China becoming a superpower or just a regional player?
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The end of the Cold War in 1989, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, opened up strategic opportunities for China.

As per Chinese perceptions, the era of bipolarity had given way to a multi-polar world in which it was destined to play a crucial role. The world order, however, has not been shaping according to Chinese strategic calculations.

Defence-Map-of-ChinaThe Gulf War in 1991, the War in Bosnia, the War in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom) and the latest operation in Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom) has underscored the reality in Chinese perception that the US is loathe to dilute its unipolar status.

Many Chinese policy makers feel that an unchallenged superpower status may embolden the US to adopt a more strident posture in support of Taiwan’s independence, notwithstanding the repeated policy assertions by the US of facilitating the eventual unification of Taiwan with China. Even though there are increasingly high stakes in economic and other linkages between the two countries, the world sees China and the US as contradictory powers.

The strategic manoeuvrings by the US to checkmate China are an ongoing process and were most pronounced in 1996 when the US had deployed two carrier battle groups in the vicinity of Taiwan during the latter’s presidential election. The US continues to manipulate strategic and diplomatic leverages like the human rights issue and China’s nuclear and missile proliferation activities. US espionage activities in China were clearly in evidence when a US spy plane recently crash-landed on China’s Hainan Island.

China has been growing in self-confidence due to its successful economic reforms and more recently by the return to its fold of Hong Kong in 1997 and Macau in 1999. It is also a sign of growing confidence that China has begun to make maritime forays into areas that are far from the mainland, such as the South China Sea. While low or middle ranking powers are more land oriented, and by implication, army oriented in their defence posturing, a high-ranking power begins to focus on its maritime reach.

By all indications, China has begun to view itself as a developed country and a high-ranking power, even though there is much distance to be covered.

Chinese tendency to keep border issues or territorial disputes unresolved is quite pronounced, especially with those countries with which it seeks to retain strategic leverage.

While analysing China, it is difficult to overlook the contradictions. Tangibly, China has some very robust attributes of a strong power i.e. nuclear capability, space capability, missile capability, the largest armed forces, a massive manpower resource base, and an impressive economic growth. On the other hand, there are contradictions such as China’s inability to manufacture world-class conventional weapons such as tanks, aircraft, destroyers, submarines etc.

Its large import of arms from Russia in recent years, are also reflective of its technological inadequacies. When the Chinese leaders talk of ‘pockets of excellence’, it is a tacit admission that the scientific and technological development is not well rounded.

Visitors to China are invariably highly impressed with the way the economic and infrastructural development in the country is showcased. But at the same time, Chinese products and goods that once threatened to swamp the world markets, fail to inspire confidence because of their doubtful quality and durability. Most of the countries that have imported weapons and military equipment from China are bedevilled with their low serviceability rate.

According to one estimate, China accounts for less than 5 per cent of the global defence spending while the US, and East Asia and Australia, account for 35 per cent and 25 per cent respectively. Therefore, the moot question is whether China is a superpower in the making or a regional player. The answer probably lies somewhere in between.

China shares 76 km land boundary with Afghanistan; 470 km with Bhutan; 3,440 km with India; 1,533 km with Kazakhstan; 2,185 km with Myanmar; 1,416 km with North Korea; 858 km with Kyrgyzstan; 423 km with Laos; 4,677 km with Mongolia; 1,414 km with Nepal; 523 km with Pak Occupied Kashmir; 414 km with Tajikistan; 1,281 km with Vietnam; 3,605 km and 40 km with Russia in the northeast and northwest respectively.

In addition, China lies at close proximity to Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. It also has a maritime interface with Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, and to an extent with Indonesia. China, therefore, is pivotally positioned in a ring of nations formed by South Asia, Central Asia, Russia, Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, and the Asia Pacific region.

China is emerging as an economic centre of gravity in Asia. In 2003, China stood as the second largest economy in the world after the US, although in per capita income, the country is poor. Even discounting the Chinese propensity for exaggerating figures or statistics, the economic growth by its own previous standards is rather phenomenal. Some sources maintain that the economic growth of the smaller Region-States comprising cities like Shanghai, Dalian, Tianjin, Shenzhen, Xiamen, Qingdao, and Suzhou – are experiencing an economic growth of 15-20 per cent a year, which is much faster than that of the ASEAN Tigers like Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and South Korea.

Even the mega regions like the Yangtze Delta, the Northeastern Tristates area (formerly known as Manchuria), the Pearl River Delta, the Beijing – Tianjin corridor and Shandong – would rank among Asia’s 10 largest economies, if they were separate country entities. China is pursuing its economic agenda with such single-mindedness that it has kept its other strategic priorities like Taiwan, and South China Sea at a diplomatically manageable pitch. Going by the proclivities displayed by it in the past two decades, it appears that it shall not let any ideology or other global distraction derail its present economic agenda.

Apart from the pressing necessity of improving the living conditions of its people, the desire to acquire economic leverage against other countries in its neighbourhood is also an equally strong imperative.

With regard to the measure of national power, there are some overwhelming tangible assets that China enjoys; they are: size (third largest in the world), population (largest population in the world), large natural resources (largest producer of coal) and the largest Armed Forces in the world. It is estimated that China is importing more than 30 per cent of its oil requirements; however, the Xinjiang province in China is believed to contain rich petroleum reserves, which remain unexploited. Its sheer size and economic growth are already altering the contours of Asian security, international commerce, and the global balance of power.

China has some very robust attributes of a strong power i.e. nuclear capability, space capability, missile capability, the largest armed forces, a massive manpower resource base, and an impressive economic growth.

In addition, China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it’s a nuclear power, its missile capabilities are highly advanced and it possesses Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). It manufactures and launches its own satellites and is making further forays into space. Though its capabilities in these fields may be a generation or two behind those of USA, Russia and other western countries, nevertheless for China’s neighbours, living under its shadow is not easy.

China has emerged as the linchpin in determining the security agenda in its neighbourhood, encompassing the wide array of countries in Asia. Even those countries which have a close strategic partnership with the US, have begun to treat China as an established regional power. China is seen to be dispensing patronage and protection to countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Pakistan in return for their recognition of China’s superiority.

If the global flash points or spots of concerns were to be enumerated, China invariably figures as a direct or an important strategic interlocutor in most of them. Some of these flash points are India – Pakistan, Korean peninsula crisis, South China Sea and Spratly Islands, Afghanistan, and Taiwan.

In fact, the US military presence in the Asia Pacific region (in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan) and the US strategic ties with Southeast Asian countries (Singapore, Malaysia and Philippines) is heavily motivated by the need to impose a strategic counterpoise to China. Many analysts believe that China is presently acquiescent to the US presence in its vicinity for reasons of strategic stability, which is an essential imperative for its ongoing economic development.

Should the US withdraw its forces from the region, the vacuum thus created may usher in forces that may drastically alter the present strategic equations with some alarming imponderables. Any such development may have global consequences as the protagonists involved – China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and ASEAN – are amongst the world’s most important economic hubs. Of course, the nuclear and missile dimension would remain a frightening factor.

While the Chinese capabilities are well known and can be extrapolated, its intentions are inscrutable. However, it is quite clear that China sees itself as a global power and probably desires to supplant the erstwhile USSR. It clearly shows signs of a dissatisfied and a non-status-quo power. In this quest, it has displayed dangerous and delinquent tendencies.

China has been a proliferator of missiles and nuclear technology. Its client states include Pakistan, Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia. It supplied sensitive technology to Pakistan to keep India in check, which it feels is its strategic competitor in South Asia. Though, in international relations it is said that there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, China has been ruthless in pursuit of its perceived security interests, and in establishing its primacy in the region.

Towards this it has not hesitated in jettisoning its historical allies and using force against countries on preposterous excuses of “teaching a lesson” as in the case of Vietnam in 1978-79. The Chinese Naval forces clashed with the Vietnamese Navy in the South China Sea in 1988. It was the same country in whose assistance the PLA lost at least 20,000 personnel during the Vietnam conflict.

One of the reasons that many analysts attribute to the Chinese invasion of India in 1962 was to drive home to the erstwhile USSR (after the estrangement in early ‘60s) that it could perpetrate military conflict on USSR’s newfound allies with impunity.

China has not been averse to making strategic probes in areas of its interest, especially to gauge the response of the global community, particularly the US, as evidenced by its forays into the South China Sea and its occupation of Mischief Reef Island in 1995, in the vicinity of the Philippines. This is probably in consonance with China’s new military doctrine, which envisages fighting away from its territory and, therefore, it needs to have new frontiers, which some of the islands in the South China Sea can provide. This doctrine has replaced the earlier Maoist doctrine of luring the enemy deep into the country’s main territory.

Wherever there are limited options, a Chinese tendency to keep border issues or territorial disputes unresolved is quite pronounced, especially with those countries with which it seeks to retain strategic leverage. China’s dilatory tactics with regards to resolution of the boundary disputes with India should be seen in this backdrop. It is for the same reason that China has spurned all efforts to discuss the Spratly Island dispute with ASEAN as a block and has insisted on bilateral discussions with the concerned countries. In exercise of its relations with other countries, China has mastered the art of engaging in mutually beneficial relationships for economic and other benefits without addressing the core issues.

Despite the fact that it has adopted a belligerent posture with regard to Taiwan (presently strategic ally of the US) by deploying an array of weapon systems, which include more than 600 Tactical Ballistic Missiles (TBMs), it has continued with an intimate economic cooperation with the US. Both China and Taiwan are bristling with weapon systems in close proximity to each other. There are an estimated 170 Chinese combat aircraft deployed within a 250 mile radius of Taiwan and another 1,300 within a 250–500 miles radius.

While this may be to deter Taiwan from declaring independence, it has serious portends for global security as it is may spawn an unbridled arms race in the region. Even if Taiwan was to be unified with China, this arsenal would remain and could obviously be redeployed elsewhere.

Notwithstanding China’s pre-occupation with its economic agenda, it may not dither in seeking a military solution for forcible re-unification of Taiwan, if the latter were to declare independence. In 1996, China conducted a series of ballistic missiles tests over Taiwan, which prodded the US to deploy its carrier battle group, and underscored the apprehension that if conflict breaks out in the region, the US involvement would be inevitable. Since then the PLA has been factoring in the US forces as combat targets in all military exercises relating to Taiwan.

In its security posturing, China is at present eastward oriented. In its strategic formulation, the southeast front takes priority over the other fronts. In prioritising its military focus, Taiwan assumes number one position, followed by Japan, India and Vietnam. However, in its strategic interlocution with Taiwan, Japan or the Southeast Asian countries, the US remains a constant factor.

China accounts for less than 5 per cent of the global defence spending while the US, and East Asia and Australia, account for 35 per cent and 25 per cent respectively.

Many analysts are of the opinion that China is making cogent efforts to neutralise the superior US power projection ability in the Western Pacific region by exploiting the latter’s relative vulnerability due to the long logistics line, which has got further extended after the loss of US bases in Subic Bay and Clark (air base) in the Philippines. China has already positioned (in 2000) itself at the weakest link of the US Navy i.e. Isthmus of Panama through allied commercial entities. It is believed that after the US abandoned Subic Bay, the PLA had tried to take it over through commercial fronts.

Some experts are of the opinion that the Chinese thrust towards the Spratly Islands and Parcel Islands are in consonance with Mao’s later strategic thinking wherein he advocated the moving of Chinese control to an outward island chain i.e. from the southern part of Japan and running through Taiwan to the Indonesian archipelago.

The occupation of these islands would automatically lend control over the Malacca Strait, and thus China would become the most dominant power in the Western Pacific. While the US was engaged in the Vietnam conflict, the PLA had already begun to occupy and fortify some of these islands. By the late 1980s, it had constructed an airstrip on Woody Island (Parcels) and is constantly upgrading its military facilities on the Mischief Reef (Spratly). Though China is far from acquiring a power projection capability like the US, however, since it sees itself as an imminent global power, in the same league as the USA, it has initiated moves in that direction with its available capability.

One of the attributes of a global power is that it should have maritime reach and influence in at least two oceans. Therefore, as per some reports, China is making forays into the Indian Ocean. Its present naval prowess precludes any such capability; nevertheless, it has made tentative moves in this regard. It is trying to exploit Myanmar’s economic and military dependency on China to secure an indirect presence in the Indian Ocean through the Irrawaddy Corridor proposal, which entails transportation of goods produced in the Yunan Province of China through the Irrawaddy River to Yangon port in Myanmar.

This has implicit strategic implications as it may entail frequent visitations or permanent presence of Chinese merchant vessels at Thilawa port in Yangon. In times of crisis, this facility can be translated into a naval presence. China has been engaged in upgrading Myanmar’s Naval bases in Hanngyi and Coco Islands.

China has become an important arms supplier to third world countries, which include Pakistan, Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh. Initially, its arms supplies were based on friendship terms, however later, after having secured a degree of dependency, it has begun to supply arms and equipment on strictly commercial basis. It is not averse to adopting any machination for pushing its arms sales to its client countries. China considers its arms sales as another way of extending its influence, even though its capabilities are still limited and the quality of its arms and equipment leaves much to be desired. The arms sales have invariably resulted in Chinese involvement in infrastructural projects in these countries.

The huge Chinese Diaspora in various countries, particularly the USA and Southeast Asian countries is an asset to China. There are approximately 2.8 million US citizens of Chinese origin, which constitutes 20 per cent of the total Asian population in the US. More than 70 per cent of Singapore’s population is of Chinese extraction. It is natural for this Diaspora to share a sense of cultural pull towards China, if not towards the Chinese political dispensation.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, most of the Southeast Asian countries were bedevilled by China inspired communist insurgencies; as a result the Chinese segment of the population in these countries was viewed with suspicion. However, the Chinese lobby in many of these countries, has emerged as a reasonably powerful political and economic entity. This lobby is even considered to make some difference in the electoral prospects of Presidential candidates in the US. Some of the Chinese citizens in the US have come under suspicion for trying to smuggle forbidden technologies to China. This is not without precedence.

China has become an important arms supplier to third world countries, …China considers its arms sales as another way of extending its influence…

Professor Qian Xueshen, who was repatriated to China in 1955 by the US, following the witch-hunts after the Korean War, can be called the Father of China’s Nuclear and Missile Programme. He was a graduate of the California Institute of Technology in 1935 and obtained his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1938. During World War II, he was director of the rocket section of the United States National Defense Scientific Advisory Board. Dr Qian, and a number of other scientists trained in the United States and Europe, were instrumental in developing the PRC’s nuclear warheads and delivery systems.

The large size and geography bestows upon China a huge strategic depth, which in turn facilitates the exercise of a high degree of strategic autonomy. Mao had predicated his doctrine of ‘People’s War’ and the tactical concept of ‘luring the enemy deep’ on the attribute of strategic depth.

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The large geographic size and internal communications affords China a great deal of strategic and operational flexibility against its neighbours. While, China may be lacking in naval and air capabilities vis-à-vis powers like the USA and Russia, nevertheless subjugating China militarily would be a very remote and hazardous proposition.

The per capita military effectiveness of China may be way behind other world powers, but its cumulative prowess could prove to be robust and formidable.

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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, The Military Factor in Pakistan and The Unmaking of Nepal. His latest books are Know the Anti-Nationals (English) and Know the एंटी-नेशनल्स (Hindi).

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One thought on “China becoming a superpower or just a regional player?

  1. Pretty good analysis in Chinese context, considering that most of the analysts are too focussed on Pakistan. I’d say that we need to keep a very close lookout for Chinese since Pakistan is just a vassal state now.

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