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Wednesday, Jul 17, 2002

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Uncle Sam vs the dragon

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

TENSION seems to be growing again between the Lone Superpower and the country that fancies itself as a future global force. There are no specific incidents this time like a trade war, a spy plane crash or hostilities against Taiwan, but the Pentagon's 56-page report, `The Military Power of the People's Republic of China', confirms Uncle Sam's suspicion about the rise of the Chinese dragon.

Ironically, the American warning of China's military aims coincides with the unveiling of Washington's own formidable plans for an era of hi-tech push-button warfare with unmanned fighter jets and a hypersonic missile that can travel 600 nautical miles in just 15 minutes. It will concentrate on countering terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, intelligence, cyberwarfare, airstrike capabilities and military systems in space.

This is the promise of `Defence Planning Guidance, 2004-09', the classified five-year military plan to flesh out the new doctrine of `unwarned' pre-emptive strikes that the US President, Mr George W. Bush, outlined in his May graduation address at the US Military Academy at West Point.

That speech prompted comments about America's imperial role and the global responsibilities that it was assuming with a $350-billion defence budget, the world's highest. Not surprisingly, it sees a threat to its supremacy in China's "coercive strategies" that are said to present "challenges not only to Taiwan but also to other potential adversaries, such as the Philippines and Japan."

According to US estimates, China's actual military spending could be as much as $80 billion instead of the $20 billion announced in March. Apart from the Pentagon document, which is not fundamentally different from previous surveys, a report of the US-China Security Review Commission also advocates a tougher policy towards China.

Americans say that Beijing's "doctrine is moving toward the goal of surprise, deception and shock effect in the opening phase of a campaign" against Taiwan. The People's Liberation Army has been modernised and streamlined with the naval and amphibious capability to attack.

China's arsenal of 20 DF-5 intercontinental ballistic missiles, which can strike America's Western states, is being replaced by a longer-range version, 60 of which will be installed by 2010. The inventory of some 350 short-range ballistic missiles is being both expanded (at the rate of 50 a year) and upgraded.

It bears recalling amidst this outpouring of concern and hostility that there was nary a squeak from the US when China sold Pakistan nuclear and missile equipment, installed nuclear-armed missiles facing India in Tibet, set up a surveillance base on Burma's Cocos Islands and extended surreptitious naval patrolling to the Bay of Bengal.

The Americans were equally acquiescent earlier when Beijing seized the Paracel Islands that Vietnam also claimed. Nor did they object when China unilaterally built military structures on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands which have seven claimants, the Reef itself being regarded as belonging to the Philippines which has a military treaty with the US.

India, Vietnam and the Philippines — the three countries most affected by this muscle-flexing — ranked far lower in US foreign policy priorities than China, whose high rate of economic growth endeared it to the Clinton administration. Belying Mr Bill Clinton's initial jibes about "dictators from Baghdad to Beijing," his presidency marked the high water tide in Sino-American cordiality. Faced with an economic downturn, Mr Bill Clinton turned to China as a commercial partner of vital importance. China bought American technology and equipment and sold cheap consumer goods, such as footwear and electronics. The first

created jobs in the US while the second helped to sustain America's lifestyle at a relatively low cost.

But scholars like Pittsburgh University's Professor Thomas Rawaski now pour scorn on China's economic claims, saying that the gross domestic product has been exaggerated and that industrial production and energy consumption are, in fact, falling. Some Western economists even predict massive unemployment in the countryside and the collapse of state banks because of indebtedness.

Naturally, the Chinese angrily dismiss these dire predictions as wishful thinking. They do not deny setbacks but are confident of overall progress. China can achieve in another 50 years, they say, the industrial revolution that took three or four centuries in Europe and the US.

Meanwhile, the US has developed a vision of itself as universal policeman, fighting terrorists and fundamentalists on land, at sea, in the air and even in outer space. Mr Bush would like to see the Russian President, Mr Vladimir Putin, as a junior partner in this grand enterprise, and is especially perturbed at Russia's emergence as a key supplier of Chinese armaments.

Russia has transferred to China two Sovremenny-class destroyers carrying Sunburn anti-ship missiles that can sink an aircraft carrier.

It has also sold four Kilo-class diesel submarines that are among the quietest in the world. Perhaps, Moscow still hopes that a triangular alliance with New Delhi and Beijing will enable it regain some of its lost international leverage.

Hence, the sale of equipment that can further the objective of forcing a beleaguered Taiwan to capitulate.

The Pentagon document claims that "preparing for a potential conflict in the Taiwan Straits (is) the primary driver for China's military modernisation" but may not be the whole story. "China's leaders view the military as necessary to ensure that China's

economic power will rise; to protect important national interest; and to support China's eventual emergence as a great power and the pre-eminent power in Asia."

Today's world leader faces the rise of a successor with considerable apprehension. So, surely, should India.

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