Containing China

The United States is drawing a military noose around China, and India is glad to help. But is anyone considering the possible consequences?

Illustration by Leeay Aikawa

If there’s anyone left to write the history of how the Third World War happened, they might well focus on June 28, 2005, as the date when the slide into global disaster became irreversible. That was the day when India’s defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee, and US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed a ten-year agreement in Washington on military co-operation, joint weapons production, and missile defence—not quite a formal US-Indian military alliance, but close enough to one that China finally realized it was the target of a deliberate American strategy to encircle and “contain” it.

It’s not clear yet what China plans to do about it, but since June the rhetoric out of Beijing has been unprecedentedly harsh. In mid-July, for example, Major General Zhu Chenghu warned in an official briefing that China is under pressure to drop its policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons in the event of a military conflict with the US over Taiwan. “We have no capability to fight a conventional war against the United States,” he said. “We can’t win this kind of war.” And so China would deliberately escalate to nuclear weapons: “We Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all the cities east of Xian. Of course, the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds of [their] cities will be destroyed by the Chinese.”

General Zhu stressed that he was offering his personal views and not stating official policy, but no senior Chinese officer talks like that in public without official sanction. He’s also talking complete nonsense for the moment, because China has no ability whatsoever to destroy “hundreds of cities” in the United States—it might manage one or two, with luck—whereas the US, with more than 5,000 long-range warheads at its disposal, could easily destroy every Chinese city east of Xian, and all the ones west of it, too. But no Chinese general has talked like this since Mao’s time, and it isn’t happening now because the crazies have taken over in Beijing. It’s happening because the decision-makers in Beijing think that the crazies have taken over in Washington, and are trying to draw most of Asia into an anti-Chinese alliance. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that they are right.

“It’s not yet an official kind of alliance like nato, it’s not mature yet,” explained Dr. Francis Kan, a strategic expert at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan. “But we will see more informal co-operation like weapons harmonization and assigning tasks [to various members].” Beijing fears the same ring of US allies and bases surrounding China that encircled the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

It’s been coming for some time now, as witness America’s determined attempts to re-militarize its long-standing ally, Japan. Tokyo ended half a century of refusing to send troops overseas into war zones by committing a small contingent to the US-led occupation of Iraq, and last February it redefined the Taiwan Strait as a “common strategic objective” of Japan and the US (implying that its forces would join the US in resisting any Chinese attack on Taiwan). The six aircraft carriers, forty submarines, and 190 other surface ships of the US Pacific Command (pacom), based in Hawaii, already dominate the western Pacific, and there have long been large numbers of US troops (currently about 80,000) based in South Korea and Japan. Recently, the forward deployments have been growing: the command headquarters of the US army’s 1st Corps, with responsibility for ground operations in the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, is slated to transfer from Washington state to Camp Zama, south of Tokyo, while the usaf is proposing to move the 13th Air Force’s long-range bombers and tankers from Guam to Yokota airbase in Tokyo.

Washington is busily reviving old alliances and forging new ones throughout Southeast Asia. Thai, Malaysian, Singaporean, Indonesian, and Filipino forces regularly perform manoeuvres with American troops, and a US-led exercise in Thailand last year even saw Mongolian soldiers show up. Also last year, the first high-level discussions between the US and Vietnamese armed forces were held since the fall of Saigon in 1975. Admiral Thomas Fargo, the commander of pacom, visited Hanoi and Saigon in February 2004 “to build on the US-Vietnam defence relationship,” and by November Vietnamese defence minister Pham Van Tra was in Washington to see Donald Rumsfeld.

The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 led to US military bases not just there but in other countries on China’s western flank. Even the invasion of Iraq had relevance for America’s contain-China strategy, for it was intended (among other things) to create a reliable US ally and “enduring” American military bases in the Persian Gulf, from which China draws almost all of its rapidly growing oil imports. Despite all the rhetoric about the “war on terror,” the Pentagon under Bush never lost sight of its real strategic priority.

Now, with the deal between Washington and New Delhi, the keystone has dropped into place: the other emerging Asian giant has allied itself with the United States and against China.

The US courtship of India did not really begin until George W. Bush became president in January 2001, as relations were still crippled by sanctions the Clinton administration had imposed after first India, then Pakistan, conducted a series of nuclear weapons tests in 1998. As soon as Bush took office, however, he redefined China from “strategic partner” to “strategic competitor,” and appointed Robert Blackwill, a former member of the “Vulcans” team that had instructed Bush on foreign policy issues during his candidacy, as the new US ambassador to India. Blackwill’s main task was to lure New Delhi into accepting a leading role in the new US strategy for containing China, but in the end it was Bush himself who made the key contact. When Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh visited Washington in April 2001, the president summoned him to the White House for an unscheduled meeting—and Singh came out declaring “the start of a new era” in Indo-US relations. “I think a great many things that are being said about President Bush are completely untrue,” Singh said. “He is a marvellous person . . . . It is a completely mistaken notion that he does not have a handle on things.”

When Bush went public on May 1, 2001, with a speech advocating “a new strategic framework” based on global missile defence, the reaction of other major powers ranged from cool to openly hostile, but India’s Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee greeted it with almost embarrassing enthusiasm. “We welcome every move towards lightening the shadow of the nuclear terror under which we live today,” Vajpayee said, abandoning the strong opposition to US proposals for missile defence that his government had been expressing just months before. What was now on offer was a close defence relationship with the world’s only superpower, and Vajpayee’s right-wing, ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp) was all in favour of that.

New Delhi certainly looks like the capital of a great power. The stately neo-classical buildings of Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Edwin Lutyens, built in the early twentieth century to impress Indians with the irresistible power of the British Empire, still exude confidence. But beyond the monuments and villas of post-imperial New Delhi roars the greater city, thronged by twelve million people, choked with traffic, and clearly part of the Third World. Things have been looking up economically in recent years—even Delhi’s foul buses have been replaced with less-polluting models—and it is becoming possible for optimistic Indian nationalists to dream that their country will soon take its place at the high table of international politics. Washington’s strategists were well aware of those ambitions.

Less than two weeks after Bush’s speech, US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage visited the Indian capital to pursue the question of defence co-operation with India—or more precisely, to flatter and to tempt. By July, General Henry Shelton, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, had arrived in New Delhi to resurrect the longmoribund Defence Policy Group (dpg), which co-ordinates military relations between the two countries. There was still the legal problem of US sanctions against India, but the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks magically eliminated congressional reluctance to reward India for developing nuclear weapons, just as it removed so many other obstacles to the neo-conservatives’ strategic ambitions. Bush issued a Presidential Determination waiving sanctions against India (and Pakistan) in the name of waging a war against “terrorism,” and Congress caved in.

After 9/11, Washington stopped talking about India’s nuclear weapons as a problem. New Delhi reciprocated, uttering not a word of protest when the Bush administration tore up the Anti- Ballistic Missile Treaty. By early December, the revived dpg had agreed to an “expeditious review” of Indian requests to buy high-tech military equipment such as radars and maritime reconnaissance aircraft.

US Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, number three in Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, travelled to New Delhi in May 2002 for the next meeting of the dpg. Agreements were struck on joint US-Indian naval patrols of the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia, workshops on ballistic missile defence, and co-operation in defence technology. The declared goal of the meeting was to build “stability and security in Asia and beyond,” but, as P.R. Chari of the New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies acidly remarked, “What they really mean is how to deal with China.” In October, the White House formally moved India into the same category as close allies like Japan and South Korea, thus removing the need for congressional authorization for sales of military equipment not exceeding $14 million (US). Months later, joint exercises involving Indian and US special forces began near Agra, in the Ganges Valley. This was followed by New Delhi and Washington signing the “Next Step in Strategic Partnership” agreement, smoothing the road for further arms sales and joint exercises.

“India principally wants the US to partner it in shaping the strategic space in the region, which could otherwise be usurped by other regional players,” explained Brigadier Arun Sahgal (Retired), Director of Net Assessment in India’s Integrated Defence Staff, adding, “Eventually Indo-US defence relations have to overcome bureaucratic resistance from the State Department and their Indian counterparts.” But while former secretary of state Colin Powell doubtless waged a low-profile rearguard action from the State Department, resistance elsewhere in Washington was negligible. Both the Pentagon and the think tanks that live in a symbiotic relationship with it were hot to trot.

“China represents the most significant threat to both countries’ security in the future as an economic and military competitor,” argued a classified US defence department document revealed by Jane’s Foreign Report in 2003, concluding that “India should emerge as a vital component of US strategy.” Lloyd Richardson of the Washington-based Hudson Institute told the Financial Times that India had “the economic and military strength to counter the adverse effects of China’s rise as a regional and world power. India is the most overlooked of our potential allies in a strategy to contain China.” A US alliance seemed equally desirable to the truculent nationalists and Hindu supremacists of the bjp, who had exploded five nuclear weapons in 1998, mainly to demonstrate India’s great-power status to the world. Most of the bjp leaders reflexively disliked and mistrusted China (which had thrashed India in a brief border war in 1962), and they were up for any anti-Chinese alliance the US cared to propose. They were up for being America’s deputy sheriff in South and Southeast Asia, too, if that was what Washington had in mind.

So the courtship continued. In September 2003, US and Indian special forces conducted a high-altitude joint exercise in Ladakh, close to the ultra-sensitive and disputed borders of China and Pakistan, and an area where India had never before allowed foreign troops. The same year also saw the first joint aerial exercises, with US f-15s operating out of Gwalior, in central India, and Indian Air Force fighter pilots flying to Alaska to compete with (and beat) the US Air Force on its own ground. In early 2004, General Nirmal C. Vij became the first Indian army chief to visit US Central Command (centcom) headquarters in Tampa, Florida, which controls operations in what Americans call the Middle East and Indians call Southwest Asia.

But then, in May 2004, the bjp government in New Delhi lost the election to the resurgent Congress Party, led by Sonia Gandhi. Many observers assumed that the whole stealthy process of sliding India into the new US alliance system would come to a sudden halt. After all, the Congress Party was the author and guardian of India’s hallowed policy of non-alignment—and besides, its majority in the Lok Sabha depended on the votes of the Communist Party, which favoured close relations with China and profoundly opposed an alliance with the US. Yet the mating dance continued uninterrupted.

In June 2004, soon after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took office, Douglas Feith went to New Delhi again, to co-chair the sixth meeting of the dpg. The two countries’ commitment to close military and strategic ties was reaffirmed, and India was invited to attend various US-sponsored missile defence conferences and exercises. Singh met President Bush during the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York in September, and subsequent events strongly suggest that around that time they agreed to forge a de facto military alliance.

What can have motivated Singh and his colleagues to enter into such an alliance with the US when India’s relations with China, while not particularly warm, were as good as they had been at any time in the past half century? One motive was Indian concern about the long-standing American alliance with India’s local rival, Pakistan. That alliance had been revived and strengthened after 9/11, as Pakistani bases for operations in Afghanistan, Pakistani intelligence information, and President Pervez Musharraf’s help in suppressing Islamist militants in Pakistan all became important for America’s “war on terror.” For India, closer ties with Washington were a way to undermine that US-Pakistan link. Moreover, although Pakistan and India have not fought a war for thirty-four years, the nuclear “balance of terror” that emerged between the two after the 1998 nuclear tests made access to US missile defence technology especially attractive to the Indian military.

US diplomatic support of India’s quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and American acceptance of Indian aspirations to be taken seriously as a first-rank great power appealed greatly to Indians who have often felt slighted by the greater attention paid to China. And there was the incentive of additional state-of-the-art American military technology. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems certain that by late last year the list already included the Patriot anti-missile defence system, f-16 fighters, p-3c Orion maritime surveillance planes, c-130 stretched medium-lift transport aircraft, Perry-class frigates, and Sea Hawk helicopters. The US was also offering training in carrier operations for the Indian pilots who will be flying from India’s new full-size aircraft carriers starting in 2008, access to America’s next-generation Joint Strike Fighter when it becomes available, and an end to the ban on exports of American civil nuclear technology for India’s ambitious nuclear power program.

It was a tempting package, but there was one enormous drawback. A close India-US alliance, combined with an upgrade program for the Indian armed forces, was bound to alarm China, and could easily drive it into both an arms race and confrontation with the US-allied countries that sought to encircle it. If that happened, India would have lost far more than it gained. How could sane, moderate leaders like Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi justify taking such a risk?

Arrogance, overconfidence, hubris. “India knows what it is doing,” assured Prem Shankar Jha, former editor of the Hindustan Times, citing confidential sources close to Singh. “It is not going to make China an enemy.” And that is no doubt exactly what India’s leaders believe: that they can get what they want from those clumsy Americans without letting Washington manoeuvre them into a confrontation with China. They are smarter, more sophisticated, and they can manage China’s reaction. The arrogance of Washington’s neo-conservatives has found its natural partner in the overconfidence of New Delhi’s politicians and strategists, and the whole world may have reason to regret it.

The formal US-India deal probably could have been signed by late 2004 but it languished as the White House was preoccupied with the US presidential election, and because India was holding out for unprecedented co-production deals in the weapons systems Washington was offering. It was not until March 25, 2005, in a briefing now famous in India, that a US State Department spokesman declared that President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had “developed the outline for a decisively broader strategic relationship.”

When Rice travelled to New Delhi a few days later, Singh was told that Washington wanted to “help India become a major world power in the twenty-first century,” and the State Department briefer who accompanied her emphasized that Washington “understands fully the implications, including the military implications, of that statement.” Meanwhile, the Indian Communists were being whipped into line with the argument that if they brought the Congress government down over its American policy, it would put the crypto-fascists of the bjp back into power, and then they would conclude an alliance with the Americans.

The deal was about to be consummated—and suddenly China woke up. There seems little doubt that Beijing had been asleep at the switch, broadly aware that the US was trying to lure India into an alliance but ignorant of how far matters had advanced. So Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s scheduled swing through South Asia abruptly took on a new goal: to dissuade New Delhi from signing up with Washington. He reached New Delhi on April 10, bearing a number of gifts and proposals for India: an offer of a free-trade area between the two countries, an official Chinese map that for the first time showed the tiny Himalayan state of Sikkim as Indian territory, and (according to one usually reliable Indian source) a proposed swap of disputed territories along the western and eastern sections of the border between India and Tibet, the scenes of the clash in 1962, that would have ended the border quarrel in one fell swoop.

It was too little, too late. India pocketed the map, agreed to open discussions on a free trade area, and refused the swap. Wen and Singh signed an “Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the Boundary Question,” and a “Protocol on Modalities for the Implementation of Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control in the China-India Border Areas,” among other deals, and declared that the two countries were establishing “a strategic and co-operative partnership for peace and prosperity.” But for all the windy rhetoric, Wen went home with nothing to show for his efforts on the real issue. It’s not known if the blossoming Indo-US alliance was even formally discussed by the two leaders, and India certainly did not change course. Two months later, on June 28, Indian defence minister Mukherjee flew to Washington to sign a ten-year agreement on military co-operation and joint weapons production.

“The United States and India have entered a new era,” said the joint statement by Mukherjee and Rumsfeld, and that is unquestionably true. What kind of era it will be, however, is another question entirely. India will play its hand as best it can, but the outcome will depend mainly on how deeply the American policy establishment is committed to “the notion of the United States remaining the world’s sole military superpower until the end of time” (as Professor Andrew Bacevich of Boston University put it), and on whether the Chinese policy establishment can remain calm as it sees the ring of American alliances closing in around it.

The US strategy would be less worrisome if it were only the handiwork of a band of neo-conservatives who have gained power in Washington at a time when the American military appears unchallengeable. Nemesis already stalks their ill-advised military adventure in the Gulf, and if they were mere mavericks one could reasonably expect that their disgrace over the Iraq fiasco would put an end to their less visible, but ultimately more dangerous, project of creating a neo-nato around China. Unfortunately, they are not alone.

From the beginning of the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union unexpectedly thrust the US into the role of the world’s sole superpower, the bipartisan response in Washington has been a determination to perpetuate that exalted status indefinitely. That led to an urgent search for new rivals whose “threat” could be used to justify to the American public the level of military expenditure needed to maintain that status, and a growing tendency to rely on the unilateral exercise of American military power rather than submit to the constraints of international law. It was Bill Clinton who declared in February 1998 (in reference to Iraq’s refusal to allow United Nations weapons inspectors into the country) that “the US and hopefully all our allies have the unilateral right to respond at a time, place, and manner of our own choosing.”

As the projected figures for Chinese economic growth turned into concrete fact by the late 1990s, it was inevitable that US policy-makers would identify China as the emerging rival. And it was close to inevitable, given the influence of the American military-industrial complex and the degree to which US domestic debate and foreign policy have been militarized, that their response would be predominantly military.

Never mind that China is becoming America’s largest trading partner (with two-way trade expected to reach $600 billion by 2008) and holds nearly $200 billion of American foreign debt. Never mind that China’s defence budget buys it only a modest military capability around its own borders, and no serious capability to project military power far beyond them. China has, according to the US-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, only 80 to 150 deployed nuclear warheads—and the eighteen liquid-fuel icbms that can reach American targets sit unfuelled in their silos, with their nuclear warheads in storage. (Official US estimates of Chinese military spending, like old cia estimates of Soviet expenditures, are habitually inflated, but Indian sources assess the Chinese defence budget at around $30 billion a year, only twice as big as India’s own defence spending and less than one-tenth the size of the US defence budget.)

Never mind that China is no longer a serious ideological rival, and that it has no substantial territorial ambitions (except for eventual reunification with Taiwan and claims in the South China Sea) beyond its present borders. Never mind even that encircling a country is a strategically meaningless action in today’s technological environment (though still a psychologically powerful one). China is the rising power and therefore the next enemy, and the appropriate US response is the one that worked last time: surround it with alliances and military bases, and contain it.

Can a great power’s foreign policy really be that stupid? Of course it can. It happens all the time, and is especially common when established great powers face the prospect of relative decline. The closest historical analogy for the Indo-US treaty of 2005 is the Anglo-Russian treaty of 1907 that completed the formation of the Triple Entente (between Britain, France, and Russia) designed to contain the rising power of that day, Germany.

That is not to say that this new entente will inevitably lead to a new world war. But the new entente—the US, Japan, and India, plus various minor players—could panic the Chinese regime into military and diplomatic responses that will set up a feedback loop and lead to the militarization of much of Asia. Even if war were averted, such a confrontation would be a huge waste of resources and a constant drain on the political attention and energy necessary for dealing with the world’s real problems. And at the very worst, it could lead to war. However crazy that sounds, nobody saw 1914 coming, either.

The main bulwark that stands between us and those deeply undesirable outcomes is the profound vulnerability of the current Chinese Communist regime. It is not particularly competent in international affairs, but it does know One Big Thing: its survival depends on keeping the Chinese economy growing fast. It is a sclerotic dictatorship whose credibility with its increasingly sophisticated citizens rests in delivering continuously rising prosperity—so the one thing that must be avoided at all costs is a military confrontation with China’s major overseas customers, which would bring growth crashing to a halt.

Faced with the re-militarization of Japan, an increasingly vocal independence movement in Taiwan, a US Navy that views the high-tide line along the Chinese coast as the appropriate boundary for America’s sphere of influence in the Pacific, and an encircling chain of US allies around its southern and western borders, Beijing has consistently avoided ultra-nationalistic responses and raised its military spending only a little faster than the overall growth rate of the economy. Even if China is doomed to face a direct military confrontation with the US at some time in the future, any later time would be better than now, so the regime plays a long game and refuses to panic. Long may that policy continue, but US alliance-building in Asia is putting it under increasing pressure.

Chinese nationalism is not just a tool with which the regime manipulates the masses; it is a powerful emotion felt by hundreds of millions of people, and they are not all blind to what is happening around their borders. Indeed, the timid and isolated Communist regime in Beijing exploited that emotion during last spring’s outbreak of popular wrath over new Japanese history textbooks that omitted the ugly details of Japan’s wartime behaviour in occupied China. After only a few days, however, the Communist regime shut further agitation down, for it is so vulnerable to popular discontent that avoiding open conflict with trading partners and keeping the economy growing remain its absolute priorities.

A more democratic Chinese government might have to take a much more robust line on the whole issue of the US military encirclement of China. In a society with a free press and an elected government, it would be much harder to prevent political parties and vocal interest groups from stirring up public anxiety about America’s evil intentions (just as American parties and interest groups do about the “Chinese military threat”). In fact, the sharpest irony in this sorry business is that the Bush administration, which claims to be spreading democracy around the planet, has created a situation in which the safety of us all may well depend on the survival of an undemocratic and unpopular government in the world’s most populous country.

Gwynne Dyer
Gwynne Dyer has served in the Canadian, British, and American navies. He holds a PhD in Middle Eastern history from the University of London and has been on the board of governors of the Royal Military College of Canada. He writes a syndicated column that appears in about a hundred newspapers in forty-five countries.