US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's recent China visit was an exploratory exercise to assess first hand Beijing's strategic ambitions in view of its rapidly increasing defense expenditure. The wooly Chinese concept of a "peaceful rise" lacks transparency and clarity. Rumsfeld, therefore, sought to persuade Beijing to open up both its political and military systems. Without it, there will be uncertainties and anxieties about China's role on the world stage.
It is interesting that Rumsfeld dwelt both on political and military aspects of China's closed system. Beijing cannot compartmentalize its system into separate boxes labeled economic, military, political (party's monopoly on power) and so on. A nation is an organic entity and unless it grows as a whole, it is bound to develop all kinds of distortions and disasters, dangerous both for China and the world.
Rumsfeld made this point when addressing cadres at Beijing's Central Party School. He said, "China's future prosperity -- and to some degree the future of other nations' attitudes -- may well depend on internal political events here [in China]," thus cautioning against a closed political system.
He went on to say that every society had "to be vigilant against another type of Great Wall that can be a burden on man's talents ... a wall that limits speech, information or choices."
Political pluralism (democracy) also tends to exercise some moderation or restraint on unbridled nationalism. Without it, the Chinese Communist Party might go berserk with its military ambitions. Based on official figures, China's military spending this year will go up by 12.6 percent to US$30 billion. The unofficial estimates put it around US$90 billion. And that kind of money buys a lot of dough (and military stuff) in Chinese currency. With its space program, nuclear warheads and missiles, it is time China came out with a clear enunciation of its strategic doctrine and how it is going to keep everything rising peacefully.
Rumsfeld showed particular concern about China's nuclear and missile capability. In a speech to the Academy of Military Sciences, he said, "China ... is expanding its missile forces and enabling those forces to reach many areas of the world well beyond the Pacific region."
And he added, "Those advances in China's strategic strike capacity raise questions, particularly when there's imperfect understanding of such developments on the part of others."
Hence, the need for China to come clean on why it is going into this headlong expansion of its military arsenal?
But there are no clear answers. The threat from China's missiles, though, is clearly understood in Taiwan. And Japan too has come to regard China's military expansion as a security threat. And both have security ties with the US.
Besides, China's expanding missile forces are becoming a threat beyond the Pacific region, which should make the US worried about its own security. More so, when a Chinese general, only a while ago, threatened to rain nuclear weapons on the US if it got involved in a military conflict over Taiwan.
It is reported, though, that General Jing Zhiyuan (
It is not just China's military expansion that is worrying the US. Washington sees it as part of a coordinated overall strategy to ease out the US from the Asia-Pacific region. When talking of the rapid upgrading of China's 2.5 million strong military as alarming, he also dwelt on Beijing's attempt to exclude the US from the Pacific region forums, an obvious reference to the East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur in December.
He said, "It raises some questions about whether China will make the right choices, choices that will serve the world's interests in regional peace and stability."
China is already looming large in the Asia-Pacific region. Most countries in the region, even those contesting China's sovereignty over South China Sea islands, are not keen to make an issue of these and other matters. They are already accommodating themselves to China's great power role in the region. According to former US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, until recently US deputy secretary of state, his country is involved in "very active competition" with China for influence in the region, and that "we're not doing well."
And Beijing is pushing its advantage all the time. The regional press is averse to publishing anything critical of China. On the other hand, Japan is pilloried for complicating things in the region by provoking China, for instance, on Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni shrine.
There is a valid case that Koizumi should show greater sensitivity on this issue in view of the history of Japanese wartime crimes. But to suggest that Japan should somehow become invisible to let China dominate the regional show is unlikely to happen. Beijing seeks to exercise a veto on Japan's foreign and defense policies by focusing only on its wartime crimes. For instance, it has scrapped a planned visit by Japan's foreign minister to China for talks on issues plaguing their relations. Beijing's attempt to bludgeon Japan might prove counter-productive.
China's ambitions are not simply regional but global. And the present is an opportune time to steadily expand its influence. The US is still mired in Iraq and obsessed with terrorism. It is overstretched and is losing political capital in the Islamic world.
China is systematically working to secure energy supplies for its industrial development in the medium and long term. It is springing up everywhere in the world in a scramble for dwindling energy supplies. Whether it is Africa, the former Soviet Central Asian republics, South America, Russia, the Middle East or Australia (the US' close ally), China is popping up everywhere to corner energy resources. Because energy security is very important for its superpower role.
Even though the US is becoming increasingly aware of the China danger, it is greatly distracted. And China is making the most of it.
Sushil Seth is a writer based in Australia.
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