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Tuesday, May 08, 2001

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Opinion | Next | Prev


US-China-India: On a new course

D. S. Soman

THE collision between a Chinese fighter aircraft and a lumbering American E-3 spy plane has opened an interesting chapter for India. It is too much to say that the incident is an indication of the return of the Cold War. For, there is no other superpower other than the US though only Beijing is capable of looking Washington in the eye. The Russian might is a thing of the past and the Americans are justifiably concerned about the Chinese ambition to be counted as a superpower. Although the aircraft-colli sion incident is closed for the time being with the return of the crew American which was detained for 11 days on the Hainan Island -- where the spy plane had made an emergency landing -- the US is not likely to forget it so easily.

Interestingly, the incident coincided with the American Defence review, which normally follows after the presidential elections. The review, extracts of which have appeared in the American press, marks a departure in some significant respects.

It is felt that the present presidential team consists of more hawks than doves. Thus, for the time being, even those who should be advocating a tough line, but have not, like the Secretary of State, Mr Colin Powell, have not been able to catch the sympa thetic ear of the President. The reason may be that one of the promises of the Bush administration was to avoid ``imperial overstretch'', but at the same time deal robustly with strategic rivals. It is well understood by the world that the US and China a re no more ``strategic partners'' but ``strategic competitors''. This changes the entire focus of the American foreign policy.

From all accounts, the Vice-President, Mr Richard Cheney, and the Defence Secretary, Mr Donald Rumsfeld, seem to be framing American foreign policy much to the embarrassment of moderates such as Mr Powell. Incidentally, Mr Powell still seems to live in t he days of the Cold War when the US' only rival was the Soviet Union. He told the Budget Committee of the Senate that ``the approach to Russia...should not be terribly different (from) the realistic approach we had to the old Soviet Union in the late 198 0s''.

All the same, the new perception is that Chinese nuclear and missile proliferation is intended to wean away the US allies from their commitments and may lead to those allies denying Americans access to their bases. One such country is Pakistan, which has always been regarded as an ally and a counterweight against India and a strategic partner in West Asia -- an area of concern to the US. The nuclear capability and entry into the missile club of Pakistan have much to do with the indulgence of the US. But this made Pakistan think too highly of itself and to the discomfiture of Washington, the 1990 Gulf War, Islamabad ended with Baghdad and it was New Delhi that provided transit facilities to the US.

Another ally towards whom the US may change its policy is Saudi Arabia, which is also a friend of China. Beijing has supplied 60 CSS-2 intermediate range missiles to Saudi Arabia. Whether the US will succeed in bringing pressure on China to rein in its n uclear and missile proliferation is open to question, though this is sure to be high on Washington's agenda.

In the annual budget presented to the National People's Congress -- largely a rubber stamp body -- in March 2001, China announced a 17.7 per cent in rise in Defence spending to $17 billion over the year 2000. Western analysts believe that the true level of spending may be twice/thrice the published amount. The Chinese justify this rise in Defence expenditure in the light of the world military situation and to modernise the 2.5 million People's Liberation Army. One of the items is also to improve the sal ary structure of the Defence forces. It is felt that throughout China's five-year plan, which runs up to 2005, Defence expenditure will increase by 15-20 per cent.

The rise in expenditure is attributed to the Chinese perception that the US can intervene in any problem on the basis of human rights by circumventing the United Nations Security Council where China has a veto. The participation of NATO -- more specifica lly the US -- in the Kosovo war is cited as a new type of threat China will have to cope with.

Keeping the Kosovo example in mind, the US can, goes the Chinese thinking, intervene if it thinks that human rights in China have been violated. The Chinese are also apprehensive of the military help the US has spoken about to Taiwan. At one stage, it wa s felt that the US may not supply the Taiwanese with sophisticated weapons. But, in the light of the recent tiff between the US and China over the spy plane, the thinking in Washington is that, perhaps, Taiwan needs to be armed with the latest equipment.

Interestingly, another reason cited for the rise in the Chinese expenditure on Defence is India's successful nuclear test in 1999. China feels that it cannot ignore this development. As things stand, it sees India as a rival in Asia.

What do these developments portend for India? For one, it cannot be that the US will dump its faithful ally over the years -- Pakistan -- just because it would not like it to continue to be close to China. It cannot ignore Pakistan's role in encouraging terrorism either. There is a genuine fear that Central Asia may slip into the grip of Muslim fundamentalists if the current trend is not checked. Indeed, Central Asian leaders are nervous about an attack by Islamist militants from Tajikistan. The militan ts enter by the remote passes of south-west Kirgistan. They propose to overthrow the government of Uzbekistan.

The US interest in Central Asia is well-known. The Caspian Sea and its surroundings are believed to contain quantities of crude that oilmen call it second Kuwait. There is a talk of building a pipeline from the remote Central Asia to Europe bypassing bot h Russia and Iran. The US would not like any turbulence in the area.

Meanwhile, China has been making rapid strides on the economic front. According to Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong, China will grow at 7 per cent a year till 2005 and then at 9 per cent in 2006-2015. Its economy would then have grown the size of America's at present. It has been able to attract foreign investments of $350 billion. The bulk of it has gone into export industries. Foreign firms account for half of China's exports. The Chinese economy has grown five-fold since it opened up two decades ago. Inco mes have quadrupled and the infrastructure is being strengthened. At one time, China did not have highways worth the name. It has now over 12,000 km of highways, 36 million new subscribers for fixed-line telephones in 2000 alone and 42 million mobile tel ephones. Lest we preen ourselves on our achievements in the information technology field, it is useful to remember that China is the third largest producer of IT technology hardware. It will soon be competing with India in software.

All this has many lessons for India. It is quite likely that the US policy towards this region -- particularly China and Pakistan -- will change. This may augur well for India. The recent warm welcome the Foreign Minister, Mr Jaswant Singh got in the US is a good start. But too much should not also be read into it.

China is making rapid progress in the economic field, which is its major strength. It is also equipping itself militarily. These are probably indications of the country dominating the Asian region. But unless the countries in the region pull themselves u p their bootstraps, they cannot achieve much. With a giant presence in the Asian continent, India has a special responsibility. But will it rise to the occasion?

(The author is a former Director General of Police, Maharashtra.)

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