Monday, June 05, 2006

China, Sweet and Sour

China is an opportunity, rather than a threat to India

Across the political spectrum — from the crimson Left to the deep saffron — conventional wisdom is that the UPA government has sold out to the US. There is not an iota of truth in the allegation, yet, in a country where 40 per cent people can’t read or write, bazaar buzz and ideological predilection pass off for analysis. Perhaps the clearest indication that the charge is missing its target comes from India’s Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s productive visit to Beijing. Coming a year after the two countries pledged to build strategic relations, the visit has led to an agreement that will promote ties between the armed forces of the two countries through joint exercises and exchange of officers in training institutions.

The bets are that the delay in the Agni test earlier this month was occasioned by Mukherjee’s visit to Beijing, rather than any alleged US pressure. If so, this was a prudent and thoughtful step. The Chinese have, in the past, behaved otherwise, conducting punitive military operations and nuclear tests as a ‘lesson’ for India. But China’s past, and some current bad behaviour should not be allowed to unsettle New Delhi’s balanced stance in international relations, an approach that is clearly yielding greater dividends. Where China is being seen as a threat, India’s rise is seen as a benign and stabilising development around the world.

India’s relations with China have had its share of ups and downs and in some ways, the ups were really a long time ago in the Fifties, and till the late Eighties they were stuck in a deep and long rift-valley. Since then, there has been significant and positive surface movement — the 1993 agreement on maintaining peace and tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control; the 1996 protocol on military confidence building measures; the 2002 agreement on providing a political push to settling the border problem; the 2005 agreement on political parameters and guiding principles for settling the dispute; as well as a raft of economic and cultural agreements.

But beneath the surface there remain a lot of misgivings, especially on the part of India, primarily related to Chinese policy in its neighbourhood, especially in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Since Islamabad has repeatedly declared that India is its sole enemy, China’s assistance to its nuclear and missile programme begs the question. At an official level, China denies all the charges. This is not only unhelpful in overcoming mistrust, but somewhat ingenuous considering that the consequences of Chinese proliferation activities in the Eighties could yet shake the world.

If there are any worries over growing Indian ties with the US and Japan, they do not appear to be rattling Beijing. China has quietly buried its post-Pokhran hatchet and moved to build better ties with India. Closer political ties through bilateral agreements, participation in common multilateral bodies like the Asean, East Asia Summit and so on are leavened by a burgeoning trade relationship.

It would be naïve to believe that there are no problems between the two countries, and there will never be any. The Chinese decision-making system and its longer-term goals remain opaque. But they need not automatically be designated as threatening. That is why it is somewhat difficult to understand why the Pentagon is raising the China threat bogey in the manner it is. Last week, the Pentagon came up with the 2006 version of its report on China’s rising military power. The word ‘irony’ doesn’t quite sum up the spectacle of a power that accounts for more than 50 per cent of the world’s military budget and whose military machine is decades ahead of that of any other country, pointing fingers at China. The Pentagon’s approach is not very different from what it did with annual reports on the military power of the erstwhile Soviet Union. A careful choice of adjectives, a clever juxtaposition of fact and fiction and an unquestioning media enabled it to show that the slowly imploding USSR was much stronger than it actually was. In the Soviet era, American analysts put forward the proposition that what mattered were capabilities, since intentions were difficult to determine and could quickly change. Even by that measure, China hardly comes up to be the kind of threat the Pentagon document outlines. Chinese military capacity is nowhere near even that of the Soviets in the late-Eighties. The Soviets had thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles and huge military forces. Their nuclear- propelled submarines and fleets spanned the oceans and they had anchorages in Cuba, Arabian Sea and Vietnam.

Analyst Fred Kaplan cites the Pentagon study itself to point out that China lacks an aircraft carrier, deep water anti-submarine capabilities, area anti-aircraft warfare capabilities, nuclear attack submarines and so on, and they are not even close to any of those capabilities. Chinese nuclear-powered ballistic submarines don’t work too well, its heavy airlift and sealift capacity is probably inferior to that of India, as indeed is its fighter aircraft fleet. Its nuclear warheads don’t exceed 200 and there are few signs that it intends to obtain more. A look at the half-empty Chinese glass shows up the deep vulnerability of Chinese oil supplies, 80 per cent of which flow past the Indian peninsula, going around Sri Lanka, then between the Andaman & Nicobar Islands to the Malacca Straits. In time China may develop naval bases in Myanmar and Pakistan, but they would always remain vulnerable to India’s proximate military forces.

Actually what the Pentagon report reveals is that Chinese capabilities are oriented not towards Japan or the US and India, but its ‘rebel province’ of Taiwan. While Beijing may have improved the balance vis-à-vis Taipei, it is nowhere near being able to simply roll it over in a conflict. The more important question is whether China would actually risk war with Taiwan considering that the latter is its single largest source of FDI and that the US would almost certainly intervene. A look at China’s trade figures with the US would make it clear that any breakdown of their relations would be overwhelmingly more destructive for China, than for the US.

So we come back to the more important question: What are Chinese intentions and can we determine them with any degree of certainty? The direction of Chinese modernisation and the posture of its forces indicate that its focus remains essentially narrow — that of preventing a coup de main in Taiwan. Its deliberately paced out long-range missile programme and limited naval capabilities indicate that it does not seek confrontation with the US or, for that matter, India. There are many imponderables as to what could change this — internal strife in the Communist party, deployment of US ballistic missile defence systems and so on. But, they are that, imponderables.

India needs to understand the nuances of the US-Chinese relationship if it is to steer between the emerging Scylla and the existing Charybdis of the international system. We also need to understand the nature of Chinese power, both as a friend and potential foe. Underestimating a peril can be risky and overstating it needlessly expensive, but both probably pale before the hazard of mistaking an opportunity for a threat. To its credit, the UPA government is not making that mistake and is moving with due deliberation to build beneficial relations with a neighbour without in any way compromising the country’s strategic autonomy.

Published in The Hindustan Times May 31,06

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