China’s foreign policy has certain goals, many of them hid in a shell of opacity. This makes China’s interlocutors uneasy. Hence, there has been a constant demand for China to be more transparent in its military modernization and strategic policy. It is not to say that China has not improved. It is far more transparent to outsiders than it was in 1960s – 1980s. But even that is not good enough.
The Chinese have perfected, in a sense, the strategies of “denial” and “deception”. But increasingly these strategies have degenerated from a fine art in the battle field to one of ham handedness. For example, as a part of ‘deceit’ they embed intelligences officers with expertise in different fields in appropriate delegations. This has become known. At the same time they vehemently ‘deny’ officially as conspiracy whenever their agents in a foreign country get caught, or violation of international treaties and conventions / regimes to which they are signatories, are exposed. Examples are numerous and need not be discussed here. Hence, it has become difficult for most countries to establish a relationship of trust with China. Pakistan is, perhaps, the only exception.
Since ancient times China has been a self-centered nation or nationality. In a manner, it is correct to say that China never colonalised another country. But it is equally true that China tried to colonalize Vietnam, raided Indonesia and coveted neighbouring territories. Their sovereignty over Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia is highly debatable. History is very clear that China had to take over Tibet militarily. Unlike in the Indian case where different languages, cultures and traditions joined together voluntarily to form the Indian union in a long process, in China’s case all the three regions are still struggling for independence in one way or the other. At the same time, however, the Chinese emperors did not go too far across the seas to establish colonies which they would find impossible to rule. It was, perhaps, one of the most important strategic decisions not to over stretch.
China, under Mao Zedong, drew out contours of sovereignty, suzerainty, and countries who will kow-tow to the Middle Kingdom along the borders. It was made clear at that time China wanted Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh with it, with Nepal and Bhutan under its suzerainty. Tibet had already been taken over. This was far looking strategy for a forward defense line.
As China grew stronger it unveiled its territorial claims in the near seas – East China Sea, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea – and became more assertive leading small clashes at times in recent years. This has turned the entire region unstable if not a “hot spot”. If this is not coveting territories of others, what is it?
Authoritative Chinese writings over the last decade have indicated that China is impatient to exercise its influence from the Gulf through the Indian Ocean to Western Pacific. This embryonic strategy has very deep and long term reasons. China is energy and raw material starved and has to source them from abroad. The resources are “core interest” for China, and must be protected by any and all means. Protection means use of a superior force than those which can obstruct the flow of resources. Once such a force is deployed tensions are bound to rise, and can be the reason for a potential conflict.Apart from the India-China border issue which both sides are trying at the moment, with some difficulty to put on the back burner, both sides are watching each other closely. What are the other imperatives?
Clearly spelt out “core interests” of China, which are paramount to its sovereignty and territorial integrity are as follows: dominating rule of the Chinese communist party; reintegration of Taiwan with the mainland; maintaining a stable, peaceful and integrated Tibet. The Party’s paramount position, in China’s perception, is not threatened by only internal challenges but by insidious western machinations led by the US. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square riots, Deng Xiaoping described it as result of USA’s operation called “Peaceful Evolution” – sabotaging a communist country’s people through western democratic values. The Soviet Union was the first victim, and the Chinese Communist Party is the next target. The Chinese authorities mince no words about it, but can do very little. They believe if the party disintegrates so will the country.
On immediate external challenges, Taiwan figures at the top. The Chinese believe if Taiwan declares independence it will encourage Hong Kong and Macao to move similarly, and encourage Tibetan independence. The US position on Taiwan is complex. While it does not encourage independence, it also keeps Taiwan armed with a strong self-defence against a Chinese attack. The US Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1978 obliquely enjoins it to come to Taiwan’s aid in case of a Chinese attack. Mainland–Taiwan relations have improved significantly, but not to the extent of integration. In the January Taiwan presidential elections the mainland friendly KMY led by Ma Ying-Jeo won, but the opposition anti-integration Democratic Peoples Party (PP) won a solid 20 percent vote, keeping the question mark well and truly alive. Those who voted for the KMY need not be pro-integration. They are the status quoits who see a stable relationship with the mainland to their economic advantage.
The PLA is not yet capable of waging a war in two theatres at the same time. It has cornered Taiwan with around 1300 medium range nuclear capable missiles, and is working on area denial capabilities to the USA. Yet, in China’s calculations if it gets involved in serious military engagement in another theatre, Taiwan may move for independences.
China’s concerns over Tibet should be an issue of concern for India. After the Dalai Lama resigned from his political role last year, China’s counter action policy went awry. They clearly did not expect this, and find themselves on the back foot. The Tibetan government in-exile has Harvard educated lawyer Lobasang Sangye as the Prime Minister. China does not want to talk to him as it may give the new Tibetan administration in-exile political recognition. And the Dalai Lama has taken his hands off. At the same time, Tibetan monks and nuns in the Tibetan areas of Sichuan province have raised their anti-China activities, calling for independence and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. Since March 2011, 20 Tibetan monks and nuns resorted to self-immolation, and the protests have spread wider. China’s response has been on harsher methods, and trying to overwhelm them with re-education and propaganda to support the motherland.
In China’s calculations, the resurgence in Tibetan protests in China is a US-Dalai Lama conspiracy in which India may be involved, and the spring board is Nepal. Beijing, it appears, has failed to completely stop anti-China Tibetan activities in Nepal because of US and Western pressures. Their disapproval of Nepal’s position was demonstrated when Premier Wen Jiabao cancelled a 3-day visit to Nepal in December, and only spent 4 hours later in Kathmandu on his way to the Gulf countries. Wen Jiabao reportedly spent most of his four hours in Kathmandu on the Tibetan activities in Nepal and threat to China’s security.
China strongly feels that the presence of the Dalai Lama in India, location of the Tibetan Kashang in Dharamsala, and more than 160 thousand Tibetan exiles in India comprise a serious threat. This is interlaced with the Sino-Indian border issue, and can emerge as a critical question in Sino-Indian relations.
But Beijing has equally important issues to consider along its eastern sea board, Far East to South East Asia. The general details are very well known and documented. At the centre are three imperatives (i) oil and gas (ii) extension of maritime territory, and fisheries which is a major economic basket, and (iii) control of sea lanes.
China contends with Japan and claims exclusive sovereignty over the Senkaku (Diayotai in Chinese) islands in East China Sea; similarly, it claims in entirety the South China Sea and the Spratley group of islands, which are in part or whole claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. China’s assertive position in 2010 on these issues, and a surreptitious attempt to persuade the US to accept South China Sea as its “core interest”, and earlier a separate unofficial offer that a line be drawn in the western pacific to divide China’s and US’ domination. Both were outrightly rejected by the US. This has changed the whole scenario in the Asia Pacific region. The US has returned to the region, creating a new challenge for China. Beijing’s assertions with military backing backfired.
China is, at the moment, faced with options of protecting its territorial claims in its near sea areas which are imminent and Sino-Indian border ard the Tibetan issue on the other.
Currently, China is overburdened by the developments along its sea board. It is setting up a fourth naval fleet in Hainan Island which overlooks the South China Sea. The US is also planning to base special ships in Singapore which can quickly intervene in the same area. The situation is complex.
Given these developments it is unlikely that China will endeavour on a military conflict with India in the near future. Unless, of course, it concludes India is sabotaging its sovereignty over Tibet. From 2003, when Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visited China, India has bent over backwards to assure China that India does not wish to interfere in Tibet. A conflict with India in 2012 does not seem feasible. But in the next few years New Delhi must look out for “denial” and “deception”. (Concluded).
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi.Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)