Unraveling the Chinese Checkers

With Premier Wen Jiabao’s recent visit to India , New Delhi needs to conduct an honest appraisal of the basic Chinese characteristics and compare them with ours. On one hand, this ruthless evaluation of plus and minuses of both, will enable New Delhi to evolve a long term strategy to deal with the emerging threats posed by the Chinese proxies on our periphery.  On the other, we can simultaneously plug into each other’s market to reap huge mutual benefits as India and China continue to emerge as the core group that powers the unprecedented economic boom in Asia .

China is a non-status quo power in terms of territory, power and influence and India , a non-status quo power in terms of status, power and influence by virtue of their belief in their centrality. Whereas the Indian centrality is of mind, the Chinese centrality is of material possessions including acquisition of fresh territory. Thus, history is witness to China’s expansionist agenda in forcible occupation of Tibet while India after liberating East Pakistan from the tyranny of Islamabad, withdrew its forces handing over the territory to create an independent sovereign nation. Hence, it stands to reason that incase India is ever found militarily weak; China ’s imperial territorial ambitions will overwhelm India . The forerunner of such a scenario was observed recently when a calibrated campaign was orchestrated through state blessed demonstrations by Beijing against Japan !. However, the reverse would not be true in case Beijing ’s hold ever weakened over its far-flung territories. Therefore, while New Delhi resolves amicably the boundary disputes and dialogues on other beneficial aspects of the burgeoning Sino-Indian relationship, its continued neglect of the military power will prove fatal in long term.

Integral to the Chinese statecraft is the belief that there are no friendly foreign powers – either they are hostile or subordinate. Pakistan , Myanmar , and North Korea are subordinates who need to be protected with economic, diplomatic and military support as they sub-serve the Chinese policy objectives. Embroiling them in their regional vicinity by arming them against neighbors shores up the credibility of Beijing ’s supremacy as the top dog in Asia . This policy is a direct derivative of China ’s strategic tradition of comprehensive national power that primarily consists of cultural, economic, organizational and military superiority. To create a favorable Balance of Power it uses in integrated fashion economic capability, coercion and deception, need based shifting of alliances, and use of force. Beijing joined up with Washington during the Nixon era in egging Pakistan to destabilize India . However in the current geo-political scenario where rising China intends replacing American influence in Asia-Pacific and after Washington termed it as a strategic competitor, Beijing is shifting gear by aligning with India and Russia to counter balance American unilateralist approach.  But on another strategic dimension it continues to surround and weaken India .

Even as China and India move to resolve the boundary dispute, Beijing is intelligently creating surrogates with anti-India tilt on our land borders. The big picture runs from West to East and consists of Pakistan , Nepal , Bangladesh and Myanmar on our periphery. There is an active Kamtapuri movement underway to carve an independent state in the narrow Siliguri corridor (i.e. 21 to 60 kms wide and 200 kms long), which if it succeeds can help Beijing unravel the entire northeast and take over Bhutan . Simultaneously Beijing is not only lavishing funds on its Navy but also acquiring naval base facilities in Gwadar port in Pakistan and Chittagong port in Bangladesh . This will facilitate inroads into the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal . To allow oil tankers from West Asia to bypass Malacca Strait , it is negotiating with Thailand to carve an Asian Panama Canal through the Thai isthmus. China has already helped build several ports, roads and rail links from the Chinese province of Yunnan to the Bay of Bengal , and a listening post on Myanmar ’s Coco Islands to monitor sea traffic. Therefore even as the Chinese Premier discusses friendship with New Delhi on his visit, Beijing is making sure that turmoil on India ’s land frontiers remains intact and the Chinese naval basis surrounding India with the help of its surrogates act as an adequate drag to further slow down New Delhi ’s rise as a global power.

However, India ’s belief thus far, in centrality of mind (unlike China ’ s centrality based on territory) inhibits India to accord a natural primacy to military power in the scheme of things to expand its influences. Though foreign policy of a nation is a means and not an end itself, unfortunately this centrality of mind makes us pretend that diplomacy by itself is adequate to meet the security challenges posed by adversaries. Without sufficient economic and military strength and a shrewd game plan no foreign policy objectives of peaceful neighborhood can be achieved.  New Delhi needs to be ruthless in conducting covert operations to ensure governments in our vicinity refrain from indulging in unfriendly acts, prioritize rapid modernization of our armed forces to expand our benevolent influences such that it lends stability to the region, create strong economic and military alliances within Asia to counter-balance nations and forces that can be inimical to us while seeking simultaneously, the resolution of boundary dispute, economic inter-connectivity with China and ability to act in concert where it furthers our national interests.

EU to Empower Chinese Military Bangalore’s biennial Aero India show has started attracting the American, Russian, Israeli, French, and the British companies in a big way. However, the developments taking place in our vicinity pose a grave challenge to India ’s supremacy in military aviation sector in Asia . European Union alarmed with a large growing trade deficit with China is keen to lift the ban on sales of weapons immediately. In particular, Germany , Italy and France are lobbying hard with Washington to remove the embargo imposed on transfer of military technology. This appears to be the only method to correct the trade imbalance with the Asian giant. So far, the United States has successfully stalled such attempts by threatening to limit its own military technological transfer to NATO incase EU unilaterally lifts the ban. However, the ban is more than likely to be removed by 2008, once George Bush demits office. This in turn, to maintain strategic parity will force India to invest heavily in upgrades and modernization of its military technology.

To emerge as the unchallenged military power in Asia and to replace American influence in Asia-Pacific , China ’s defense budget increases every year by ten to fifteen percent. In 2005 official figures stood at almost 30 billions dollars and the unofficial estimates at another 30 billion, making it the largest weapons and armament procurement program in Asia . However China ’s plans for military modernization have hit a roadblock due to the embargo placed by America and NATO countries on military hardware supplies.

French objective in the words of President Chirac while speaking in Hong Kong in October 2004 were stated to be “ the relations and links between the EU and China are destined to grow, and in my view, the EU is destined to become the leading customer, the leading supplier, and first partner of China” Implicit in these word is the fact that EU has serious concerns over trade deficit and resumption of military supplies is a way out to strike a balance. Military technical cooperation also promotes sales of high-tech civil products as an offshoot. Therefore it is quite a win-win situation for both, the Europeans and as well as the Chinese. For Europeans the Chinese market has preference even though the Indian aviation market is as big on two counts. First within India , there is a tough competition between Russia , Europe , Israel and off late, the United States . Second, on one hand, the Chinese market is easy to enter as United States refuses to sell as it considers Beijing a strategic competitor and also a threat to Taiwan . Therefore, an easy to enter market that ultimately will extend to its close ally Pakistan , making it the largest in Asia . This deal will be similar in reverse order where technology transferred via latest proposed F-16 aircrafts to Pakistan by America will traverse covertly to China !

Earlier Russia was gradually arming China with transfer of modern and sensitive technology. However, the situation is constantly under review with Putin taking over as President. China maybe denied supplies of airborne radars with phased array, heavy supersonic anti-ship missiles, nuclear submarine building technologies and a host of other weapons. Moreover, military aircraft supplied to China from Russia are designed in such way that makes it impossible to equip them with European weapons and radars while upgrading them. Naturally Beijing is irritated by the fact that India , Malaysia and Thailand are not encountering such problems. Beijing is also dissatisfied that Chinese designers unlike the Indian ones are barred from working on joint projects with their Russian counterparts. Therefore, for Beijing it is vital that it leverages the only willing suppliers of modern technologies – the Europeans. Similarly for EU to correct the trade imbalances with China and to take advantage of the largest emerging market in Asia , it is imperative that they agree to supply most modern weapon technologies to China .

There is a persistent belief that electronic items and dual-purpose technologies will be a major trade off with China . It is reported that France , Italy and Germany have already firmed up supplies of electronic radar and electronic weapon control systems to China despite the ban. Beijing also aims at acquiring Rafale Fighters. Unless and until 5th generation fighters are inducted in large numbers in the USAF, Rafale with China could prove a serious adversary for the US , incase latter wants to assist Taiwan in conflict resolution with the mainland. In return, China will open up to European aviation technologies and assist the EU to win global tenders against Boeing. Beijing therefore is quite amenable to let EU Airbus capture 60 percent of the Chinese commercial aviation market – a position presently held by Boeing. Airbus has already secured last year 78 orders in this fastest growing commercial airliner market in the world.

Therefore, a status quo power like India needs to review its strategy and equip itself with a superior firepower rapidly. This is particularly true if New Delhi wants to talk as an equal with Beijing . A weak India and a strong authoritarian China with a history of territorial expansion as a basic characteristic will always remain a threat. Therefore even as we work out together an economic inter-connectivity in Asia , a militarily strong China will require a sufficient counter-balance in terms of military power for the economic relationship to fructify in a congenial atmosphere of stability.

This article first appeared in the Indian Defence Review Volume 20-1, Jan- Mar 05 and has been reproduced here with the permission of the editor. The author is the editor of the Indian Defence Review.