and security of the Western Pacific and of grave concern to the US”. The Taiwan Relations Act does not explicitly suggest intervention by the US in case of military attack by the PRC on Taiwan, nevertheless the US has deliberately pursued a policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ on the issue to deter China from any such misadventure. The US has ensured that all its options are open as a player in the Western Pacific region. Taiwan is overwhelmingly dependent on the US for its security and defence needs, even though the US has no permanent physical military presence in Taiwan.

Also read: Taiwan’s courtship with India

Over the years the military balance, qualitatively and quantitatively, has shifted in favour of China vis-à-vis Taiwan. A dense array of missiles and rockets are deployed on China’s eastern coast to intimidate Taiwan and to prevent it from declaring independent status. With more than 1800 tanks, 1800 AFVs, 1400 artillery guns, 421 combat aircraft, 4 submarines, 7 destroyers and 22 frigates — Taiwan still remains very capable of blunting Chinese invasion for a period to allow the lead time for military assistance from the US. Beijing’s objective of unifying Taiwan with the mainland remains a sacred commitment. All US dispensations have been acutely sensitive to the fact that a Chinese aggression on Taiwan has to be met with an armed response by the US, and it is believed that the US Pacific Command has contingency plans for the scenario.

With more than 1800 tanks, 1800 AFVs, 1400 artillery guns, 421 combat aircraft, 4 submarines, 7 destroyers and 22 frigates “” Taiwan still remains very capable of blunting Chinese invasion for a period to allow the lead time for military assistance from the US.

China froze its defence relations with the US in January 2010 (since restored) after the latter approved US$ 6 billion arms sales to Taiwan. The package includes Black Hawk helicopters, communication equipment, 114 patriot missiles and 12 harpoon missiles. Significantly it does not include F-16 fighter aircraft, which Taiwan has been pressing for.

To add depth to its defence, Taiwan is also seeking to acquire some military facilities in the island of Guam (unincorporated US territory) by participating in the US military base relocation project. Guam is located in the Western Pacific Ocean and is 48 km long and 6 to 19 km wide. 29 percent of the area of the island is covered by US military bases and installations. The proposed relocation project is to be carried out under the aegis of Government Procurement Agreement (GPA). The GPA has 28 signatory nations, who are legible to bid for goods and services offered by any of the members. It is understood that the US is going to offer facilities in Guam worth US $ 15 billion to GPA members for bidding. Taiwan with its financial muscle has fair chance of winning substantial amount of these contracts.

The main moderating or restraining factor with regard to US-China belligerence over Taiwan is the economic interdependence between China and Taiwan. China holds US$ 739.6 billion worth US Treasury Securities constituting 24 percent of US national debt. On the other hand, the American market is critical for China.

Economics and to an extent sociology are also determining the evolution of China-Taiwan relations. 40 percent of Taiwan’s trade is with China. Taiwan has a population of approximately 23 million, of which two million are employed in China. Of these two million, many are reservists in the Taiwan Armed Forces. The opening of the tourism between the two countries has witnessed one million Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan this year. Psychologically, because of the totalitarian communist regime in China and the high prosperity in Taiwan, the Taiwanese find the idea of unification repulsive. It may be mentioned that the per capita income of Taiwan (nearly $ 17,000) is five times of that of China (nearly $ 3700).

Vietnam, A US Ally?

Such is the importance being accorded by the US to the assertiveness of China in the Asia Pacific Region as well as in the Indian Ocean that it is now reaching out to Vietnam with which it fought one of the most bitter and prolonged war in the history of mankind, and a war in which it lost 58,000 soldiers. In principle, the US has agreed to share nuclear fuel and civilian nuclear technology with Vietnam.

To China, a US-Vietnam strategic partnership will be a formidable factor to contend with in the South China Sea as well as in its increasing reach in the Indian Ocean.

Vietnam has announced its intention to build 13 nuclear reactors in the next two decades to cater to its energy consumption, which is growing at a phenomenal rate. These reactors are likely to produce an estimated 16,000 mega watts of electricity. Companies from Russia, Japan, France, US and China as well, are showing keen interest in the nuclear energy market in Vietnam.

The proposal by the US to enter into a nuclear deal with Vietnam, similar to Indo-US nuclear deal should be seen a counterpoise to China in the regional context. This proposal significantly comes after Vietnam has accused China of violating its sovereignty by conducting seismic exploration in South China Sea. The proposed US-Vietnam nuclear deal is bound to cast its shadow on the Chinese move to supply two nuclear reactors to Pakistan. To China, a US-Vietnam strategic partnership will be a formidable factor to contend with in the South China Sea as well as in its increasing reach in the Indian Ocean.

It is learnt that the Chinese authorities are unnerved by this development, as they consider Vietnam to be highly sensitive in their strategic calculus. This factor lately has become even more accentuated because of foreign investment moving to Vietnam from South China because of political, social and economic reasons. Apart from strategic reasons, the US feels that the nuclear deal could provide impetus to the emergence of Vietnam as a rival economic hub to China for which it needs to be ‘energy rich’.

What is unmistakable is the fact that the Chinese regional and global ambitions are being contested by the US in Asia, and increasing use of nuclear diplomacy is the new and essential part of the process.

Implications for India

China’s growth and its ambition of becoming a superpower is also generating insecurity and anxieties amongst the Chinese policy-makers. Its external energy dependency is increasing. As far oil is concerned, it is the second largest consumer and third largest net importer. It is trying to secure its energy supplies both through sea (Indian Ocean), sea-land route (pipeline). It is in fact trying to hedge the risks. For the land-sea route (pipeline), the internal situation in Pakistan (especially Balochistan) and Myanmar remains a worrisome factor. Therefore, as the strategic dependence on these countries grow, China’s stakes in their stability is becoming acute.

Given the Chinese inroads into Gilgit-Baltistan, its manipulation of Kashmir problem, independently or through Pakistan, is likely to acquire even more sinister proportions. As far as Indian in-roads in Myanmar are concerned, the Chinese are trying to disrupt it by reviving insurgency in Indias northeast.

China views India as not only as a competitor in the region, but also a source of vulnerability for the security of its sea-land route of energy supplies through Pakistan, Myanmar, and sea route through the Indian Ocean (Malacca Strait). This partly explains China’s strident posturing with regard to Kashmir. Given the Chinese inroads into Gilgit-Baltistan, its manipulation of Kashmir problem, independently or through Pakistan, is likely to acquire even more sinister proportions. As far as Indian in-roads in Myanmar are concerned, the Chinese are trying to disrupt it by reviving insurgency in India’s northeast.

There are therefore new elements being introduced in India-Pakistan-China triangular relationship. The US-China standoff in the Western Pacific region, which in all certainty will spill over into the Indian Ocean, has direct bearing on the land and maritime security of India. In this the security sensitivities of the US, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Australia, and other ASEAN countries, do coalesce. It is primarily for these reasons that China is loathe to talk to deal with the ‘ASEAN as a bloc’ on contentious territorial and maritime issues like Spartly islands and South China Sea.

Policy makers in the US are more than aware that China’s strategic muscle by way of anti-satellite weapons, ballistic missiles and nuclear submarines has increased manifold in the very recent years. To counter this, they feel that the US needs to infuse much greater strength into US-Japan alliance. In that they suggest that the US must abandon its obstinacy and supply F-22 fighter jets, which Japan has been demanding for long. They contend that missile and nuclear threat from China and North Korea can only obviated by a US sponsored dense missile defence framework in the region, particularly in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. They are of the strong opinion that the US must not lower its defence spending in order to cater to the serious threats being posed by China in the Western Pacific region, where the capabilities and credibility to protect the allies of the US is at test as never before.

Considering the new realities and circumstances, the strategic distraction of China in the Western Pacific region by the US and its allies is of benefit to India. It has the potential to prevent the growing maritime inroads of China into the India Ocean, which is vital for India’s security.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

RSN Singh

is a former military intelligence officer who later served in the Research and Analysis Wing, or R&AW and author of books Asian Strategic and Military Perspective and The Military Factor in Pakistan. His latest book is The Unmaking of Nepal.

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