China’s Growing Assertivenessin the Asia-Pacific

Issues Details: 
Vol 11 Issue 6 Jan - Feb 2018
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An analyses of the Asia-Pacific and why nations particularly India stand at crossroads
Lt Gen RR Nimbhorkar, UYSM, AVSM, SM*, VSM
Saturday, January 27, 2018
As easy as clichés emerge in any strategic discourse, the by now overstrained cliche, “Asian Century,” hinting significant economic and demographic trends - primarily China and India’s - over the past two decades, clearly surpasses them all. And for good reason too! With China in the lead and India among others, forging ahead at a rapid pace, Asia has clearly emerged as the global centre of trade and commerce. Ironically though, their respective prowess may end up fuelling mutually exclusive interests. While both these Asian giants have made impressive all round progress, the growing Chinese assertiveness bordering on aggression, over its territorial claims in the neighbourhood seems to prove right those strategists, who always apprehended opacity in all facets of its governance and consequently of its  protestations of ‘Peaceful Rise’ and long term strategic goals in the Region.
Noam Chomsky, the noted thinker, observed that the ‘’human kind continues to be primitive because of the inveterate bellicose streak in its psyche’’. Much like its human constituents, bellicosity remains an inherent attribute of a ‘Nation State’ and its quest for scaling higher echelons in the ‘State’s Hierarchy of Needs,’ manifests in its transactions with other States through diplomacy at one end of the spectrum and military at the other. A nation state’s hierarchy of needs at the base aims at its primeval need for physical survival (secure under the Westphalian construct and international recognition) and graduates to its dominance regionally and thence globally - implying a scaling up of ability to influence outcomes to its advantage in  numerous domains - economic, cultural, cyber, space and the like.  
In recent times China provides an unambiguous example of such phenomenon. From its annexation of Tibet to its rise as a modern State; its painful but impressive economic and military rise; and now its assertiveness, little wonder that its earlier protestations of peaceful rise have now given way to expressions of a non-negotiable unilateral delineation of its territorial claims against almost all its neighbours. The alarm in the Region at the growing Chinese aggressiveness, has understandably drawn in potential balancers with a view to create a strategic equilibrium and preclude any unilateral change of the status quo.
Buoyed by its apparent sinews, it is now obvious from recent developments that China seeks to turn its ‘Middle Kingdom’ belief into a reality of sorts. While it remains as yet, clearly behind the dominant super power, the US, on most parameters which determine the ability to shape the strategic format,  these developments posit China as the emerging  ‘Other’ in a contending binary of power balancers, in the Indo-Pacific, even as a similar goal at the global level remains its long term objective. From a plethora of views expressed by strategists and recent actions of the two contenders in the Region, it would not be farfetched to imagine such a scenario in not too distant a future. Any action of a Nation state is invariably influenced by its historical legacies. In the case of China more so. Hence our enquiry must of necessity delve into China’s history howsoever briefly, among other contemporary factors
This analysis seeks to enquire into the possibility of emergence of a binary of power balancers in Asia Pacific.
Historical Legacies
About the most stark facet that emerges from its history is  the Chinese belief of its preeminence in the universal order of things. Having first emerged as a single political entity around 220 BC and despite later upheavals, China has by and large remained an established political entity since. Numerous dynasties later, each with its peculiarities notwithstanding, one aspect that emerged in its governance structure and was to last without much change was an institutionalised Bureaucracy which vastly influenced the Chinese policy making through the centuries. For a State which made impressive maritime forays and vigorous engagements with the known world at large, till the medieval period, the subsequent bureaucracy orchestrated scrapping of its naval power and turning insular, resulted in ‘entropy’  that had much to do with the century of humiliation that China underwent at the hands of intervening powers - first the British and subsequently the Japanese - from the mid 18th century till its emergence as the People’s Republic of China after a bloody civil war. 
It was only with the arrival of Communism that the established institutions of bureaucracy underwent a radical transformation. Through all that however, China never yielded to any change in its perception of  centrality in the Universe or it’s ‘middle kingdom’ syndrome. In his recent book, Henry Kissinger explains it thus, ‘’From its unification as a single political entity in 221 BC through the early twentieth century, China’s position at the centre of world order so ingrained in its elite thinking that in the Chinese language there was no word for it. Only retrospectively did scholars define “Sinocentric” tribute system. In its traditional concept, China considered itself, in a sense, the sole sovereign government of the world.” Little wonder then, that with its rise as an economic and military giant, it seeks to be the arbiter in all matters in the Region it perceives as its backyard initially, and later, perhaps globally!
Even as it emerged as the PRC in mid-twentieth century, the western powers were busy containing the spread of communism. Having forged alliances from Europe to South to SE Asia, Far East and the Pacific, the communist block comprising the Soviet Union and China as also their ‘client’ states - North Vietnam and North Korea were virtually ringed. Though most alliances continue to thrive and the US commitment to maintaining order in the Region endures, the arrival of President Trump and the perceived unpredictability in his responses to emergent strategic scenarios add to uncertainties in the Region given the growing Chinese assertiveness even as its trade and economic engagement across the Region continues to grow. 
Would a revived China ride roughshod over the territorial claims of its neighbours or simply work towards compelling the smaller contenders towards accommodation on Chinese terms through a mix of incentives (economic and others) and physical nudging through a not - so - subtle use of its military might or even the threat of use?  A host of factors hold the key to assessing a possible future for the Region. Of these three need a closer analysis. First amongst them shall always be the ability of its leadership to push the envelope even at the cost of breaching the red lines by international legal and diplomatic standards. 
Conceptual Orientation
The role of the Chinese Communist Party remains overwhelming in all facets of governance. Consequently, the composition of the Politbureau’s Standing Committee gives a fair idea of policy orientation of the Chinese state. Two developments at the recently concluded 19th CPC Congress, might hold a clue to the possible future course that the leadership may orient itself to. One obviously was the elevation of Xi Jinping to the status of Mao and Deng and thus allow him greater freedom in pursuing his policies. The other development was that of elevation of Wang Huning the Party Theoretician of considerable standing, to the Politbureau’s Standing Committee. Wang has the distinction of serving continuously as the Party Theoretician under the previous two dispensations of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao and till now under Xi Jinping. Wang has long held the view that the internal democracy was dispensable if it came in conflict with economic development. His rise therefore indicates, that China will stay the course for the present and perhaps deviate neither from its policy of according primacy to economic development nor compromise the supremacy of the CPC over all others. Implying on the one hand, a continued firm control over its armed forces and on the other, not be overly concerned about political liberties or democracy. 
Militarily, China has clearly moved away from its erstwhile concepts of fighting. From hiving away manpower to restructuring its command and control structure apart from re orienting its strategies from a largely defence orientation to an outward oriented capacity development and  a transition from ‘Continentality’ to ‘Maritimity’ with a defensive orientation to a joint / tri service paradigm aimed at force projection both - over land as well as at sea; restructuring of its command and control structure from erstwhile seven military regions tasked mainly for defensive operations and internal security, to five “outward looking theatre commands’’; Enhanced responsiveness through raising of more flexible formations; Heavy investment in emerging fighting domains such as Cyber, Space etc.
Internal Contradictions
China’s socio-economic transformation has been far beyond analysts’ expectations and this internal process, given China’s size, has itself assumed international significance. Its grandiose projects and torrid economic growth have major implications for geo-economics and global warming and raise apprehensions as to its sustainability. The sustainability of the Chinese growth model, given that hundreds of millions of Chinese in the countryside continue to remain at subsistence level  is under close scrutiny; that the Chinese leadership’s earlier dilemma  over ‘growth vs equity’; prosperity vs political freedom and democracy has been relegated to the background as Wang Huning’s elevation indicates, does not quite end the matter. Widespread social unrest, widespread corruption, agrarian distress and regional imbalances coupled with sub national aspirations continue to stress the internal stability. The controlled – ‘authoritarian’ - nature of the Chinese economy as evident in the under-valued Chinese currency, non-market driven production factor costs and labour and safety practices rooted in communist culture of concealing economic inefficiencies whose magnitude defies precise determination but has serious implications for global economic stability. As a dynamo for the Asia Pacific, South East Asian and US economies, inability to prevent the Chinese economy from overheating still remains a scary scenario for the world. That any adverse developments in these areas will clearly impact its ability to fulfil its ‘Chinese dream’, would be an understatement.
India’s Strategic Neighbourhood
President Trump’s reference to Asia Pacific as Indo Pacific, is a tacit acceptance of a geo-political and geo-strategic reality - the salience of India in defining any potential Regional order as it seeks to apportion greater responsibilities to the regional powers. In the light of the recently concluded ‘Quad’ and no less than President Trump referring to the Region as such, as against its earlier designation as ‘Asia Pacific’, numerous strategic thinkers have claimed that the term’s has been in the Indian strategic discourse for some time. Coined ostensibly to define India’s extended strategic neighbourhood, and consequently the imperative, to reconfigure its engagement with the Region. The lexicon apart, India’s ability to meet the challenge remains under question. Even with a rapidly growing economy, the political pressure groups, and the conceptual orientation in its engagement with extra regional powers are as yet not firmly aligned either for or against it being a part of a US led alliance formally or otherwise, aimed at containing the Chinese aggressive moves in Indo Pacific. If India’s association with recently concluded ‘The Quad’; its handling of the Doklam crisis; and its participation in numerous bilateral and multilateral exercises are any indicator of the potential trajectory of its policy towards an emergent Indo Pacific strategic scenario, China would clearly need to factor India’s weight amongst its possible adversaries. For the moment though and for some time yet, it will be ‘baby steps’ by India in that direction.
Beyond securing their physical borders, Nations strive to achieve security in various domains - primary amongst all being Economic security. In doing so, however, they often need to hedge their interests in other competing arena. China is no exception. with its “century of humiliation “well in the past, and driven by its professed paradigm of attaining the “Chinese dream”,  little wonder that it strives to seek parity with the US - regionally to begin with and globally at some later date. In doing so it continues to apply a mix of assertiveness and economic largesse on the contending parties. Whether the approach will bring fruition or will the Chinese state unravel under stress from internal contradictions, only time will tell. However, one aspect remains clear, it will be yet a while before China can catch up with the USA even in its own backyard, to enter in a Binary of Power Balancers with that country. That apart, India’s role in creation of either a strategic equilibrium or an asymmetrical power equation between a US led chain of alliances on the one hand and China on the other in the Indo Pacific region will clearly depend on the trajectory that India’s Act East policy orientation follows.