Calling China's Bluff
The recent remarks of the outgoing Indian Navy Chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, where he ascribed China's economic and military prowess as beyond India's reach, is misplaced and exaggerated given China's present and evolving tangible and intangible assets.
In fact, the very endurance of the rise of China is under question on various counts.
By all indications, China is a paranoid nation. It is so apprehensive about economic competition from India that it allowed some of its firms to produce fake Indian drugs and label them 'Made in India' for export, especially to African countries.
Only a paranoid country transfers critical strategic assets like missiles and nuclear technology and wherewithal to another country in pursuit of its security and strategic ambitions. Pakistan and North Korea are two such nuclear proxies of China. The creation of third nuclear proxy state, Myanmar, appears to be imminent. There are analysts who maintain that 'Pakistan's nuclear programme' should correctly be called 'China's nuclear programme in Pakistan.'
China is so-ill reputed for its proliferation activities that one is compelled to believe that had it not been for its own problems in the Xinjiang region, it would have not hesitated to provide nuclear weapons or technology to the Taliban or the Al-Qaeda.
A delinquent country, which believes in proliferation, cannot aspire to be a respectable entity in the international arena.
China's internal situation is explosive not only in terms of the ethnic unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet, but in the Chinese hinterland, where there is a complete media blackout and no foreigners are allowed. If China is truly a great, unified and prosperous country, then why is it so opaque? Why does it block internet sites? Why does it gag the press, and fudge figures about its economy? Why the inability to manufacture world-class conventional weapons such as tanks, aircraft, destroyers and submarines?
The large imports of arms from Russia in the recent years are also reflective of its technological inadequacies. When the Chinese leaders talk of 'pockets of excellence', it is a tacit admission that their scientific and technological development is not well rounded.
Many scholars credit ancient China with the invention of the compass, maps and gunpowder. Such pioneering inventions and innovations usher in revolutions in military spheres, described as a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).
Contemporary China has no such distinctions or achievements in military technology. It is only catching up with the inexorable technological agenda set by the western countries. Technological inventions and innovations cannot be a product of a fiat or diktat. They evolve under a given political, social and economic environment. Countries, which try to reach up to the shifting benchmark and rely on reverse technologies, can at best be second- best. China's manned space flight in October 2003 came more than 40 years after the erstwhile USSR and the US achieved it.
Chinese products and goods that once threatened to swamp the world markets, failed to inspire confidence because of their doubtful quality and durability. Most of the countries that have imported weapons and equipment from China are bedeviled with their low serviceability rate.
Recently a Chinese strategic commentator suggested that China should balkanize India into 26 parts. The fact of the matter is that barring the border skirmish with newly independent India in 1962, China has been a humiliated empire, never winning any military engagement in its history.
In 1850, Tsarist troops had invaded Manchuria. In 1864, France had colonized Cochin China (Southern Vietnam). In 1884-85, Britain took Burma and the Russians penetrated into Chinese Turkestan (modern day Xinjiang-Uygur autonomous region). In 1894-95, Japan defeated China and forced it to cede Taiwan and Penghu Island. The British sought and got further territorial concessions, like the 99 years lease of Hong Kong in 1898.
The foreign settlements in China had become sovereign pockets of territories with a menacing presence of warships and gunboats. Internally too, China was bleeding in the later half of 19th century. The Taiping Revolution, which was led by Hong Xiu Quan and lasted for 14 years (1851-64), claimed 30 million lives. Such was the debilitation of China that the Manchu ruler had to seek the assistance of British and French forces to crush the revolution.
The story of military humiliations of China, which began with the first Anglo-Chinese War, better known as Opium War (1839-1842), continued well into the first half of 20th century i.e. till World War-II. The allied expedition during the Boxer Revolution in 1900 in China in which many western missionary facilities were burnt and thousands of Chinese Christians were killed, had left China comprehensively defeated.
In 1932, Japan had annexed Manchuria, which finally resulted in a full-scale war in 1937 which lasted till the end of World War-II. China's initiation of war against Vietnam in 1978 speciously on the plea ‚€œto teach it a lesson‚€Ě turned out to be a miscalculated adventure.
Historically, every 'ism' in China at some point or the other has fallen victim to disaffection, corruption, cronyism, and ideological degeneration. These were invariably followed by attempts at sweeping reforms.
In 1898, there was a bold attempt by Chinese Emperor Guangxu to root out corruption and introduce fundamental changes in broad range of activities and areas like academics, civil services exam system, agriculture and industry. The life of this reform process was only a 100 days, and it is therefore referred to as the ‚€œ100 Days Reform‚€Ě. It failed because of the opposition from conservatives and gradualists. This has strong resonance during the present day reform and modernization period availing in China.
However in the current period, the opposition has been better neutralized, as the reform process has yielded speciously encouraging results. If it were to fail, communism may be become an ineffective glue, as in the case of erstwhile USSR.
The same strategic commentator who suggested that China should Balkanise India also noted that Hinduism cannot unify India. India is a pluralistic country, where all religions are practiced with complete freedom. It has therefore thrived as an adaptable and flexible civilization. It is the nations which try and rob religion from their people which eventually breakup. This explains the paranoia of the Chinese authorities with the spiritual movement 'Falun Gong'.
But despite all its harsh measures, China has not been able to kill the religious and spiritual spirit of its citizens, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang.
A global power must have a powerful navy with the force projection capability in at least two oceans. China is far from it. The superiority of the overall arms inventory of China vis-√ -vis India is not reckoned to be anywhere near formidable when considered in qualitative and deployment terms.
For example, on paper the Chinese Navy inventory appears to be formidable. But more than 70 percent of it is of average or poor quality. The major chunk of the submarines belong to the Romeo class, whose endurance is limited and are only suitable for coastal defence.
What matters is the strength China can bring to bear against India. Its threat from east is rather precarious given the US direct and indirect presence in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. That is the reason it is paranoid about the growing military assertiveness of Japan and is loathe to see a united Korea, even as North Koreans are enslaved and starved by hereditary dictators in the name of communism.
Given these robust external threats and internal contradictions, Beijing would do well to indulge in some deep introspection.
RSN Singh is a former military intelligence officer who later served in the Research and Analysis Wing, or R&AW. The author of two books: Asian Strategic and Military Perspective and Military Factor in Pakistan, he is also Associate Editor, Indian Defence Review.