By Dr. Subhash Kapila
”In fact, the decisive duel on which Beijing will one day embark will be a head-to-head confrontation with the United States, parallel to the rise of a Sino-centred Asia and the relative decline of the American-centred West. A superpower in the making, China ultimately intends to challenge American hegemony and to influence the world order in a dialogue of equals with the United States.”– Claude Myer, International Economist
China’s Grand Strategy has stood centred towards the above stated aim more pointedly from the middle of the last decade. China’s use of ‘soft power’ to influence the Asian countries on its periphery did reap appreciable dividends till the better part of the last decade. This was made possible in the strategic vacuum that engulfed the Asia Pacific in the last decade with the United States militarily distracted by events in Afghanistan and Iraq. This vacuum also facilitated China to embark on a trajectory of unrestrained military expansion without any constraints.
This generated two separate manifestations of Chinese military power. The first being that China started perceiving itself as the strategic co-equal of the United States and emboldening China to go on a spree to designate contentious issues like Taiwan, Tibet, Xingjian and the South China Sea as ],core issues’ of China on which China was ready to go on war.
The second was that a China unrestrained by the United States was successful in creating a perception on her peripheries that the United States was not a reliable strategic partner of any Asian country when it came to facing China. Asian capitals were being suggested that power in Asia lay in Beijing and not in Washington.
Before dwelling on the main theme of this Paper, two observations made by the Author quoted above need to be contested and these are the ‘rise of a Sino-centred Asia’ and China’s intention ‘to influence the world order in in a dialogue of equals with the United States’.
China’s strategic ambitions of the rise of a Sino-centred Asia seem foredoomed as a contemporaneous strategic review of the Asian security environment suggests. China’s switch from a Grand Strategy relying on ‘soft power’ to exercise of ‘hard power’ seems to have generated a strategic polarisation of the Asia Pacific. China’s intentions are no longer perceptively read in the Asian security environment as one of ‘peaceful rise’.
The Chinese switch in its Grand Strategy seems to have generated perceptions of a China Threat engulfing the Asia Pacific. The rise of Sino-Centrism in Asia needs to be viewed as one of a more pointed focus in Asia strategic thinking on a possible China Threat than the emergence of an Asia led by China as it struggles to contest American predominance and alter the balance of power in the Asia Pacific.
The strategic equation of a United States and China as ‘dialogue of the equals’ is also not tenable and realistically possible when the Asian balance of power and the global balance of power equations are surveyed.
China could only emerge as a ‘strategic co-equal ‘of the United States if it can strategically muster a comparable line-up of Asia Pacific countries in a China-led military coalition on the pattern of the United States security architecture in the Asia Pacific. Sadly for China one cannot think of any Asian countries other than North Korea and Pakistan as ‘natural allies’ of China.
Added to the above, are virtually the unbridgeable military differentials between China and the United States in terms of nuclear weapons, ICBMs and force-projection capabilities.
Reverting to the main theme of China generating a strategic polarisation in the Asia Pacific it needs to be stressed that the developing strategic polarisation in Asia Pacific is one of China’s making and not that of the United States. It has been in the making for some time and the Obama Doctrine of strategic pivot to Asia and re-balancing the US postures in the Asia Pacific have been a belated though natural consequence of the strategic disquiet generated in the region by China’s recent aggressiveness.
The Asia Pacific was strategically placid till about 2008 and Asian concerns on the evolving China Threat were muted. There were many ‘fence-sitters’ in Asia till then, unsure whether the United States would be a reliable strategic partner should their national security be impinged upon by a rising and aggressive China. In 2012 the situation stands diametrically changed in that many of the fence-sitting countries have now opted to strategically rely on the United States. Why this sudden change in Asian strategic perceptions?
China’s Grand Strategy of solely relying on exercise of ‘soft power’ to achieve its strategic ends seemed to have taken a turn in the period 2006-2008. Military aggressiveness and coercion was the new ‘mantra’ of Chinese Grand Strategy.
China thereafter emboldened by the prevailing security environment in the Asia-Pacific, the global financial crisis and the fast track military strides in its military upgradation embarked on an aggressive use of her new-found military strengths. This was visible in China’s aggressive and coercive stances against countries with which it had territorial disputes in the South China Sea. It was visible in the brutal military suppression of Tibetan demonstrations before the Beijing Olympics. It was visible in Chinese submarines prowling in Japanese waters and in not pressurising North Korea to be more responsive to regional and global pressures on its military provocative actions against Japan and South Korea, both lynch-pins of US security architecture in East Asia.
Symptomatic of the reversal of Asian strategic attitudes has been the normalisation of United States relationships with Vietnam and Myanmar, both countries of immense geostrategic significance, flanking the Asia Pacific region with potential as discussed in my earlier Papers of providing United States footholds on the Asian mainland in addition to South Korea.
Significantly, Japan and United States have further strengthened their military links and South Korea seems to have turned away from its recent ambivalence on China. The Philippines after years of denying US access to its crucial Air Force and naval bases is now likely to extend full access in view of its recent showdown with China on the South China Sea disputes.
China was noted for its long range strategic vision and strategic formulations and strategic patience too. This however is currently not visible in terms of its strategic readings of the Asia Pacific region and the formulations arising there from. China seems to have misread United States strategic intentions and determination to stay strategically embedded in the Asia Pacific.
The United States has not only strengthened its security architecture in East Asia but also now enlarged it to encompass South East Asia and the Indian Sub-Continent in different shades of strategic partnerships and strategic relationships, implicit in them being a strategic disquiet about a possible and potent China Threat.
The head-to-head confrontation with the United States is inevitable on the trajectory chosen by China. This raises two questions as to whether the United States would blink in this confrontation or China would do so? The second question for consideration is that in any such confrontation of this kind what counts is the relative vulnerabilities of the two adversaries?
O the first question I would like to quote George Friedman, the head of Stratfor who in a recent book observes: “The United States entered the path to global power with the Spanish-American War of 1898. It has been on this trajectory for over a century. Changing course at the velocity the United States is travelling is simply not an option. Calling for it is a fantasy.”
In terms of relative vulnerabilities in any headlong confrontation, China is predominated by a wider array of vulnerabilities than the United States and hence would be at a greater strategic disadvantage. But would this deter China?
Seemingly not as the pursuit of regional and global power is a heady pursuit and China with its outsized strategic ambitions is highly unlikely to forsake them.
The advantage for the United States is that it has successfully gone through with one Cold War and should by all accounts be expected to come out successful in a Second Cold War with China this time. Economic power alone does no translate into strategic power, political and military coercive strengths and global force projection.
Concluding, it can be stated that what United States diplomacy could not achieve in all the preceding years in terms of a strategic polarisation of the Asia Pacific against a probable China Threat, the aggressive policies of China in the first flush and impatience to manifest her new-found military power in Asia seems to have generated a noticeable strategic polarisation in the Asia Pacific, to the consequent disadvantage of China.