Afghanistan’s fate may matter most for China

Discussion in 'China' started by neo29, Sep 15, 2010.

  1. neo29

    neo29 Senior Member Senior Member

    Dec 1, 2009
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    Nostalgia for the days of Kipling has prompted some to say that today’s Afghan situation resembles the Great Game played out by the British and Russian empires in the 19th century. They are wrong. What is taking place in Afghanistan is indeed a repeat of history, but the relevant period is the 1980s, when the United States and Saudi Arabia used the Pakistani army to wage an unconventional war against the Soviets.

    Today, that very army – the only state military to have jihad as its official motto – is being used by the emerging superpower China to humiliate the United States. The influence of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has helped to drive the effort.

    Both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping kept the army on a tight leash; the former using it to repress elements of Chinese society, and the latter pushing it into the background. However, in the 1990s, the Communist Party began to pamper the PLA, a process that has been continued by Hu Jintao into the present day.

    Part of the explanation is that the Communist Party general secretary now seeks the job of chairman of the armed forces after he steps down from party leadership. Jiang Zemin extended his relevance for two years after handing over the party baton to Mr Hu in 2002, and Mr Hu is likely to attempt to do the same when he steps down in 2012. Because the military plays a role in party leaders’ “extension of service”, the PLA now plays a more prominent role in decision-making.

    Over the past two decades, the party’s control over the military has eroded. That can be seen in the displays of muscle that contradict Deng’s policy of speaking softly while carrying a big stick. The results have been the displays of temper across the Taiwan Strait in the 1990s, the present stand-off with India over the status of Kashmir, and tensions with South-east Asian countries about claims in territorial waters. In foreign policy, the PLA has in effect become autonomous from the foreign affairs ministry and state council because of the reluctance of the party to rein it in.

    In the view of the PLA’s top leadership, the two regional militaries that are the most loyal to it are those of Myanmar and Pakistan. While the Pentagon fantasises about the reliability of the Pakistan army, the reality is that since the Afghan war and occupation of Iraq, more and more members of the officer corps have turned hostile to the United States. It is a sentiment that is readily visible at regimental dinner tables.

    Just as the general secretary of Community Party needs the backing of his peers, the “all-powerful” chief of staff of Pakistan’s armed forces, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, needs the backing of key corps commanders to maintain the military’s primacy over the civilian establishment in Pakistan. Even after the military coup in 1999, Gen Pervez Musharraf had to win the approval of the five corps commanders who met him at Karachi airport before four stars were once again affixed to his official car.

    Among the top generals in Pakistan, only a small minority are believed to prefer the United States over China as a partner. As a group, the commanders view Beijing as a far more natural ally for them than Washington.

    Although India is worried that it is the target of the PLA’s expansion in the Indian Ocean Rim, the reality is that India plays only a subsidiary role in the calculations of the Chinese military. The PLA sees the United States as its main rival, and responds to India only to the extent that it perceives New Delhi to be subservient to US diktat. It is hardly a secret that the PLA would like the US military to exit Asia. It is likely to view a US defeat in Afghanistan as a catalyst for this process. It may also see that Pakistan’s army has a role to play.

    Often Pakistan has done the opposite of what it has promised Washington, and is alledged to have used “retired” and “on leave” personnel to mask its actions. Both Chinese and Pakistani militaries believe that a US victory in Afghanistan would entrench US forces there. A defeat may leave the country to become a low-hanging fruit for its neighbours’ influence.

    Small wonder that the Pakistani army’s operations against the Taliban have had zero success, even though they are widely loathed and feared by Pashtuns, unlike during the Soviet war in the 1980s. Small wonder that Beijing is willing to make a foe of New Delhi over Kashmir, including rejecting visas for Indian army commanders who had been invited to visit China.

    The prize of this 21st century version of the Great Game is nothing less than military control of Asia. Through a Nato humiliation in Afghanistan, China hopes to replace the United States as the pre-eminent military power in the region. In the same way, the defeat of the Soviets in 1988 led to the eclipse of Moscow by Washington across the globe.

    Afghanistan’s fate may matter most for China

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