India, China and the US: Current Realities
- Category: Strategic Research Review
- Published: Wednesday, 22 October 2008 00:00
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Hard times are tough, but good times can be even worse. After the Vietnam defeat in 1975,the US has not suffered a serious overt blow to its military power, with the result that there has not been a serious effort at reconfiguring strategies in a context in which India and China are displacing Europe as the geopolitical pivot of the Eurasian landmass. Over the coming decade, the "European premium" that has enabled the countries of the west of that continent to enjoy a standard of life far in excess of their productive capacities or future potential will gradually erode. At present, only the countries of East Asia and West Asia are victims to this premium. Thus they are willing in large numbers to pay in excess of the value that they are receiving for European labels. For the most part both Arab as well as Sinic societies remain in a time warp. They are unwilling to accept that the center of excellence is shifting from Europe to Asia and North America. However even they are changing slowly so that a secular decline in the standard of living within Europe (though not for Europeans moving elsewhere) seems inevitable.
Due of the momentum created by its size, the US has been able to shrug off the effect of mistakes in policy, creating for itself the illusion that it still has time on its side. The fact is that 2005 is the equivalent of 1905. The world is about a decade from a possible major international conflagration, one that is likely to be centered in East Asia. Unless the Chinese Communist Party goes in for major economic restructuring, the country will not be able to fend off competition from new players such as Vietnam and India, with the result that the country will enter into the same process of economic atrophy that has begun in Europe after the expansion of the European Union. The option of reform is almost as painful and will remove from employment tens of millions of individuals who would have enjoyed over a decade of prosperity. It is not the habitual poor who rebel but those who were once well off and are now undergoing hardship. Germany during the 1920s saw the malefic effects of such a reversal of fortunes, when a cultured and evolved people turned to psychotics in order to get themselves out of economic turmoil.
The Chinese Communist Party has overseen a spectacular growth in the real income of its populations. This is the largest known growth in history. Since the Deng Xiaoping reforms that began in 1979, the country has seen substantial growth and prosperity creating in the process a middle class for whom the continuance of good times has become the paramount objective, not political reform. The Chinese are a people as evolved as the Germans and as willing to subordinate themselves to authority were they to regard their welfare as dependent on such acceptance of limitations in freedoms. Should they believe that the prosperity that has finally come to them is threatened, they would be as willing as the Germans were in the 1920s and beyond to entrust their fates to authorities that in the view of the population have the ability and the will to reverse economic decline. Should the PRC enter into a period of economic contraction - something that is now being predicted with increasing frequency - the population is likely to accept a "hard" regime that promises a "soft" life, rather than go the way of the Russian peoples, who rallied behind a drunken and clueless Boris Yeltsin in an atavistic fit of collective masochism. Subsequently conditions in Yeltsinite Russia degenerated to such a level that several within the family-oriented Russian female population were forced to sell their bodies to escape hunger, the way so many women in Nepal have been similarly forced to do, despite a like culture that stresses family values. It is the women who always have to make the greatest sacrifice in times of want. The experience of the Russian people has served to reduce the hunger for reform within the Chinese population to very low levels, despite the verbal encouragement given to such a process by "scholars" from Europe and North America
And thus Proposition 1, that the population of the Peoples Republic of China is much more likely to turn towards "authoritarian" rather than "reformist" solutions at times of internal and external flux. The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party understands this well. It was the recognition of this propensity of the middle classes in the PRC to go the way of those that had been similarly placed in the Germany of the 1920s that led the author - in November 2002 – to suggest a policy o0f "Constrainment" of the PRC, rather than a duplication of the Kennan policy of "Containment" that was carried out towards the USSR. While "containment" would be a broad-spectrum medication, applicable virtually across the board so as to choke off economic, technological, personal and other contacts, a policy of "constrainment" would have the much narrower focus of degrading the ability of the PRC to wage war even while keeping open normal trade and person-to-person channels. The objective would not be isolation but a steady attrition of the power to sustain a conflict. This could be achieved by a careful monitoring of technology transfers, harsh measures against entities such as North Korea that depend on the PRC for their striking power, as well as a network of alliances that would automatically get activated in the event of a conflict initiated by the PRC. As a part of such a policy of constrainment of the PRC, the author suggested the formation of an "Asian NATO" that would guarantee the security of democracies across Asia, even those that were not formal members of the new alliance. However as yet the Euro-centric foreign policy and defense establishment in the US and their Cold Warrior counterparts in India have ensured that such a policy remains unimplemented. The US has still to rid itself of the illusion that Beijing can be part of the solution, when the reality is that it is the PRC which has created the problem, most notably in Pakistan and North Korea, the "proxy" nuclear powers created by the PRC to apply pressure on the flanks of India and Japan respectively. As for India, while the PRC continues to arm both Islamabad as well as Dacca against New Delhi, those involved in the making of policy continue to hope that if they turn their gaze away from the elephant in the room, the animal
However the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party themselves have a pachyderm in the room, and this is Taiwan. While many have written of "One China" or "Two Chinas", the reality is that there are now Two Taiwans. The first (Taiwan One) largely comprises of the families of the KMT cadres and elite that occupied the island after their 1949 rout, while the latter (Taiwan Two) comprises of the rest of the population, minus a minuscule segment of the local population that regards its future as being brighter in One China than in a Taiwan that is separate from the PRC. The divide between the two Taiwans has only grown as a consequence of Beijing's policy of dealing exclusively with those who accept the principle of eventual absorption of the island into the PRC. And thus Proposition 2,which is that Taiwan Two is likely to increase its influence on policy over Taiwan One, despite the help presently given to the latter by both the US as well as the PRC What will become manifest in the years ahead will be a "scissors" effect, caused by
(1) increasing ferment within the PRC leading to the heightening of authoritarian modes of rule and approach and
(2) the widening gap between Taiwan One and Taiwan Two, which creates an
impetus within the latter to further stretch the boundaries of Taiwan One's compact with Beijing by increasing the pace of formal separation between the PRC and Taiwan.
Eventually - at present rates of development, most probably by 2012-15,the two blades of the scissor may come together, resulting in a conflagration. After nearly four decades of subjugation to Taiwan One, those who comprise Taiwan Two are unlikely to welcome absorption into the PRC. However the internal situation within China may by that time make a diversion of public attention through conflict very likely. The PRC economy hinges on two factors, a high degree of access to US markets and public confidence in the longevity and stability of Communist Party rule. Should this appear shaky, there is likely to be a collapse in the financial system, followed by a meltdown in employment and output. This will confront the CCP with a Hobson's Choice: risk ruin through alienating the US market (through conflict with Taiwan) or watch as public anger against CCP rule rises to a degree that makes its stamping down impossible. Although there seems at present a great distance between Communist Romania and present-day China, the fact remains that an oligarchy controls both, one that is dependent on tacit consent of the multitude of those governed. Further while both populations appear docile, they each have an invisible "red line" that - once crossed -leads to public chaos. The same people that cheered Nikolai Ceaucescu, murdered him once his regime became toothless
Given its present policy towards the island, Taiwan at present is a Lose-Lose situation for the PRC. Should Beijing ignore the inevitable steady progression by Taiwan Two towards the formal attributes of independence, jingoist elements in the military and in the population at large will get alienated. However even worse would be the option of war, for this would cut the PRC away from its major market, as well as ensure that an evolving policy of Constrainment gets replaced with a policy of severe Containment designed to emasculate the regime by weakening the country, in the manner of Iraq from 1990 till 2003.Only a policy of abjuring the use of force against Taiwan so long as there is no formal declaration of independence by the island will steer the PRC away from such treacherous waters. This appears unlikely. The policy of the Chinese Communist Party has historically followed the flowing zigzag direction of Quantum Mechanics rather than on the linear path of Classical Mechanics.
Proposition 3 states that this fundamental propensity to change direction in CCP policy has not been reversed by the Deng Xiaoping reforms, and that the CCP is likely to recoil from the "economistic" policies of this period .The tacit encouragement given to the anti-Japanese riots in April 2005 is an early indicator of such a switch. In part this is because other powers have not reacted the way the PRC has to "economistic" stimuli. Despite showering largesse on the European Union in the form of investment and purchases, diplomatic returns have been few, barring atmospherics and verbiage, two fields in which the CCP itself excels, and has used to great effect while dealing with countries less sophisticated, such as India, where the "national security" talent pool comprises mostly of retired bureaucrats and journalists, all of whom source their analysis from the welter of embassies in New Delhi. The clearer-headed Europeans - barring France - have refused the temptation of breaking ranks with the US in order to support the rival interests of a much weaker power, China, as have most of the South American, African and Central Asian states. It would be easy to assume that the geopolitical successes of the US are based less on its economic performance than on its military arsenal. Such a conclusion though wrong, would accentuate the increasing trend of defense spending seen within the PRC since the end of the Jiang Zemin period. While media coverage of theatres such as Afghanistan, Serbia and Iraq have judged the US military to have defeated local rivals, the fact is that in each such case the objective situation for overall US interests is worse after military occupation (as distinct from intervention) than before.
While it is true that the PRC has increased its profile and presumed influence within its neighborhood - most notably with an equally Japan-phobic South Korea - the fact remains that as yet, despite huge increases in economic linkage, support by the "periphery" countries for PRC core interests ends where US core interests begin. Both South Korea and Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore (the original booster of China) host US troops and continue to maintain a dense network of military-military cooperation with Washington. On the Taiwan issue, neither has snapped non-commercial links with the island, although Singapore appears to have got a case of the jitters over recent PRC criticism of high-profile visits by Taiwanese politicians to the city-state.
Whether it is in Central Asia or elsewhere, the much smaller economic footprint of India, for example, has not prevented New Delhi from carrying almost as much diplomatic weight as Beijing. On balance it appears that an "economist" approach to foreign policy is not sufficient to ensure support for Chinese interests. Hence the increasing inner-party consensus that the "Rising Superpower" needs an armed forces that reflects its economic muscle. The attention being paid to the creation of a blue water navy and long-range underwater and airborne strike capability indicates a policy decision to have the capacity to intervene militarily in the PRC's "Near Abroad": ASEAN, the China Seas and - a recent addition - the Indian Ocean. These accretions are much higher in scope and volume than are needed for a purely "Taiwan-centric" posture. The evolving parameters suggest a determination by Beijing to gradually displace the US-Japan combination as the principal military power in Asia
Proposition 4 states that the PRC is seeking to create an archipelago of bases and "friendly" locations that could be used to moor its forces so as to be in position to repel or initiate an attack. Particular attention will be paid to the Pacific Ocean mini-states and to Pakistan. Gwadar is only the most visible symbol of this developing trend. While those involved in the making of US foreign policy are usually also the ones judging its relevance and success, the reality is that Washington's external affairs elite appears to have developed the characteristics of a sado-masochistic worldview. The harshest measures are carried out against those regarded as incapable of significant retaliation, while towards the rest, there is a cringing - in practice- accompanied by growls that hopefully camouflage the kowtow. Towards the PRC, the growling - mainly on monetary issues - has been unable to mask the acceptance of Beijing's bona fides on most critical issues, in the same manner that the generals in Islamabad have been given the benefit of the doubt by Washington, even where their culpability is obvious, as with helping Osama bin Laden and his core group of associates escape the US dragnet or selling nuclear technology to rogue regimes. There must be a reason for such forbearance, but what this is - is not obvious. The effect of such a double standard - the secular Saddam Hussein was a "threat to international order" while the House of Saud (the principal backer of extremist ideology throughout the world) is a "trusted ally" worthy of overnight visits to the Bush ranch at Crawford. Despite the absurdity of the proposition that A Q Khan "acted on his own" in proliferating nuclear technology, the army-led Pakistan is on the side of the angels while North Korea - which has done far less than Pakistan in proliferating, at least in nuclear technology - is part of the "Axis of Evil". The lack of consistency is ignored in a context in which the relevant establishments in Washington have come to believe in their own myths, chief among which is the belief that the occupation of Iraq has stanched the bleeding caused by Terrorism. In reality future checks will show that the overwhelming majority of the suicide bombers who are today fanning out across their country and tomorrow the world are from localities that have been flattened by Fallujah-style assaults of the US military, in the same way that young people with no hope of gainful employment in the "Palestinian" territories turn to suicide bombings
A parallel can be drawn between the US today and the UK of the 1920s and the 1930s. At that time, London refused to acknowledge the significance of the rise of the National Socialist Deutsch Arbeiter Partei under Adolf Hitler, seeing in him either a crank or as an individual with whom business could get transacted. Similarly the UK failed to recognize that the most effective ally against Hitlerite Germany would not be an enervated and panic-stricken France but the USSR. It was because both London and Paris left Moscow no other option that the Hitler-Stalin pact took place, which emboldened Berlin to risk a world war. Replace London with Washington, Berlin with Beijing and Moscow with New Delhi, shift back "2005" to "1929" and you have the present.
M D Nalapat is Professor of Geopolitics at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India.