China’s Geopolitical Qualms

The World frequently speaks of China’s geopolitical ambitions. Beijing’s foray into Central Asia through the mechanism of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and participation in Peace Mission 2007 was discussed only last week. China is also active in other multilateral forums in East Asia. The East Asia Summit is China’s window to its neighborhood, which is zealously, protects with a hawk eye. On the other hand, the Chinese have been assuming a greater role in ASEAN and in the South Asian economic configuration of SAARC.

China is also seeking a larger responsibility in APEC. A count of APEC members indicate Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, China’s Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Chinese Taipei, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam, the virtual who’s who of global power polity less the European Union and India.

China thus appears to be expanding its influence in the immediate neighborhood and beyond while maintaining a posture of strategic interest in Africa. Many maritime strategists accuse China of establishing a string of bases in the Indian Ocean region dotting the sea-lanes. Some have even called it, China’s, “string of pearls strategy”.

China’s theme in these multilateral forums has been climate change, expanding regional and multi lateral trade, integration of economies and clean development. Chinese President Hu Jintao attends most of the high-level meets whether it is the APEC summit in Sydney on 8-9 September or the SCO Meet in Bishkek. China’s goals in each of these appear to be generally congruent to the interests of the group yet leave an indelible Chinese impact.

Thus while China supported the Hanoi Declaration covering free trade and investment, human security, and society building strategies at the APEC summit in Vietnam in 2005, it vigorously endorsed President Putin’s agenda in the SCO summit in Bishkek of establishing control over Central Asia through a military alliance challenging the challenger, America. In turn, China hoped to find a solution to the vexatious problem of the Uighur rebels of Xingjian.

Many would thus believe that China is trying to assert itself through these instruments of power in the 21st Century world of cooperative-competitive engagement of the high and mighty. Yet the underpinnings of China’s geo strategic qualms may be evident to the perceptive.

Beijing’s location surrounded by old and new enemies in the East and a vast vacuum of underdeveloped land and people mass in the West is creating insecurities, which create a feeling of being increasingly isolated. To China’s North and East are South Korea and Japan. While North Korea with contiguous territory is a weak state surviving on the adrenalin of its vacuous military, the economic powerhouses in Seoul and Tokyo are Beijing’s main worries. China perhaps feels that given well-established legacy of the past hostilities, reconciliation with Japan may be difficult. Yet both states have a very intense economic engagement, the strongest in their long histories.

To the West again is the belligerent Taiwan, while Beijing may see relief in the recent snub given by Washington to Taipei and the UN rejection of its plea for a separate identity, it is also aware that short of an all out war, there are limited hopes of unification in the near future. For across the oceans and seas is the might of the United States, which will not let China, pries away the thorn in its underbelly.

The Oceans are again China’s greatest worry, for it is quite complacent looking down upon Vietnam and India its southern neighbors, both of which have suffered the pangs of its punitive action in the past. Yet both these countries have the history, resolve of greatness stamped over their people, making the Chinese sit back, and take notice for they also overlook the seas through which passes billions of barrels of oil each day.

In these ocean waters, again China sees a new alliance emerging in September. Joint exercises Malabar 07 in which India, Japan, Australia and the United States flex their naval muscles across the Coco Islands off Myanmar where is located Beijing’s listening post. While it has questioned the countries about their intent, its worries no doubt have increased.

Perhaps the North and the West are its only solace, yet Moscow is known to be close to Delhi and is engaged in its own power game of reemerging from the shadows of the split in the Soviet Union. The Putin clique is attempting to place Russia in the forefront, restoring its pristine glory of yesteryears. Until Moscow discovers a new identity, Beijing is alone. So grow Hu Jintao’s qualms as he sets forth for the APEC in Sydney.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.