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Is China Preparing for Strategic Intervention?

The official China Daily (May 07, 2010) carried an article advocating a “Large Periphery” strategy to guard against developments in its neighbouring areas which could impact the country’s development and foreign interests.

The writer, Chen Xiangyang of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), reviewed the disturbing developments, and real and potential instability in its larger neighbourhood which had negative implications for China.

An immediate issue the article was concerned with was the revolution in Kyrgyzstan in April, which ousted the long ruling president of the country Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and former foreign minister Ms. Otunbayeva taking over as the President. The worry for China is two fold here. During the disturbances there were some anti-China incidents including the burning down of a Chinese commercial building. The fate of a large Chinese population doing business in Kyrgyzstan is in question. Chinese population including overseas Chinese are seen by Beijing as strategic interests to be protected.

Another aspect is the presence of about half a million Uighurs in Kygyzstan who are linked with the restive Uighurs in China’s South West Xinjiang region demanding independence. With Bakiyev, Beijing enjoyed a good relationship and the Kyrgyz Uighurs were kept under a tight leash. The concern over the Kyrgyz uprising was such that high level Chinese leaders rushed to Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, for an urgent conclave. In which direction will the new Kyrgyz President go?

China, according to Chen Xiangyang, is also worried about the political turmoil in Thailand, a country which has thrown up several ethnic Chinese as Prime Ministers and where this community controls around 80 percent of the finance. Anti-government riots in Mongolia, the economic and nuclear issues of North Korea, and relations with Japan especially on territorial issues can all affect China in some way.

Looking at the larger South Asia and its extension, China’s great power quest depends on how it can shape developments to its advantage. While the Afghan problem is being dealt with by Beijing cautiously with co-operation and complementarily with Pakistan, Myanmar on the other hand may not remain under strong Chinese influence for long.

Very recently, perception of strategic experts in China suggests the Burmese (Myanmarese) generals are beginning to lose trust in China. They noted that there may be some improvement in US-Myanmar relations, which may add to Beijing’s security concerns.

The article, interestingly did not mention the Sino-Indian border issue and the Arunachal Pradesh question with India, or the political tug-of-war going on in Nepal. For some time now, the Chinese have avoided articulating concerns with India, and in Nepal they are quietly provoking anti-Indianism taking advantage of the unstable political climate there.

The overall concern is that of the expansion of the US and NATO in areas of China’s interests and considered by it as its natural regions of influence. The new US “Smart power” strategy of carrot-and-stick in South East Asia has also been noted with concern.

“Terrorism, extremism, separatism”, the “three evils” are seen by China as elements threatening its territorial integrity in some of its border regions. Of special concern are Uighur separatists and the Dalai Lama’s Tibet autonomy agenda which China believes are fomented by the US and the west.

It was concluded that the presence of western military forces around China had squeezed its geopolitical support base and restricted its “going out” strategy towards its neighbours. These developments, Chen says sets new challenges, and can put pressure on its principle of “non-interference in others’ internal affairs”. This is a highly significant observation and should not be missed by China’s neighbours.

The “greater Periphery” or “big periphery” theory is not new, and is linked to China’s rise. In 2006, Dr. Chen Yang, Deputy Director of the Strategic Research Centre at the CICIR, unveiled this strategy. He spoke of the “eastern line” and the “western line” which encapsulated the large region from the Middle East to Japan (Asia Pacific) where China’s security domination should operate. Dr. Yang argued this was imperative to attain “big power status and be independent in the world and act as a responsible power”.

China’s greater peripheral strategy is being articulated even more recently with some implementations on the ground. Senior strategist Zheng Yongnian claimed (April 15, 2008) that Asia was China’s “great backyard” and China must rise first in Asia. Admiral Yang Yi also advocated in October last year that as a rich nation with strong military, China must intervene in developments in its periphery to ensure a favourable security environment and diffuse conflicts before they escalate into war.

Yang Yi’s advocacy does not differ very much from the suggestion of Chen Xiangyang of the CICR or the other thesis mentioned above.

There is a clear indication that since President Hu Jintao came to power in 2002 and took over the Central Military Commission (CMC) in 2004, he has encouraged a strong, outward military policy.

The recent Chinese naval exercise with air support (March-April, 2010) which showed its undisputable flag in the South China Sea and provoked the Japanese near Okinawa. Japan provoking naval initiatives continued even thereafter.

Retired Chinese General Xu Guangyu responded to Japanese protests saying that people must get used to Chinese naval activities designed to protect overseas interests and recovery of lost territories.

China is considering establishing military bases in the Indian Ocean region surrounding India, and its navy’s continuous presence in the Gulf of Aden since December, 2008 are emphatic messages that countries like India will ignore at their own peril.

There are voices in India which still refuse to acknowledge the pattern in China’s military and strategic activities. Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean region is going to further restrict India’s diplomatic initiatives and position in the vitally important South Asian neighbourhood to start with.

If India ever thinks that it has a dependent ally in the United States it must forget it. Washington will do what suits, in its perception, its own interests though more often than not such perceptions have proved wrong in the long run. India will have to demonstrate some initiative and start working with the Central Asian countries and Russia. That does not seem to be happening at the moment.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience. He can be reached at grouchohart@yahoo.com)

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