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Paper 1084                                                    12.08.2004

by Dr. Subhash Kapila 

Introductory Observations

China and the United States, both littoral states on the opposite sides of the Northern Pacific Ocean seem destined to a clash of competing ambitions sometimes in the 21st Century. The first indication in this regard was given by China soon on its emergence as a Communist state in October 1949. China while still recovering from the effects of its long drawn-out Civil War defiantly challenged the United States on the Korean Peninsula. This was at a time when the United States was a powerful nuclear weapons state and China was not. 

Half a century or more later and in the first decade of the 21st Century, China seems not to be giving a respite to its competing strategic ambitions with the United States. Arguably, China has become a comparatively much more powerful than it was in 1949. It possesses today appreciable political, military and economic strength  (All this courtesy the United States when it drew China into a quasi-strategic nexus against the Former Soviet Union in the late 1970s and 1980s). At the same time, it needs to be pointed out that if China’s national power has risen, the United States global power has not diminished in any way. 

The United States, on the contrary, has emerged today as the unipolar superpower after its victory in the Cold War. In the process, China’s earlier strategic utility to the United States no longer exists. Also in this process, China stands marginalised in United States strategic calculus on global and security issues. 

Despite China’s strategic asymmetries with the United States, it seems set to challenge the United States global predominance and unquestionable regional supremacy in East Asia. It needs to be recalled that China ever since 1949 has demonstrated the propensity to use force as an instrument of state policy.

An analysis therefore is necessary to determine China’s competing ambitions with the United States and whether it has the wherewithal of comprehensive national power to pre-empt the United States in the pursuit of its global predominance and regional supremacy with respect to East Asia. 

China’s Competing Ambitions with the United States at the Global Level

The United States global predominance sticks out like a sore thumb in China’s eyes. China until the Cold War exploited the global bi-polar structure to its advantage by playing one superpower against the other. 

The above luxury is no longer available to China. Soon after the end of the Cold War, China attempted a resurrection of the 1950s China-Russia strategic nexus. The same seems to have fizzled out now as Russia seems to have realized that its national security interests especially after 9/11 are better served by adapting with United States strategic interests, rather than opposing it, and certainly not in the form of a China-Russia strategic nexus aimed at the United States. 

China’s competing ambitions with the United States at the global level get manifested as under:

*  China's efforts to challenge, neutralise or impede United States unipolar predominance.

* China’s strategy to create strategic pressure-points against the United States in regions critical for US national security interests.

* China’s strategy of WMD and missile proliferation to countries inimical to the United States and there by creating new sources of security threats to the United States.

* China’s unrestricted building-up of its own strategic nuclear assets to impose added deterrence on its perceived threats from the United States. 

At the global level, China, so far has been unsuccessful to make any headway in terms of limiting United States unipolar pre-dominance except for some minimal nuclear deterrence. The following needs to be taken into account:

* United States continues to exercise her global power-sway. China has found it prudent to abstain than challenge USA even in the United Nations.

* China has tried to enlist Europe and particularly France towards creation of a multi-polar world. China has not met with success in this directions Tomorrow, if China gets militarily involved with USA over Taiwan, the European Union countries would not be standing by China’s side.

* In terms of China’s WMD and missile proliferation to Islamic countries and thereby also creating strategic counter-pressure points against the United States, it can be assessed that the Americans have the wherewithal to effectively take out these threats.

* China’s own nuclear arsenal despite its unrestrained expansion can at best impose caution on USA. It cannot challenge United States  technological  and numerical supremacy in this field. The NMD and TMD projects could further devalue China’s existing nuclear arsenal. 

China is high on the list of United States threat perceptions. Its political, strategic, military and economic policies reflect that it is not taking China’s competing ambitions and challenges lightly.   

China’s Competing Ambitions With the United States in East Asia 

China’s competing ambitions with the United States in East Asia clash heavily on the following counts:

* China considers East Asia as its natural area of influence and predominance by virtue of its national attributes of power compared with those of Japan, South Korea or Philippines.

* United States on the other hand considers South Korea, Japan, Philippines and Taiwan as its outer perimeter of defence of continental USA. A web of bi-lateral defence agreements tie these countries to USA.

* All the above named countries perceive China as a military threat and hence their proclivity for defence agreements with USA.

* China’s ambition is to ‘liberate’ Taiwan by force to effects its reunification with China.

* The United States has declared that it would prevent the use of military force by China for forcible annexation of Taiwan.

* China, on all these counts above, aspires at same stage to force the United States to withdraw its forward military presence in East Asia and limit US naval presence in the Pacific.   

* The United States on the contrary has demonstrated that it has no intentions to create a strategic vacuum in the Pacific which could be exploited by China.

In the clash of competing ambitions between China and the United States in this region the picture emerging is as follows: 

* United States strategy spells out as a cardinal principle that it will not permit the rise of a “regional hegemon” in East Asia, which could jeopardise American national security interests in the region.

* The United States is committed to the protection of Taiwan (and hence use of military force by China against it).

* South Korea despite its current anti Americanism seems it prudent for US military forces to be stationed in the country, though re-located.

 * Japans defence ties with the United States stand further expanded and reinforced by new guidelines on greater integration of defence forces of the two countries for the security of the Western Pacific. Japan is also committed to the USA’s TMD project, evidently aimed at the Chinese threat.

* Philippines still enjoys effective defence arrangements with USA. 

All in all, China still stands hemmed-in in East Asia by United States military and naval power and further reinforced by the web of bilateral defence arrangements with the countries of the region. 

Concluding Observations: 

China can said to be geographically unlucky in that it is so located in East Asia where its national power ambitions  come into critical conflict with those of the United States,  China also is unfortunate that it has no “natural allies” in East Asia, (other than the dubious North Korea) with whom it could forge alliances to balance the predominant power of the United States. 

China therefore gets reduced to the status of a major regional power in East Asia, with pretensions to be a key global player. It may be a key global player (courtesy the United States) but it can never reach the status of a ‘super power’ hierarchy. China’s strategic asymmetries with the United States are colossal and despite enhanced stress on military up-gradations, both nuclear and conventional, China is at least 40-50 years behind the USA in terms of cutting-edge military technologies so essential for military superiority in today’s strategic equations. The Chinese Navy is yet to emerge as a ‘blue water’ navy and China lacks significant ‘force projection’ capability. Both are pre-requisites for achieving superpower status.  

The stark picture today is that the United States has China strategically hemmed-in and that China has been unable to make any dents there-in.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email drsubhashkapila