Opinion | A China that hides its strength no longer

Beijing’s white paper on defence has little mention of the Indian Ocean region. But given its technology and naval emphasis, India should stay wary of its ‘string of pearls’ strategy

The release of a white paper, titled China’s National Defense In The New Era by the country’s State Council Information Office marks an inflection point in its approach to global geopolitics. For once, it has publicly outlined its official defence policy and offered details of its military reforms and break-up of defence expenditure. The document is unsparingly critical of “power politics" as exercised by its global rivals (chiefly the US, as we can safely assume), disavows any pursuit of hegemony on its own part, and calls for its armed forces to “adapt to the new landscape of strategic competition". Even a cursory read suggests that this adaptation involves the ability to project military power across much of the eastern hemisphere. Clearly, the late Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of an earlier era, “Hide your strength, bide your time and never take the lead", has been consigned to the dustbin of history. On the evidence of the paper, Beijing is finally ready to display some of the muscle it’s prepared to flex in order to secure its interests. The transparency is welcome, but New Delhi needs to not only read between the lines, but also what’s not mentioned at all.

What stands out in the paper is the explicit position taken by China on its willingness to use force in a variety of scenarios. Taiwan’s insistence on its autonomy, anathema to a Beijing that sees it as a rebel province, has been highlighted as one potential provocation. Other powers seen as trying to thwart its claims in the South China Sea are to be fended off. This is quite assertive, given that its past white papers only had anodyne statements on peace, “win-win cooperation" and so on. This time, it has picked up the gauntlet thrown by the US in its 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy. China’s paper makes a case for a more outward orientation of its People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has been downsized in terms of soldiers, but is far better equipped with modern technology than it was some years ago. The PLA is claimed to be savvy with cloud services, the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, you name it, all the stuff that geeks rave about. Its budgetary slice-up points to investments not only in digital enablement, but also enhanced naval heft, with its operational locus shifting from mere “offshore waters defense" to a combination of this and “open seas protection".

India gets only 18 mentions in the 17,696-word document. On Doklam, all it says is that the PLA will take “effective measures to create favourable conditions for the peaceful resolution of the… standoff" (which is not over yet, in its view). But Doklam should not distract us. More than the Himalayan region, it is China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean that our defence planners should be wary of. China spends three times what India does on defence, and signs of its seaward thrust are apparent in more areas than the white paper. Its deployments on islands and reefs off its coast may not be all it has in mind. India has long suspected Beijing of deploying a “string of pearls" strategy to encircle it. In the Chinese board game Go, that’s how a rival is immobilized. But Indians are fond of chess, which is said to have originated here. Either way, we need to think many moves in advance.

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