By Ameen Izzadeen
Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s recent visit to India and Pakistan is of strategic significance from a defence perspective. Trade and aid help China, a rising superpower, make new allies, check foes and bolster its defence.
Giving China this superpower status are its multi-trillion dollar foreign reserves, its nuclear arsenal, its strategic missiles, its ability to shoot down space satellites, its hi-tech navy, its presence in strategic ports in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Burma and Bangladesh, its economic aid to and investments in Africa and its exploration of oil wells in Iraq, Sudan and Central America.
But only a few see China as a state under siege. It is surrounded by nations that can turn hostile if the need arises.
Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, the member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations and the United States are nations with whom China does roaring business. But all these nations are, to varying degrees, uncomfortable with China’s military power. Ironically, China’s military power grew in response to a real or perceived threat from these very nations.
In recent months and years, China’s pro-West neighbours including Japan, Australia, and New Zealand have come up with defence white papers wherein China has been mentioned as a threat or security concern.
Japan’s defence white paper or the National Defence Programme Guideline released last week identified North Korea as a security threat and China as a security concern.
The guideline comes against the backdrop of a humiliating setback Japan suffered in a war of words with China over the arrest of a Chinese vessel by Japanese coastguards near a disputed island known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Japan was forced to release the vessel and its captain after China flexed a little bit of its military muscle near the gas-and-oil-rich disputed islands.
The guideline promotes Japan’s “dynamic defence capability” to deter China around the disputed islands and calls for stronger security cooperation with the United States, South Korea and Australia.
Meanwhile, Australia’s defence establishment in a white paper released in May last year had identified China as a military threat.
Echoing Australia’s anxieties was New Zealand. In a defence white paper it released last month, New Zealand says, “there will be a natural tendency for it (China) to define and pursue its interests in a more forthright way on the back of growing wealth and power.”
Obviously, these white papers have drawn an angry response from China. Recent Wikileaks cables say Beijing had warned Canberra that it would “suffer the consequences” if references to China were not watered down.
Adding to China’s defence woes is the growing US military presence in the region. The United States maintains military bases in Japan and South Korea. The ostensible reason for the US military presence is to counter the threat posed by North Korea. But the actual reason is that Washington is apprehensive of China’s growing military power.
It is no secret that the US is bound by a treaty to defend Taiwan if China uses military power to regain the island. It is also no secret that the US is building an 8-billion-dollar military complex with a dock for nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and a missile defence system on the Pacific island of Guam to contain China’s military build-up.
China is a nuclear power and therefore, no country would want to go to war with it. Yet, if there is a conventional war, it will be disadvantageous to China, for it will have to fight it alone against a powerful US-led alliance including Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India.
China’s so-called allies such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Venezuela and some African nations will be of little help, because either they are militarily weak or they would see wisdom in neutrality. With Russia’s stance unpredictable, perhaps only North Korea may come to China’s aid. Besides, in dissident regions such as Tibet and Xingjian, the anti-China alliance will find fifth columns to be used in the manner that the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and the Kurds and Shiites in Iraq were used during the US invasions of the two countries.
It is these disadvantages that drive China on an economic offensive on the basis that a state will not turn hostile with another state with which it does flourishing business. In India, Wen set a US$ 100 billion bilateral trade target by 2015 and offered support for New Delhi’s bid for a greater role in the United Nations.
In Pakistan, Wen’s mission took a different shape. Pakistan accorded him the kind of welcome which only a visiting US president would normally receive. It underscored a growing perception in Pakistan that China is more trustworthy than the US which, many in Pakistan believe, has a secret agenda to destabilize and denuclearize Pakistan.
China, on the other hand, seeks Pakistan’s stability because it is through Pakistan that China sees a land-based trade route to West Asia, Central Asia and Europe.