The Chinese Challenge


The travels of the Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Russia and other former Soviet republics provide a fascinating study of China’s coming of age in geopolitical terms. He has freshly signed a treaty of friendship with President Vladimir Putin of Russia that seeks to establish a strategic partnership. It is claimed it is not a military pact.

Technically that may be so. But considering what China has been saying and doing in the region for some years, it seems to carry much the same geopolitical significance as the American construct of Strategic Consensus does, minus the military clauses. China has historically opposed military alliances and pacts. That was meant to move away from Mao Zedong’s readiness to do whatever was called for by America’s provocative actions during the heyday of the cold war. It became mandatory for China by the 1978 Four Modernisation plan of Deng Xiaopeng to stay away from all trouble. But that plan was for 20 years and it is now 23 years since it was launched. The balance of economic and military power in Asia is no longer against China. Moreover, the tempter of new Bush Administration is far more provocative. The Chinese are changing tack accordingly.

The American decision to build the National Missile Defence (NMD) system is being perceived as a direct military threat involving the proposal of increasing the number of nuclear-tipped missiles that will hit other missiles in flight with pin-point accuracy. Earlier China was content with a fairly small nuclear deterrent – smaller in fact than France’s. If the US is to tear up the Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABM) treaty and build more Star War type missiles, the missiles number will shoot well past the limits allowed in that ABM treaty if the US has to shoot down all incoming nukes into American air space or above it. Thus the effectiveness or the deterrent quality of others’ deterrents – Russia’s or China’s ballistic-missile-based deterrents – will become obsolete and vulnerable by being unable to hit an American target (or be a threat to the US) and also to being destroyed on the launching pads or in silos by these new and vastly more accurate American missiles.

From the Russian and Chinese viewpoint, this Son of Star War programme – i.e. the NMD one – is destabilising because it constitutes a direct threat to their security. It will necessarily force them to divert scarce resources to building new, and more, nuclear weapons as well as more accurate missiles. A ruinously expensive arms race will thus be inaugurated. It needs scarcely necessary to be argued that the new American missiles are actually aimed at knocking out Russian and Chinese nuclear-tipped ICBMs (and IRBMs too). For, they can scarcely be for targeting the Israeli, British, French or even Indian nuclear weapon carrying missiles. The proffered justification for the NMD is ridiculous. No one  – not even America’s NATO allies have bought it and even Japan has opposed it – has approved or supported the idea of the new American programme except India; it is the only country to have welcomed it promptly. All European and other friends of America do not buy the idea that the US and its allies are gravely threatened by rogue states and terrorist groups that may get hold of missiles carrying any kind of mass destruction weapons. Such a threat is non-existent and this justification can only be a fig leaf for spending so many more trillions of dollars in this elusive quest for an accurate rocket that can hit another rocket moving at 25,000 miles an hour! No scientist or technologist believes such an accuracy is possible to acquire.

Why is the US so ready to spend so much treasure? Only two answers suggest themselves. One, spending so much money will reinvigorate America’s war and space industries. The US is or at least was threatened with a serious slowdown of the economy; its war industries and their affiliates and associated businesses are perhaps stagnant. Their profits will thus pick up and the well heeled gentry that holds their stocks will be benefited. For a deeply conservative regime helping this aristocracy will be doing the good works. May be it keeps one’s near and dear ones or allies of the leading figures in the Bush Administration in affluence.

But the second reason may be more relevant. The earlier Reagan and Bush (Sr.) Administrations had spent trillions of dollars earlier in 1980s with the calculation that the Soviets will try to do likewise. It was known that the Soviets do not have enough financial and economic resources. So if they tried to do what was logical, in terms of the cold war dynamics, they will soon bankrupt themselves. And being a brittle state, they might collapse. And collapse they did after just about a decade. Americans too paid a price. America became world’s largest debtor. But the relevant stockholding gentry became fabulously rich. But the American government, thanks to its strong political and military position, could keep its creditors content with crisp dollar bills in interest payments on their invested money without all of them demanding their principal back. Insofar as creditors – led by Japan and the Arabs – are concerned, they have as good as lost their money. They should be thankful that they are receiving returns on their money that simply cannot be paid back. Can anyone suppose what will happen to world’s financial system if all that money was paid back in a year or two. The dollar will crash to zero and buy little of any currency. And receivers of worthless dollar hoards will get totally valueless notional money that will buy or do nothing for anyone.

At any rate, a repetition of 1980s like splurge in so-called research and development spending for new rockets will force Russia and specially China to spend huge amounts of treasure on similar research and development. The calculation may be the same. The Chinese economy and state will be expected to collapse. Maybe Russian Federation too gets disintegrated. That will remove all actual and potential challengers to American power in Asia. The US will thus do in Asia as it pleases, especially for exploiting the rich natural resources of central Asia on the terms dictated by it; the only competitors then will be political allies: the EU and Japan. None of them will take their competition to the political arena.

This may be the proximate reason for China’s new challenging role but the earlier American attitude and conduct, especially vis-a-vis Taiwan province, had already convinced the Chinese of at best ambiguous and at worst adversarial nature of its ties with the US. Everyone has noted the American behaviour after the end of cold war vis-a-vis the Soviet Union: instead of disbanding cold war structures, and NATO with them, the US Administrations never seriously contemplated giving a peace dividend to their own people and those of their allies by reducing defence budgets of the Atlantic Alliance members. Instead, NATO has had its war preparedness maintained, complete with regular modernisation of its armaments. Indeed NATO was enlarged and its role and area have been expanded while the other side, the Soviets, had quickly wound up their Warsaw Pact. There was no official answer to the queries about the purpose of retaining the military arm of a needless Atlantic Alliance when its adversary was no more and no credible enemy seemed to be in sight. The Russians wanted nothing so much as to be accepted into Europe and they immediately accepted the goal of democracy and capitalism. Confronting the west was anyhow unthinkable, more so after Yeltsin’s enthusiastic bid to join the west. China, despite its increasing power, was and still is not a credible threat to either Europe or even less to America.

Even now the first preference of China will be to remain out of any cold war or arms race with the US or other NATO powers. But the question continues to be asked: against whom do the US and NATO powers are maintaining their war readiness? It is the central mystery of western policies. No doubt, there is widespread discussion among American security thinkers about the possible enemy who could justify maintaining at huge cost all these structures of war fighting that NATO is. Who could it be? Dr. Henry Kissinger and his acolytes had zeroed in on Russian nationalism that is supposed to be inherently expansionist and aggressive, always looking greedily toward the rest of Asia and Europe, especially Central Asian Republics. Other schools of American thought have examined even Germany, Japan and China as possible enemies. Many finally fixed the role of future adversary on China with its rapidly growing economy. There is widespread suspicion that Republication Right has finally chosen China as the Enemy-in-Chief of the west and NATO. Pentagon too seems to be ready to accept it.

The Chinese have many reasons not to confront the US and the west. Its continued need for more investments from the west and requiring help in developing the more sophisticated technology enjoins on it many more decades of peace. But it does look that the pace of events is being forced for it. No doubt, China cited Taliban and Afghanistan as the source of trouble in its backyard of Xinjiang by way of Islamic subversion. Actually these efforts to incite and inflame China’s Muslim minority groups predate 1996 and Jamate Islami (JI) and its foreign friends were said to have been involved. Which is how the Chinese do not blame Islamabad and continue to aid it for their strategic ends. They suspect the US hand in all that. The Shanghai Five, now Six and called SCO, was nominally aimed at Taliban. But an undertone — most could hear it — pointed at American CIA’s long hand and its far reaching and futuristic schemes.

Anyhow, the recent events like the US visa to Taiwan leaders, sale of sophisticated American military equipment to it and various US statements of support to Taiwan should any trouble break out between the mainland China and its rebellious province have all but started a US-China cold war. The last April’s plane incident in South China seas strained the ties to the limit. The Chinese appear to be losing patience with the US. They seem to have intensified their efforts, after the spy plane’s incident and NMD decision, to effect a true rapprochement with Russia and other former Soviet republics. They seem to be succeeding. But the geopolitical coup staged by China is nearer home.

China has agreed to build and partly finance the deep seaport at Gwadar apparently on the request of Pakistan government. It will also help modernise Pakistan’s run down railways system and help build other infrastructure. Its background seems to be the honeymoon between India and the US and growing distance between Islamabad and Washington. This is the most open and direct challenge to American power system in Asia, especially its West Asian and Gulf redoubt. Gwadar sits cheek by jowl, and can control, the choke point of the Gulf: the Straits of Hormuz. It is also close to Iran’s big military base of Chah Bahar. China has indicated that the port will have military facilities and that its naval units will use these. This would naturally seem to be a big and serious security threat to the mighty US Navy. How will the US tolerate Chinese naval elements sitting atop the Gulf’s jugular is hard to visualise.

One way or another Pakistan will come under American pressure – and threats – to cancel the agreement. But it will be hard for the US to make those threats unless it can provide an alternative source of finance and technological help to Pakistan for the purpose. Would Islamabad buckle under, then? It may lose Chinese goodwill, aid and support for good in exchange for one off aid. Islamabad has a strenuous tight-rope walking act awaiting it and will require nerves of steel to stand the ground. Will it? It had better.