This is terribly important because China is indeed a most serious subject and a high degree of professionalism and scholarship is needed to understand it. Dilettantism is simply impermissible. Hopefully, India’s Sinologists (and TV anchormen) will learn this cardinal lesson from their American counterparts and mentors.
Much nonsense has appeared in the Indian media lately against the backdrop of the tensions in the Leh region under bylines of our analysts and scholars regarding China’s intentions as a military power. Most of it ended up spreading alarmist canards.
Now the very same pundits are somersaulting to explain why war didn’t break out in the Himalayas and yet the standoff got over. So, diplomacy can be cost-effective in safeguarding national interests, isn’t it?
Thus, for a variety of reasons, the Pentagon’s 2013 Report to the US Congress, which was released Monday in Washington becomes a reality check for the 1.2 billion Indians.
First things first. Let me underscore that the 100-page report appeared when the India-China border tensions peaked and yet it just sallied forth ignoring the Himalayan tensions as a mere flutter in the air not consequential enough.
In fact, Sino-Indian border dispute comes up for a brief casual reference only in the entire Pentagon analysis of the Chinese military build-up. The Report takes note in a single sentence that despite increased political and economic relations between India and China, border tensions remain.
It then goes on to estimate in yet another sentence as to why this is so: “Both countries [India and China] in 2009 stepped up efforts to assert their claims.”
So, 2009 was the turning point - the year following the signing of the US-India nuclear deal. Period. Who was in charge of national security at that point?
Interestingly, not a word has been uttered from Washington through the entire 3-week period of the so-called “standoff” in Leh.
The Pentagon report contains no salience pointing at a belligerent Chinese military strategy in the regional or global context. It identifies that China’s primary military focus is on Taiwan, where, too, “Despite occasional signs of impatience, China appears content to respect Taiwan’s current approach to cross-Strait relations.”
That is to say, so long as Taiwan doesn’t precipitate a crisis such as asserting its “independence,” Beijing can learn to live with the facts of life.
Indeed, the Pentagon report takes pains to understand China’s motivations and national priorities and it repeatedly underlines the importance of mil-to-mil cooperation in the overall US-China relationship.
Curiously, the US shows the intellectual ingenuity to regard China’s expanded military presence regionally and globally as providing an “opportunity” for US-China cooperation in the so-called global commons.
What about the “string of pearls”? What “string of pearls”? The Pentagon report sees neither any string nor any pearls in the Indian Ocean region.
It never even heard about the hullabaloo raised by India’s China experts regarding Gwadar and Hambantota ports. Yes, the oil pipeline through Myanmar to Yunan is analysed in terms of energy security.
But here, too, Pentagon estimates that forever will China remain vulnerable in energy security. “Given China’s growing energy demand, new pipelines [across Central Asia or Myanmar] will only slightly alleviate China’s maritime dependency on either the Strait of Malacca or the Strait of Hormuz. Despite China’s efforts, the sheer volume of oil and liquefied natural gas that is imported to China from the Middle East and Africa will make strategic SLOCs increasingly important to Beijing.”
Put differently, China’s energy security will remain highly vulnerable to the choke points of Malacca Strait and the Strait of Hormuz.
There is an inter alia reference in the report to China’s future role in Central Asia (which includes Afghanistan in the US strategic calculus).
It runs like this: “The desire to protect energy investments in Central Asia, along with potential security implications from cross-border support to ethnic separatists could also provide an incentive for military investment or intervention in this region if instability surfaces.” Interesting, isn’t it — China as a factor of stability in Central Asia?
Actually, what I liked best was the Pentagon report’s section titled “National-Level Priorities and Goals.” The report analyzes, let me quote:
“Rather than challenge the existing global order, China has adopted a pragmatic approach to international relations and economic development that seeks to strengthen the economy, modernize the military, and solidify the CCP’s [Chinese communist party's] hold on power. China balances the imperative to reassure countries that its rise is “peaceful” with the imperative to strengthen its control over existing sovereignty and territorial claims.
“China regards stable relations with its neighbours and the United States as essential to its stability and development. China continues to see the United States as the dominant regional and global actor with the greatest potential to both support and, potentially, disrupt China’s rise. In addition, China remains concerned that should regional states come to view China as a threat, they might balance against China through unilateral military modernization or through coalitions possibly with the Unites States.”
All in all, the Pentagon report should be an eye opener for India’s self-styled China scholars. India lives in a difficult world and is desperately holding on from ending as a failed state. This is not the time to be myopic. A country’s real strength lies in never underestimating its weaknesses.
Understanding China rightly is crucial to India’s long-term interests. China studies is not simply an area where we can afford decay to set in and it must be somehow insulated from the overall decline in intellectual standards that is apparent in the country’s strategic discourses.
The searing experience of the past 3-week period shows that the sweeping doctrines that were being expounded by the Indian pundits on resorting to “coercive diplomacy” in Leh was, plainly speaking, sheer baloney.
Arguably, the nearest point that the Pentagon comes to regarding the alchemy prevailing in the standoff in Leh is probably when the DOD Report evaluates the Chinese thinking toward the neighbouring countries. It says:
“The Chinese leadership faces a policy dilemma in seeking to maintain a stable periphery in order to assure its “window of opportunity” for development remains open. China also perceives other regional countries asserting their national interests in China’s periphery and feels compelled to respond to ensure continued stability; however, too strong of response may motivate regional actors to counterbalance China’s rise through greater cooperation with each other and the United States. Therefore, China’s leaders are trying to maintain a delicate balance between defending territorial integrity in the face of perceived provocations by its neighbors while concurrently tamping down threat perceptions across the globe.” The DOD Report for 2013 is here