Vivek Shukla

Deducing Chinese ambitions for Asia-Pacific

Source - Open Clip Art Library
Source – Open Clip Art Library

Last week China published a white paper titled “China’s policies on Asia-Pacific security cooperation”. The white paper sets out China’s vision for the region on how to maintain peace and stability through dialogue and cooperation. It claims that China would firmly follow the path of peaceful development and the policy of building friendship and partnership with neighbouring countries to create an amicable, secure and prosperous neighbourhood.

Is it common for the Chinese Foreign Ministry to publish a White Paper for a particular region?
There has been a growing demand that the so-called ‘big-powers’, particularly China should be transparent about their intention and policies. In order to lay out its vision for the region, China has laid out this ‘statement of intent’, but it is a matter of debate regarding how credible this policy intent is in real. Strategic circles in India have called it a ‘smokescreen’. They further argue that China wants to project itself as a country with peaceful intentions but their actions on the ground are contrary to their words.

Is this just a propaganda paper or does it show some intentions?
This publication of White Paper does not have a long history, rather it has recent origins. Earlier, China used to rely on the Editorials of “People’s Daily” to put forward their point of view. Therefore, it is possible that this White Paper is for internal consumption as the regime has to show its own people, a certain amount of themselves being peace loving and well regarded in the world. India believes that most of the time the reality does not match with what they say. For instance, if we look at the periphery of China, it has issues with every country regarding territory and other strategic issues. Pakistan seems to be the only bright star in their periphery with which they do not share deep conflicting issues, all thanks to common enmity with India.

The White Paper exclaims that China wants a good relationship with the United States but at the same time it argues that China wants to squeeze out what they see as an overly meddlesome United States from the region. Post-Trump election as the President of the United States, the troubled Chinese Government wants to edge themselves to see how much they can move and in what direction they can go.

Targets of the White Paper –
The White Paper hits out saying, “some countries are increasing their military deployment in the region” and “a certain country seeks to shake off military constraints in the region”. Now, there is an ambiguity over the actual targets of the paper. Any normal eye could perceive that these two statements are referred to the United States and Japan, respectively. It is covertly targeting United States position with regards to the ‘pivot-to-Asia’ strategy towards Asia-Pacific since 2009. In the context of Japan, it is targeting the PM Shinzo Abe’s plans for the revival of the constitutional provisions including collective self-defence, increasing the defence budget, acquisition of more arms including the self-defence maritime forces outreach more than 1,000 nautical miles and a suspicion about the nuclear factor. This targeting of the United States and Japan signals that China wants to assert that its sovereign territorial claims in the region are non-negotiable. Although many of such claims have lied dormant for the last few years, many of them have popped up in the form of ‘nine-dash line’ which was discredited by the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, in July last year. Similarly, the claims of South Tibet in India’s north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh has popped up in 2003-05, whereas it was dormant before. As the China started rising, it started to activate these dormant territorial claims in order to gain the ‘living space’ i.e. lebensraum.

Response from the United States –
The day the White Paper was released, the Secretary of State (designate) of the United States, Mr Rex Tillerson said “We’re going to have to send China, a clear signal that first the island building must stop and second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.” It is high time that the United States took a tough position because the previous administration has been soft and it has allowed China to establish and reinforce claims on the ground by creating artificial islands and militarising them. It is to be seen if these words of denying access to China by the United States can actually be put into action because ‘denying access’ might escalate the conflict into a military one. It is a moot question because it is debatable if both the United States and China possess the stomach to entangle themselves into a military conflict in the region.

Relationship with India –
The White Paper has a section on India, arguing that Sino-Indian ties have deepened since 2015 and presents a rosy picture of the growing relationship. But there is no factual basis for this argument. India has some serious issues with China, not just in the context of Pakistan but in terms of perennial territorial expansionism policy of China and the manner of behaviour of China in the South East Asian region. China is also openly flouting the international consensus by blocking the entry of India into the prestigious ‘Nuclear Suppliers Group’ and India’s attempt in the United Nations to designate ‘Masood Azhar’ of Pakistan as an international terrorist. Both of the discussed issues involve the common angle of Pakistan and India’s view of Pakistan is diametrically opposite to that of China.

The Global Times editorial in China has criticised India for selling ‘Akash’, a surface-to-air missile to Vietnam, which is a potential adversary of China in the South China Sea. It is quite hypocritical of the Chinese because the entire nuclear arsenal and missile programmes of Pakistan are based on Chinese aid, research and technology.

Chinese hypocrisy does not end here. It has called out to the KMT Chairwoman (Taiwanese that it is not willing to sacrifice its sovereign interests, whereas it expects India to abandon its claims to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir where it is building the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China is rather assiduously wooing Iran over participating in the CPEC project, which India has called as both illegal and provocative.

This White Paper came barely fifteen days after China called the Agni-5 (intercontinental ballistic) missile launch of India as an illegal action citing UNSC resolutions. China has a two-track policy of ‘the velvet glove and the iron fist’ towards India. The ‘velvet glove’ signals the deepening of the relationship which includes the strategic communication and high-level meetings between the two neighbours, the growing trade relationship ($71 billion in 2016) and the investment profile of China (around 500 companies of China are working in India). The iron fist policy involves the above mentioned strategic conflicts over various issues. Therefore, few commentators call it a double-faced policy in common terms.
India has been mentioned 15 times in the White Paper which is unprecedented. India has been put in the bogie of the United States and Russia, while Japan and ASEAN are put in a similar bogie. India has been put in the third position in the Chinese calculus after the United States and the Russian Federation. It is essentially known to China that other Asian countries cannot challenge them on their own without being in alliance with another power, but India is an exception to it. Therefore, China is determined to limit India’s rise and its emergence on the international scene.

Chinese media has always made the point that India, especially in alliance with the United States presents for China a very significant strategic challenge in the region, particularly in the Indian Ocean and South-East Asian region. China imports 300 billion tonnes of energy and fossil fuels annually. Even with the best of pipelines that China is building from Central Asia or Myanmar, the bulk (almost 26%) of their supplies come from the West Asia (Middle East) through the Indian Ocean. Therefore, the role of the Indian Navy becomes a very significant factor for Chinese calculations in the Indian Ocean.

Strategic lesson for India –
Like Donald Trump’s argument, India should also ask for reciprocity in relations with China. For instance, we shall ask a question to the Chinese leadership regarding the reciprocal favour it is willing to advance to India in return for us accepting the ‘One-China’ policy.

About the Author
The author is an analyst who expresses his opinions on matters of global significance. He can be contacted at X (formerly Twitter) using the handle @postsfromVivek.