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05 June, 2012

Changing security scenario

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The United States administration’s decision to shift the bulk of its naval vessels to the Asia Pacific region, announced last week, heralds a significant change in the security environment as China and India prepare to play their role as emerging economies. However, neither country appears to view it as a major concern, at least for the time being.

While making drastic cuts in the defence budget in the light of the difficult economic situation, the US administration had sought to reassure the Asian countries that look up to it for protection that the military, though leaner, would be more agile.

Currently the US naval assets are divided 50:50 between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The decision to change the ratio to 60:40 by 2020, announced by Defence Secretary Leon Panetta at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, is in line with that promise.

The annual Shangri-La Dialogue brings together defence ministers from countries of the Asia Pacific region. China’s defence minister, Gen Liang Guanglie, attended it for the first time last year as part of the process of wider engagement with the rest of the world in keeping with its status as an emerging global power. However, he stayed away this year pleading domestic preoccupations.

Lt-Gen Ren Haiquan, who headed the Chinese delegation in his absence, responded coolly to Panetta’s speech. A Hong Kong television channel quoted him as saying, “We should not treat this as a disaster. I believe this is the US response to its own national interests, its fiscal difficulties and global security developments.” He added that China would intensify its vigil but there would be no lashing back.

India’s Defence Minister AK Antony, who was at Singapore, confined himself to the prepared text, which touched upon matters of immediate and direct concern to the country such as Afghanistan, Middle East and maritime security. Outside the conference hall, too, he did not comment on the US plan.

Antony, however, voiced India’s concern over the rise in China’s military spending, which touched a record $106 billion in this year’s budget. Obliquely justifying the hike in India’s own military spending, he said it was “building its capabilities to protect its national interests”.

The mature Chinese response to Panetta’s speech reflects the country’s growing self-confidence and increasing understanding of the concerns of other nations.

As early as 1998, the US, taking note of China’s economic growth and the growing trade between the two countries, had decided on comprehensive engagement with it. The primary objective of the exercise was to gain insight into the working of the Chinese military and minimise misperceptions and miscalculations. There was also a faint hope that military-to-military engagement would lead to strategic relations that may persuade China to go slow on modernisation of its military machine and back away from assertive action in maritime disputes.

Most US strategic experts believe the objectives of military-to-military engagement could not be achieved. Some even argue that it helped China to gain a good understanding of the military thinking of the US, which it considers a potential adversary. While strategic ties are no longer on the cards, there is agreement that engagement must continue though not with the same degree of transparency, reciprocity and consistency as before.

Some China experts in the US believe there are differences in the perceptions of the Chinese government and the military. They point out that while President Hu Jintao, in two joint statements with President Barack Obama, accepted the USA as an Asia Pacific nation that contributes to peace, stability and prosperity in the region, there is nothing to show that the Chinese army shares these sentiments.

It is well known that US interest in strategic relations with India grew after hopes of such ties with China faded. In 2010 the Chinese army criticised fresh US arms supplies to Taiwan, suspended many military contacts and postponed exchange of visits.

Even after establishing diplomatic relations with the Beijing regime, the US has remained committed to the defence of Taiwan, which China considers an integral part of its territory.  It also has commitments to protect Japan and South Korea.

A trilateral meet of India, Japan and the US, held last year, was seen by some in China as part of an attempt to encircle it. The Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily distanced itself from that line. Its website carried an article which said, “India has been pursuing an independent foreign policy and mainly considers its own interests.” -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 5, 2012.

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