China’S Military Build-up – Its Significance for USA and India

Part II – Strategic Implications for USA and India

An IDC Analysis


New Delhi, 07 September 2006  

China's has emerged as a major economic and political power. With growing military strength it is now an important player on the world’s stage but critically so in Asia. USA, the sole super power perceives it with close interest and as a matter of concern, especially in the context of Taiwan, Japan and S Korea. Many Pentagon analysts believe China's military buildup is taking place faster than earlier estimates, and that China will use its power to project force and undermine US and regional security. A US military Southern Command report in the late 1990s warned that China was seeking to use commercial port facilities around the world to control strategic "chokepoints." A Chinese company with close ties to Beijing's communist rulers holds long-term leases on port facilities at either end of the Panama Canal. China, by militarily controlling oil shipping sea lanes, could threaten ships, thereby creating a climate of uncertainty about the safety of all ships on the high seas, especially along the sea routes from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea.

On the other hand, China fears the US military will disrupt its energy imports in any conflict over Taiwan, and sees the United States as an unpredictable country that violates others' sovereignty and wants to "encircle" China. The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as also the US political manoeuvres in Central Asia were undeniable indications of this. For Beijing access to oil and gas resources are vital to China’s economic growth and any impediment to it could cause instability and ultimately the collapse of their nation of 1.3 billion people.

Energy demand, particularly for oil, will increase sharply in the next 20 years — from 75 million barrels per day in 2003 to 120 million barrels in 2025 — with Asia consuming 80 percent of the added 45 million barrels. Eighty percent of China's oil currently passes through the Straits of Malacca, and China believes the sea area is "controlled by the US Navy." Chinese President Hu Jintao recently stated that China faces a "Malacca Dilemma" — the vulnerability of its oil supply lines from the Middle East and Africa to disruption. Chinese specialists believe the United States has the military capability to cut off their oil imports and could "severely cripple" China by blocking its energy supplies.

At a Congressional hearing in February this year, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that the growth of the Chinese navy was an issue that the Pentagon "thinks about and is concerned about and is attentive to". China’s naval modernization thus has potential implications for the required US Navy capabilities in terms of preparing for a conflict in the Taiwan Strait area, maintaining US Navy presence and military influence in the Western Pacific, and countering Chinese ballistic missile submarines. Preparing for a conflict in the Taiwan Straits area could place a premium on early arrival of Naval forces and capabilities for defeating China’s maritime anti-access forces in the area. The possibilities for indulging in information warfare, electromagnetic pulse (EMP) emissions and the use of nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out. China’s naval modernization raises potential issues for US military planners in regard to the size of the Navy; the Pacific Fleet’s share of the Navy; forward home-porting of Navy ships in the Western Pacific; the number of aircraft carriers, submarines, and ASW-capable platforms; Navy missile defense, air-warfare, AAW, ASW, and mine warfare programmes; Navy computer network security; and EMP hardening of Navy systems.

China has long been seeking an outlet to the Indian Ocean to safeguard its energy sea-lanes from the Persian Gulf and its markets in the region. After decades of evolving relations, Beijing and Islamabad had cemented their strategic links. Their cooperation now covers almost all facets of economy, energy, industry, and infrastructure, with nuclear and military cooperation at its core. Similarly, the Chinese diplomatic and military efforts in Myanmar also exhibit a conspicuous policy of power projection against competitors like USA and India. Chinese strategists, maritime planners and practitioners have closely watched the growth in Indo–US maritime cooperation, and believe that the two are attempting to counter China's regional influence.

Given the Chinese creeping assertiveness in the Indian Ocean based on its politico-military and economic initiatives, it is fair to argue that there could be a clash of interests between New Delhi and Beijing. In that context, in the naval realm, clashes may take place under two scenarios. First, if India becomes part of a larger US-led coalition aimed at containing China, there could then emerge a possibility of the two navies being drawn into confrontation. In the second scenario, the Indian Navy may come face to face with the Chinese Navy in the event of formation of a strategic alliance among China, Pakistan and Myanmar.

India’s relations with China have a long history of ups and downs and in some ways, the ups were really a long time ago –– in the 50’s, and till the late 80’s they were stuck in a deep and long rift-valley. Since then, there has been significant and positive surface movement –– the 1993 agreement on maintaining peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control; the 1996 protocol on military confidence building measures; the 2002 agreement on providing a political push to settling the border problem; the 2005 agreement on political parameters and guiding principles for settling the dispute; as well as several economic and cultural agreements leading to the recent opening of the Nathu La–Lhasa trade route. But beneath the surface there remain misgivings in India because of China’s policy in the neighbourhood specifically vis-à-vis Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The future developments in Sino–Indian relations cannot overlook the substance of such misgivings.

In a purely military context, capabilities matter since intentions are difficult to determine and could quickly change. Hence both India and USA while feathering their respective economic interests to the extent practicable have no option but to take care of the strategic and security factors of China’s emerging power.

Some analysts feel Pentagon’s approach to China is not very different from what it was with the erstwhile Soviet Union. With clever juxtaposition of fact and fiction and an unquestioning media, it managed to show that the slowly imploding USSR was much stronger than it actually was. For its MIC to trundle on, the US needs a bogey of threats and China with its inscrutable but confident pursuit of economic and military power presents itself as a future devil for the American self interests. However, in the foreseeable two decades China is not likely to be anywhere close to the Soviet military might of the Eighties. A more dispassionate view of China’s politico-military ambitions implies that its build up is oriented not so much towards Japan, or the US and India but the ‘rebel province of Taiwan’ and future energy security. It is still far short of the capability to simply roll it over and therefore may not risk a war over Taiwan which is its largest source of FDI and where the US will almost certainly intervene. A look at China’s trade figures with USA makes it clear that any breakdown of their relations would be overwhelmingly more destructive for China than for the USA.

All the same, both India and US need to understand and assess the nature of Chinese power both as a friend and potential foe. With Tibet now being connected through modern means of roads and railway, China now poses as India’s immediate neighbour. While making all efforts to develop friendly relations for mutual economic good, it would be prudent for India to be careful of any ill designs and therefore be prepared to militarily repel any threat that may either come across the northern mountains or through the possible naval bases in Myanmar and Pakistan. The pros and cons of an opportunity for future good as also a threat have to be constantly looked at and taken into account in formulation of mutual relations with China.

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