A game plan for Asia

Published : Jul 01, 2005 00:00 IST

U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's remarks about China's "high" defence expenditure at a conference on Asian security are seen as an attempt to equate his country's "threat" perceptions with the continent's security concerns.

in Singapore

CAN the United States equate its security interests with the idea and agenda of Asian security? Although this question met with no direct answer, its political sweep was obvious to anyone who cared to look and reflect beyond the policy pronouncements and public rhetoric of some key participants at the fourth annual Asia Security Conference held in Singapore from June 3 to 5.

Organised by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), the conference, which has become popular under the label of "Shangri-La Dialogue" (named after the hotel-venue), is projected by its protagonists as a major forum for updated exchanges on security interests of vital concern to Asia. As in the previous years, the U.S. dominated the discourse on the political premise that it is the sole global superpower with an overwhelming presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

The major difference this time, though, was the assertiveness that U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld displayed in ordering, unsolicited, a political prescription for China's internal situation. Without adequately demonstrating the relevance of China's internal politics to Asian security, Rumsfeld held out the prescription as part of an answer to a specific question from a top Chinese official, the highest ranking representative from the country at the conference, on the "threat" perceptions about China among U.S. policy planners.

The question-answer interlude between Rumsfeld and Cui Tiankai, Director General in the Asian Department of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, turned out to be the main event of the conference. The setting was the first plenary session of the conference on June 4 and the context was the Pentagon chief's questioning of the legitimacy of China's defence posture and expenditure.

It all began with Rumsfeld calling for a "candid discussion of China" in a manner that would not ignore the "areas of concern" to Asia and the world with regard to China. With that parameter of the "Shangri-La Dialogue" laid down, he said the Pentagon was statutorily required to report to U.S. Congress about "China's perceived military strategy and military modernisation" every year. Referring to the 2005 report, which is yet to be presented to Congress, Rumsfeld said: "Among other things, the report concludes that China's defence expenditures are much higher than Chinese officials have published. It is estimated that China's is the third largest military budget in the world, and clearly the largest in Asia."

Without batting an eyelid over the military profiles of the other two countries ahead of China, especially that of his country, Rumsfeld spoke of what he saw as China's apparent expansion (no certitude asserted in this case) of missile forces. "China also is improving its ability to project power and developing advanced systems of military technology," he said. Rumsfeld added: "Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases? Why these continuing robust deployments?... Though China's economic growth has kept pace with its military spending, it is to be noted that a growth in political reform has not yet followed suit." Here, too, what cannot be missed as the underpinning of the word "yet" is the certitude of Washington's expectation of an eventual political reform in China, as seen from a U.S. perspective, of course.

The relevance of any political reform in China to the collective or cooperative security concerns of other Asian countries was thinly spelt out by Rumsfeld: "With a system that encouraged [economic] enterprise and free expression [in politics], China would appear more a welcome partner." Hence in his reckoning, "China has important decisions to make about its goals and its future. Ultimately, China likely will need to embrace some form of a more open and representative government if it is to fully achieve the political and economic benefits to which its people aspire."

It was in response to such a laser-beam focus on China that Cui Tiankai later asked Rumsfeld directly whether he truly believed that no nation threatened China. The Defence Secretary replied: "I don't know of nations that threaten China. Yes, I truly believe that."

The other question from the Chinese official was whether Rumsfeld truly believed that the "U.S. feels threatened by the so-called emergence of China and, if so, in what way". He replied: "No, we don't feel threatened by the emergence of China." Rumsfeld then insisted that the Chinese "will have to open up their political system in a way that is consistent and compatible with an open economic system which provides that engine for growth". Without explaining how he drew a link between China's domestic political agenda and international security, Rumsfeld noted: "To the extent they [the Chinese] don't [open up their political system], their country's future will be less bright and their role in the world will be less significant."

In opting for such an emphatic essay on country-specific domestic politics, significantly at an international security conference, Rumsfeld conceded only one point regarding China's sensitivities. He noted that it would be up to the Chinese themselves to decide upon the nature and scope of the political reforms that they might choose to adopt. As if to address the scepticism about the linkage between China's political system and Asian security, Rumsfeld suggested that there would be no need for a missile build-up by Beijing if the "situation" concerning Taiwan were to be resolved by the Chinese rulers through peaceful means.

On the whole, however, if the Chinese officials at the conference felt that Rumsfeld was now seeking to delineate "a new McCarthyism" in international politics, with a great deal of sophistication unlike in the case of its original version, they did not betray any signs of frustration.

There was another occasion when a Chinese official at the conference assured the participants that his country was not averse to regional cooperation in the area of counter-terrorism. The idea was to address the perceived suspicions that China, too, might be somewhat unilateralist in its dealings with its neighbours and others.

INDIA, which was represented by Joint Secretary S. Jaishankar, figured quite prominently now and then, with Rumsfeld describing it as "a large and important country", among a few other significant players, to prove his point that China should not be seen as a particularly unique state in Asia.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who delivered the keynote address at the inaugural dinner on June 3, portrayed India and China as players of great importance to the emerging security landscape in Asia. In a question-answer session, he observed that India and Japan might try hard not to have to make a choice between the U.S. and China.

As was to be expected at a conference of this kind, the nuclear-weapons programme of North Korea was addressed as a serious concern. But no new ideas or threats were held out, with even Rumsfeld refraining from calling for any pre-emptive strike against Pyongyang's nuclear facilities. Japan and South Korea, which were represented at the ministerial level, and the U.S. emphasised the role that China could arguably play in influencing North Korea to come back to the long-stalled multilateral talks on its nuclear programme.

The question of "hypocrisy" and double standards on the part of the U.S. on the nuclear issue too came up, with a participant asking Rumsfeld about his country's perceived progress in making a "usable nuclear weapon". The basic premise of the question was that nuclear weapons, by definition, cannot be used, even after deployment as deterrents, in view of their mass-destructive capabilities. Rumsfeld's answer was that the U.S. had by now ordered only a "study" and not the actual manufacture or deployment of either a conventional weapon or even a small nuclear device that could penetrate the earth to strike at underground arsenals of any targeted country or entity. So, he said, there was no move to fabricate or deploy a "usable nuclear weapon".

A subject of critical concern to the states bordering the Straits of Malacca - Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore - was the safety of shipping along the waterway which is a vital lifeline for global trade, particularly oil and other energy supplies. A "consensus" reached by the participating Ministers, outside the framework of the conference, was that it would be the primary responsibility of the littoral states to ensure stability and security along the Straits of Malacca. It was agreed that foreign assistance should not infringe on the sovereignty of the littoral states. This was an indirect answer to the U.S.' policies of equating its own national interests, such as those perceived rightly or wrongly by it, with Asian security itself.

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