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China’s expansion, regional reactions to it and India’s ambiguous maneuvering
In the field of competition for domination beyond national borders, one of the keys to strategic power is the capacity to project military power. For those who fear Chinese expansion, it is therefore relevant to look first at the development of China’s military means. From 2008 to 2018, China has doubled its defense budget. That budget is today still a fraction only of the USA defense budget, i.e. less than a quarter, but China’s defense spending is more than double the size of each of the other three biggest spenders in Asia, that is India, Japan and Russia, and it is still growing. As long as budgetary means flow into equipment and training of armed forces, they do not constitute per se a decisive new strategic tool. Essential for the realization of domination plans are military means which enable political leadership to reach out beyond immediate geographical neighborhood: means of power-projection.
With this regard, Beijing’s decision in 2008 to deploy troops to the Arabian Sea near the Somali coast was of particular importance, because it was the first Chinese out-of-area deployment of troops for centuries. After the Somalia counter-piracy deployment in 2008 followed the start of the Djibouti naval facility construction in 2016. With this move, China ascertained its determination to establish, for the first time, a permanent base on another continent. The Somalia deployment and the Djibouti base serve one obvious purpose: protecting China’s maritime trade routes through the Indian Ocean and heading for Africa and Europe (via Suez).
One more development of historic importance happened when the Chinese Government put its first aircraft carrier in service in 2018. Aircraft carriers are like highly mobile armies with the essential advantage however that they can be moved from one ocean to another on the high seas without necessarily infringing on other countries sovereign borders. Just as a comparison, the UK, France, Russia and India each have one aircraft carrier. Still far behind the US capabilities of six fleets operating worldwide independently and their unmatched eleven! aircraft carriers, China has now all the strategic elements at its disposal necessary for a global role. In strategic terms, China is now a global power, which it was not before, despite all its economic weight.
In the field of strategic affairs, each development in one direction calls for and provokes developments in the opposite direction. It is for sure that Chinese expansion will not remain unhindered by neighbors and other stakeholders in world affairs. In the large area of the Indo-Pacific, the main challengers will undoubtedly be the USA, Japan, India and the South East Asian Nations. To the North-West, China is being confronted with Russia’s continental ambitions. All their endeavors will have as a purpose to contain Chinese expansion. The Quad, Quadrilateral Dialogue of the USA, Japan, India and Australia, first initiated by Japan, is one of those moves. We have written about it in this column. The gap between this coordination, called “dialogue”, and a full-fletched coalition or alliance lies in the lack of a common communicative position. While the US Defense Minister has already spelled out the purpose: containing China, India, with its age-old border dispute with China, after one war lost against China (in 1962) and the security trauma caused by Chinese “encirclement” in the Indian Ocean, refrains from conceding the hostile nature of the Quad. It is part of Prime Minister Modi’s repeatedly confirmed determination to find a peaceful and productive co-existence with its giant neighbor. Modi keeps his strategic options open also with regard to China. At the same time, military cooperation with the US continues to grow substantially.
The South East Asian countries become more and more aware of their centrality with regard to the strategic concept of the Indo-Pacific. In fact, they are the “passage obligé” for most of the moves, military and trade, between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, and at the same time an important destination for goods, services, investment and development aid coming from China, Japan, the USA, Australia and India alike. They all agree that Chinese presence and growing expansion into their area is of a sort of neo-colonial nature and that the progressive appropriation of the South China Sea by Beijing violates their sovereign rights. Their individual reactions against such imperialistic attitudes however differ widely. Of all rejections from the neighborhood, Vietnam’s action is the most forceful and most meaningful, and, thus, reminds us that the Vietnamese had inflicted a painful defeat upon the Chinese invading military operation in 1979 (as they had done upon the US in 1975 to end the Vietnam War by humiliating the global superpower of then and now!).
As mentioned, Chinese expansion may provoke resistance also from the North West, from Russia. Russia remains a two-continent power with five naval fleets, of which three can be moved between the Pacific and the Atlantic (via the Baltic Sea) through the North-East-Passage without leaving Russian territory, which confirms its status as a genuinely global power. Russia, fundamentally a European nation, has been however rejected by its “natural European partners” because of its annexations to the detriment of the Ukraine. Thus isolated at its Western borders, it has turned to the East and has created the “Eurasian Economic Union (EEU)”, in an attempt to recreate its sphere of influence in post-Soviet republics. Hoping for a substitute for the loss of the wider Soviet sphere, Russia is developing now visions of a larger Eurasian free trade area, which would comprise the EEU and China. Inevitably, Russian and Chinese interests are meeting in Central Asia. In a first stage, both great Asian powers are developing cooperative complementarities. But in the long run, their cooperation will turn into confrontational interests in Central Asia. Central Asia is therefore set to become the center of a new “Great Game”, not dissimilar to the historic Great Game between 19th century Tsarist Russia and the British Empire protecting British India against Russian expansion on the Asian continent! Central Asia, thus, will turn from a strategic “Hinterland” for both, Russia and China, to a central crossroads of Chinese expansion with its Belt and Road Initiative, BRI, and Russian expansion seeking economic cooperation with non-Chinese countries and economies on the Asian continent beyond Central Asia, such as Iran, India and Vietnam.
So, despite its ambiguity in its policies regarding China, India cannot help being drawn into containment strategies against China on at least two sides. Prime Minister Modi, freshly reelected as India’s leader, will continue to be challenged by fundamental power equations of the wider Asian region.
17th July 2019 / Philippe Welti