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The Politics of China’s Military Spending and Its Long Term Consequences

China is a huge country with a large coast line and critical interests abroad to keep its economic development going. It has legitimate defence requirements given the above parameters, and Beijing’s desire to acquire aircraft carrier(s) and a powerful navy should normally have been seen in that context. But there are serious problems for others embedded within China’s defence strategy which becomes an “offense” policy more often than not.

Chinese leaders and officials, with apparent simplicity, are beginning to ask when almost all countries are engaged in defence modernization and spending more, why they raise concerns on China’s defence modernization? Unveiling China’s defence budget of $ 91.4 billion for 2011-2012, a 12.7% rise over the previous year, National People’s Congress (NPC) spokesman Li Zhaoxing pointed out that the budget was reasonable given USA’s huge defence budget of over $ 530 billion and India’s defence budget which was higher than China’s in percentage terms of their respective GDPs. Fudging and deception appears to be a habit-showing US spending in total figures and India’s in GDP terms because each separately show higher than China’s using two very different measurement standards.

A few weeks before the defence budget was officially announced, rumours trickled out of Beijing that the annual budget from this year through the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015) would remain in the range of 7% growth. Why was this wrong perception being spread? Was it to calm the apprehensions of the concerned international community? If so, it did not work.

During the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong inundated the world with misinformation, saying China had become the world’s largest grain and steel producer. Many believed it. But the reality was that a famine had spread and the steel industry had failed.

China bought the old Ukranian nuclear powered aircraft carrier the Varyag, but had problems getting it through the Bosphorus. It made an international commitment that this carrier would be used in the entertainment industry as a floating amusement park. Now it transpires that the Varyag has been painted navy gray, being used for ship building study, and may even be launched as the PLA Navy’s first aircraft carrier.

The international community no longer believes what China says or claims. They want proof and transparency in China’s defence polity, and this is not forthcoming at all. This should answer China’s question why other countries are critical about China’s military modernization.

Most medium to major countries have been transparent about acquisitions from abroad or indigenous manufacturing programme. For example, India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) has been in the news for years with government briefing on the progress. The process of acquisition of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov, the price escalation and some unsavoury developments are regularly splashed all over the Indian media.

But the Chinese surprise the world sometimes presenting a new creation like the F-20 stealth aircraft, and similarly keep development of systems totally under a cover. The Type-093 nuclear powered submarines or the Type-094 nuclear armed submarines were discovered by the international community by sheer accident.To maintain trust while building one’s defence capabilities is best done by keeping the world informed. But when surprises are thrust or discovered, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that China is hiding strategic intentions which are inimical to neighbours and those who have national interests in the open region in China’s vicinity. Of course, China’s closed system allows this, and makes it convenient to deny and deceive, and resort to subterfuge.

China has adopted a very succinct strategy to try and deny focus of smaller and primarily threatened countries in its immediate and near regions to its Machiavellian policies. It interfaces its military capabilities with that of the United States, suggesting it is at least 15 years behind Washington. American strategists generally bought into this reasoning resulting in a debate. It is only very recently that the US suddenly realised that its own interests and interests of its allies in the Asia-Pacific Region (APR) were being threatened seriously.

It is, therefore, not surprising that many analysts in the APR and even in India view China’s threatening military modernization through the prism of China-US military power discrepancy. Such perceptions are reinforced by China’s active psychological warfare by winning over important and influential experts in these countries. For example, there are some such experts in India who have served on influential panels who take great pains to defend Chinese arms aid to India’s North-eastern insurgents like the ULFA, NSCN and others! Such covert activities against a country that Chinese officials sometimes describe as “friendly”’ seriously tests Beijing’s sincerity in conducting relations with neighbours and execution of its foreign policy at large.

In an interview with the Nan Fang Du Shi Bao (Nanfang Metroplis News), Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, Deputy Secretary General of the China Society of Military Sciences identified China’s three core interests in order of precedence as follows: (i) China will never allow its socialist system under Party rule to be overthrown, (ii) China must protect its territorial integrity, and (iii) China will not allow any damage to the significant economic interests that sustain China’s development.

Luo Yuan’s points may not be difficult to interpret prima facie but as usual there is more said than the words actually state. First, the rule of the Communist Party of China is higher than anything else or it is the only institution that guarantees what China is. If the party falls China’s territorial integrity will because questionable. Hence, the tiniest threat to the Party, real or perceived, will be dealt with severely. Learning from the Soviet experience, Beijing sees the US strategy as the biggest outside threat to the Party and therefore the need for rapid economic and military development to counter the US. This also makes the US the most important country to engage with.

The second core interest, territorial integrity, has been left deliberately undefined and vague making it difficult for countries with any territorial dispute with China to understand if a viable compromise can be reached or will China use its military and economic power to totally wrest these disputed territories from other claimants. Taiwan is China’s declared territorial core interest. But in 2010, Beijing tried to add the South China Sea and the Spratley Islands to this till the US reacted strongly. China’s military forays into Japan’s waters and airspace where China claims territory from 2004 raises serious questions. Similarly, China claims 128 thousand sq. kms of Indian territory, and fought a war with India in 1962. Notwithstanding the various confidence building measures between India and China, Beijing continues to provoke the Indians from time to time. If one reads China’s territorial integrity question and its core interest, it will not be surprising if it denotes its claim on Indian territory as its “core” interest. At that point of time China’s military posture against India will take an entirely different description. One can say that it is a matter of time for China to do so unless it officially states otherwise.

In this connection and that of its core economic interest, it will be pertinent to mention the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) “three warfare” strategy i.e. Psychological Warfare, Media Warfare and Legal Warfare. This responsibility was given to the PLA from the highest authority in China, and is just beginning to be put in use. Its first use, allowing the PLA establishment to become assertive and threating in 2010, may not have yielded the desired results. No matter, the policy is here to stay.

What is most important about the policy is that military strategy will work in close coordination with political, diplomatic, economic, cultural and legal activities. In Chinese communist terms “culture” is not only how we exhibit history, arts etc., but a major psychological warfare weapon that was used to devastating effect by the “Gang of Four” during the Cultural Revolution. One, therefore, needs to keep an eye on the Confucian Institutes that China is setting up in different countries.

Including economic interests among China’s “core” interests is a statement of China’s concerns over its overseas interests especially energy and raw material as well as Chinese nationals abroad. It may be noted that China sent an advanced naval ship from its Gulf of Aden anti-piracy deployment to evacuate Chinese workers from Libya. The situation in Libya did not warrant military signals for evacuation of foreign nationals. But China decided it was an opportunity to test its power projection using the military in coordination with its other subtle arms stated above.

Last year a senior Chinese official described “core interests” as interests that China will defend at any cost including military action. This makes the Indian Ocean an area of potential conflict. Influential Indian strategic experts who proclaim China has displayed no signs of military activities in the Indian Ocean region may like to review their views. To access base facilities in Pakistan, China does not require an agreement. It is there for the asking. Over 70% of China’s energy imports traverse that region. Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan made it clear that China will not allow any damage to economic interests that sustain China’s development. That is, China’s sustainable development has become external resource-dependent and, therefore, no cost is too big to secure it.

Despite releasing Defence White Papers every two years for sometime now, which give certain information on basic polices, they do not give out any details. Similarly, their reporting to the UN Arms Registry is a replication of the White Paper. The Defence Budget 2011-2012 does not illuminate any more than the earlier budget figures. Hence, experts around the world have to go to great lengths to come to an approximate conclusion on the size of China’s defence budget. The current budget, declared officially at $ 91.4 billion would approximate to around $ 200 billion.

China’s military posture is equally opaque. But the fringes that become visible from China’s official media, official statements, views of official think tank experts including senior military personnel, and actions on the ground suggest Beijing harbours dangerous hegemonic aspirations in the region. Its military, diplomatic, political and economic support to North Korea injecting volatility in the region basically against Japan and the USA in North-East Asia, and similar support to Pakistan in South Asia with India as the prime target and Afghanistan and Central Asia as strategic endeavours, has kept this part in a perpetual state of instability.

Given the foregoing, it is necessary to closely look at a press statement made by former state councillor for foreign affairs, Li Zhaoxing on the sidelines of the recently held 4th Session of the 11th NPC in Beijing. Li said China was “willing” to maintain friendly relations with neighbouring countries like India. In spite of the increases in its defence budget, it has reached an agreement to maintain peace and tranquillity with India on the borders till the issue was resolved, and China’s defence expenditure was less than India’s in terms of percentage of GDP.

The official Global Times (March 5) made it clear that China was not concerned by foreign criticism of its increased defence budget. It also said that China was open to discuss its defence budget with the US, Japan, India and Australia to dispel apprehensions. It added that the Asia-Pacific region could benefit from greater Chinese military expenditure to maintain regional peace and, in dealing with conflicts especially with its smaller neighbours China should adopt a more cautious stand.

Li Zhaoxing’s rather pleasing comments on India, though with a twist, is to be taken seriously in terms of psychological warfare. It is meant to provide ammunition to China appeasement views in India. There is a message that China and India can resolve all bilateral problems, and New Delhi need not build closer ties with the US to protect itself from China. But what China is doing vis-a-vis India including on visa issues, Pakistan, North East India insurgents and other areas totally debunks Li Zhaoxing’s olive branch.

The Global Times basically reiterates China’s perception of a US, Japan, India and Australia quadrangular strategic formulation to counter China’s threat. But China’s political and diplomatic accommodation message was marred by Chinese military provocation against the Philippines and Japan in the first week of March. It is very perplexing. A question last year was whether there was a disconnect between China’s political and military establishments. While the rise of the Chinese military’s influence in foreign affairs is on the rise, circumstantial evidence suggest that this is a consensus strategy formulated by hardliners led by President Hu Jintao( who heads the party) and the military.

The military-strategic ambience in the Asia-Pacific region is already on a shift. Australia’s 2009 Defence White Paper, Japan’s 2010 Defence White Paper which numbers over 600 pages, USA’s Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) 2010 and National Military Strategy (NMS) 2011 have made the common points that economic relations with China is an aspect (this point has not been made explicitly but understood) of China’s military hegemonic threat in the region which is poised to seriously threaten the natural and legitimate interests of all other players including the smaller countries.

The Japanese white Paper was most explicit, detailed and emphatic about the China threat, and the reasons are clearly noted. It declared a major military and security upgradation in its relations with the US. Australia, a natural player in the region, has followed suit without explicitly mentioning China but indications are clear. Even New Zealand has followed suit centering its alliance with Australia and the US. None of this has been lost on China. Beiing has launched a new “friendship and cooperation” initiative with the AEAN countries, especially with the claimant of the Spratley Islands. India, though not a geographical presence state in the APR region, has growing natural interests. Therefore, China has taken India into consideration.

India faces a major strategic and foreign policy challenge. But it is in a position today to dictate its own steps to prosecute its policies. It must not fall visibly into camps. But South Block must have realised (a) China has a well thought out long term policy to ensure India is kept debilitated by any and every means so that China can reach its unipolar Asia ambition and (b) India must stand up to China and look straight into its eyes.

On the other hand, India’s old non-aligned policy is not to be dumped but reinvented to address the G-20, BRICS, WTO and other such groupings. Only interests must serve policy, but needless ideological positions sometimes based on appeasing a particular community can only backfire. There is one imperative need to connect with its old friends in Central Asia, South East Asia and Africa. This will need frequent visits at least at the ministerial levels. This is required to build the platform of a big power and contain China.

At the same time, India and China have to live together as destined (or condemned?) by geography. If present Chinese leaders are prescient as their ancient scholars and mandarins they should not covet the homes and grazing fields of neighbours. Otherwise, their territorial integration by force may disintegrate sooner than later. During the Asian games earlier this year Guangzhou demonstrated they had an identity independent of Beijing.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst based in New

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