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October - November 2009
Redefining Strategic Ambition: After the massacre of Uigher Muslims, It is time for China to rethink its Asian Security Agenda
At the end of World War II, the three giants of the Allied powers, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, the US President Harry Truman and the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sat down over cups of tea in the designated smoking rooms in Yalta and Potsdam and quietly settled the political destiny of Europe. Their “spheres of influence” European settlement lasted up until the end of the Cold War.
Asia was left out of this formal cold war arrangement of the Great Powers. With the exception of Japan, issues of War and Peace in Asia were left to ad hoc remedies and responses.
What was established in Europe was a neat architecture of peaceful economic reconstruction. The kingpin of that arrangement was the Marshall Plan. The West led by the US took the democratic route, which created what came to be known as Market Economy while the East led by the Soviet Union modelled its economic development on the socialist principles of Central Planning and State Controlled Commanding Heights. The Market Economy model produced unprecedented prosperity in the democratic West and succeeded while the Socialist Model failed to produce economic well being in the Eastern Bloc of nations and collapsed.
In its stand off with the US, as the Soviet Union broke up in 1989 under the pressure of military overstretch, the one balancing factor that had guaranteed world peace, uneasy though it was, during the Cold War, disappeared. Local conventional wars took place among client states aplenty but thanks to the “balance of terror” established between Moscow and Washington the world was spared a World War III between the super powers. A Nuclear Holocaust was thus avoided.
An unstable new world order started taking shape as the Cold War headed towards its end. It was time for Islam to raise its head in this new phase of history. The watershed Shia Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 in Iran and the equally historic military victory of the Sunni Mujahideen over the Soviet Union ten years later in 1989 in the battlefields of Afghanistan, although mutually exclusive to each other, led to the birth of multi-denominational Islamist militancy driven by global ambitions for political centre stage.
The votaries of Islamist militancy argued with all the fanatical ardour in their command that if one superpower the Soviet Union could be defeated by indoctrinated hordes of regulars from Pakistan Army backed by rag tag bands of irregulars from non-state actors like the al Qaeda, the Taliban and a host of other terror outfits in a proxy war equipped with US supplied shoulder-borne stinger missiles, rocket propelled grenades, AK 47 assault rifles, IEDs and other small arms there is no good reason why the one remaining superpower the US could not be defeated too. Force multipliers with the backing of money supplies needed to be created to enhance firepower but these requirements were not seen as great impediments.
It took ten years after 1991 for the Islamists to first conceptualise and then operationalise their idea of where should the next battlefields be located. The new targets were superpower US, the Christian West in general, Hindu India and Russia. Al Qaeda’s terror attack on the US in New York and Washington on 9/11 in 2001 and the string of major attacks in London, Beslan, Madrid, Mombasa, Bali, Mumbai and elsewhere in India killing hundreds of innocent men, women and children announced and repeatedly reiterated to the world that militant Islam’s new battlefield was now global.
What was started was a new kind of a conflict that came to be known as “sub-conventional warfare” where the aggressors are an invisible army of franchised and outsourced terror groups backed by an inexhaustible supply chain of suicide bombers, known in Arabic as Fidayeen.
In this new conflict zone, the conventional forces of the western armies are experiencing uneasiness with the guerilla tactics employed in battle by the enemy spread out in mountain hideouts and jungles. The mounting death toll in Helmand, Sangin, Lashkar Gah and other places in Afghanistan is an example of the set backs the coalition forces are suffering at the hands of the Taliban and al Qaeda.
The newfound religious fervour of political Islam is driven by a strategic alliance forged by a triad of the Mullahs, the Masjid and the Madrassa ominously all based in Pakistan. It is backed, as has been verified by various investigation reports, by logistic support including supplies of weaponry and military training provided by intelligence agencies like the ISI of Pakistan Army and others, fired by menacing secret security agendas.
A matter of much curiosity is: Who is providing the other lifeline of terrorism namely the inexhaustible income flows to these terror groups? Something that defies belief is that a significant part of the money supply comes from diverted US funded “humanitarian assistance” given as “thank you” to Pakistan for its alleged help in its fight against terrorism. Even The New York Times has claimed that Pakistan has used the humanitarian funding provided by the US for purposes of enhancing its conventional capabilities as indeed its nuclear arsenal for use against India. The spare petrodollars of oil-producing countries are the other source of money supply. Not to be forgotten are the criminal links of the terrorists like involvement in bank robberies, hostage taking followed by demands of high ransom amounts for release, printing of large quantities of fake currency notes, opium cultivation and sale of drugs in the black-market and so on. What are the other main sources of income flows remain hidden.
In the secular historical context a matter of much concern is that the West particularly Europe – a bastion of liberalism - has not so far indicated any signs of an urgency in the realisation of the existential threat to the future of what we know as Western Civilisation. It is suffering from a lack of resolute political will to confront the adversary. The West is also constrained by fundamental policy differences within its ranks. Today’s NATO, weakened by divisions, is no comparison to the strengths of the solidly unified US-led Western Military Alliance of the days of the Cold War. In the past, the Western Alliance won World I and II and the Cold War. But today it is difficult to predict whether the US-led Alliance will win the on-going ideological war against terror. Already there are signs of military fatigue setting in the Western Camp driven by its unwillingness to unleash the full military potential of its technological superiority, like waging a total Air War on the Taliban and al Qaeda in the Af-Pak region, or committing the requisite “boots on the ground” capable of engaging the enemy man to man and comprehensively defeat the adversary and win.
These western military inadequacies are seen by al Qaeda, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and other terror outfits as signs of weakness and also a window of opportunity to drive the coalition forces out of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are literally ready to declare victory over the forces of the “Christian Infidels”. Should such a thing come to pass, it will inevitably be followed by victory celebrations and triumphalism all across the Muslim world similar to the celebrations that followed the defeat of the Soviet Union. Western Civilisation as we know it today could well be reduced to a relic of a past tradition of glory.
If China seriously believes in its " Peaceful Rise" it has got to rethink its Asian Security Strategy.
A resurgent China, waiting in the wings to take its place of primacy as a Super Power in the new world order, would be pleased to see the US, the last remaining super power today, diminished in its status. Like all emerging super powers in the past, China too is showing tendencies of punching above its weight in a strategic overdrive. Beijing has certainly not forgotten nor forgiven the ignominy of international ostracisation imposed on it by the US since the 1949 Communist Revolution. It took 22 years for the US to formally recognise China’s Communist regime in 1971 but it was kept waiting for another 8 years till 1979 when full diplomatic relations were established.
China is also shrewdly aware that like the 1979-1989 Afghan War against the Soviet Union when the Mujahideen was given total backing by the US, the forces of resurgent Islam in the on-going War against the West and India would need the support of another Super Power if it has any hope of success. In the light of this perception, China has consistently extended its hand of friendship to both the forces of Sunni and Shia Islam in their war effort.
Beijing mapped its Global Security Agenda in the sixties of the last century with the launch of what is known as China’s India War in October 1962. Mao Ze Dong ordered the PLA to march across the Himalayan frontiers into India to make a strategic space for itself by swiftly defeating a militarily unprepared India. That was the time when China’s hidden security agenda in Asia was fully unmasked. China had secretly supported the Communist forces in the Korean War in the fifties and later in the Vietnam War against the US. After the defeat of the US at the hands of the Vietcong in the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975, a political vacuum was created in East Asia. Without wasting much time when the window of opportunity opened, Beijing merely jumped into the vacuum and established its credentials as the dominant military power in Asia. Japan has however remained the dominant global economic power in the region.
The series of military victories and defeats in Asia, created helpful opportunities for China to be a potential partner of the Islamic world which was also fired by a desire to emerge as a key power centre. Pakistan became the original pawn in the chess board of a new alignment of forces that took shape between China and the wider Islamic world. The off-the-shelf arming of industrially backward Pakistan with Weapons of Mass Destruction and the supply of an assortment of Strategic Missiles readily “available on demand” endeared China as nothing else could have done to draw Pakistan and slowly but surely a significant sections of the Islamic World close to Beijing. China’s hunger for oil cemented the economic relationship with the oil producing Arab countries.
As the war between the coalition forces of al Qaeda, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and others and the forces of the Western Alliance gathered momentum, the Islamists increasingly recognised the urgency of entering into a strategic partnership with a Great Power if its war effort against the West was to succeed. Following the example of the US backing the 1979-89 Afghan War against the Soviet Union that guaranteed the success of the Muslim Mujahideen, a strategic craving grew among the Islamic nations for an alliance partnership with China. Not Pakistan alone thanks to the black market established by A.Q Khan but China most of all clandestinely provided designs for nuclear weapons to Libya, Iran and Iraq. Perhaps Saudi Arabia too got into the loop which has remained hidden. China’s close strategic relationship with Sudan is also well known. Sudan has oil and therefore oil and strategic interests together form part of the wider co-operation with not only Sudan but also the rest of the Islamic world.
As the wider security agenda of China was playing itself out, a spanner in the wheel was thrown right into the midst of it all with the outbreak of widespread unrest among the Muslim Uighers in Xingjian Autonomous Region of China. It led to the deaths of more than 200 hundred Muslim Uighers at the hands of the Chinese Security Forces. The massacre of Muslims followed by an imposition of official orders banning Friday prayers in Mosques all over Xingjiang Province changed everything. Beijing’s equation with the Islamic world got jolted at one stroke. The Chinese media reported the existence of the hidden hand of al Qaeda based in Pakistan in the Uigher violence. As if to confirm the suspicion, after the Xingjiang killings, al Qaeda openly declared war on China just as Ayman al Zawahiri, the second in command to Osama bin Laden in al Qaeda, had declared war on Pakistan Army after the massacre of at least 300 Taliban activists in Lal Masjid in Islamabad on July 10, 2007.
The fear of Pakistan breaking up along its ethnic fault lines has added to the worries of China. This is more so because of the possibility of its nuclear arsenal or parts of it falling into the hands of al Qaeda. The killing of Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan in an attack from a US drone has sharply accentuated this concern and apprehension. Violent revenge attacks by Pakistan Taliban are reported to be in the works. The Balochi and Sindhi nationalists also have their own axe to grind against the Pakistani state. Together they have the potential to unravel Pakistan.
So far the assumption was that a carry-on suitcase atom bomb stolen from Pakistan getting into the hands of an al Qaeda or a Taliban operative would be targeted first on none other than neighbouring India. The US is the other target but it is far away.. After the Xingjiang killings, a new danger has raised it ugly head for China. Would a take-away atom bomb stolen from Pakistan in the possession of an al Qaeda or Taliban suicide bomber be now targeted on China as well? The fear of such a thing happening has sent a cold shudder down the spinal cords of the Chinese leaders.
China for its part from now on may find the task of promoting its security agenda with the Islamic world somewhat fragile, fraught with high levels of danger to its own vital security interests.
Providing off-the-shelf nuclear arms to industrially backward Pakistan – denied by Beijing all along - is almost certainly turning out to be a dangerous miscalculation on the part of China. The US is no less guilty of encouraging the nuclearisation of Pakistan. Washington had turned a blind eye when Pakistan was nuclear arming itself since early seventies. There is now an urgent need to reverse the process. If Beijing and Washington have any control or influence over the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan, there is a “ferocious urgency” to neutralise it now. This is no scare mongering. Delays are likely to be suicidal. Not only the security and safety of Pakistan but also those of India, the US and China and the cause of world peace are now threatened by the real possibility of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of the Islamists including the Lashkar e Tayyaba, the Taliban and most importantly the al Qaeda.
It has now become imperative for China to have a serious rethink and re-assessment of its high ambition security agenda to emerge as world’s number one Super Power over and above the US. Beijing should not forget that the GDP of the US is a massive 13 trillion dollars. Compare this with China’s GDP. It is a meagre 3 trillion dollars. It has no chance of catching up with that figure in the next 100 years. China should also be better warned that there is already a growing realisation in the US that it was a great strategic mistake to transfer the manufacturing base of America to China for the sake of saving a few bucks. It is waiting to be brought back. The economic downturn and the recession are driving America’s new economic agenda. It could downgrade China’s rise, producing internal social tensions
China will also have to take note of the fact that India is no longer the push off that it was in 1962. It has emerged as a strong military power and a rising economic power too. When China lays its claims on the 90,000 sq kilometres territory of the Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh describing it as Lower Tibet, it sounds like the ranting of an aggressive and an irresponsible power. How will Beijing react if India reverses its Tibet policy and supports the Dalai Lama in his claims on Tibet. It is time China goes for deep introspection and undertakes a thorough reassessment of its relationship with India.
Emerging China’s future security lies in promoting friendly ties and fostering strategic partnerships with countries like India, the US and the rest of the civilised world and step back from supporting terrorism sponsoring countries. It will be good for all if China stops punching above its weight.