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US eagle spreads wings, bares claws in northeast Asia

April 12, 2013 16:28 IST

It is a fallacy, which many of our pundits are prone to, to exaggerate the potential for confrontation and conflict between the US and China and to conceive fanciful notions of advantage for India in the downstream, says M K Bhadrakumar.

United States Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Beijing in the weekend. This signifies the first structured high-level political exchange between the US and China in President Barack Obama’s second term as well as since President Xi Jinping assumed office.

Indeed, some amount of “groundbreaking” had taken place during the visit by the US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in the third week of March, who also happened to be Xi’s first visitor from abroad after becoming China’s President.

That the two countries are approaching politics through the gateway of economic partnership needs to be noted at the outset, given that a curious pantomime of cooperation and competition constitutes the Sino-American relationship at this point in time.

Kerry’s talks will undoubtedly focus on the North Korea problem. Washington is exhorting Beijing to “do more.” Beijing is willing to go as the by-now famous remark by Xi that no country should be allowed to damage world peace or throw a region into chaos for selfish gains.

But then, Xi also called upon “countries -- big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor” all to “contribute their share in maintaining and enhancing peace” and pointed out that globalisation does not allow “an arena where gladiators fight each other.”

The ghost at the table where Kerry sits across his Chinese hosts will be the US’ “rebalancing” in Asia. Kerry hinted once at some unease that the “rebalancing” had an excessive military projection, which worried China. Since then, of course, the Asia-Pacific security has dramatically changed.

If anything, there have been or are in the pipeline an unprecedented scale of US military deployments in China’s neighbourhood. These include the deployment of 14 additional ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and the planned deployment of another TPY-2 radar to Japan.

The US has also moved two guided missile destroyers to locations in the Western Pacific and has announced the intention to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System ballistic missile defence system to Guam in weeks. And all this has been couched as “precautionary moves” to strengthen the US’ defence posture against a North Korean missile threat.  

China sees a bigger picture, though, in the US’ defence posture. Zhen Zehao, professor at China’s National Defense University (under the Chinese People’s Liberation Army) writing in China Military said this week: “In geostrategic sense, containing China in the Asia-Pacific region is the basic content of the US policy toward China… The US believes that the time span from the end of the Cold War to 2015 is a period of ‘strategic opportunity,’ during which the rise and development of such major regional countries as China and Russia will pose serious challenges to the U.S. around 2015. Among the two, China "is more likely to become the challenger."

Thus, Chinese pronouncements on North Korea remain ambivalent. It is possible to read into them Beijing’s willingness to work with the US on the North Korea problem while at other times it is equally possible to interpret that unless Beijing gains greater clarity with regard to the US’ “rebalancing,” it won’t “abandon” Pyongyang.

Interestingly, the Communist Party newspaper Global Times featured a commentary on Friday on the eve of Kerry’s arrival in Beijing argues that while Japan and South Korea provide strategic support to the US’ pivot to the Asia-Pacific, these countries visualise North Korea as “their shield” and therefore, “abandoning North Korea is unlikely to become China’s diplomatic choice.”

Equally, Chinese newspapers have flashed on the front page on Friday Xi’s visit to the PLA base in Sanya, the disputed island in the South China Sea. (The visit took place on Tuesday.)

But then, Washington has also asserted emphatically this week that the US’ “rebalancing” policy is for the long haul. The major policy speech “The US Defence Rebalance to Asia” by the Deputy Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Monday was not exactly the “curtain-raiser” to Kerry’s visit that his Chinese hosts would have hoped for.

Carter said, “The end of the war in Iraq and the reduction in Afghanistan allow us [US] to shift the great weight of effort from these wars to our stabilising presence in the Asia-Pacific region.” The withdrawal from Afghanistan meant that US is “turning a strategic corner”, which in turn enables it to embark upon “a great strategic transition”.

He went on to detail the additional military build-up in the Asia-Pacific that Pentagon is preparing, which involves the re-deployment of naval surface combatants and eventually carriers as well as naval intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and processing, exploitations and dissemination capabilities, which the US Navy will be “releasing” as a result of the drawdown from Afghanistan.

Carter disclosed that 6 out of the ten US navy destroyers that used to be permanently based in Rota, Spain, to provide ballistic missile defence to the European allies will be shifted to the Asia-Pacific. Again, the destroyers and amphibious ships deployed in humanitarian missions in various parts of the world will be re-deployed to the Asia-Pacific.

Alongside, the US Air Force will also shift its capacity from Afghanistan to the Asia-Pacific, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets like the MQ-9 Reaper, the U-2, and the Global Hawk, apart from B-1 bombers to augment the B-52 already deployed to Asia-pacific as well as the stealthy B-2.

Furthermore, there will be direct re-deployments directly from the US of other “space, cyber, tactical aircraft and bomber forces… including 60 percent of combat-coded F-22s.” As for the army and marine corps, in addition to the 91,000-strong force already assigned to the Asia-Pacific, another 60000 soldiers will be added using the assets in the CENTCOM area.

Carter wound up: “So, in reality, the Asia-Pacific region will soon see more of our army, marine corps, and special operations forces, now that they are coming home to the Pacific from Iraq and Afghanistan.”

A fascinating part of Carter’s speech was the web of partnerships that the US is assembling in Asia, which would provide underpinning to the “forward presence” in northeast Asia.

He said, “In addition to strengthening our presence in northeast Asia, we are enhancing our presence in southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region as well. In this regard, it’s important to underscore that we are not only rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific bit also within [sic] the Asia-Pacific, in recognition of the growing importance of southeast Asia to the region as a whole.”

As for India, Carter said India is “a key part of our rebalance, and more broadly, an emerging power that we believe will help determine the broader security and prosperity of the 21st century. Our security interests with India converge on maritime security and broader regional issues, including India’s ‘Look East’ policy. We also are working to deepen our defence cooperation -- moving beyond purely defence trade towards technology sharing and co-production.”

To be sure, Kerry’s talks in Beijing will be keenly watched in New Delhi. Major policy challenges lie ahead for India. The heart of the matter is that polemics can be deceptive when it comes to Sino-American relations. But specifics matter. And Carter brought in a lot of specifics.

The bottom line set for Kerry’s talks in Beijing is that the Obama administration intends to maintain, as Carter put it, the “pivotal role of US military power and military presence” in the Asia-Pacific for “decades to come.”

The high probability is that unlike in the Cold War era, the Indian Ocean region is slated to be a theatre of heightened interest for US’s strategic posturing. In the era of globalisation, it cannot be otherwise. Most certainly, the US would hope that India plays a useful role as its junior partner.

Tapping into the India-China discord will be advantageous for the US. But Delhi needs to weigh what is there in it for India’s interests. There is obviously quite a lot, and the secret lies in separating the grain from the chaff.

Carter spoke about sophisticated forms of defence cooperation. But then, this is not the first time we have heard the sweet melody. Most certainly, the natural corollary is that US hopes to step up arms exports to the Indian market, which helps the US economic recovery.

On balance, the priority of India’s diplomacy lies in creating positive momentum for the resolution of its border dispute with China and the creation of a favorable external environment for its priority tasks of development. Equally, the momentum that has been created in the overall relationship is crucially important to be preserved.

At the end of the day, Europe has no money, and US economy too is strapped for cash, whereas China remains a big source of investments in the Indian economy. The forthcoming visit Premier Li Keqiang, who by the way is lionized in the West as an interlocutor to their liking, raises hopes of a qualitatively new level of relationship between India and China. 

But a veritable minefield lies ahead insofar as if regional tensions spiral and get out of control, India cannot remain impervious. Like the Africans would say, when the elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.

Equally, it is a fallacy, which many of our pundits are prone to, to exaggerate the potential for confrontation and conflict between the US and China and to conceive fanciful notions of advantage for India in the downstream.

The world is a far more complex place than what Chanakya knew. In the ultimate analysis, the Sino-American relationship has its inner logic of growing interdependency as well and the US is notorious for making its strategic somersaults when the time is ripe.

And it could be as early as within this decade itself once China crosses the immediate hurdle and overtakes the US as the world’s number one economy by 2015 or so. Carter’s may not be the last word, after all.

M K Bhadrakumar