China: a wolf in sheep's clothing

China's "peaceful rise" - Suspicions about its super power ambitions

"China is the only major Asian country that has fought wars with all its land neighbours and claims to have done so in self-defence."

By Gurmeet Kanwal

China has inaugurated its rail link to Lhasa with pomp and show. It is undoubtedly a technological marvel, though one that will be difficult to maintain over the long term. The new railway line is ostensibly designed to open up Tibet to the world. It will also help the ruling Communist Party in China to substantially increase the number of Han Chinese that it settles every year in Tibet to change its demography.

Another cause for concern is China’s increased logistics capability to build up and sustain over a longer duration a much larger number of People’s Liberation Army divisions in Tibet. These extra divisions could be employed to further subdue the Tibetan people during peacetime and will be readily available in case of another border skirmish with India. Very few people realise that another incident like the limited fighting at Nathu La in 1967 and the Wang Dung stand-off in 1986 can lead to a border war as a result of the undemarcated Line of Actual Control.

China has termed its ongoing quest for a super power status a “peaceful rise”. However, China has never hesitated to employ military power to settle territorial and boundary disputes. It is the only major Asian country that has fought wars with all its land neighbours and claims to have done so in self-defence. China was involved in a vicious war in Korea in the 1950s. In 1962 China fought a border war with India that shattered the illusions of peaceful co-existence in Asia. It fought with Russia over a disputed island in the Assuri river. It invaded Vietnam to teach it a lesson and withdrew with a bloody nose.

China always speaks of its intentions for the peaceful re-unification of Taiwan with the mainland but does not hesitate to issue dire threats at the smallest sign of Taiwan’s quest for self-determination. It has fired surface-to-surface missiles into the Taiwan Straits and regularly practices amphibious landings. China has taken physical possession of some of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea even though several other nations have much stronger claims. China was the world’s leading proliferator of nuclear weapons till A.Q. Khan’s antics propelled Pakistan to the top. Therefore, China’s emerging military capabilities must be seen in the light of its likely intentions in future.

It would be wrong to deduce that China is concentrating exclusively on enhancing its military power, which is now only one element of a nation’s ability to influence and shape the international environment. The Chinese leaders have for long propounded the concept of “comprehensive national power”. The Chinese are acutely conscious of the fact that they cannot hope to match the military muscle of the West for many more decades. They have been quick to realise that in future, as the world becomes increasingly globalised, interdependent and wired economic power will be the predominant determinant of a nation’s global status and its relative weight in the new world order. That is why the Chinese are working assiduously towards becoming an economic super power.

Simultaneously, China is modernising its armed forces to prepare for an option of the last resort, should Taiwan suddenly declare independence. In particular, the Chinese are acquiring offensive capabilities, including rapid reaction forces. The Chinese are unlikely to either invade Taiwan to secure its merger with the mainland or launch even missile and air strikes, as such action will have huge economic repercussions. New FDI will almost certainly stop; projects in the pipeline will be put on hold; some MNCs may even pull out; and the stock market will inevitably crash.

However, a naval and air blockade of Taiwan, though likely to invite UN sanctions, may appear attractive to the Chinese leadership. Cyber attacks, for which China has been preparing since the first Gulf War in 1991, are even more likely as these can completely disrupt the economy and provide inherent deniability.

Though Russia is the foremost supplier of military hardware to China, there has been no major military and strategic cooperation between the two countries. The relationship is basically a patron-client, buyer-seller relationship with limited transfer of technology to manufacture under license. It will be recalled that the Chinese had debunked former Russian Prime Minister Primakov’s proposal of a China-Russia-India triangle. However, the probability of a real convergence in the Chinese and Russian worldviews cannot be discounted. An overly pro-active US response will definitely ensure that the relationship graduates to a more meaningful strategic partnership, even if not a military alliance. Excessive US pressure will only drive the Chinese to up the ante a couple of notches in their rhetoric as well as their military preparations for the reunification of Taiwan.

Post-Cold War geopolitics is still in a state of flux. In the emerging poly-centric world order, new great powers will seek to counter US economic and military predominance. It will be prudent for the US to accommodate the new powers rather than confront them. At the same time, the US is unlikely to be overwhelmed either by the ongoing transition in power-politics or by the use of asymmetric warfare to counter its superior military power. The US can and must continue to utilise its economic clout and military muscle to exercise a stabilising international influence for the common good while dealing firmly with the so-called “states of concern” that threaten world peace and stability through WMD proliferation and international terrorism.

The emerging economic powerhouses like China and India will inevitably rise to take their rightful place as global players. Analysts in the West view China’s self-professed “peaceful rise” with suspicion and recommend a closer strategic partnership with India as a way of hedging US bets to counter-balance China’s influence in Asia. The best policy at present would be to continue to engage China as it integrates itself with the international economic order while keeping a close watch on its military ambitions and preparations.

The writer is Senior Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.

The Tribune, India
July 18, 2006


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