The English geographer Sir Halford Mackinder ended his famous 1904 article, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” with a disturbing reference to China. After explaining why Eurasia was the geostrategic fulcrum of world power, he posited that the Chinese, should they expand their power well beyond their borders, “might constitute the yellow peril to the world’s freedom just because they would add an oceanic frontage to the resources of the great continent, an advantage as yet denied to the Russian tenant of the pivot region.”
Leaving aside the sentiment’s racism, which was common for the era, as well as the hysterics sparked by the rise of a non-Western power at any time, Mackinder had a point: whereas Russia, that other Eurasian giant, basically was, and is still, a land power with an oceanic front blocked by ice, China, owing to a 9,000-mile temperate coastline with many good natural harbors, is both a land power and a sea power. (Mackinder actually feared that China might one day conquer Russia.)
On the other hand, is the humbling realization that presently, despite its double digit growth and growing influence, China is not in a position to viably compete with these states in all spheres.
China’s virtual reach extends from Central Asia, with all its mineral and hydrocarbon wealth, to the main shipping lanes of the Pacific Ocean. Later, in Democratic Ideals and Reality, Mackinder predicted that along with the United States, China would eventually guide the world by “building for a quarter of humanity a new civilization, neither quite Eastern nor quite Western.”
The continued growth of China’s comprehensive national power, including its military capabilities, and the manner in which a strong resurgent China will employ this power will have far-reaching consequences both for Asia and the world. The Chinese leadership’s commitment to build Comprehensive National Power (CNP) and leveraging its Strategic Configuration of Power (SCP) to achieve its strategic interests remain a major factor in shaping the future stability and security of Asia. China, as it consolidates its power over the next couple of decades is likely to have a multi-dimensional impact upon other states of the Asia-Pacific region, an assessment broadly accepted by the strategic community the world over.
Most of these countries are likely to be affected by Beijing’s changing economic and military capabilities, its trade and defence policies, its approach towards resolution of bilateral disputes, and the manner in which it will leverage this power. India, which too is rapidly developing as a strong economic and military power, will be greatly impacted by these developments particularly as both countries share common strategic space in Asia.
China with an innate desire to enhance its CNP, seems to be able to match sets growing military power with its economic strategy and successfully link it to the direction of its foreign policy. A unique feature has been the contradictory manner in which the Chinese political elite perceive the world.
China seeks to lead a “unipolar Asia” and is using the concept of “multipolarity” as a smokescreen to facilitate its dominance in Asia.
On the one hand, within the concept of a unipolar world, which is viewed through the prism of a perpetual struggle against the hegemonistic forces of a super power (which would mean US in common parlance) as well as the aspiration for regional leadership in a region dominated by major emerging powers like India, Japan, and Russia (despite the relationship of strategic partnership with the latter). On the other hand, is the humbling realization that presently, despite its double digit growth and growing influence, China is not in a position to viably compete with these states in all spheres.
This undoubtedly imposes certain constraints on its foreign policy necessitating certain rearrangement in its foreign policy objectives/priorities.
Even in the United States there is a growing recognition that following Soviet disintegration, and Japanese power contained within the US–Japan alliance, China will be the leading challenger to its future geopolitical aspirations in Asia-Pacific. China is emerging as a ‘peer’ competitor and an alternative center of power and influence in the region.
Analysts are of the view that United States determination to preserve its status of global pre eminence and China’s determination to reassert its historical and traditional dominant position in Asia is likely to lead to unavoidable and inevitable Sino-US rivalry. This will impact on virtually every international issue and in all parts of the world, with Asia bearing the brunt. The dimension and manner in which competition unfolds will to a degree determine the course of future security situation in Asia-Pacific.
China’s Role in Asia
It needs to be acknowledged that China’s growing power and expanding role in Asia is not only likely to continue but the trend could get accelerated over the next two decades, barring an unforeseen internal crisis in China. In geostrategic terms states across Asia are likely to be “sucked” into the Chinese economic vortex through increasing economic ties, resources relationships, and investments in infrastructure. As one analyst recently observed that China’s Asian strategy is linked directly to its multinational strategy – using multilateral and regional organizations to bolster its economic and political ties across Asia – which supports its modernization strategy.
It is important for India to maximize the “arc of advantage” by strengthening relationships with key countries in Asia — Japan, Israel, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Iran — as well as Australia.
As a result, Asian economies are getting increasingly intertwined with China, which, is beginning to have geopolitical implications for Asia in general and India in particular. An interesting aspect that emerged during a recent international Scenario Building Seminar in Canberra, Australia was the likely problem faced by the US in managing existing alliances in Asia in the backdrop of growing economic integration of Asian economies with China.
There should be no doubt that the underlying aim of the current Chinese leadership is to make China a great power – “world class, second to none” – and that to achieve this goal, the Chinese are consciously and unwaveringly erecting the building blocks of comprehensive national power. Chinese leaders understand that the hard power (e.g., military and economic power) the country has been accumulating over the past 15 years can easily be translated into soft power that enables it to dissuade and deter other states’ behavior.
China’s growth and activities in Asia underscore the importance and urgency for India’s economic success and emergence as a major regional player. Underlying is the central importance of successful economic reforms and growth, particularly if India seeks to play a balancing role in Asia, and wants to be accepted as the preferable strategic partner, and above all taken seriously. In fact policy makers/academics from Asian states, particularly from Southeast Asia, and to a degree Japan and Taiwan would like to see India accelerating economic reforms and improve economic infrastructure in order to provide alternative choices.
It is important for India to maximize the “arc of advantage” by strengthening relationships with key countries in Asia – Japan, Israel, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Iran – as well as Australia. The underlying theme of Indian Prime Minister’s initiative for strategic understanding with the US despite major criticism is underscored by above realization.
Chinese Balance of Power Strategy in Asia
This is predicated on the fact that China seeks to lead a “unipolar Asia” and is using the concept of “multipolarity” as a smokescreen to facilitate its dominance in Asia. To achieve this broad geostrategic objective that is in tune with the propensities of Middle Kingdom, it is attempting a twin track strategy. One, it is incrementally maximizing the power gap between strong Asian neighbours – Japan, India, and Russia.
The US wants a unipolar world and a multipolar Asia, China wants a unipolar Asia and a multipolar world.
As also by pitting Pakistan against India, North Korea against Japan and South vs North Korea it is attempting to keep its potential Asian rivals preoccupied. In addition, China is using states such as Iran, Myanmar, and Bangladesh etc. as pawns in its balance of power strategy. Secondly, it is using soft power in terms of political and economic engagement to incrementally enhance its strategic space in Asia.
Its eventual aim is to contain the influence of beleaguered United States to become a pre-eminent power in Asia particularly in terms of economic and strategic dominance. This scenario however is predicated on Chinese perspective on the medium and long term implications of ‘India’s rise’ and the manner in which resurgent India will attempt to shape its strategic space.
That this scenario is worrisome to the Chinese is indicated by frequent assertion by Chinese scholars that whereas China and India could coexist in Asia, their being partners was implausible. Fundamentally Chinese believe that as both countries rise simultaneously competition between the two is inherent. It is the nature of competition that is often left undefined.
China’s Economic Orbit
Given the current Chinese trade and other indicators, China, barring unforeseen and uncontrolled internal developments will overtake the United States over the next two decades as the largest trading partner of every Asian nation. As trade with China grows rapidly, many of the Southeast Asian states and even countries like Australia, South Korea and even Japan will be drawn into the Chinese economic orbit (if not already so), increasing Chinese influence over these states and critically restraining their strategic choices.
The chance of a war between China and the United States is remote; the Chinese military threat to the United States is only indirect.
This trend, which will be difficult to counter, gives China a growing sense of autonomy on how to build its relationships with other states. In such a scenario the dilemma for India will be whether to be more aggressive in positioning itself as a balancer to China in Southeast Asia and Central Asia both as an economic partner and a player of consequences in the regional organizations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), ASEAN +3 (+4) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) etc. Particularly as such a positioning runs the inherent risk of alienating China, for the most part if it is seen as a part of broad based collaborative strategy with the US.
Impact of Chinese Technological Advancement on the Region
Technological developments, now no longer prospects but realities, are already having a strong impact on the Asian region. The case of India is the clearest. It has now undertaken a major programme of force development and modernization that, as the very highest Indian officials have confirmed, is fundamentally a response to China. Evidence suggests that at least some in Russia are increasingly concerned by China’s range of strengths in its weakly-held Far East and Central Asian regions. Why exactly Moscow continues to sell sophisticated arms to China is a difficult question to answer, but money alone cannot be the imperative. Certainly the entire Russian Pacific coast, including Vladivostok, is placed at increasing risk by the new Chinese capabilities.
Southeast Asian states are also concerned, though none, except Singapore, is responding with a really major attempt to strengthen its military – and Singapore, of course, will deny that China has anything to do with it. Of particular concern to this region will be China’s apparent intention to base some of its future SSBN and SSN fleet on Hainan Island, which is closer to deep water patrolling areas. This deployment will also cause China to move more naval and air forces to that island, perhaps even aircraft carriers in the future. This may then lead to more aggressive Chinese behavior to enforce its territorial claims, and more incidents similar to the April 2001 EP-3 incident could occur should the US Navy seek to monitor or contain China’s vital strategic submarines.
Perhaps the best way to sum up the situation is with the current cliché. “The US wants a unipolar world and a multipolar Asia, China wants a unipolar Asia and a multipolar world, while India wants a multipolar Asia and a multipolar world. “one can quibble with this, but the bit about a “unipolar Asia” seems accurate, true to Chinese traditions and confirmed by current activities.
Political scientists believing in “realist” theory of international relations argue that a major challenge to the military balance, such as China is currently mounting, will lead to one of two possible reactions.
States may bend to the new power and accommodate themselves. Or they may seek to form balancing coalitions and seek allies. Unfortunately the theory does not tell us how to know which of these two quite different reactions will be followed in a given case.
China’s Rising Influence and Response of Asian Nations
To accomplish this task, China has built advantageous power relationships both in contiguous territories and in far-flung locales rich in the resources it requires to fuel its growth. Because what drives China abroad has to do with a core national interest — economic survival — China can be defined as an über-realist power. It seeks to develop a sturdy presence throughout the parts of Africa that are well endowed with oil and minerals and wants to secure port access throughout the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, which connect the hydrocarbon-rich Arab-Persian world to the Chinese seaboard.
Having no choice in the matter, Beijing cares little about the type of regime with which it is engaged; it requires stability, not virtue as the West conceives of it. And because some of these regimes — such as those in Iran, Myanmar (also known as Burma), and Sudan — are benighted and authoritarian, China’s worldwide scouring for resources brings it into conflict with the missionary-oriented United States, as well as with countries such as India and Russia, against whose own spheres of influence China is bumping up.
The steps Tokyo and Washington are now taking to coordinate military capabilities are very important. As long as Washington does its part, the US-Japan alliance will be secure. It is the real foundation of security and stability in Asia.
To be sure, China is not an existential problem for these states. The chance of a war between China and the United States is remote; the Chinese military threat to the United States is only indirect. The challenge China poses is primarily geographic — notwithstanding critical issues about debt, trade, and global warming. China’s emerging area of influence in Eurasia and Africa is growing, not in the a nineteenth-century imperialistic sense but in a more subtle manner, better suited to the era of globalization. Simply by securing its economic needs, China is shifting the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere, and that must mightily concern the United States.
On land and at sea, abetted by China’s favorable location on the map, Beijing’s influence is emanating and expanding from Central Asia to the South China Sea, from the Russian Far East to the Indian Ocean. China is a rising continental power, and, as Napoleon famously said, the policies of such states are inherent in their geography.
The evidence suggests that China is expecting the first reaction : accommodation and acquiescence. Beijing wants paramount influence, it would appear, and expects to achieve it by over-awing its neighbours with military might – but with luck not actually using it. This is very much the approach Sun Tsu endorses. It makes sense to think this is Beijing’s hope, because if this method works, it will be possible to attain hegemony without conflict or even endangering economic links around the world.
What about the other states, however? Here the evidence suggests unwillingness to bend and accommodate, and instead balancing and seeking allies. India is a good example, but so is Japan, which already possesses a strong military, though without force projection capabilities or weapons of mass destruction. Should Japan feel the need, it could rapidly and self-sufficiently create military forces far stronger and more sophisticated than China’s.
For the moment Japan is committed to alliance with the US. The steps Tokyo and Washington are now taking to coordinate military capabilities are very important. As long as Washington does its part, the US-Japan alliance will be secure. It is the real foundation of security and stability in Asia. But if the United States wobbles or be seen as unreliable, then Japan would most likely decide that the time has come to take over its own defence. China fears Japan more than it does any other power. Yet by arming itself with such vigour, China is paradoxically enough, pushing pacifist Japan into doing the same.
Other states in the region are also looking towards greater military self-sufficiency. An arms race has begun, thanks to Beijing, and it has been intensified by the qualitative leaps that foreign technology has permitted. Now we must brace ourselves for the reaction to China’s initiative. As per Clausewitz, in international security no less than in physics, actions elicit reactions. The problem is that in international relations one cannot predict the reactions as in physics.