Closing the Ring on China

24 July 2005

Closing the Ring on China

By Gwynne Dyer

Scarcely a word was said in public about military matters during
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Washington (18-20
July). The rhetoric was all about how the world’s oldest democracy and its
biggest democracy could come together to develop agriculture, fight
terrorism and generally make the world a better place. But foreign
ministries around the world connect the Indian prime minister’s visit (and
President Bush’s promised visit to India later this year) with the fact
that the two countries have just become, in effect, military allies.

They note that the United States has been courting India as an ally
ever since the Bush administration came into office, and that the ten-year
Indo-US defence agreement signed last month commits the two countries to
military cooperation, joint weapons production, and missile defence. And
those cynical diplomats also believe that the de facto Indo-US alliance is
aimed mainly against China.

For years people like Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense
Secretary Don Rumsfeld have worked to encircle and “contain” China. They
have pressured Japan to remilitarise, they have sought out new allies in
South-East Asia, and they have set up military bases in Uzbekistan and
Kyrghyzstan on China’s western flank. But the real prize was always India,
whose population and economic miracle are second only to China’s own.

With the signature of the Indo-US defence agreement, the
encirclement of China is basically complete. Nineteenth-century
strategists would applaud the neo-conservatives’ achievement — but what
has it actually accomplished?

Will it slow the rapid growth of the Chinese economy, which Goldman
Sachs recently estimated will overtake the US economy by the early 2040s?
Perhaps, if the US manages to draw China into an arms race that brings the
Chinese economy to its knees (the old Reagan strategy against the Soviet
Union). But China’s economy is already more robust than the Soviet economy
ever was, and America’s own prosperity now heavily depends on the trading
and investment relationship with China.

Will encircling China with US allies and bases stop Beijing from
modernising its armed forces as its economy grows? It is likelier to make
the Chinese government feel threatened, and to invest more heavily in
defence. So what really drives US policy here? Nothing more sophisticated
than the paint-by-numbers geopolitical calculations that captivate “Boy’s
Own” strategists like Cheney and Rumsfeld.

Through the whole of their careers, in the Reagan and the first
Bush administrations in 1980-1992, in political exile on K Street in the
later 90s, and back in office since 2001, they have been playing a
latter-day version of Kipling’s “Great Game”, in which the goal is to keep
the United States on top forever. It’s a fantasy that has recently seduced
many other Americans as well, but it is unattainable, unnecessary, and very

Nothing in the Chinese Communist government’s behaviour over the
past fifty years, or in China’s cultural traditions over the past several
thousand years, suggests that a more powerful China would be territorially
expansionist. Even on the question of Taiwan, Beijing has avoided open
military confrontation for the past fifty years, and has never built the
kind of navy that could invade the island.

China has been equally restrained in strategic weapons, and even
now has only a dozen or so nuclear-capable missiles that could reach the
United States. It could have built thousands of ICBMs by now, but chooses
instead to rely on “minimum deterrence” to protect itself from US attack.
All the recent chatter in the US media about a big Chinese “military
build-up” is contradicted by America’s own official intelligence estimates.

It is lunacy to frighten a regime as cautious as the one in Beijing
into a military response by surrounding it with seemingly hostile military
alliances, but that is the current policy of the US government. India has
fallen in with it for short-term politico-military purposes — eroding the
old US-Pakistan alliance, getting US Navy training for future Indian
carrier pilots, gaining access to advanced US military technologies — and
presumably calculates that the Chinese are wise enough to understand its
motives and not to panic.

But the Chinese ARE starting to panic as the ring closes round
them. In an official briefing in Beijing on 14 July, Major General Zhu
Chenghu deviated sharply from China’s official position on Taiwan, which
had not changed for decades despite a recent flurry of provocative
statements and legislation on both sides.

The old line was that Beijing would not act militarily unless
Taiwan formally declared itself independent from China — and even in a
military confrontation, China would never use nuclear weapons first. But
Zhu said something different.

He said that China could not hope to win a conventional war against
the United States, and that his government was under internal pressure to
drop its “no first use” policy on 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 cities will be
destroyed by the Chinese.”

No senior Chinese official has talked like that since Mao’s time —
and the truth is that Beijing currently has no ability to do any such thing
to the United States. Zhu was probably only talking crazy in the hope of
bringing Washington’s strategists to their senses, but in reality it will
only feed the mirror-image paranoia that is being nurtured inside the
Beltway. The world is taking the wrong turn, and there is trouble down the
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“Will it…China”; and
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles
are published in 45 countries.