China –– A Strategic Review

A Dangerous Dragon or a Peaceful Panda?

By S Gopal*

New Delhi, 14 October 2004

China, a large country with enormous resources and population has been enjoying a prodigious economic growth in the last two decades, after the initiation of market reforms by the late Deng Xiao Peng. It is coming into the centre stage of international power equations due to its accelerating economic development and increasing military might. These developments had left the rest of the world somewhat uneasy, wondering what path China would take when it eventually becomes one of the global powers, politically, economically, militarily and diplomatically. Aware of the disquiet, especially among its neighbors in South and South East Asia, Chinese leaders like Wen Jia Bao the Chinese prime minister, have been at pains to describe their progress as ‘peaceful rise’. To demonstrate its peaceful intentions China signed a treaty of amity and cooperation with ASEAN last year and also a code of conduct to reduce the risk of conflict in South China Sea –– a major irritant and cause of worry for the South East Asian nations. While establishing the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation as a security umbrella with the Central Asian states it has been trying to act the responsible big power by hosting the six nation talks on North Korea going nuclear –– a development viewed with considerable concern by the international community, especially the US, Japan and other western countries. China has joined the international control regime like MTCR and shown its readiness to join Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) a multilateral group, which controls the export of nuclear materials and technology. It had joined the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty much earlier and had signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

It does not however rule out for itself a confrontation even with the US on the question of Taiwan whose increasing ambitions for independence adds to the bellicosity of China. Most thinking Chinese do see the US as militarily and technologically stronger state and of course an important trade partner for China. War against International terrorism, especially after Sep 11, 2001 has brought the two countries somewhat nearer and Chinese leaders see the US anti-terrorism campaign as a chance to improve relations with the US and to perhaps moderate anti-China attitudes on the part of the US.

China’s pronouncements about its peaceful intention are however not fully borne out by the fairly fast paced modernization of its armed forces and weaponry. The need for further modernisation and improvement of China's arsenal was voiced by Jiang Zemin the former President and Chairman of the military commission who emphasized the need for such modernization at the last National Peoples’ Congress in March 04, “to meet the challenges of new military changes in the world”. People’s Daily quoted him as saying that "building up military equipment is an urgent task of military combat preparations and is an important strategic task for the country's peace and stability". He referred to the re-emergence of unilateralism, continuing local conflicts and rampant international terrorist activity as possible justifications for his call. At the same session of the National People’s Congress, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said that China will strengthen its military and build-up its arsenal of high-tech weaponry, focus on developing new and high technology weaponry and equipment, and foster a new type of highly competent military personnel.

China increased its stated military budget by 9.6 percent in 2003, following a 17.6 percent rise in defense spending in 2002 and a 17.7 percent increase in 2001. This year it has announced a real increase of 11.6 percent in its budget in March 2004, bringing its estimated defence budget to more than $25 billion. The US defence department is however of the view that when off budget funding for weapons research and foreign weapon purchases are included, the total defense-related expenditures for China goes up to between 50 and 70 billion dollars. This would make China’s military budget the third largest in the world, overtaking Japan and coming after the United States and Russia. The impetus for China's military modernisation by buying foreign military equipment is also fuelled by China's booming economy.

China has bought Su-27 and Su-30 fighters; AA-12 air-to-air missiles; SA-10, SA-15 and SA-20 surface-to-air missiles; Novator Alpha anti-ship cruise missiles; KILO submarines, Sovremeny destroyers and associated weapons from Russia. Last year alone, China spent $1 billion on 24 advanced Russian fighter aircraft. Much as China would like to diversify its purchases, especially from Europe, it is constrained in this regard by an European arms embargo imposed after massacre of pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. In mid April this year the European Union decided under intense political pressure, not to lift the embargo. It has, of course tapped Israel for some of the latest military hardware.

China’s intense space ambitions are clear from its launch of a manned spacecraft in October 2003. On the defence research side, China is believed to be trying to develop a laser, which can "dazzle" and blind overhead satellites, something which the United States failed to do some years ago. China has also reportedly developed "parasitic micro satellites" that can attach to other nation's satellites and either put them out of commission or tap into the data they are collecting or transmitting.

China's ambition for technological modernization of its armed forces and weaponry was fuelled by the spectacular victory of the US in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, particularly due to the efficacy of air power against massive ground forces, then the Kosovo war and now the Iraq war. However, there has been some recent rethink, in the context of Taiwan operations about the value of long-range precision strikes, independent of ground forces. The advance of the US Ground forces in the recent Iraqi war was the main reason for this rethink.

Security and Strategic Concerns

It is believed that China’s ballistic missile count is around 120 and are of four types: the DF-3A, DF-4, DF-5/5A, and DF-21A. Each missile carries a single nuclear warhead. China is busy modernizing its somewhat old missile technology represented by these missiles. Improved mobility, accuracy, lighter warheads, and use of solid fuel are the main components of the modernization. It is also working on a more robust command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) system. The three-stage, solid fuel, mobile DF-31, would be the mainstay of the modernization programme. Its range is estimated at 8,000 kilometers, and its circular error probability (CEP) or accuracy is 300–600 meters for its single warhead. China has also been deploying short-range missiles on its eastern coast to threaten Taiwan. China has had the technical capability to develop multiple reentry vehicle systems (MRVs) for 20 years, but has chosen not to do so. The Pentagon and the US intelligence community have repeatedly stated that they expect China’s nuclear arsenal to increase significantly over the next decade or so. The US Defence department estimates that the number of Chinese ICBMs capable of hitting the United States “could increase to around 30 by 2005 and may reach up to 60 by 2010”.

So, which side the Chinese cat will jump with regard to its strategic ambitions? Would we see an aggressive China enforcing its will in areas of strategic interest to it a la the US today –– or would we see a friendly china using its diplomatic skill and economic clout to get what it wants?

What are China’s strategic interests. In modern world, quest for power and influence stems from economy and economy alone as aggression for territorial gain has been passe for many years now in international relations.

Firstly, a fast developing economy has forced China to become a net importer of oil for the first time in history in 1993, when its primary energy production of 672 mtons of oil equivalent (MTOE) fell short of its consumption of 677 mtons. Depleting reserves of oil (oil reserves were 94 billion barrels in 1994) and increased domestic consumption, thanks to a booming economy, have made matters worse. China comes behind the US as the second largest consumer of oil in the world and 60 percent of its imports come from the volatile Middle East. China has been targeting onshore exploration of the Tarim basin in north west of the country, (its occupation of the Aksai Chin claimed by India is to be seen in this light as this territory offers a passage to Xinjiang where the oil exploration fields are located) and off shore in South China Sea. Its bellicose behaviour in the past with some of its South East Asian neighbours is due to the latter. The south China Sea holds a special place in China’s strategic and economic thinking. The Spratlys are a valuable strategic prize not only because of their potential oil and gas deposits but because they lie along major shipping lanes and fishing grounds. Falling grain harvest and shrinking agricultural land would make China a major grain importer. Taking these factors into consideration, China can be expected to improve its defence of shipping lanes vital to it to ensure uninterrupted supply oil and food grains shipments.

China can be expected to therefore improve the ‘blue water’ capability of its navy and pay more attention to enlarging its influence in the Indian Ocean. It has been assiduously cultivating the ruling junta of Myanmar to possibly use the country as a bridgehead to the Indian Ocean. It does see the US as a major worry for its strategic stability but realizes at the same time that currently it would be no match to the American military prowess, particularly in military technology. It has therefore been following what has been described by some Sinologists like Ashley Tellis –– a “ calculative strategy”. Historically, a weaker Chinese state has relied mainly on non-coercive tactics to stave off foreign attacks. Beijing recognizes that challenging the existing US leadership would be both arduous and costly and, hence, not in China's long-term interest. The only exception to this would be Taiwan, which apart from the emotional aspect of sovereignty, would also be an outpost of the US presence near China very much like Israel in the middleeast.

China would therefore avoid any armed confrontation with the US except in the event of Taiwan declaring independence with the support of the US. This is unlikely as the US has accepted that Taiwan is a part of China. For South East Asia it would use its economic clout more than military one to gain its objectives in the South China Sea. But it would not hesitate to use its military muscle, if its perceived vital interests in that region are threatened.

China and India

Despite talking for more than two decades (the latest was in July this year ) India and China have still not been able to agree on a mutually defined line of control in the border between the two countries. Leave alone settling the border dispute, China has shown no enthusiasm even to define the line of control. China actually has what it wants and therefore is in no hurry to settle the issue. It is India that is under strategic pressure since it pins down along the Himalayas, a large number of its troops who could otherwise be deployed against China's "all-weather ally", Pakistan. It also gives the option to China for turning on the military pressure along the Sino Indian border if India were to revive the Tibet issue or enter into a military alliance with the United States.

China therefore tries to underplay the border issue and concentrates on improving relations in other areas. It does not want a land border flare up in its periphery, which would stymie its efforts both in economic development and its attempts to improve its hold in South China Sea and interest in the Indian Ocean. It could ultimately settle by giving up its claim on Arunachal Pradesh, if India were to accept its occupation of Aksai Chin, a territory the size of Switzerland. But China is not in a hurry. And India too for the foreseeable future has no appetite for a war nor would it be able to sell the possible solution to the public, if not to the parliament.

(*S.Gopal is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Govt.of India and a member of the governing body of Institute of Contemporary Studies, Bangalore ––

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