Wednesday, 9 May 2012

China moves to break from its containment

Final arrangements are being made for China's most senior uniformed military officer, Gen. Guo Boxiong, to visit Japan and South Korea from May 24-28, Kyodo reported May 8. During the visit the general is expected to meet with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and hold talks with Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka.

In maintaining close ties with both Japan and South Korea, especially militarily and strategically, Gen. Guo Boxiong hopes to continue the close partnership between the three countries. This has not always been entirely straightforward.

All three countries have experienced enormous growth since the end of World War II, positioning themselves as regional powers with global significance. This power balance, while largely peaceful, does have the potential for flash-points but the mutual benefit of trade and good relations is superseding any simmering conflict for now.
Construction of Sino-Myanmar pipeline

South Korea, boosted by American aid during the war on the Peninsula in the 1950s, was able to leap into the 20th century once the war cooled down to become a huge economy in its own right. Today the country is the world’s 15th largest economy, a world leader in automobiles, robotics and electronics, and a responsible, contributing member of the UN, WTO and the OECD.

The presence of thousands of US troops on the Peninsula has allowed Seoul to redirect funds from creating an indigenous military onto civil and economic projects, further enhancing their export power and influence.

Japan has had its share of troubles since the Second World War, from a quickly expanding economic bubble that eventually burst, to a collection of horrible natural disasters. However, the historically-rich island country still maintains its position as the 3rd largest economy on the planet.

Without the ability to field a true military, bound as it is by post-war treaties to a residual self-defence force, it is impossible for Tokyo conduct reasonable warfare on its own. Instead it relies on US naval protection accompanied by a range of other treaties with neighbouring countries. Tokyo, as with Seoul, has used the protection to focus on its economy and create a society with the longest life expectancy in the world.

China has built a strong economic position via a different path, one largely self-sufficient and without an external power patron. By securing good trade partners and having a steady abundance of cheap labour pools, China managed to produce double-figure growth rates annually for over a decade at the beginning of the century. Whether or not one entirely believes the GDP figures announced by Beijing regarding this growth, this is a feat not replicated anywhere else in the global system, and one that is probably highly unsustainable.

Cooking the books slightly isn’t as much a concern to Beijing as what goes on internally. And there are a number of geopolitical imperatives for China. A Chinese interior bubbling with discontent threatens the rich eastern seaboard and the true centre of Chinese power.

An unprotected interior border region (a huge land area housing millions of people living at subsistence level or below) deprives the state of natural boundaries such as the Tian Shan and Himalayan mountains, the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts, and the subtropical rainforests near south-east Asia, leaving it vulnerable to insurgencies or invasion.

Increasing the buffer-zone between Beijing with the economic centres of the Eastern Chinese seaboard and the nearest potentially hostile force heightens their security in this critical region. Success for any Chinese government model depends on reaching or maintaining these geopolitical goals.

Beijing has felt increasingly caged in on its eastern shores. The US and South Korean navies practice drills each year in the Yellow Sea, a body of water that is traditionally a vital passageway for Chinese trade and a strategic buffer for the Chinese military.

So while the US drills are not meant to be inflammatory, Beijing expresses its concern each time they run. The US has also positioned troops on strategic Japanese islands: the recent negotiations to redeploy US troops from Okinawa to another island are continuing. Japan has leased bases to US troops as part of post-war treaties, but China still feels it is being surrounded, even if it is only a feeling.

Therefore, Beijing is pushing to break out of its cage in the Yellow and South China Seas. The idea is to make China useful to countries far outside its traditional stomping ground, establishing military bases or securing patron status. Recently, Beijing has courted Myanmar, a country emerging from international isolation, to help build oil pipelines between the two countries. This will connect that region more efficiently to facilitate greater trade outputs.

Reports suggest China may also have won construction tenders to build deep-water ports in Myanmar that could be used to berth roaming Chinese naval ships in the future. Similar economic overtures to countries as far away as Pakistan and the Seychelles have placed semi-permanent Chinese military assets in these areas as well.

Beijing is also creating its own drills with neighbouring countries. Chinese and Thai marine forces will hold joint exercise Blue Commando-2012 in China's Guangdong province from May 9 to May 29, Chinese Ministry of National Defense officials said May 8, Xinhua reported. The training will be held in Guangdong's cities of Zhanjiang and Shanwei, according to an agreement reached by the countries' navies. The training will be the second of its kind since 2010 and will work on counterterrorism and increased mutual understanding.

Given that the inherent geographical constraints on Chinese growth and power extension from the core, the drills with Thailand and the high level military visits to neighbouring countries are a good geopolitical move for Beijing.

The Chinese social issues lying dormant which may eventually reawaken to weaken the power of the Communist government if standards of living get too imbalanced, and the critical Chinese dependence on foreign oil and coal drive Beijing’s adventurous moves. It must secure alternate trade routes as they can’t rely on US waterway protection, because the United States is in competition for those very resources.

China is acting fast because its growth rate is slowing and its demographics are no longer young. Time is against the central planners in Beijing but the answer to their riddle is already being formulated.

No comments: