Monday, December 19, 2011

China’s expanding naval footprint

China’s naval footprint is growing bigger in the Indian Ocean Region and South China Sea. This should come as no surprise to India, America or to the entire South East Asian region. After gaining ground on the international economic platform and showcasing it’s non-aggressive posture – China has finally started to show her willingness exercise military force and assert regional hegemony.

According to media reports, Chinese President Hu Jintao has given a call to country’s armed forces to prepare for a possible future war. The statement comes in wake of American President Obama’s diplomatic goal against China at recent Bali Summit in Indonesia where America pushed for discussion on disputed South China Sea Islands against latter’s will. Moreover, America has announced to station 2,500 troops in Australia. Beijing has reacted sharply saying that, “One should consider other countries interest in the region when developing its ties in the region.” While US Secretary Hillary Clinton’s visit to neighbouring Burma has sent strong message across the central leadership in Beijing that American re-engagement with the Burmese military junta could gravely endanger Chinese interest there.

Bejing’s concerns are natural, so as American re-engagement of the South East Asian region.

America, after engaging in two wars simultaneously created diplomatic, economic and military room for China. Her hegemonic ambitions that lay under the carpet gained momentum during the same period. The soft-power image that China created is slowly fading away. However, the only advantage Beijing has is her strong economic base making her a very credible military force unlike former Soviet Union of the Cold War era.

While the Chinese leadership has maintained that, China as a socialist state will never seek hegemony or sphere of influence. According to Pentagon Defence report 2008 much uncertainty surrounds China’s future course over latter’s expanding military power and that China’s leadership is yet to explain in detail the purpose of the modernisation of its military capabilities.

While it is hard to believe Beijing’s claim of it not harbouring any hegemonic ambitions –China’s military preparation is multipronged. With a very strong navy Beijing will be able to deny American forces any access in the South China Sea making former’s efforts of annexing Taiwan and disputed South China Sea Islands. Second, encircle India from Arabian Sea to Indian Ocean to the East Asia. And finally, the very encirclement would help secure sea lines on the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean Region.

As China’s economy grows it has become symbiotic with the global market. Currently, 80 per cent of China’s oil imports transit the Malacca Strait, close to 25 per cent of Chinese export to Gulf and Europe use the same route. Therefore, Beijing’s long term goals are possible only with increasing stable access to foreign trade, resources and energy. The latter has become a pressing issue for China as the country’s dependence is growing on international energy imports.

If China’s military preparation is from insecurity i.e. threat to her energy supplies point of view, which could hinder its economic progress Beijing is mistaken. However, her intensions are becoming clearer with the development of sea denial naval capabilities to regional and foreign navies. As Washington slowly comes out of Afghanistan and Iraq both China and South East Asia appear on its diplomatic and military radar. The question is how fast Washington will act.

American foreign policy is at the crossroads of containment and/or (further) engagement of China.

Two things need to happen. First, America will have to act responsibly, but without giving priority to its rights. And second, China cannot afford to read misread regional and Washington’s intensions. Beijing will have to keep its nationalistic agenda aside over Taiwan and disputed islands.

America is far more capable of manoeuvring regional geopolitics beyond Chinese imagination. China has risen economically, but new to power politics. Moreover, democracy could prove to be a very vital player in the region’s politics.

The democratic agenda of America could help India on several issues in the region. The question, how well and how fast Delhi exploits Washington. The recent development on Seychelles has raised eyebrows among Indian security analysts. But Indian government cannot afford to remain tight-lipped. However, India’s little or delayed response policy should not be misread.

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