On Point: China's Border Patrol

by Austin Bay
August 17, 2010

The Pentagon just released its annual report to Congress onChina's military. Weapons programs got ink, especially its cyberwar programs,its expanding navy, ballistic missile projects. The report summarized China'sstrategic priorities as "perpetuating Communist Party rule, sustainingeconomic growth and development, maintaining domestic political stability,defending China's national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and securingChina's status as a great power."

At the moment, the United States and China have numerousmilitary and defense-related disagreements. Discussions among Pacific regiondefense ministers held in Singapore this June made that clear. America'sSecretary of Defense Robert Gates insisted that North Korea's sinking of aSouth Korean warship last March required a rigorous response by all nationsthat are committed to peace in Asia. He was challenging China, which has hedgedcriticism of North Korea. China remains miffed at U.S. plans to help Taiwanmodernize its defense forces.

This month, the United States and Vietnam conducted jointnaval exercises off Vietnam's coast in the South China Sea. China recentlyrejected a Vietnamese diplomatic initiative intended to resolve territorialdisputes in the region. A senior Chinese defense official called the exercisesprovocative.

When the global super power and Asia's regional giant chideand argue, the world ought to pay attention. However, that media focus -- U.S.versus China -- can distort.

A quick tour of China's borders suggests friction with theUnited States is a symptom, not a cause. China faces numerous troubles with itsneighbors -- many of the problems exacerbated by Beijing's muscle-flexing andclaims of regional hegemony. (China's internal challenges will be the subjectof a future column.)

India is China's foremost regional competitor. The economiccompetition receives the most media coverage, but the military dimensionconcerns Beijing. China sees India's nuclear weapons, new ballistic missilesand naval buildup as strategic challenges. China continually frets over accessto natural resources. The Indian Navy is positioned to interdict shipstransporting oil and minerals from the Middle East and Africa to China. Indiaalso sees China as a threat.  Accordingto StrategyPage.com (July 13), the Indian Air Force's Tactics and Air CombatDevelopment Establishment (equivalent to the U.S. Navy's "Top Gun"program) now features Chinese air tactics and aircraft. Indian pilots train tofight Chinese pilots.

Though Beijing and New Delhi have discussed settlingremaining Sino-Indian border issues, Chinese and Indian competition forinfluence in Central Asia, the Himalayas and Southeast Asia is increasing. Bothnations remember the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The Chinese quietly acclimated anassault force, preparing infantry for high-altitude operations, then conductedan offensive that punished the Indian Army. The Indian Army won't let thathappen again. The Tibetans still resist Han Chinese domination. For Beijing,the aging Dalai Lama remains a diplomatic thorn. China insists on having a rolein selecting his replacement.

Central Asia: Kazakhstan's oil attracts Beijing. Kazakhstanwants to sell oil, but it has no interest in becoming a Chinese protectorate.Thus, Kazakhstan and the United States have several mutual interests. China hasinternal troubles in its western provinces, some stoked by Uighur Islamicradicals.

Siberia: A long, empty border, and Russian military power isebbing. Yes, Moscow sees China as a market for advanced arms, but Kremlinitesknow an expansionist China threatens Siberia's treasure chest of naturalresources.

The Koreas: North Korea has been an asset for China, anuclear-armed midget that rattles Japan and America. North Korea, however, isalso dirt poor and starving. South Korea is wealthy, modern andmilitarily-able. In a crisis, at best the Koreas are question marks forBeijing.

Japan: Old enmities mark the Japanese-Chinese relationship.Beijing once let Washington know it approved of the U.S. Navy vessels berthedin Yokohama. From Beijing's perspective, Washington kept a thumb on Japan. TheU.S. and Japan are allies. Japan operates Aegis destroyers and needs more. Why?The Jamestown Foundation "China Brief" recently noted China's navymust breach the "natural barrier" of the Japanese archipelago inorder to achieve its "blue dream" of high seas operations.

Taiwan: Taiwan gets American weapons -- a sore spot inU.S.-Chinese relations. While China-Taiwan trade and investment relations aregood, Beijing insists it wants to acquire Taiwan -- preferably by diplomacy.

Vietnam: In 1979, China and Vietnam fought a brief butbloody border war. That war told even hard-core Vietnamese cadres thatCommunist brotherhood was kaput. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Vietnamlacked a major power ally to make the Chinese "colossus to the north"think twice. Hanoi complains of U.S. imperialism, but Asia has experiencedmillennia of Chinese imperialism. At least with the Americans, you get rock androll. A bellicose Beijing spurs closer U.S.-Vietnamese strategic cooperation.

South China Sea: Potential petroleum reserves always exciteinterest. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and even Cambodia claimslices of the seabed. Vietnam and the Philippines have both sparred withChinese forces in the Spratly Islands. The Association of Southeast AsianNations (ASEAN) already has the outline of an anti-China alliance.

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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