Taming the Dragon: US policy on China

Contrary to Deng Xiaoping’s advice to his successors to ‘hide your capacities and bide your time,’ China has been rather assertive in recent years in establishing itself as a world power. Chinese belligerence in dealing with its neighbours and, more particularly, in staking its claim to disputed islands in the South China Sea, has sent alarm bells ring across the Asia-Pacific region. The world is no longer sure whether China will continue to behave responsibly while discharging its international obligations and conducting its foreign affairs.

A direct consequence of perceived Chinese assertiveness has been the new strategic guidance for the United States announced by President Barack Obama early in the New Year. Announced during a rare visit to the Pentagon on January 7, 2012, the new strategy is titled ‘Sustaining US global leadership: Priorities for 21st century defence.’

As the US winds down its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is re-orientating its priorities towards the new challenges emanating from the Asia-Pacific region. Obama said the strategy review centred on creating the future military the country will need after the ‘long wars of the last decade are over.’ The new strategy seeks to find a balance between fiscal prudence and the challenge of passing through a ‘moment of transition’ in global affairs. 

Obama also said “Our military will be leaner, but the world must know the United States is going to maintain our military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats.” In military terms, the strategic guidance dilutes the current requirement for the US armed forces to be capable of fighting and winning wars in two major theatres simultaneously. 

The new strategy states significantly that the US will “maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged.” This postulation probably refers to China’s ‘anti-access and area-denial’ (A2/AD) strategy. China’s much touted A2/AD strategy relies on anti-ship ballistic missiles such as the purpose-built Dong Feng 21-D, conventionally armed attack submarines, anti-ship mines and swarms of small vessels, to attack US aircraft carriers that approach China’s coast in a war, for example to come to the aid of Taiwan during a future Chinese operation to liberate Taiwan.
Another critical aspect of the new strategic guidance is the reduction in force levels envisioned by President Obama. He announced spending cuts of $487 billion over the next ten years. However, this amount is a small percentage of the current annual budget of $650 billion of the US Department of Defence. This amounts to 45 per cent of the world’s total annual defence expenditure.

Forward presence

The US will trim down its forward presence in Europe, reduce 90,000 personnel and, simultaneously, acquire greater combat capability in the Asia-Pacific region, with new bases in Australia and elsewhere. The US army’s size will be reduced from 570,000 to 490,000 soldiers.

While the president refrained from clearly naming China as a threat, the strategy document said, “Over the long-term, China's emergence as a regional power will have the potential to affect the US economy and our security in a variety of ways.” The new US strategy identifies the target area for future conventional conflict as “the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia.”

The strategy expects and banks on major military support from partner countries like India, while seeking to be their “security partner of choice.” Significantly, the strategy document explicitly views India as a key strategic partner in the US quest to maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region: "The United States is investing in a long-term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region.” 

While the possibility of a common future threat from China has not been explicitly spelt out, it is implicit in the broad underpinnings of the new US strategy. There is apprehension in both India and the US that China may not behave responsibly in future, or that it might implode due to its internal contradictions.

Though the probability of both these occurrences is viewed as extremely low, it is felt that should either of them come to pass, both India and the US will need strong strategic partners to manage the crisis. As large democracies with an ever increasing mutuality of interests it is natural for both to rely on each other. 

Growing political and economic relations with the US do not necessarily have to lead to a military alliance. India must adopt a hedging strategy in order to be able to deal with the possibility of errant Chinese behaviour in future after China has completed its military modernisation. India should continue to forge a strong strategic partnership with the US while simultaneously pursuing good relations with China. 

Should a future Indian government decide to join hands with the US militarily, it must carefully guard against being sucked into a new arms race in its quest to provide the support that the new US strategy demands from partner countries. India must learn the lessons of the Soviet collapse at the end of the Cold War and avoid such an economically crippling venture. Pragmatic realism is the answer.