Thursday, July 9, 2009

Rising Chinese Power: A Common Agenda in India-Australia Dialogue?

While the recent attacks against Indian students in Australia will top Indian External Affairs Minister SM Krishna’s agenda in Canberra, India should not lose sight of certain strategic imperatives that could potentially drive the two countries to a closer partnership. Can a rising Chinese power emerge as a striking imperative between New Delhi and Canberra in the coming years?

Joel Fitzgibbon, in the preface to the 2009 Defence White Paper titled, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030, noted that the “biggest changes to our outlook … have been the rise of China, the emergence of India and the beginning of the end of the so-called unipolar movement.”
The white paper added that Chinese rise in the economic, political and military spheres and the resultant regional military modernisation have triggered significant concerns in Australia. More specifically, the defence white paper noted that the Chinese military modernisation could “affect the strategic reach and global postures of the major powers.” It added that the Chinese military will also be the strongest in Asia, with significant margin and will have power projection as one of its major features. The “pace, scope and structure” of such modernisation, the white paper notes, can trigger concern among the Asian neighbours, unless China undertakes some serious confidence building measures among these neighbours. The more serious worry for Australia is the implication of a reduced US strategic presence in the Asia-Pacific that would trigger regional powers to shoulder their own security. These concerns are reflected in a series of research essays and analyses in Australia looking carefully at the growing Chinese power and more importantly at how that power will be used or what kind of an international player would China turn out to be.
The 2007 Australian National Security Report had also highlighted concerns about China. It stated that “the pace and scope of China’s military modernisation, particularly the development of new and disruptive capabilities such as the anti-satellite (ASAT) missile, could create misunderstandings and instability in the region.” However Australian Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, during his recent visit to Beijing, backtracked a bit, saying that Chinese military modernisation programme was not a threat and that Australia’s support of an anti-ballistic missile defence system being developed by the US and Japan was directed at “rogue states” such as North Korea and non-state actors and not at China. He also had to reassure his hosts that India was not being included in any emerging coalition, something that appears to be particularly bothering Beijing.
In the case of Australia, there appears to be significant difference between the intelligence agencies and the policy makers, particularly the defence department. The intelligence agencies appear to be going along with a more benign China (“the growth of an ‘engaged’ China”) as opposed to the defence department that visualizes “inevitable collisions” as China becomes more powerful.
India also has concerns about China. Although economic ties between the two countries have improved significantly, there is a significant gap between the two countries on politico-strategic affairs and the evolving Asian security framework. While the rise of China has created ripples in India, the most worrying has been the pace of its military modernisation and the secrecy that shrouds it. There have been concerns also about the decision-making process in China. The military leadership in China sometimes appears to have an agenda of its own as was witnessed in a few cases in the recent past. More importantly, decision-making during crises is almost a prerogative of the military leadership. This will have adverse implications particularly for countries like India, US, Japan, Australia and Russia.
Another concern stems from the uncertainty of a more powerful China It is not certain whether the China’s rise would lead to a period of stability or be one with destabilising consequences for the region and the world at large. This fear arises from the fact that China has pursued an aggressive military modernisation, much beyond its stated objective of defending against external intervention in Taiwan. While China has continued to argue that its military modernisation and capability building are geared towards a crisis on the Taiwan Straits, its ambitions could go well beyond that, as several recent reports show, including the Australian defence White Paper. There have been many reports of China developing an aircraft carrier. Reports also show that China has deployed new missile units outfitted with conventional theatre-range missiles at various locations in China that could be operationalised in a variety of non-Taiwan contingencies, which has implications for India. Similarly, the missile re-organisation that China undertook in July 2007 is noteworthy. According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), satellite photographs reveal the deployment of the DF-21 medium-range missiles at Delingha, which could put at risk all of northern India, including New Delhi. These missiles could potentially target Russian ICBM fields, although it is reasonably certain that China does not intend to target Russia. There have also been significant improvements in China’s AWACS capabilities (Air-borne Early Warning and Control) and aerial-refuelling programmes.
In the long-term, the increasing Chinese defence expenditure and its military modernization could give China arena capacity to dominate Asia. These trends also suggest that other powers need to be cautious in estimating the consequences of China’s rise. Rise of new powers have altered the security milieu historically. However, if the rising power indicates that its intentions are peaceful and defensive, essentially through its defence/military postures, this could reduce the suspicion and thereby help create a peaceful region. This has not been the case with China. China has exhibited ambitions to form a Greater China comprising of the Mainland, a politically and economically integrated Taiwan, and Hong Kong and Macau.
If these trends continue, rising Chinese power could possibly become the biggest strategic imperative for both India and Australia to strengthen their strategic partnership. Although the earlier efforts in terms of quadrilateral initiative have died, it might be in the interest of like-minded countries to join their hands together in cementing a stable and peaceful order in Asia. It may also be worth the effort to see how China can be brought into the camp through CBMs, particularly in the military-security arena.

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