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.