Elephant in the room: Deciphering China’s rise as a military power

Is China’s rise as a military power a threat to international, or even regional security? To answer this question one has to carefully consider not just geopolitical realities but also China’s strategic outlook in an increasingly complex world. True, the US and its allies have decided to respond to China’s rise by effecting their own rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region. In fact, only days ago the 2015 US National Military Strategy listed China as a possible threat. But how do we know this isn’t a tactic on the part of the US to hem China in and promote its own interests?

We have to recognize that the geopolitical scenario is changing rapidly. The Cold War period between the end of the Second World War and 1990 was defined by two major powers, the Soviet Union and the US. After the break-up of the USSR, the US emerged as the sole global superpower leading to the creation of a unipolar world oriented towards the West. However, the two-and-a-half decades since the 90s have also witnessed the rise of the global South. This has been led by countries such as China and India which unleashed their domestic growth potential by undertaking significant economic reforms.

As a result, the geopolitical lay of the land today is vastly different. Several developing countries are challenging the western hegemony on global institutions and demanding a greater say. In such a scenario, it’s natural for the US and its allies to push back in order to retain their pre-eminent position. And this is where the geopolitical friction with China comes in.

It’s my hypothesis that China is acting in its own self-interest, just as the US and their allies are acting in their own self-interests. And it’s NOT in China’s interest to engage in military conflict of any kind. However, this doesn’t mean that China will refrain from taking maximalist positions on international issues. It’s a tactic that will ensure that China gets the best deal for itself. Given that China has only lately started asserting itself at the international high table, this is a beneficial strategic ploy for Beijing.

And why shouldn’t it adopt such an assertive approach to diplomacy. China’s growing economic clout – as exemplified by the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Brics New Development Bank – affords it such leverage.

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In fact, China’s growing military prowess is also just another tool for Beijing to realize its strategic goals. This is highlighted by the latest white paper on China’s military strategy. Under the chapter ‘Strategic Guideline of Active Defense’ one of the key guiding principles of the Chinese armed forces is highlighted as, “We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked”. This isn’t too far apart from India’s position on national security.In an interaction with the Chinese ministry of defense information office, spokesperson senior colonel Yang Yujun reiterated that the principle of active defense isn’t pre-emptive and that China will never have conflict but will protect its national interests. Similarly, during a visit to the Shanghai PLA naval garrison, the chief of staff of the garrison reaffirmed that ‘avoid conflict’ and ‘maintain interest’ were the watch-words for his troops.In light of this, it’s imperative to read Chinese strategic maneuvers in the correct perspective. Yes, China will keep building its military strength and adopt an assertive approach to its territorial disputes. But the people’s armed forces will always be subservient to the Chinese state’s strategic goals.

So how should India respond to this? First and foremost, India must stay engaged with China and seek more points of contact. This will not only help build greater understanding between the two sides but also afford New Delhi the opportunity to highlight its own concerns in the bilateral relationship. In this regard, China is open to greater military-to-military exchanges and cooperation. India must not hesitate to seize such opportunities.

Second, India needs to build up its own economic, military and diplomatic depth to play the same game that China is playing. This is imperative in the current geopolitical atmosphere if India is to become a serious player at the international high table. India’s expected full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will afford New Delhi a good platform to not only work closely with China but also develop its own strategic depth in Central Asia.

In the final analysis, India must engage China confidently, seek cooperation wherever possible and negotiate hard on outstanding issues. That’s precisely what the Chinese would do.

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