06 November 2012
A great deal has been written about the rise of China and what it means for the rest of the world with commentators, strategists and analysts all wanting to outdo each other in predicting on the one end of the spectrum the complete eclipse of the United States and on the other a blowout in the Chinese economy that will sink the entire world. No international conference is complete without a discussion of China’s economy, its political developments and its military build-up along with the associated analysis of what these developments would mean for the region and the world. In the face of such acute investigations—that has produced both well- and ill-considered conclusions—the Chinese leadership has remained inscrutable regarding their plans for the future, not directly revealing where they desire to position the nation in the next few decades. This reticence to unveil the long-term plan that is definitely in place makes it difficult for other nations to understand the motivation behind some of the actions that have been initiated in the recent past by the Chinese Government, especially in relation to territorial disputes and claims of sovereignty with a number of nations. The unease of other nations regarding such actions is aggravated because of the opacity with which military developments are undertaken in China. However, there are few points that will remain constant, and have to be considered when analysing any aspect of China.
China has an ageing population and this process has been exacerbated by the one-child policy that was in effect for a long period of time. Being a traditional family-oriented society, a trend that is not likely to change in the near future since the population resident in the rural areas (where this culture is likely to continue being embedded) are far higher in proportion to the urban city-dwellers, the economic burden of catering for the old will fall on a decreasing number of people. Further, the numbers necessary to sustain an economy reliant on cheap labour will also diminish with all the attendant challenges that this will bring about. This situation is bound to create domestic social tensions and affect unimpeded economic growth. The issue of a relatively large ageing population as a percentage of the total has not yet reached its peak and will take another decade to even start to plateau. The challenge of demography cannot be remedied overnight; it will take more than two generations of normal population growth to even out the current aberration in the curve. Succeeding governments will have to address this issue as best as they can and eliminate other risk-factors in the economy to sustain it at the necessary level of growth and stability.
Building National Power
China has had a decade in the sun and is now not going to permit a push back into relative obscurity. Moreover, the sheer size of its economy will not permit such a move. China now perceives itself as a world power and wants the status of being one vested on it voluntarily by other nations. There is no doubt that it does have global influence, but has not yet evolved into a true world power in the accepted sense of the term. Therefore, China is assiduously building the myriad capabilities that contribute to national power, which is being stated without ambiguity as the primary national objective. The build-up of national power towards world power status is being achieved as a two-pronged process. One is the development of indigenous technology capabilities and the other the development and deployment of soft power through economic aid and other benign activities world-wide; for example the building of Chinese language and cultural institutions that provide free education. However, in this focused approach to increasing national power, it is being forgotten that the building of hard power is almost always accompanied by a compulsion to use that power if not for anything else, but to exercise it. Power is seldom allowed to be stagnant. This is the fear of China’s neighbours. On the other hand, the soft power development process has been a slow and has not kept pace with the development of hard power, probably because Chinese soft power is not as appealing as that of some other nations.
Chinese government and officials across the world often reiterate that its development is peaceful and inclusive not exclusive and therefore should be seen by other nations as an opportunity and not a threat or challenge. In some cases these statements verge on ‘protesting too much’ and have the opposite effect to what is intended. China also seeks security cooperation with other nations in its periphery. However, both these ‘concepts’ are only put into practice at Chinese terms without even a nominal consultation process, in a sort of take it or leave it basis. This cannot endear any nation to another, especially when the other nations concerned are comparatively smaller than China in all respects. Irrespective of this slight anomaly between the Chinese view and that of other nations, China is continuing its considerable financial investments in the most volatile regions of the world. This initiative is explained by the logic that such economic cooperation will ensure security and act to protect the endangered people. Going by China’s track record, it is difficult to believe that these initiatives are purely humanitarian in its thrust.
Thirst for World Status
China is ambitious, to say the least, and has also not forgotten its glorious history. In keeping with its economic pre-eminence in the world, it seeks the capacity to be able to exert influence across the entire spectrum of international diplomacy. It wants to influence the establishment of a global society and the formulation of international law for a number of reasons. It believes that such influence would thrust it into the role of a ‘rule maker’ and ‘global arbitrator’ in the same mould as that of the United States, which is one China’s cherished aspirations. However, this ambition is tempered with pragmatism and therefore, the underlying first move is to cement its position as a global economy with commensurate power projection capability. At least for the present it does not want to be seen as a revolutionary power. In fact, until a few years ago Chinese leaders used to go out of their way to proclaim that China would not threaten any nation in its progress towards becoming a global power. Along with this pragmatism China also entertains dreams of becoming a global security player but is reluctant to absorb the increased responsibilities that come with assuming such a position, primarily because of a reluctance to expend resources when there is no tangible return. China understands and feels the need to legitimise the on-going build-up of power projection capabilities but, at least for the present, seems to be unsure of how to achieve this without raising the ire of neighbours and other major global powers.  
In the quest for world status China has adopted a multi-dimensional approach with the military power being displayed as an indicator of the nation having ‘arrived’ on the scene rather than as an instrument that will be employed when necessary. Its forays into soft power politics by trying to influence the developing world through aid packages were initially successful, but the influence has been gradually eroded because of the Chinese insistence on the aid recipients subscribing to the Chinese view of international geo-politics. The educational initiatives that China has unleashed through the setting up of Chinese language schools in a large number of nations will eventually, in the long-term, bear fruit with Mandarin becoming a common enough language for it to have global significance. This will also bring in a certain amount of cultural impact that will be more difficult for the host nation to counter or contain since it will not be a tangible military threat. However, there is always the possibility that focused soft power influence could overlap with security issues and abruptly alter its benign nature.
China alternates between being belligerent with its neighbours and taking a softer stand, especially regarding territorial and border disputes. Whether this is a pre-meditated strategy to keep neighbours off balance or the result of shifting power equation within the ruling elite is difficult to fathom. Irrespective of the spontaneity or otherwise of such aggressive and confrontational actions, China will continue to be viewed as unpredictable and a nation not averse to flexing its muscles, even against fairly low-level powers, if it feels that intimidation is required to achieve its ends. This could also be a defence mechanism against perceived or actual threats to its territorial integrity, particularly with the on-going struggle in Tibet and the mild separatist movement in Xingjian province.
In its progress towards achieving its aspirations for world power status, China continues to want to engage the world on its own terms. It subscribes to maintaining stability in great power relationships while wanting to assert its own power on the relationship. This is tantamount to wanting to do the proverbial act of ‘keeping the cake and eating it too’ and only increases the suspicion that seems to be permanently attached to all international relationship overtures that China initiates. The assertiveness that is increasingly on display, if not comprehensively curtailed at least from external manifestation, could lead to destabilisation of the strategic balance because of miscalculations that can creep in unchecked. Another factor that creates a sense of discomfort within Asia, where size has always been looked at with some angst, is the sheer size of the Chinese economy and the unimpeded growth of its military capabilities. Combine the proclivity of China to emphasis and demand its own terms in all relations and the recipe is ripe for a push back even from small nations.
The Military Calculus
China’s prosperity is directly dependent on its ability to carry out seaborne trade unimpeded by any constraints, especially from external sources. In ensuring this criterion, China faces a fundamental military conundrum. Its access to high seas is through the East China Sea and the South China Sea and both are easy to blockade because they are each enclosed by chains of islands that are controlled by other nations. In this respect geography has not been kind to China. By positioning a strong navy outside the chain of islands China can be effectively blockaded and its trade brought to a standstill. China is acutely aware of this and frets that it is not able to build a strong enough navy in quick order to challenge that of the United States. While efforts are underway to build a ‘Blue Water Navy’, the first steps have also been initiated to build an asymmetric capability in terms of submarines and anti-ship missiles that could pose a threat to a carrier group attempting to put a blockade in place. However, for effectiveness the submarine-missile system needs integrated intelligence and fire control systems, which is complex, sophisticated to build and operate and not yet within the grasp of the Chinese military.
China has also started to assist in the building of ports in Pakistan and Myanmar with the caveat of access being provided for Chinese use in what could be thought of as an attempt to circumvent a blockade if it does take place. However, assured access to these ports is not as easy as it seems to obtain and require China to be able to control, at least at a very fundamental level, the political processes of these nations. Political control is a double edged sword and has all the potential to become a quagmire that will be counterproductive in the best of times. Since the emergence of China in its ‘Communist’ guise, the nation has only very limited experience in offensive military actions—in Tibet against a non-existent resistance and in Korea where it fought to a standstill stalemate at appalling human and materiel cost. Further, and perhaps of more significance, in 1979, the Chinese were defeated in their invasion of Vietnam. Military adventurism is not an initiative that the Chinese government will consider lightly, even with the focused military build-up that is taking place. The fear of a naval blockade that they cannot break is very real and a live strategic consideration in all Chinese security calculations.   
There are two basic factors that preoccupy Chinese leadership—maintaining an acceptable level of economic growth and controlling the buffer states that it has created for itself around the Han heartland of the nation. The first needs unfettered access to global sea lanes of communication and the second to absolute and effective control of the buffer states of Tibet, Xinjiang, Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. The global financial crisis that has severely affected Europe and the United States has created a cascading effect on Chinese economy and China does not have a navy strong enough to contest control of the sea lanes with the United States. Both these challenges do not have any immediate solutions. A combination of these factors makes China feel to a certain extent to be at the mercy of the United States for its economic well-being, and does not like it—after all they aspire to world status. In addition, both Tibet and Xinjiang are restive and there is active resistance to what the locals perceive, perhaps rightly, as Chinese occupation. Loss of control of these regions is not an option in the Chinese security strategy and therefore, irrespective of the broader international opinion, these areas will remain occupied territories with all the negative implications that forced occupation of foreign territory has for China’s status as a world power. 
The US preoccupation with Afghanistan and the recent economic turmoil at home has diminished its ability to be the only force to shape the global strategic landscape. In other words the US cannot enforce a unipolar world any more, even if it wanted to do so. There is a paradigm shift in global politics, the distribution and diffusion of power and a greater understanding of the role that China would play in the future in creating a multi-polar world order. However, until now China has not articulated the intention to play a global leadership role although their right to assert influence on international matters of concern is being carefully nurtured and also gradually being projected. Beijing is also expected to go on a ‘charm offensive’, immediately after the change of leadership, to deepen its influence through soft power and cultural initiatives in an attempt to widen its relationships across the region as well as globally.
The size and growth of the Chinese economy, even though it has slowed a bit in the past year or so, will continue to push the nation towards becoming a global strategic power. However, there is unlikely to be any Cold War type of interdependence between the United States and China even when the relationship assumes an unmistakable competitive edge. China will continue to insist on dictating the terms of all its relationships, particularly bilateral ones. The difficulty in assessing its overtures is that there is no precedent to appraise China’s way forward. It claims to be a democracy that is practiced within a one-party system, if such a system can be given the respect of being termed a democracy. Further, its political space is fully controlled by a collective leadership model that does not permit any kind of internal divergence or dissidence, as clearly demonstrated in the recent past. China will also not compromise on the one-nation formula and will only tolerate Taiwan as long as Taiwan continues to behave in a docile and accommodating manner. Any amounts of threats are unlikely to stop China from initiating actions for integration if the need is felt to do so, which could be if Taiwan unilaterally declared independence. War could well result, but on whose terms is what must be calculated. Convulsions that accompany even minor conflicts involving China, even peripherally, will affect the smaller nations of the region more than it does China itself and historically China is no stranger to the vagaries of armed conflict. This is a point that strategic pundits must always keep in mind when analysing the actions and predicting future initiatives of this unpredictable nation.                         

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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