The Chinese White Paper on Asia - Pacific Security and the Problem of Reliability
For almost two decades, China is publishing biennial white papers on security in response to western apprehensions about a ‘China threat theory’ that emphasised initially, China’s ‘peaceful rise’ and, subsequently, its balancing of ‘peace and development’. Over the last few years, these reports have taken up special themes. For instance, China’s 2015 White Paper was on ‘military strategy’. The 2017 White Paper, published recently, focuses on China’s approach towards Asia – Pacific security. An assessment of China’s external behaviour brings clearly indicates that Chinese assertions in the white paper about Asia – Pacific security cannot be taken at its face value.
To give one example, the white paper says that China is ‘establishing closer partnership with India’. In practice, the Chinese security calculus towards India is blatantly realist substantiated in various manners. First, while China has invested in relationship with India, it has invested much more in building up Pakistan and other small countries around India through a ‘string of pearls’ strategy. China sincerely wants India to remain ‘boxed’ in sub continental politics of South Asia. Second, while China has engaged with India in a series of dialogue networks, it is also consolidating its strategic advantage in the Tibet region through a series of roads, railways and weapons deployment. Third, China also remains an enigmatic opponent of India on numerous global and regional issues and does not want its Southern neighbor to play a commensurate role in international affairs. China has never been and can never be in strategic partnership with India. Therefore, Chinese metaphors in white paper should be read with precaution, lest they could undo India’s entire China policy.
China’s contradictory behaviour is also apparent at the wider regional level where it professes its concern for Asia – Pacific security. China places ‘Asia first’ as the core of its international identification attempt and, therefore, accords priority on building ties and stable environment all around its periphery. Perhaps, that also explains its focus on Asia – Pacific in its recent white paper. In essence, however, this is the logical outcome of China’s constraints as a ‘partial global power’, despite its increasing footprints across the globe. China perhaps also wants to promote an alternative concept of security based on lofty ideals of closer and mutually complimentary links between security and development. Apart from highly successful regional security initiatives like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), China has also initiated some regional developmental initiatives and institutions like the One Belt, One Road (OBOR), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund. The driving objective of China in all these initiatives seems to be creating a ‘Chinese Commonwealth’ without any geopolitical space for US leadership.
The tragedy is that some middle and small countries in Asia – Pacific are falling for the Chinese honeytrap! While countries like Pakistan are known allies of Pakistan, established US allies like Philippines, South Korea have also moved closer to China. Vietnam has mended its ties with China. Taiwan that has long enjoyed immunity from Chinese influence due to the security guarantee imbued in America’s Taiwan Relations Act (1979) is almost a non-issue in Asian security calculations (unless President Trump propels it again). Smaller countries like Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal etc find it lucrative to import Chinese footprints on their soil.
Many other countries are, however, edgy about Chinese hyperboles in the white paper and contradictions with actual practice on certain counts. First, China is involved in many regional conflicts. Its aggressive strategic posture, backed by its increasing military might, affirms what these countries apprehend – a regional order based on pax Sinica, where China will dictate terms of peace. Second, while China is a rising superpower, the US is a declining superpower with gradually shrinking space for diplomatic and military strength in the region. The South China Sea dispute is fast emerging as the litmus test for both countries’ resolve to turn the tide in their favour and could jeopardise Asian security. China’s militaristic approach is responsible for this. Third, while China is indulging in massive military modernisation, it is opposed to Japan’s attempts towards military modernisation on the pretext that the same would disturb regional peace. The series of Japanese white papers on national defence highlight the rise of historical nationalism in China (largely under state patronage) against Japan and continued impasses over Senkaku Islands that have propelled Japanese military modernisation. Fourth, China’s high self-positioning on international terrorism notwithstanding, it has supported Pakistan on many terrorism related issues vis-a-vis India. It thwarted India’s attempts at UN for deportation of some terrorists from Pakistan on many occasions.
It is debatable and doubtful if the inherent contradictions in China’s security propaganda and practice will dilute in the near future. The Chinese may not accept it, but they continue to practice parabellum paradigm (war as essential strategy) as hypothesized long back by American strategist Alastair Iain Johnston. The series of white papers and other position papers on security notwithstanding, China continues to face the problem of credibility and indeed remains a major threat to Asia – Pacific security and stability.