The United States is drawing a military noose around China, and India is glad to help. But is anyone considering the possible consequences?
· illustrations by Yarek Waszul
If there’s anyone left to write the history of how the Third World War happened, they might well focus on June 28, 2005, as the date when the slide into global disaster became irreversible. That was the day when India’s defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee, and US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed a ten-year agreement in Washington on military co-operation, joint weapons production, and missile defence—not quite a formal US-Indian military alliance, but close enough to one that China finally realized it was the target of a deliberate American strategy to encircle and “contain” it.
It’s not clear yet what China plans to do about it, but since June the rhetoric out of Beijing has been unprecedentedly harsh. In mid-July, for example, Major General Zhu Chenghu warned in an official briefing that China is under pressure to drop its policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons in the event of a military conflict with the US over Taiwan. “We have no capability to fight a conventional war against the United States,” he said. “We can’t win this kind of war.” And so China would deliberately escalate to nuclear weapons: “We Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all the cities east of Xian. Of course, the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds of [their] cities will be destroyed by the Chinese.”
General Zhu stressed that he was offering his personal views and not stating official policy, but no senior Chinese officer talks like that in public without official sanction. He’s also talking complete nonsense for the moment, because China has no ability whatsoever to destroy “hundreds of cities” in the United States—it might manage one or two, with luck—whereas the US, with more than 5,000 long-range warheads at its disposal, could easily destroy every Chinese city east of Xian, and all the ones west of it, too. But no Chinese general has talked like this since Mao’s time, and it isn’t happening now because the crazies have taken over in Beijing. It’s happening because the decision-makers in Beijing think that the crazies have taken over in Washington, and are trying to draw most of Asia into an anti-Chinese alliance. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that they are right.
“It’s not yet an official kind of alliance like nato, it’s not mature yet,” explained Dr. Francis Kan, a strategic expert at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan. “But we will see more informal co-operation like weapons harmonization and assigning tasks [to various members].” Beijing fears the same ring of US allies and bases surrounding China that encircled the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.
It’s been coming for some time now, as witness America’s determined attempts to re-militarize its long-standing ally, Japan. Tokyo ended half a century of refusing to send troops overseas into war zones by committing a small contingent to the US-led occupation of Iraq, and last February it redefined the Taiwan Strait as a “common strategic objective” of Japan and the US (implying that its forces would join the US in resisting any Chinese attack on Taiwan). The six aircraft carriers, forty submarines, and 190 other surface ships of the US Pacific Command (pacom), based in Hawaii, already dominate the western Pacific, and there have long been large numbers of US troops (currently about 80,000) based in South Korea and Japan. Recently, the forward deployments have been growing: the command headquarters of the US army’s 1st Corps, with responsibility for ground operations in the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, is slated to transfer from Washington state to Camp Zama, south of Tokyo, while the usaf is proposing to move the 13th Air Force’s long-range bombers and tankers from Guam to Yokota airbase in Tokyo.
Washington is busily reviving old alliances and forging new ones throughout Southeast Asia. Thai, Malaysian, Singaporean, Indonesian, and Filipino forces regularly perform manoeuvres with American troops, and a US-led exercise in Thailand last year even saw Mongolian soldiers show up. Also last year, the first high-level discussions between the US and Vietnamese armed forces were held since the fall of Saigon in 1975. Admiral Thomas Fargo, the commander of pacom, visited Hanoi and Saigon in February 2004 “to build on the US-Vietnam defence relationship,” and by November Vietnamese defence minister Pham Van Tra was in Washington to see Donald Rumsfeld.
The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 led to US military bases not just there but in other countries on China’s western flank. Even the invasion of Iraq had relevance for America’s contain-China strategy, for it was intended (among other things) to create a reliable US ally and “enduring” American military bases in the Persian Gulf, from which China draws almost all of its rapidly growing oil imports. Despite all the rhetoric about the “war on terror,” the Pentagon under Bush never lost sight of its real strategic priority.
Now, with the deal between Washington and New Delhi, the keystone has dropped into place: the other emerging Asian giant has allied itself with the United States and against China.
The US courtship of India did not really begin until George W. Bush became president in January 2001, as relations were still crippled by sanctions the Clinton administration had imposed after first India, then Pakistan, conducted a series of nuclear weapons tests in 1998. As soon as Bush took office, however, he redefined China from “strategic partner” to “strategic competitor,” and appointed Robert Blackwill, a former member of the “Vulcans” team that had instructed Bush on foreign policy issues during his candidacy, as the new US ambassador to India. Blackwill’s main task was to lure New Delhi into accepting a leading role in the new US strategy for containing China, but in the end it was Bush himself who made the key contact. When Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh visited Washington in April 2001, the president summoned him to the White House for an unscheduled meeting—and Singh came out declaring “the start of a new era” in Indo-US relations. “I think a great many things that are being said about President Bush are completely untrue,” Singh said. “He is a marvellous person . . . . It is a completely mistaken notion that he does not have a handle on things.”
When Bush went public on May 1, 2001, with a speech advocating “a new strategic framework” based on global missile defence, the reaction of other major powers ranged from cool to openly hostile, but India’s Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee greeted it with almost embarrassing enthusiasm. “We welcome every move towards lightening the shadow of the nuclear terror under which we live today,” Vajpayee said, abandoning the strong opposition to US proposals for missile defence that his government had been expressing just months before. What was now on offer was a close defence relationship with the world’s only superpower, and Vajpayee’s right-wing, ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp) was all in favour of that.