The report that China’s economy is set to overtake Japan this year shows that the Chinese growth miracle is for real, and that its rise continues unabated. Now only the United States remains ahead and even that, too, may change by 2030, if not earlier. You do not have to be a determinist to believe that there will be strategic consequences to this unparalleled economic growth. But where China’s economic growth has been welcomed around the world, the same cannot be said of the concomitant growth of its military power.
The reason why people welcome Chinese economic growth is that it has spread prosperity around the world, and takes place in a relatively open environment. But Chinese military decision-making is opaque and there is little explanation as to why China is putting on military muscle at the rate that it is. It is a well-rounded nuclear weapons power and it is unlikely if it can be blackmailed or coerced by anyone, including the United States.
You do not have to go by the Pentagon’s selective China’s Military Power document issued on Tuesday, to believe that China could become a threat. Last month, at an ASEAN symposium in Hanoi, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that a peaceful resolution of competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea was in the US “national interest” and that “The U.S. supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion,” and that the US opposed “the use or threat of force by any claimant.”
Chief of General Staff of the PLA Chen Bingde who is also a member of the Military Affairs or Central Military Commission
It was clear who she was talking about. The People’s Republic of China has some extraordinary territorial claims in the region. It has claimed a maritime border on the South China Sea, south of Vietnam, lapping the shores of Malaysia and the Philippines. It is almost the equivalent of India claiming the Seychelles and the Maldives and the waters around them.
A 2002 ASEAN-China code of conduct commits them to resolve the issue through negotiations. But this March, the Chinese upped the ante by declaring that South China Sea had become part of China’s “core interests” akin to Tibet and Taiwan. This unilateral declaration has led to Vietnam-led efforts to get the US to stand up for the ASEAN countries.
The Chinese reaction to Ms Clinton was over the top. Foreign Minister Yang Jichei declared that the US was needlessly internationalising the issue and creating tensions. At the end of the month, no less than two members of the all-powerful Central Military Commission, PLA Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde and naval commander Wu Shengli, landed up to personally supervise a massive military exercise in the South China Sea.
Last September, Clinton’s deputy James Steinberg, had raised the notion of a pact of “strategic reassurance” between the US and China through which the US would welcome the rise of China, provided Beijing reassured its neighbours and the world that it would not threaten them.
The tart Chinese response had been that if any country needed “strategic reassurance” from the US, it was China. Early this year, the US indicated that it was not buying any of this and over Beijing’s strenuous objections, President Obama notified China of a $6 billion arms sale to Taiwan. The new American maneuver in the South China Sea has China worried. Beijing’s claim that India is the only country with which it has an unresolved border dispute does not ring true when you realise that it disputes its maritime border with all its neighbours— Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
Earlier this month, American fleets, led by the US supercarrier George Washington exercised with regional navies in the Yellow and the South China seas raising Beijing’s ire. More significant was the American entente with its great foe of the past, Vietnam. Not only did the Vietnam Navy exercise with the Americans, but the George Washington visited Da Nang and, more significant, the two countries announced that they had arrived at a nuclear deal. As in the case of India, such a deal is a strategic signal, and it has been noted so in Beijing.
The issue for China’s interlocutors and neighbours is not so much its massive economic growth or its transformation. It is in the nature of the Chinese polity. For the past 60 years and more this has been dominated by the Communist Party. It was manifested in practical terms in a unique relationship between the People’s Liberation Army and the Chinese Communist Party.
Leaders of the party served as political commissars in the armed forces, and in turn, top military figures were important members of the policy-making apparatus such as the Central Committee, State Council and the Politburo. The acme of this relationship was the Military Affairs Commission or the Central Military Commission, a body which is in its own way as powerful as the Politburo. In reforming the body in 1982, Deng Xiaoping sought to keep the military under the authority of the party.
But where in the past top party and military officials mingled to take the key decisions relating to China, today we have a body that is overwhelmingly military. After the passing of Deng, there has been no top civilian leader of the country who has extensive military experience. Hu Jintao, who, like his predecessor, has no military experience is, in fact, the only politburo member in the CMC.
In this sense, the party’s control over the armed forces has loosened. The military reforms have removed the PLA from its erstwhile business interests. They have been given large budgets and professionalised, but they no longer function in the tight political control of the party. The downgrading of political people who guided the armed forces is probably what has led to a more militaristic posture that we often see in relation to China.
What does all this mean for a country like India? The increased dominance of the military over the political in decision-making is never a happy sign. Given our long-standing border dispute and uneasy relations, it does not bode well. It is no secret that the Chinese are dramatically improving their infrastructure in Tibet. Besides roads and railways, there are a slew of new airfields. On the other hand, there are increasing reports that resistance to Chinese authority is actually growing. This could generate tensions on the Indo-Tibet border in the future.
There has been some alarm about reports of Chinese placing missiles on the Tibetan plateau aimed at India. The fact is that prior to India’s nuclear tests, the Chinese did not consider India as a strategic threat. But now that we have ourselves broadcast our capabilities vis-à-vis China, they are reacting.
But India, like Vietnam, is a difficult customer and the Chinese will handle both with sophistication, rather than through just threat and bluster. In the case of India, besides Pakistan, China has the advantage of good relations with all our neighbours. The most recent entrant into the “all weather friendship club” is Sri Lanka, where China is the biggest aid donor and military weapons supplier.
In terms of economic growth, military power and size, India is the only Asian country that can match China. Many Asian countries look to New Delhi as a hedge against Beijing. India is not seen as threatening by any country other than Pakistan. But New Delhi’s internal obsessions act as a self-limiting factor. As it is, India continues to live by God’s grace rather than efficient governance and sound neighbourhood diplomacy.
This appeared in Mail Today August 19 2010