August 16,2009

Encircling the China Dragon: Option, Illusion, Delusion?

By Chen Xiaochen, Beijing

It has been nearly two months since Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the modification of the US Two-War Strategy. "The theory of winning two wars simultaneously is no longer applicable," Gates said. Some analysts have seen this as marking the "end" of US Cold War strategy. At the least, it looks like a retreat for the US after the nightmare in Iraq.

There are others, however, who maintain this is only a milestone for a new start. The adjustment in US military deployment, they say, is merely a shift from the bloody and costly Iraqi battlefield to Afghanistan and Pakistan under Barack Obama's new concept of "Af-Pak", the consequences of which could be a threat to China.

Joshua Meah, with the Centre for International Relations of India's Observer Research Foundation, claims in his article Encircle the Dragon that it is "the first checkmate of the Asian dragon attempted by the US". William Engdahl, an American independent economist and world observer, told me with a worried tone that the shift (from Iraq to Afghanistan) is a Brzezinski's move, but the main adversary is not the Russian Bear but the Chinese Dragon. It seems that these geopolitical thinkers, whether they are friendly to China or not, agree about the US intention to "Encircle the Dragon."

This is not the first time that China has faced such circumstances. The Soviet Union, controlling territory from Vladivostok to the Chinese-Afghan border, and its allies including North Korea,  Vietnam, and India, nearly completed an iron chain around China in 1970s, leaving Pakistan "the sole window for China to have a breath," said Henry Kissinger, on a visit to Beijing University. "I jumped into the China room through the (Pakistan) window," he added.

A larger window then opened for China in the 1980s, when China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the US Pentagon developed joint projects in Xinjiang to deal with Soviet threats and its occupation in Afghanistan, this according to evidence gathered from classified documents. And China and Pakistan at that time launched closer cooperation, including in military sectors, with warm-handed assistance from Pentagon.

Now, it is said the US is trying to sew China back up. Will this attempt succeed 20 years after Soviet attempt collapsed? Of course, the "Af-Pak-Xinjiang" region (according to Engdahl) is not a new map for China and the US. Although the PLA's focus lies mainly in the east of China, it is hardly believable that China will loosen any watch around this region, especially after US intervention into Afghanistan post-9/11, and its anti-terrorism military exercises are very common, both public and in secret. From the US side, without a strong military presence in Afghanistan, any attempt to effect China cannot succeed. In addition, Meah says, "US operations in Afghanistan could fail, as have all previous efforts to control the Afghan people." An American-led encirclement effort against China then would fail almost before it began.

Further, US deployment to Af-Pak does not necessarily have China in its aim. Af-Pak presents huge troubles for the Pentagon, even excluding Iraq and Iran, and is not likely to be resolved any time soon. And richer Russia, which has its own, not-very-friendly-to-the-US, agenda, cannot be left out of the equation.

In addition, on the bright side, the US and China have many cooperative options to find ways out of traditional geopolitical game, and from the dark view, the US has many more soft weapons than hard ones to deal with China's influence in Central Asia.

It is interesting that, in response to my previous article, an Indian reader advocates encircling China with Japan, Korea, Taiwan and "Uyghur Muslims" to "break China to pieces". I think India has learned better than to join this "bomb the dragon" game. India once helped the Soviet Union to encircle China during 1970s. But, far from a victory, India's economy was harmed by spending too much on its army and new arms research and development, to no obvious benefit.

Now, India and China both confront the same theme: stable economic growth under crisis, larger voices in the international financial order, and better coordination around issues such as climate change negotiations. Both giants have greater interest in looking for future space for bilateral cooperation rather than combative options. To embrace the "dawn of the Asian century," as Meah puts it, the emphasis must be on Asian countries' joint efforts among India, Pakistan, China, Japan, and the rest. "Balance of Power" games, like China-Pakistan vs Japan-India, for instance, will only turn the "dawn" back to darkest night.

To sever any chain someone tries to set around China, we need to break a link in the thinking: a shift from zero-sum fetter to positive-gain efforts. Southeast Asia may set an example. With ASEAN as a forum or platform, Chinese, US and Indian cooperation with Southeast Asian countries, mainly in trade and investment, later spills over in hard political issues. Although problems still abound, the "Southeast Asia Model" represents a bright option for cooperation for prosperity, rather than a chain of conflict.


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