By Bhaskar Roy
After a surge in aggressive, sometimes bordering on threatening foreign policy over the last two years, the Chinese leaders have realised that their perceived unchallengeable comprehensive national strength (CNP) could also be fragile.
Although the second largest economy in the world on national GDP, China still figures at 104 in per capita GDP terms. It is the largest exporter in the world, but depends almost exclusively on imported raw material to produce goods. Its galloping economic growth is dependent on energy, on import of oil and gas. Can China use military power to ensure foreign inputs? Absolutely not, though some in the Chinese hierarchy, especially the military, thought so.
It is not an encirclement policy engineered by US President Barack Obama that has caused consternation among China’s neighbours in the Asia – Pacific Region (APR). It was China’s aggressive posture and gun- boat diplomacy. In fact, Barack Obama went out on a limb to court friendship with China from the beginning of his presidential term. But Beijing apparently read it as weakness, given USA’s financial problems. What they missed was how could the USA spend hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan and Iraq? This basic point was missed by those in Beijing who were heady with the wine of self-perceived power.
It’s time to do some serious introspection in China over the country’s growing hard line and ‘fist in your face’ international behaviour. Differences within the top hierarchy are visible, with many foreign policy experts openly disagreeing with their Party’s and government’s stated line. The most important is the disagreement with China’s appeasing and protective policy towards a belligerent North Korea threaten the stability of East Asia.
The official China Daily (Dec. 27, 2010) published an extract from a report “2010: Regional Security Change and China’s Strategic Response” prepared by China’s top think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) Institute of Asia – Pacific Studies which reflects a new thinking. The report was obviously prepared at the instance of the Foreign Ministry and the Communist Party, and the extract was published to give only a glimpse at a new trend in China’s thinking in the making.
Briefly, accepting the United States as the fulcrum of global exchanges and balance of power, the extract identified four factors that have changed China’s security environment, and advised five fronts on which China should tighten its regional security management – (i) It admitted that the US remained the bellwether with its “ flying grease “ security structure, (ii) the US – Japan and US – South Korea (ROK) alliances as the second US security chain, (iii) the US relationship with Australia, Thailand and the Philippines as the third, and (iv) ties between US and Vietnam, Indonesia and India as the fourth.
Lately, there has been an open acceptance of India as a power to contend with, but with strategic care. The Liaowang (Outlook Weekly) in December wrote India was a power that could not be ignored by the international system given its economy, demography, culture and military; its status in the post-economic crisis era was pronounced; its relationship with major powers appeared getting better as the year came to an end.
The Liaowang commentary was among other official media reports which were a mix of sobriety and sarcasm, just before Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India. Under the circumstances, Premier Wen was at his classical Chinese best trying to warm relations with India, but not giving an inch. He interacted with school children, emphasized trade and economic relations, and suggested some recent Chinese policies towards India could be adjusted. But he also faced an Indian government very different from his last visit. India insisted on reciprocity, making no concessions on “its core interests”, even indicating that New Delhi could change its support to China’s core interests if Beijing continued to abuse those of India’s, especially on Kashmir. Wen proposed that the “stapled visa” issue could be resolved by officials of both sides. Unfortunately, India accepted it. In negotiations, both sides have to give. But why should India give, and what, on an issue unilaterally created by China.
The CASS report assessed that India’s growing relationship with the US was an issue to address seriously, that even beyond India’s developing relations with Japan, Vietnam and other countries, it was the US ingredient through which China must pay special attention to India’s diplomacy in 2011.
China has been looking at India through the narrow focus of the growing India-US relations following the India-US peaceful nuclear deal of 2008. It senses that this single deal had over turned China’s strategy to constrict India within South Asia, as this had spurred India-US military and high technology exchanges, and cooperation in strategic affairs.
The US was seen as promoting India in the ASEAN, and was more concerned over the May 2006 Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPPA), now joined and pushed by the US. The TPPA started with Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore, known as the P-4, and was joined by five others – Australia, Malaysia, Peru, United States and Vietnam. Others likely to join the TPPA soon one Japan and South Korea who are in consultation, and India was an eminent candidate for the same.
China views the TPPA as another US vehicle in the region to assert the primacy of its security and economic interests, and render the ASEAN + 3 (China, Japan and South Korea) mechanism as almost redundant.
The CASS thinking cannot yet fully comprehend why the US suddenly hurried back to impose its position in the region, complicating China’s relationship with its neighbours. It was highly perturbed with the leadership of the US, Japan and South Korea declined to join the China proposed six-party (North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan, the US and Russia) talks to calm down the tension in North East Asia, after North Korea sank a South Korean naval ship in March this year, and the shelling of a South Korean island in November.
The report says that China’s most vulnerable security environment lies in North East Asia, but the published extract of the CASS report does not seem to recognize that it was China’s protection to the Pyongyang regime that allowed it to configure its nuclear weapons and delivery systems and threaten its neighbours.
China has its own concerns which the unpublished portion of the CASS report would certainly have discussed with some suggestions. One, the Chinese top leadership fears that if North Korea collapses the two Koreas will unite with South Korean domination. An influx of North Korean refugees in such a scenario would not be a major problem for China. What would threaten China’s security in such a scenario would be a nuclear Korea under US and Japanese influence. Even more threatening would be the repercussion of the collapse of the North Korean communist regime on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which is already under some strain from within the country. The collapse of the CCP is visualised as the collapse of China – at least by the party leaders.
Although the collapse of the CCP cannot be visualised in the near future, the dissidence among activists including retired senior elders of the party does raise concerns for the current leadership. Collapse of the CCP will bring about consequences that are unimaginable. Therefore, North East Asia is China’s weak link.
China, however, was making a mistake by strategising that India was riding on USA’s shoulder to contain it. This is neither in India’s strategic interest nor in its economic interest. The two countries could make Asia’s destiny if such perception and mistrust were removed. At the same time, India has its own interests. China has been all over India’s neighbourhood strategically, militarily and economically to counter India. This is very visible currently not only in Pakistan, but in Nepal and Sri Lanka, with some setbacks in Bangladesh after a change in government in that country.
India must strongly pursue its interests in the ASEAN as a group and individually, similarly in North East Asia, and examine joining the TPPA. China cannot take umbrage. This is the reality of a globalised world, as India and China were also cooperating in certain international fora. Beijing should make some very serious introspection about India – partner, friendly cooperation, or antagonism. Till now China has shown little to encourage trust from India.
(The author is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience. He can be reached at [email protected])