What is the connection here—a cyber attack on the Internet’s favourite search engine, an earthquake in Haiti, a missile defence test, and the world’s second largest economy? In a word—China.
The attack on the Google servers—which reportedly emanated from within China (almost impossible to prove with absolute certainty)—brought to the fore the issue of censorship and has predictably led to a terse exchange between Beijing and Washington.
On the one hand, no less than the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton stated that an “information curtain” is descending across the world, including in China.
On the other hand, prominent Chinese publications asserted that the issue is more about corporate greed than human rights.
While the Great Firewall might have replaced the Bamboo Curtain, it is also a fact that corporate entities have often fallen foul of national laws for less than responsible behaviour (remember Enron Corp., Arthur Andersen Llp and of course Union Carbide Corp.?).
However, the more relevant issue here is the lack of international norms related to the abuse of the cyber sphere. A recently established United Nations (UN) group of government experts on international information security is addressing this very issue. Similarly, the EastWest Institute is also launching a worldwide cyber security initiative to try and see if key countries in the cyber sphere, including China, can work together to set norms and best practices for this increasingly important area of human activity.
Also Read W Pal Sidhu’s earlier columns
Even as the Google-China tussle was unfolding and vying with the tragic earthquake in Haiti for news coverage, Beijing’s response to the natural disaster (which also claimed the lives of eight Chinese peacekeepers) reflected its growing role as a responsible international actor, despite being a relative newcomer to international peacekeeping.
China immediately announced that it would contribute an extra $2.6 million (Rs12 crore) in cash to quake-ravaged Haiti.
In addition, China also dispatched a 60-member emergency rescue team, which began operations some 36 hours after the quake, making it one of the first rescue teams to reach Port-au-Prince from the other side of the world. Although reports that the team was only searching for Chinese nationals were strongly refuted by Beijing, the team was praised for recovering the bodies of Hedi Annabi, the chief of the UN mission in Haiti and his deputy Luiz Da Costa.
Of course, the potential military import of China’s ability to deploy a rescue team halfway around the world and in the backyard of the US even without a strategic airlift capability was not lost on strategic experts, particularly in the US.
In contrast, the military implications of China’s test of “ground-based mid-course missile interception technology” barely a couple of days before the Haiti earthquake was self-evident to strategists the world over, particularly in the US.
It indicates a growing sophistication towards building a missile defence system based on “hit-to-kill technology” capable of intercepting attacking missiles that are in flight. This is a logical evolution from the anti-satellite missile that China tested in 2007 and has implications for not only the US but also countries in the region, including India.
Since such tests are often used to signal political displeasure, its timing soon after the US announcement that it would supply Taiwan with a sophisticated missile defence system might not be just a coincidence. The test might also reflect a shift in Beijing’s vehement opposition to all missile defences and, perhaps, a tacit acceptance of the emerging concept of strategic deterrence coupled with strategic defence.
Finally, Beijing’s proclamation that China’s economy expanded by 8.7% in 2009 has set it on course to overtake Japan, possibly by the end of this year, to become the second largest economy in the world. Although there has always been some doubt about the accuracy of Chinese growth figures, there is a broad consensus among most economists that growth in China (and India) is helping pull the global economy out of the current slump, which was made in the West, especially in the US.
This, in turn, is likely to translate into greater political clout on the global stage for China. A stronger economy has also translated into greater military might, evident in the fact that China’s defence budget is now the largest after the US (even though the latter’s is at least nine times higher).
All of these disparate issues underline the growing significance of China as an international actor in almost every area of human endeavour. They also reflect two divergent trends in China—one confrontational and the other cooperative.
The challenge for the international community, including India, will be to constructively engage China to encourage the latter trend through bilateral, regional, plurilateral and multilateral efforts while discouraging the former impulse.
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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