Tag Archives: China national defence policy

Red Lines and Reversed Roles

The South China Sea controversy demonstrates how Beijing’s actions will inevitably draw Washington and New Delhi closer together.

The respective security roles that the United States and India traditionally play in East Asia seemed to switch last week. By deciding not to supply Taiwan with the new fighter aircraft it has requested, the U.S. appeared to defer to China, which had cautioned that the sale was a “red line” that must not be crossed. In contrast, New Delhi’s determined sally into the South China Sea, in defiance of Beijing’s explicit warnings, exemplified the strategic assertion that the Obama administration has been urging on India. The dichotomy offers a glimpse of the shifting power dynamics now underway in Asia and, perhaps, a preview of what the regional security order might look like beyond the horizon.

america20xy.comThe U.S. decision to refurbish Taiwan’s aging F-16 fleet rather than provide it with more sophisticated versions of the aircraft is taken by some in Asia as the latest sign of China’s ascent and America’s subsidence in the western Pacific, an area long thought of as a U.S. lake. The Associated Press reported that Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin sees the decision primarily as a function of Beijing’s growing financial leverage vis-à-vis Washington. “It has a large debt and if China will try to apply pressure, the U.S. can end up in trouble,” he said. “The U.S. has to temper its relations with Taiwan for China.” The report also quoted a South Korean defense analyst as saying that some in that country have reached the conclusion that it would be better to bandwagon with China than continue to adhere to the decades-old security alliance with the United States.

By striking coincidence, a similar storyline was being replicated last week in another part of the world in which Washington has long exercised sway. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner put in an unprecedented appearance at a gathering of European finance officials called to address the region’s burgeoning debt crisis. His presence was intended to signal U.S. concern about the spillover potential of Europe’s financial woes. But some in the audience did not take kindly to his telling them what to do.  Both the Austrian and Belgian finance ministers tartly questioned how the Americans could presume to dispense advice when their own fiscal house is in such visible disarray. One media commentator observed the proceedings underscore that “in the wake of the debt-ceiling debacle, Geithner has lost a significant amount of international heft.” The Europeans, on the other, are much more interested these days in China’s views. With Beijing sitting on top of the world’s largest pile of foreign exchange, regional leaders have started to look to it as a potential financial savior.

India’s actions last week, in contrast, were the very definition of foreign policy steadfastness. On a visit to Vietnam, Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna announced that the overseas arm of India’s state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) would proceed with hydrocarbon exploration activities in the South China Sea, an energy-rich area that in claimed in almost its entirety by Beijing. China has been increasingly brusque in asserting its claim of “indisputable sovereignty” over the waters, which it last year elevated to a “core national interest.” The marker Krishna laid down comes two months after Beijing warned New Delhi against involving itself in the area and after an unusual incident between the INS Airavat, an amphibious warfare vessel, and the Chinese navy off the coast of Vietnam.

New Delhi’s temerity sparked a passionate reaction in the China Times, a nationalist tabloid affiliated with the Communist Party. It lashed out in a lead editorial that India was engaged in “a serious political provocation” that constitutes a major challenge to China’s national resolve. It urged the Chinese leadership to use “every means possible” to reverse Indian actions. And in what seemed to be a retaliatory move, Beijing quickly announced that it would expand seabed explorations in the southwestern Indian Ocean.

Media commentary in India saw things differently. A Times of India editorial averred that “India has done well to hold its ground” and termed the ONGC move as a befitting response to the infrastructure projects China is conducting in the disputed territory of Kashmir. In a similar vein, Harsh V. Pant, a well-known foreign policy expert, noted that if “China wants to expand its presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, New Delhi’s thinking goes, India can do the same thing in East Asia.” And M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former Indian diplomat, called India’s actions “a historic move,” arguing that “India’s ‘Look East’ policy acquires swagger.  The Sino-Indian geostrategic rivalry is not going to be the same again.”

Observing the train of events, Time magazine’s “Global Spin” blog asked “Is This How Wars Start?” Of course, a booming bilateral economic relationship gives New Delhi and Beijing strong reason to moderate impulses toward outright military conflict. But as both countries continue simultaneously to rise in power and prestige, dynamics of competition and one-upmanship will inevitability deepen. This pattern is already evident in their Himalayan border area, in Burma and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean region and as far afield as Africa. And as last week’s events demonstrate, the South China Sea is now emerging as a new arena for strategic rivalry.

Pundits in Washington who doubt the prospects for the United States and India conjoining in a coalition directed against China should take note. The meteoric rise of Beijing’s power and the assertiveness in which it is exercised will ineluctably draw Washington and New Delhi even closer together. As a former U.S. official once predicted, “we don’t need to talk about the containment of China. It will take care of itself as India rises.”

China’s Defence Policy Speak softly but carry a big stick

As part of its efforts to appear transparent about its intentions and to dispel its image of a reclusive regime shrouded in secrecy, the Chinese government has been issuing White Papers on national defence every two years since 1998. The latest in the series, China’s National Defence in 2010, was released recently.

The crux of China’s national defence policy is to ensure a stable security environment so as to permit the unrestricted development of its economy and the modernisation of its military. The defence policy relies on military power as a guarantor of China’s strategic autonomy and is designed to ensure that China continues to enjoy unfettered access to critical strategic resources like oil and natural gas. China has apparently decided that its interests lie in projecting a positive, balanced and cooperative image to the international community. China’s growing economic and military power is gradually giving it the leverage to turn the perceived instability in its security environment into a newfound strength through bilateral and multilateral strategic partnerships, mutually beneficial trade and a cooperative attitude towards regional security arrangements.

China stresses that its national defence policy is essentially defensive in nature and that it is subordinate to the higher goal of building a prosperous China. The White Papers emphasise that China launches only counter-attacks in self defence. This is contrary to China’s fairly aggressive military posture and incursions into India, Russia and Vietnam over the last few decades. A significant recent development is China’s pro-active regional posture in diplomatic, strategic, economic and cultural spheres in parallel with China’s increasingly global posture. This is contrary to China’s claim that it “plays an active part in maintaining global and regional peace and stability.” Recent posturing on the Spratly Islands has been criticised all across South East Asia.

While China stresses the “purely defensive” nature of its defence policy, perceptive observers have noted the power projection capabilities that are inherent in China’s growing strategic reach and the increasing role that military power is paying in enhancing China’s comprehensive national power. Roy Kamphausen is of the view that the PLA is currently projecting military power throughout Asia by responding to crises, contributing to deterrence and enhancing regional stability using current capabilities. These efforts derive from and contribute to the building of comprehensive Chinese national power, which, in turn, serves to increase China’s stature in Asia, advance China’s foreign policy goals and even check U.S. influence.”

China continues to proclaim that it follows a “no first use” nuclear doctrine. However, the improvements in the quality of its nuclear-tipped missiles and the progressive increase in their quantity are conferring new options and spurring new thoughts among China’s national security analysts about the efficacy of its nuclear doctrine. Several of them have expressed the view that “under certain circumstances – such as an all-out attack against the country by conventional forces – China should use nuclear weapons.” As more sophisticated ICBMs like DF-31A and SLBMs like JL-2 enter service in larger numbers, China may be emboldened to review its no first use policy. Any Chinese move to discard the no first use policy will be inherently destabilising.

There are still many gaps in what is known about China’s defence policy and military power. There is much more that needs to be learnt about China’s ideas of statecraft, its approaches to the use of force, its perceived vulnerabilities and its preferred operational methods, as well as about the political and military organisations that work on military assessments and plans. Not enough is known about China’s actual military doctrine, command and control and capabilities such as logistics. Although China’s growing interest in coercion and pre-emption strategies and emerging methods of warfare – particularly the employment of missiles and information warfare – are now better understood, it is difficult to accurately assess how these developments will shape China’s overall military capability.