INTERVIEW: An assessment of China’s military rise in Asia-Pacific

Despite reassurances from Beijing that its rise is a peaceful one, the development of China’s military has raised concerns worldwide. Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor at the Center for East Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, expounded on his views about US arms sales to Taiwan, strategic security in Asia and the intricate relationship between Taiwan, China, the US and India in an interview with ‘Taipei Times’ staff reporter Ko Shu-ling in March

Wed, May 04, 2011 - Page 3

Taipei Times: China continues its military buildup and advances its offensive weaponry. Taiwan can only purchase defensive weapons from the US, which is obliged by the Taiwan Relations Act to sell defensive weapons to Taiwan. Do you think the US will stop selling arms to Taiwan if Taiwan-China relations continue to improve?

Srikanth Kondapalli: In the recent period, we have seen coordinated development in terms of defense budget increases. As the GDP of China increased, to US$5.8 trillion, so did the defense budget. The latest one was a 12.7 percent increase [to the military budget].

The Chinese have not suggested why they have been increasing the defense budget, except to suggest that this is a reaction to the Pentagon budget, which is more than US$700 billion. So if that is the criteria for matching up with the US’ defense budget, I think we may see a lot of destabilizing tendencies in Asia and beyond.

In the arms sales to Taiwan so far, the US has not given it any offensive weapon systems. What it means is that first, the alternative for Taiwan is indigenous development in which Taiwan has made substantial progress on several weapon systems. Secondly, to put pressure on the American public and through this also put pressure on the US Congress, which is to authorize the US president to supply arms.

China has been using three kinds of warfare, which are psychological warfare, legal warfare and propaganda warfare. Among these three wars, China has been successful relatively in terms of the propaganda warfare with the suggestion that if the US comes to the rescue of Taiwan in military means, then China will use all its assets, including nuclear weapons.

China has created this fear in the US in terms of the deployment of aircraft carriers. If you compare the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis when the US deployed half (six) of its aircraft carriers in the Taiwan Strait to 1995 and 1996 when the Chinese launched missiles, the US deployed only two aircraft carriers, meaning there has been a reduction in the number of aircraft carriers they will be able to pitch against China in the event of a war related to Taiwan.

All these indicate a gradual transition. Also, China has become the second-largest economy, which means that the Group of 2 [China and the US] will be dealing with the international and regional security issues.

Will the US cut down on its arms sales to Taiwan? That depends first on US public opinion. Secondly, it depends on the US Congress resolutions. Thirdly, it depends on the assessment by the US regarding the balance. If it is shifting toward the Chinese as it is now, then possibly the US Congress will have to discuss these issues by supplying more arms to Taiwan.

In terms of the arms budget, while the initial estimate was about US$18 billion, the US has only cleared about US$6.8 billion. So we can come to the conclusion that there is indeed a substantial reduction in the US arms supplies to Taiwan as compared with the previous estimates, say, about four years ago and last year’s arms sales.

TT: As China develops closer ties with Taiwan, it threatens to breach a ring of US allies that effectively contain China, giving it unimpeded access to the South China Sea and the international trade lanes that run through it. Do you agree that this is a danger? Insofar as the world wants closer ties across the Taiwan Strait, and so less chance of a military confrontation, what alternatives are there?

Kondapalli: Last year’s Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement between Taiwan and China has created conditions for closer cooperation between the two. Previously the “three small links” has now projected to major links. There have been substantial visits on either side in terms of tourism and business opportunities that have been explored. In terms of the oral confidence building measures [CBM], both have started CBMs in the military field. All these have provided some opportunities for reducing tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

However, the basic issues have not been resolved. Will China overcome the issue of unification with the use of force? That center issue has not been addressed so far. There were suggestions from Taiwan previously for removal of ballistic missiles located in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. However, then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) suggested that unless the US reduced arms sales to Taiwan, there would not be any reduction in the missile batteries located in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces.

Although Taiwan has substantial economic and technological progress, Taiwan tends to fall into the hollowing out to mainland China, as Japan and South Korea are also facing the same problem. What it then means is Taiwanese chips are generally considered to be low as compared with China, as China is rising.

Having said that, Taiwan is making all efforts to beef up its defenses. In the light of the US-China condominium, will it have an impact in terms of Taiwan at the strategic and regional levels? Yes, indeed it will.

What impact that will have on Taiwan and in general in neighboring countries is not clear, but it appears that Taiwan is being relegated to the background. Until Taiwan has several options up its sleeve, it will be difficult to emerge from this situation.

What are the options that Taiwan can have? Obviously, Taiwan should focus on its economic and technological edge. Taiwanese are highly talented people, so a lot of things Taiwan can develop, in terms of influencing the internal opinion.

In terms of influencing the regional architecture, for instance, Vietnam started conducting conferences on the South China Sea in the last two or three years. That issue then became a major highlight, so one of the things Taiwan could do is attract global attention to the problems it is facing and seek international support in terms of the possible use of force by China and the destruction it will entail.

I think Taiwan can also develop military technologies. Since Taiwan has relatively high-tech industries, most of these also could be dual use in nature. Hence, Taiwan has the capability to produce systems which could deter China.

Finally, Taiwan needs to effectively implement the “go south” policy in which Taiwan wants to invest in Vietnam, the Philippines and India. Taiwan needs to explore these options as well.

TT: Do you agree with those who see a growing divide between the Communist Party and [Chinese] People’s Liberation Army [PLA], or at least an increasing hawkishness in the military and its ability to affect party policy?

Kondapalli: I agree with the position that there is a lot of influence by the Chinese military on the -decisionmaking process of China.

In the decisionmaking process, there are four or five main corporate groups which are quite influential in the Chinese system.

One is obviously the Chinese Communist Party and its small leading groups and the foreign affairs bureau and the military -affairs bureau. The party channelizes its views from different provinces, including Xiamen, Fujian and -Zhejiang, which will have to face the music if there is a war between Taiwan and China because geographically they are the ones which will have to face the problem and destruction.

The foreign ministry, which is more problematic, has to consider rising nationalism in China. The third major corporate unit is the PLA, Chinese military with the central military commission, as it affects every other decision of China in the military sphere.

A fourth organization, which is in recent periods a major influence, is the ministry of commerce, which overlooks the trade and commerce and a lot of other issues related to this. The ministry of commerce has been emphasizing attracting investment, including from Taiwan.

Taiwan’s contribution to China’s foreign direct investment is more than US$300 billion, which is more than one-third of what China has received so far. It means that Taiwan is contributing to China’s rise. This is quite strange. If Taiwan thinks China is a security issue, how come Taiwan is contributing to China’s rise, which would have marginalized Taiwan?

So these are the four corporate units in China which influence the decision-making. Above all, the PLA in the recent period is clubbing up with rising nationalism. The PLA is a highly patriotic organization in China. Rising nationalism plus the PLA are a deadly combination in terms of exerting policy.

TT: India and the US have made significant progress in narrowing their historical differences. This places India increasingly at the other end of the ring of containment of China. What are the advantages and disadvantages for India in playing this role in the geopolitics of Southeast Asia?

Kondapalli: From July 2005, we have had a 10-year defense cooperation agreement, which will last until 2015, and possibly will be extended further. India has been importing a lot of US military technologies. We also have [made] substantial progress in the space program between the two sides.

On this issue [containing China], India has some reservations. The Indian prime minister suggested India is not part of containing China partly because it means that we have to substantially increase our defense budgets, which we cannot afford because our focus is on economic development and on human resource development.