Across the world, from Iran to Sudan, Syria and Venezuela, China has been boosting the military and other capabilities of forces hostile to the NATO powers, led by the U.S. In doing this it is following a time-worn, low-cost, low-visibility strategy of draining the U.S. in particular through feints and jabs, conducted by states and organizations that are in effect proxy players for Chinese aims.
This strategy is as old as the Cold War and the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. From 1952-92, the period of the Cold War, the possibility of any form of direct attack by the former USSR on the United States or vice-versa, was reduced to near-zero by the principle of MAD. Each had the capability of absorbing a nuclear first-strike and thereafter inflicting terminal damage on the other. Knowledge of such capability kept the peace in Europe, and enabled that continent to escape the conflicts that broke out in Asia.
Indeed, the USSR was so intimidated by the U.S. nuclear arsenal, that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) lacked the courage to mount even a conventional challenge, not simply against the U.S. and its NATO allies, but also against countries such as Pakistan, that were being used by Washington to conduct a war by proxy against Moscow.
Had a fraction of the munitions expended by the USSR during its failed adventure in Afghanistan been spent on locations within Pakistan – in particular the regions feeding the American-led insurgency in Afghanistan – it is very probable that Russia might have crippled the U.S. enough to have held its ground in the Afghan campaign.
At the time, China was nowhere on the horizon. Today, the view that China is becoming a significant influence in South East Asia and the Indian Sub-continent seems well-ground in U.S. thinking. The 2012 U.S. Department of Defence strategic vision document recently released by President Obama explicitly mentions the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) as being in the same category of hostile nations as Iran, and therefore a direct threat to the U.S. The ultimate goal for China? Being the pre-eminent power in Asia first – and then the world. Its strategy: copy-catting the NATO and U.S. pattern of using military superiority for economic advantage, as seen recently in Iraq and Libya.
As U.S and NATO forces prepare to leave Afghanistan by 2014, it’s clear that Afghanistan has become the first significant theatre of effective confrontation between the West and China. China is in fact adopting the 1980s U.S. strategy of using Pakistan to drain and drive the U.S. out of the region just as the U.S. did with Russia in Afghanistan.
It also seems that U.S. President Barack Obama indirectly recognizes this power shift but realizes he has little scope with which to change direction. Obama has understood that while military power can win a territory from a conventional enemy, it cannot hold it unless it is willing to inflict human casualties on a scale made impossible by cable television and the use of mobile telephones as video cameras. The same occurred with the British Raj in India. Once international publications began to extensively cover the various protests of Mahatma Gandhi, the list of feasible responses by the India Office in London narrowed considerably.
Obama has rather unfairly been condemned on the campaign trail as being “weak” on national security. But the reality is that it was he – rather than eight years of George W. Bush – that saw off Osama bin Laden, just as it is since 2009 that drone attacks on terrorist hideouts in Pakistan have accelerated and severely crippled Al-Qaeda. Indeed, in 2001, the Bush administration gave a free pass to the most deadly elements of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, by permitting their evacuation from Kunduz and other locations within Afghanistan.
Obama’s withdrawal from the region comes against a backdrop where China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seeks increasing influence. It is no secret that the PLA and the U.S. military consider themselves rivals.
As this withdrawal takes place, the PLA will have greater influence over the Pakistan military than the Pentagon – public perceptions and statements to the contrary. Some may argue it has had greater influence for nearly a decade. The evidence of this is that at the smallest provocation, Pakistan now challenges NATO by cutting off supplies to its forces across the Durand Line. The preferred outcome for the PLA would be a complete withdrawal, in humiliation, of all NATO forces from Afghanistan and Pakistan, followed by the Pakistani takeover by a Taliban affiliate of the ISI.
What of India, caught in the claws of the dragon’s new great proxy game? Certainly China has no hesitation in using Pakistan against India – a course of action which the Pakistani military has always been eager to follow.
Not so, however, with China’s commercial interests, which see in India a $300 billion viable market for Chinese goods, a large chunk of it being telecom and infrastructure. The powerful state-owned enterprises are as important to Beijing as the Chinese army, and they don’t want military tension with India. Already, Chinese banks are lending to Indian business – last week, a trio of state-owned banks lent $1.1 billion to Indian businessman Anil Ambani to help him refinance the loans of his telecom company. That came on top of the $3 billion syndicated loan to Ambani’s power company, Reliance Power, last year. India-China trade, at $63 billion, is expected to touch $100 billion in the next couple of years.
A reasonable prediction will be that once NATO gets bundled out of Afghanistan, the state companies will finally have the upper hand over the PLA in policies towards India. Elsewhere in the world, the NATO humiliation in Afghanistan is likely to further a shift towards China as the new protector of nervous states worldwide.
M.D. Nalapat is Director of the School of Geopolitics at Manipal University, and a regular contibutor to Gateway House.
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