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BRAHMA CHELLANEY
STRATEGIC IMPERATIVE

Author, most recently, of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.

Beware China’s determination to choke off Asian competition

Chinese President Hu Jintao

hina's rise in one generation as a global player under authoritarian rule has come to epitomise the qualitative reordering of power in Asia and the wider world. Not since Japan rose to world-power status during the reign of the Meiji Emperor in the second half of the 19th century has another non-Western power emerged with such potential to alter the world order as China today. As the most-recent assessment by US intelligence agencies predicted, China stands to more profoundly affect global geopolitics than any other country.

The ascent of China, while a symbol of the ongoing global power shifts, has been accentuated by major geopolitical developments — from the unravelling of the Soviet Union that eliminated a mighty empire to China's north and west, to the manner the American colossus has stumbled after the triumphalism of the 1990s. The free world's mounting problems, including Europe's worries about its future, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the West's troubled relationships with Moscow and Tehran, Japan's uncertain demographic future and India's internal challenges, have all helped Beijing to increase its strategic space, not just in Asia, but also in Africa and Latin America.

While Asia's growing importance in international relations signals a systemic shift in the global distribution of power, it is the rising heft of a single country — China — that by itself is transforming the international geopolitical landscape like no other development. As world history attests, the dramatic rise of a new power usually creates volatility in the international system, especially when the concerned power is not transparent about its strategic policies and military expenditure. Therefore, China's rise constitutes a strategic challenge by itself in Asia — a challenge that needs to be managed wisely, so that Beijing stays on the positive side of the ledger, not the negative side.

After all, in 25 years from now, China will clearly be more powerful and influential than it is today, with a greater propensity to assert itself on issues while projecting power far beyond its shores. China's rapidly accumulating power already is emboldening Beijing to pursue a more muscular foreign policy. After having touted its "peaceful rise," it has shown a creeping propensity to flex its muscle.

China's economy has expanded 13-fold over the last 30 years, thanks to surging exports and copious investments. As a result, China already has arrived as a global economic player. Today, with its burgeoning foreign-exchange reserves, it is courted around the world to help resolve a host of financial problems. At the same time, it is true that China's global ambitions get weighed down by its vulnerabilities, including authoritarian rule, an opaque culture, failure to accommodate ethnic nationalities like the Tibetans and Uighurs, and growing disparities in Chinese society.

Militarily, China is likely to continue to put the emphasis on indigenous research and development to further augment its capabilities. China already spends far more on its military than any other country in Asia.

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China's insistence on further expanding its national frontiers stymies a forward-thinking approach essential to building peace and stability in Asia.

It is also set to develop clear and deep linkages between trade and foreign policy, and between trade and power projection. That will mean a proactive, assertive Chinese foreign-policy posture in relation to countries and issues of vital interest. The creeping extension of China's security perimeter is bound to increase international concerns about the opacity of its strategic doctrine and military spending.

hina's priority, of course, will remain what it has been for long: boosting indigenous capabilities, especially its conventional and nuclear deterrence, and working to shift the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific in its favour. China's increasingly sophisticated missile force remains at the heart of its military modernisation. As part of a calculated strategy to project power far beyond its frontiers and strengthen its deterrent capabilities, China has placed missile prowess at the centre of its force modernisation. It is developing a range of land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles, long-range surface-to-air missiles and anti-radiation missiles. As its nuclear-force modernisation gains further momentum, shifts in China's nuclear doctrine — from a defensive orientation to a more offensively-configured posture — would inevitably occur.

Broadly, Chinese naval power is set to grow exponentially, as Beijing expands its indigenous ship production and deploys naval assets far from its exclusive economic zone. Little surprise the Chinese Navy is beginning to show open interest in extending its reach and operations to the Indian Ocean — a crucial international passageway for oil deliveries and other trade.

That interest is manifest from the Chinese projects in the Indian Ocean rim region, including the building of a port at Hambantota in Sri Lanka, the modernisation of the Bangladeshi port of Chittagong, and the construction of a deep-water naval base and commercial port for Pakistan at Gwadar, situated at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz — the only exit route for Persian Gulf oil. In addition, the Irrawaddy Corridor between China's Yunnan province and the Burmese ports on the Bay of Bengal is set to become a key economic and strategic passageway involving road, river, rail and harbour links.

In the Pacific Ocean, as underlined by the rising frequency of Chinese naval patrols, Beijing also is seeking to extend its strategic perimeter there. What is being subtly suggested by Chinese analysts today — that the Western Pacific is China's maritime zone of influence — could set the stage for an intensifying strategic competition with Japan.

Beijing, not content that Han territorial power is at its pinnacle, still seeks a Greater China. With 60% of its present landmass comprising homelands of ethnic minorities, modern China has come a long way in history since the time the Great Wall represented the Han empire's outer security perimeter. Yet, driven by self-cultivated myths, the state fuels territorial nationalism, centred on issues like Tibet and Taiwan, and its claims in the East and South China Seas and on India's northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. China's insistence on further expanding its national frontiers stymies a forward-thinking approach essential to building peace and stability in Asia.

It is thus not an accident that as its power grows, China seems more determined than ever to choke off Asian competitors, a tendency reflected in its hardening stance toward India. Hopes of a politically negotiated settlement of the lingering territorial disputes have dissipated amid Chinese muscle-flexing along the long, 4,057 km Himalayan frontier. Indeed, it is approaching three decades since China and India began border negotiations, making them already the longest and the most-barren process between any two countries in modern history. In this period, the world has changed fundamentally.

Against India, the PLA is now better geared to wage a short, swift war by surprise, thanks to the significant upgrading of the military infrastructure and logistics on the Tibetan plateau. The state-directed demographic changes under way in Chinese-ruled Tibet also carry long-term military significance vis-à-vis India.

The India-China tensions explain why soaring bilateral trade is not a barometer of how well a relationship is doing. Trade in today's market-driven world is not constrained by political differences — unless political barriers have been erected, as the US has done against Cuba and Burma, for example.

 
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