China’s growing assertiveness and shaping the Indian response
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 20 Jul , 2012

“Indian elites show little evidence of having thought coherently and systematically about strategy.” – George Tanham  

Nearly 200 years back, Napoleon had prophetically stated that “ let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.”  Indeed, China has gone far beyond this truism for the world to acknowledge that, since the past decade, China is the world’s fastest growing economy, with the largest, if not the most powerful, Armed Forces in the world and foreign reserves at $ 3.2 trillion— far exceeding even of the sole superpower— now economically weary and the strategically fatigued US, all translating into China’s ever growing global clout.

China’s nuclear weapons- cum- missiles nexus with its client state, Pakistan, and modernizing the Pakistani Armed Forces is singularly aimed against India.

China’s burgeoning financial and consequently its military might continues to be on a rapid upswing propelled by its ancient civilizational wisdom of realpolitik embellished by a strategic vision and nationalistic ambitions which are distinctly unparalleled. That China will be a super-power by 2025, if not earlier, will be understating a stark reality. If  the 21st century has to be an Asian century, as repeatedly proclaimed by many geo-political luminaries, China leads the way well ahead of the other players on the scene including India, Japan, S.Korea, Viet Nam, Malaysia etc. China is usually bracketed with India as the lead players in emerging Asia but India merely plods along never having risen yet to its true potential because of its inner contradictions. That China sees India as its main rival, globally, regionally, economically and militarily, makes the growing asymmetric chasm between the two neighbours and Asian giants a serious cause of worry, in the foreseeable future, for India.

China’s Stated Aims : An Analysis 

As China builds up a formidable military machine, it is conscious of inculcating a responsible image for world consumption in keeping with its growing global status. Thus China has been since 1998, issuing every two years White Papers on national defence with the latest in the series issued late last year—- on China’s National Defence in  2010. This paper comprehensively covers all macro-issues concerning national defence.

China’s stated aims in its aforesaid White Paper is the pursuit of a defence policy which ensures a stable security environment and permits the development of its economy and the modernization of its military. Importantly, it relies on military power as a guarantor of China’s strategic autonomy and aims to ensure that China continues to enjoy unrestricted access to critical strategic resources like oil and natural gas. China, further stresses that its national defence policy is primarily defensive in nature and that China launches counter-attacks only in self-defence. China further claims that it “plays an active part in maintaining global and regional peace and stability.” It continues to proclaim, that it follows a “no first use” nuclear doctrine and is a responsible nuclear and space power.

For China, Pakistan is a low-cost guarantor of security against India and China now a high value guarantor of security for Pakistan against India.

Most strategic analysts the world over and particularly its neighbours, however, dismiss China’s noble-sounding rhetoric as nothing more than a public-relations exercise as China’s actions in the past few years, all across Asia, have been anything but contributing to regional harmony. On the contrary, China is well on the way to have become a regional hegemon as many of its actions clearly show especially the turbulence it has created by its muscle-flexing in the many waterways which lap the Chinese coastline whether it is the South China Sea or the East China Sea including its many unfair claims on various island territories in SE Asia.

One of the manifestations of changing Chinese doctrine is the introduction of a new cliché in the lexicon of Chinese think tanks, namely ‘Grand Periphery Military Strategy’. This presupposes the fact that the People’s Liberation Army, surprisingly to many outsiders, lacked the capability of defending its ‘far flung borders.’ Now other Chinese military thinkers are reinforcing this newer strategy to be adopted in the face of rapidly changing geopolitical dynamics in South Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia. The Chinese move to expand high speed rail networks and equipping over 1000 railway stations with military transport facilities points towards concrete military steps being taken in this regard. This will ensure rapid offensive deployment as required to the many and diverse border regions of China. Thus proactive military actions along several theatres will be a possibility. The excellent fast rail network to Tibet is a pre-eminent example of adherence to the Grand Peripheral Military Strategy of China and further its connectivity to Nepal and the Chumbi Valley is being planned in the near future. In addition, the rail link being conceptualized along the Karakoram Highway linking Xingjian, through the disputed territory of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, to the warm water port of Gwadar in Balochistan along the Makran Coast is another example of Chinese strategic determination to extend its influence beyond its peripheries and dominate regions well away from its boundaries.

As one of the signatories of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific sponsored 81000 km long Trans-Asian Railway, China has come out with a plan to build high-speed rails to Laos, Singapore, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Thailand and Mynanmar along its southeast periphery. It has also got the signal to construct the China-Iran rail that will pass through the Central Asian countries of Kyrgystan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Michael Caine and Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in their seminal work in, Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past, Present and Future, have opined that “  the continued increase in China’s relative economic and military capabilities, combined with its growing maritime strategic orientation, if sustained over many years, will almost certainly produce both a re-definition of Beijing strategic interests…… that directly or indirectly challenge many of the existing equities.”

China’s Defence Spending 

Freeing China from restrictive Maoist economic thinking, in the mid 70s, then China’s leader Deng Xiaoping had unleashed market reforms which The Economist aptly summarized as “….. the most dynamic burst of wealth creation in human history.” This       growing economic clout is translating into military muscle and modernization of its forces at a pace which no country in the world can match .As is widely known, Chinese declared defense budgets are normally half of their actual value. From an annual defense budget of $ 92 billion last year, the budget this year has shot up to a whooping $ 106 billion, which, in real terms, would thus be around $200 billion just for a year! According to the widely acclaimed defence consultancy, IHS Jane’s, China’s defense budget is set to double by 2015 to a whooping $ 238 billion and exceed that of all major Asia-Pacific countries put together. Japan will remain in defense spending a distant second with around $ 64 billion. India with a falling rupee depreciation, heavy fiscal deficit and large government debts will be left far behind in defense allocations. The overall strategic implications for the entire Asia-Pacific region of China’s triple digit defense spending can be easily comprehended.

China has successfully made serious inroads into India’s immediate neighbourhood through Nepal, Bangladesh, Mynamar and Sri Lanka providing them subsidized arms and military training facilities besides constructing strategic infrastructure for them.

In the overall budget for 2011, for the first time the budget for Internal Security outstripped the Defence budget of the Chinese and this points towards internal stability concerns for China.

China’s Core Interests and Internal Imbalances 

It is not surprising to China watchers that China’s all pervading assertiveness has  led to the definition and usage  by both its official and unofficial institutions of its “core interests”  spreading to embrace newer sensitivities. Earlier, such interests used to be confined to a few areas where the Chinese Communist Party would brook no dissenting views. These included its national security, national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Tibet came in as a major “core interest” after its forcible annexation in 1951 and so did the island of Taiwan, which was ceded to Japan in 1895, and today is an economically vibrant self-governing democracy, calling itself the Republic of China. The People’s Republic of China has repeatedly warned the world that it will invade  Taiwan if it ever declares independence. More recently, the restive province of Xingjian( formerly East Turkestan) , the huge area in west of China which has seen frequent clashes between the local Uighur Muslims and the Han Chinese being settled there from mainland China, has also been added to the list of China’s “core interests”. China has vociferously warned of its “core interests” in the South China Sea as non-negotiable to nations like Viet Nam, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei which lie astride this waterway. It has cautioned the US to keep its naval vessels away from this waterway and only last year, it had aggressively cautioned an Indian naval vessel,INSAirawat which was sailing in the territorial waters of Viet Nam where India is oil prospecting. China has now also included the sustaining of its existing political system as a “core interest.”

Internal stability is currently the most critical constituent of China’s national security. The significant internal imbalances which worry China are Taiwan, Tibet, the restive Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region, uneven regional development with the east, namely its coastal belt far ahead in development indices than its impoverished western region. In addition, Chinese concerns also embrace its demographic clock where its population is ageing at a rapid rate and it is estimated that by the mid-century, more than half of its population will be over sixty. Barry Naughton in his book on the Chinese economy has surmised that “ China will grow old before it has had the opportunity to grow richer.”  In addition China’s growing energy demands to fuel its growth is causing environmental problems both internally and internationally. Its unchecked modernization is also causing severe environmental degradation inside China with acid rain getting worse and its total agricultural land having decreased by 20 percent.

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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

Lt Gen Kamal Davar (Retd)

a distinguished soldier and veteran of the 1965 and 1971 wars, was the founder director general of the Defence Intelligence Agency, raised after the Kargil conflict. After retirement, he writes and lectures on security, terrorism and allied issues in the national media and many forums.

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