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Indo-US ties: The China factor

By Claude Arpi
Last updated on: February 28, 2006 23:38 IST
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In May last year, the Chinese press was furious.

Quoting The Financial Times, the Xinhua news agency reported that a Pentagon report on China's military advised Washington planners to 'take more seriously the possibility that China might emerge as a strategic rival to the US.'

The report, warned Xinhua, could complicate US-Chinese joint efforts to encourage North Korea's return to the negotiating table over its nuclear programme.

At that time, the publication of the report was delayed indicating a sharp difference of opinion between the conclusions of US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's staff and the State Department. Many analysts wanted the report to present a full 'range of outcomes': with China's economic growth and business opportunities for Beijing not being omitted.

Earlier, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2000 had made it compulsory for the Pentagon to submit a yearly report to 'address the current and probable future course of military-technological development on the People's Liberation Army and the tenets and probable development of Chinese grand strategy, security strategy, and military strategy.' The report was finally released when Dr Manmohan Singh arrived in the US in July 2005.

Pundits deduced that Washington was keen to develop a new partnership with Delhi to counter Beijing.

The conclusions of the report were clear: 'The rapid rise of the People's Republic of China as a regional political and economic power with global aspirations is one of the principal elements in the emergence of East Asia. China's emergence has significant implications for the region and the world.'

Earlier this month, the Pentagon published another report in its Quadrennial Defense Review which pointed in the same direction. In the introduction to the report, Secretary Rumsfeld spoke of 'The Directions we believe it needs to go in fulfilling our responsibilities to the American people.'

'In the fifth year of this global war, the ideas and proposals are provided (in the QDR) as a roadmap for change leading to victory,' he said.

From the start, the report makes it clear that 'India, Russia and China, will be key factors in determining the international security environment of the 21st century.'

India, China new competitors for US: Bush

Of the three nations, Russia is considered to be 'a constructive partner', even though 'the United States remains concerned about the erosion of democracy in Russia, the curtailment of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and freedom of the press, the centralization of political power and limits on economic freedom.' These concerns show that the Russian Federation is not really considered as a strategic threat for the United States.

India's case is different: 'India is emerging as a great power and a key strategic partner.'

The Pentagon Report returns to Dr Manmohan Singh's visit and the joint declaration: 'On July 18, 2005 the President and Indian Prime Minister declared their resolve to transform the US-India relationship into a global partnership that will provide leadership in areas of mutual concern and interest.'

It reiterates the importance of 'shared values as long-standing, multi-ethnic democracies provide the foundation for continued and increased strategic cooperation and represent an important opportunity for our two countries.'

Learn how to deal with the dragon

The semblance of a softer line towards India and the possible recognition of India as a civilian nuclear power (and the consequent transfer of nuclear technology and fuel) had probably more to do with the new 'Chinese threat' than the US love for democracy.

The lifting of the sanctions put into place after India's first nuclear test in 1974 was, however, conditional.

India had to separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities and programmes. Further, India would have to declare its civilian facilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency -- IAEA -- and place them under IAEA safeguards.

The nuclear deal

With one stone, the United States thought to kill two birds. One it would keep India's nuclear programme under control and two, it would effectively use India against China.

The QDR thus defines the Middle Kingdom: 'Of the major and emerging powers, China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could over time off set traditional US military advantages absent US counter strategies.'

For the next 20 or 30 years the threat will come from China, though the Pentagon advocates that 'US policy remains focused on encouraging China to play a constructive, peaceful role in the Asia-Pacific region and to serve as a partner in addressing common security challenges, including terrorism, proliferation, narcotics and piracy.'

With the Chinese threat growing fast in the eyes of the policy makers in Washington, the Bush administration wants to 'encourage China to choose a path of peaceful economic growth and political liberalization, rather than military threat and intimidation.'

The main worry of the Pentagon is that China continues to invest heavily in its military, particularly in its strategic arsenal and capabilities to improve its ability to exercise its power beyond its borders. Washington believes that in every year since 1996, China has increased its defense spending by more than 10 per cent in real terms.

The Pentagon nonetheless complains that secrecy 'envelops most aspects of Chinese security affairs. The outside world has little knowledge of Chinese motivations and decision-making or of key capabilities supporting its military modernization.'

Stealthily preys the dragon

'Chinese military modernization has accelerated since the mid-to-late 1990s in response to central leadership demands to develop military options against Taiwan scenarios,' the report notes.

The Department of Defense believes that the pace and scope of China's military build-up has already changed the regional military balance as Beijing continues to make large investments 'in high-end, asymmetric military capabilities, emphasizing electronic and cyber-warfare; counter-space operations; ballistic and cruise missiles; advanced integrated air defense systems; next generation torpedoes; advanced submarines; strategic nuclear strike from modern, sophisticated land and sea-based systems."

Washington's objective is 'to ensure that no foreign power can dictate the terms of regional or global security.'

More than anyone else, these implications interest us in India. Since the end of the 1950s till today, China has been India's main rival in Asia. With a 4,000 km common border and the souvenir of the not-yet-healed scar of 1962, China's rise can only increase qualms in Delhi.

Remembering a war

The oft-spoken 'peaceful rise of China' worries Washington too, though they welcome 'the rise of a peaceful and prosperous China, one that becomes integrated as a constructive member of the international community.' Nonetheless the Pentagon: 'see(s) a China facing a strategic crossroads. Questions remain about the basic choices China's leaders will make as China's power and influence grow, particularly its military power.'

The main target of Chinese military planners is undoubtedly Taiwan, the renegade island. China continues to deploy its most advanced weapons opposite the island with the emphasis 'on new technologies and strategies with the aim of winning short-duration, high- intensity conflict.'

During the last few years, China has increased the number of short-range ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan by about 100 per cent. In March 2005, after the National People's Congress passed an anti-cessation law calling for the use of "non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity", this move is bound to accelerate.

In the 2005 report, a chapter titled 'Military Modernization…Beyond Taiwan' should interest India.

It states: 'China's leaders believe that control and use of the armed forces are essential to ensure that the Party remains dominant, and that China can secure its borders, defend its territorial claims, and shape its security environment in a way that allows its continued economic growth and development.'

More news from China

Obviously, some of China's military planners are studying the possibilities of strategic aspirations 'beyond Taiwan.' Many in Beijing believe that that control of Taiwan would enable the PLA Navy to move its maritime defensive perimeter further seaward and improve Beijing's ability to influence regional sea lines of communication.

A perusal of China's military acquisitions also suggests the PLA is interested to go beyond a Taiwan scenario. For example, although most of its Short Range Ballistic Missiles are stationed opposite Taiwan, the fact that they are mobile and can be rapidly deployed in another theatre proves that the PLA can take care 'of a variety of regional contingencies.'

The report also mentions that China is developing new medium-range systems that will improve its regional targeting capability.

'Similarly, China's air and naval force improvements -– both complete and in the pipeline -– are scoped for operations beyond the geography around Taiwan,' it adds.

What does this 'beyond Taiwan policy' means for India?

We shall try to answer this question in the next part of this article.

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Claude Arpi