Deng Xiaoping’s ascent to the pinnacle of Chinese power inaugurated a high-growth economic transition, which also kick-started the modernisation of the moribund People’s Liberation Army in 2000. The trigger came in the form of the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-96.
In the next 20 years, China’s defence budget would grow from $14.6 billion or 121 billion Yuan at the turn of the millennium to $178 billion or 1.268 trillion Yuan by 2020. Given the opacity of Chinese defence numbers, independent estimates believe the figure to be much higher. In comparison, India will spend $65.86 billion, and Japan $47 billion in the current fiscal.
A full decade
The Chinese defence ramp-up to protect its undefined core or fundamental interests set alarm bells ringing in influential Asian capitals in the early 2000s itself.
Influential Western think-tanks commenced Track- 1 exercises in 2002 to explore whether an Asian NATO could be brought into existence. The aim was to contain China without using the word ‘containment’. The lynchpin of such an exercise had to be the United States, the prevailing global hegemon after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its vassal states in Eastern Europe.
However, the US was distracted and deeply involved in the War against Terror post-9/11. Subsequently, its energies got further consumed with the invasion of Iraq and the growing entanglement in Afghanistan. Moreover, those were the heydays of globalisation and China was the factory of the world. So, there was a diffidence about pushing a security architecture that could affect global supply chains, which were filling the coffers of American and European conglomerates.
The security of North and East Asia since the end of Second World War was guaranteed by the US through a multitude of hub-and-spoke security alliances from Japan all the way down to Australia. Moreover, Asia was not a homogeneous territorial entity like Europe. From Vladivostok to the Strait of Bosporus, Asia is a potpourri of disparate regions — West Asia, South Asia, East Asia and North Asia — if you take India as the geographical reference point. Each of these regions has its own peculiar set of issues with some overlaps. In the maritime domain – the Indian, Western Pacific and the Southern Oceans were also treated as different water bodies before Indian strategists coined the term Indo-Pacific with the South China Sea as its confluence.
These inherent contradictions gave China a full decade to modernise the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) without any let or hindrance fuelled by double-digit growth in defence expenditure.
A pivoting world
Cognisant of the increasing Chinese defence muscle, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe way back in 2006 proposed a security arrangement called the quadrilateral security dialogue, colloquially known as the Quad. It was a grouping of India, Australia, the US and Japan. However, the idea couldn’t fructify because Australia pulled out of it in 2007, apparently due to Chinese pressure during the John Howard and Kevin Rudd administrations. In 2017, however, all four came back to the negotiating table.
The first sign of China’s assertiveness came when the Chinese flexed their muscles over a fishing trawler being boarded for inspection by the Japanese Coast Guard near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea in September 2010. This group of five uninhabited islands and three islets are under the administrative control of Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan, respectively.
Realising the portentousness of the Chinese threat, the Barack Obama administration in the US made two important decisions in 2011. On the economic side, it accelerated the negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and on the security side, it joined the East Asia Summit (EAS), colloquially called the Pivot to Asia or Rebalance to Asia. Strategically, it did not mean much as 50 per cent of American naval assets were already deployed in the Western Pacific Ocean.
By then it was too late as China increasingly started asserting its claim on the South China Sea based on the ambiguous nine-dash line much to the chagrin of other littoral states of the South China Sea, which also have competing claims to many of the islands and shoals claimed by the Chinese.
This belligerence acquired a new aggression after the triple-hatted coronation of Xi Jinping between November 2012 and March 2013. He was now the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chairperson of the Central Military Commission and the President of the People’s Republic of China.
Tensions in the South China Sea have increased, compelling the US to launch repeated Freedom Of Navigation Operations — five in this year alone.
The Doklam face-off on Bhutanese territory, One Belt One Road (OBOR) or Belt Road Initiative (BRI) aimed at global hegemony, and the confrontation with India on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is the latest iteration of this pugnaciousness. In essence, China has become the proverbial bull in the Asian China shop and has to be reigned in. However, it would now require a Pan-Asian Security Architecture not confined to North/East of Asia alone to constrain China, given its military rise over two decades.
A new security structure
Asia has a spaghetti bowl of regional security structures spread across its various sub-regions. They are the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM), ADMM+3, Asian Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit (EAS), Five Powers Defense Arrangement (FPDA), Ulaanbaatar Dialogue (UBD), Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), to name but a few. China is also a member of a number of these organisations, and has been the driving force behind others like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
Here the Quad can emerge as the nucleus to create a pan-Asian strategic framework given that its four members share common values and have their own relationships, especially with the hydrocarbon exporting economies of the GCC.
Once it is clear to China that the Malacca dilemma can be extended to the Strait of Hormuz also and, therefore, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the alternative logistics route from Gwadar to Kashgar, can be rendered inoperative, it would have a salutary impact on the Chinese — given the hydrocarbon dependence of its economy. Almost 78 per cent of Chinese energy needs are still fulfilled by coal and crude oil, most of which are imported from abroad.
Coupled with that, the Vladivostok-Chennai maritime corridor needs to be made operational by India and Russia to step up our presence in the South China Sea. The first and second island chains need to be aggressively patrolled by the US, with its allies denying the Chinese navy the ability to break out into open waters.
Given the lost decade when timely action could have constrained, if not contained, China, a pan-Asian security architecture underpinned by the Quad and a combination of initiatives are now required with dispatch.
The author is a Lawyer, MP, Former Information and Broadcasting Minister GOI, National Spokesperson, INC & General Secretary of the Foreign Affairs Department AICC. Views are personal.