The main objective of China’s Asia policy has always been to prevent the rise of an Asian rival or peer competitor to challenge its status as the Asia-Pacific’s sole “Middle Kingdom.” As an old Chinese saying goes, “‘One mountain cannot accommodate two tigers.”

What distinguishes China from its near-rivals, Japan and India, is its permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council and declared nuclear-weapon-state status, making it a far more important player in international forums and the sole Asian negotiating partner of the United States on global and regional security deliberations. The “multipolar” world sought by Beijing is based on an “inner core” that includes only China, the U.S. and Russia. Japan and India figure in more as allies of the U.S. and Russia or as subregional players than as independent poles.

The means adopted to achieve Beijing’s Asia policy goals are a mix of balance of power and coercion, based on the classic strategic principle of “make the barbarians fight while you watch from the mountaintop” (“zuo shan guan hu dou”).

To ensure China’s pre-eminence in the Asia-Pacific, China’s Asia strategy has aimed at “restraining Japan and containing India.” China has taken great care to keep the memories of Japanese aggression in the region alive, and its diplomatic rhetoric has escalated at the slightest provocation into concern about Japan’s possible remilitarization. Over the years, China has also built up North Korea as an ally and as a military counterweight to Japanese power in Northeast Asia.

Beijing also knows that Tokyo remains constrained by its World War II legacy from acquiring the full spectrum of military capability befitting an independent power or a “normal” nation. Seeing India as a potential challenger in South and Southeast Asia, China has sought to contain it through strategic alignment with Pakistan and Myanmar. China’s evolving naval doctrine envisages a coordination of efforts with its allies such as Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Myanmar to ensure dominance and control over trade routes and energy resources in the event of a regional or global crisis. This strategy leaves China free to act without the constraint of either a regional balancer or a regional counterweight in mainland and maritime Asia.

At the heart of Sino-Indian antagonism is the familiar Indian suspicion, which has now matured into a certainty, that China is seeking to deny India its proper stake in the game of international politics. That China does not want India to emerge as an equal is evident from its staunch opposition to India’s membership of the the U.N. Security Council, the nuclear club, the Asia-Europe Summit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. (India was made an ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) member in December 1995 despite Beijing’s opposition.) Speaking at the Munich Security Conference in February 1999, India’s national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, hinted at the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s much broader political ambition by predicting that “in the 21st century a new security order is likely to arise in the Asia-Pacific region in which India should be granted as much respect and deference by the U.S. and others as is China today.” Much like China, India sees itself as a newly rising great Asian power whose time has finally come.

Unlike other nuclear-weapons states, China has engaged in nuclear and missile proliferation to advance its strategic interests in Asia. It is not a coincidence that both North Korea and Pakistan owe a greater part of their nuclear and missile capabilities to China. To take the heat off its proliferation activities, Beijing has also been encouraging Islamabad and Pyongyang to establish closer nuclear and missile cooperation links since the early 1990s. This has afforded Beijing the unique opportunity to successfully play the dual role of troublemaker and troubleshooter in South Asia and Northeast Asia. The country is known by the company it keeps. North Korea and Pakistan are both militarist regimes and have initiated military conflicts against their neighbors (Islamabad in 1948, 1965 and 1999 and Pyongyang in 1950). Like China, both have a penchant for practicing brinkmanship, belligerence and nuclear coercion to change the territorial status quo (at times with overt and covert backing from Beijing).

A crucial means of achieving “victory without bloodshed” (“bing bu xue ren”) in Chinese strategic tradition is to intimidate the hostile country into capitulation through provocation, brinkmanship, coercion and shifts in the balance of power. This is evident in the manner in which Chinese-supplied, nuclear-capable, long-range missiles have been brandished by Pyongyang and Islamabad for purposes of coercion and blackmail vis-a-vis Japan and India. Such a strategy obviates the need for China to pose a direct threat to Japan or India. Yet when Japan and India take countermeasures against North Korean and Pakistani nuclear and missile capabilities, China cries wolf and threatens to start an offensive missile race and renege on nonproliferation treaties.

As Alastair Johnston points out: “Chinese diplomatic strategy is to negotiate from a position of strength to an enemy who is militarily weak and/or tied down with multiple security concerns. The objective is to convince the enemy that the military situation has shifted to his disadvantage and thus to force him to concede.” By building up the military capabilities of allies such as North Korea vis-a-vis Japan, and Pakistan and Myanmar vis-a-vis India, Beijing seeks to tie Japan and India down with multiple security concerns.

In short, China has practiced hard-headed Realpolitik-inspired balance of power diplomacy with regard to its two Asian rivals. However, recent developments, such as India’s overt nuclearization in 1998, the possible deployment of theater-missile defenses in Japan and the Japanese and Indian push for permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council, all have the potential to seriously undermine the carefully crafted twin goals of China’s Asia policy: “Contain India and restrain Japan.” If prevailing trends continue, Asia will be dominated by three strong and powerful Asian states — China, Japan and India — something the region has never experienced before, and this will usher in new strategic alignments. However, much like the U.S. at the global level, China is unwilling to accept any serious challenge to its top-dog status in Asia and can be expected to devise ways and means to neutralize Japanese and Indian capabilities. Therefore, an awareness of China’s ambitions and the logic of its military alliances, and of its rivals’ ability (or the lack of it) to frustrate them, is necessary for an understanding of security challenges in the years ahead.

How and in what ways Tokyo and New Delhi respond to Beijing’s Asia policy will determine both the regional balance of power and Asian security in the 21st century.

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