China and USA - a future "cold war" ?

Posted in China , Asia , United States , India | 01-Jul-10 | Author: Balaji Chandramohan

"Only two countries can 'balance' and counter China's maritime predominance in the Indian Ocean: India and Australia - in close…
"Only two countries can 'balance' and counter China's maritime predominance in the Indian Ocean: India and Australia - in close cooperation with the still dominant U.S. navy."
The 9th IISS Asia Security Summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore from June 4-6 2010, clearly emphasizes that in years to come the United States and China could fight a "cold war" for the better part of the 21st century. The U.S. Quadrennial Defense Review 2010 (QDR) released in February this year predicted the same possibility.

The Shangri-La Dialogue was attended by the Defense Ministers of 28 Asia Pacific nations, and also by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M Gates and General Ma Diaotioan, the deputy chief of the general staff of the China's People's Liberation Army (PLA).

In his speech at the Dialogue, General Ma Diaotioan said that the U.S. are suffering from a Cold War mentality. He mentioned this in the context of Taiwan and the South China Sea, where China is trying to extend its influence. The realist Robert Gates replied that American arms sales to Taiwan "have been a reality for decades." China can't change that reality.

The U.S. has been worried about two major Chinese issues recently. Both were mentioned in the 2010 U.S. Quadrennial Defense Review.

First, China poses a far greater geostrategic challenge to the U.S. than the Soviet Union did. China is both a maritime and continental power; the USSR was just the latter.

Second, the increased importance the PLA is assuming in China's foreign policy. Traditionally, the PLA has played second fiddle to the great leaders who became Chinese Presidents.

During the years of Mao and Deng Xiaoping, the rule of thumb was that "the party controls the gun", not vice versa. But that's exactly what has happened of late. Bluntly, Hu Jintao lacks the charisma and the authority of either Mao or Deng Xiaoping, which has allowed the PLA to assume a prominent role in the conduct of foreign affairs in China.

This is a Chinese domestic issue that concerns of the U.S., but the first issue is of both immediate and future concern. To counter it, the U.S. needs Asia-Pacific partners. Only two countries can 'balance' and counter China's maritime predominance in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean: India and Australia - in close cooperation with the still dominant U.S. navy. Australia's politics is presently dominated by the left-leaning Labor Party, though the Chinese-speaking Kevin Rudd has been replaced by the much more pragmatic Julia Gillard as Prime Minister. Hence the buck stops with India.

The 2010 USQDR acknowledged India's military power in the Asia-Pacific region, and the dominant role that the Indian Navy could play in years to come.

Released every four years, the USQDR lays out the strategy for the U.S. Defense Forces: "The distribution of global political, economic and military power is shifting and becoming more diffuse. The rise of China, the world's most populous country, and India, the world's largest democracy, will continue to reshape the international system."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said while releasing the 128 page USQDR 2010 that the 2010 is a wartime QDR and it's the third consecutive such QDR since 2001.

Though the USQDR talks extensively about the ongoing U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, from India's perspective there are some important points to note.

For Indo-U.S. relations skeptics, after Obama moved into the White House the 2010 QDR shows just how important India is in U.S. policy decisions. The QDR emphasizes that for America to retain its position as the most powerful actor, it must increase cooperation with its key allies and partners to sustain peace and security.


To start with, America's preeminence depends on its ability to control the oceans around the world. This school of thought began nearly 135 years ago with the vision of the great U.S. Naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan. Mahan advocated that sea power, the strength of a nation's navy, was the key to strong foreign policy.

Mahan's far-sightedness is impressive. In "The Problems of Asia", published in 1901, he predicted that China would eventually pose a threat to the U.S. because of its size and population.

In Mahan's time there couldn't have been many who would have bet on China's rise. Mahan was also lucky his voice was heard in the U.S. political establishment when he started writing on naval affairs. His friend and Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, went on to become the President of the United States in 1901.

Mahan's thoughts permeated the political establishment: the great American President during World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was Assistant Secretary of the Navy himself during World I under President Woodrow Wilson. The U.S. political establishment understood that to be a superpower it needed to control all the world's oceans.

The U.S. strategic thinking today understands this and that is why it reaches out to India: the "Centre Stage of the 21st century is the Indian Ocean." _U.S. grand strategy needs India in the Indian Ocean as much as it needed the United Kingdom in the Atlantic Ocean in the 20th century. This is clearly buttressed in the QDR 2010.

Further, in the U.S. grand strategy of "Balancing of Power" India is the vital cog to contain China in the Indian Ocean and in the greater Asia Pacific region. This was emphasized in the QDR: that India will emerge as the key security provider in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

The USQDR is a strategy-driven document. The report appears to outline a blueprint for the "Concert in Asia" with the U.S. providing a balancing act. Nothing illustrates this better than Barack Obama's proposed trip to Guam in 2010.

"America's predominance depends on its ability to control the oceans around the world"
"America's predominance depends on its ability to control the oceans around the world"
Though the scheduled trip was delayed because of Obama's commitment to the Health Care legislation, the importance of stopping at Guam en route from Indonesia to Australia emphasizes the future importance of the Indian Ocean in Washington's overall geo-strategy.


Security analysts and policy makers in India need to take an important point from the USQDR: the importance of the U.S. Navy in the USQDR is partly because the present Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, comes from a Naval Background. Mullen is the first naval officer in this position during a QDR release since 1996.

On the other hand, one needs to understand that Robert Gates has been retained from the former Bush administration. Obama is the only U.S. President besides Bill Clinton, another Democrat, to have a Secretary of Defense from the opposite party since World War II.

This emphasizes that the overall U.S. strategic approach has not changed drastically from the earlier Bush administration, as some skeptics in India believe. Robert Gates was appointed the Secretary of Defense by George W. Bush after Rumsfeld's exit. Gates is considered to have a "realist" political outlook, unlike the conservative Rumsfeld. However, Gates has called for a vast expansion the military's missions through the 2010 QDR.

Further, by historical coincidence, the 2010 USQDR emphasizes the point of Robert Kaplan, National Correspondent for The Atlantic and a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Kaplan wrote an article in Foreign Affairs, "Center Stage for the 21st century," which talked about the rivalry in the Indian Ocean between India and China, and how the U.S. could play the balancing role.

In a same way, the great American diplomat George Kennan published an article titled "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" in Foreign Affairs, July 1947. The article formed the basis of U.S. containment strategy against the Soviet Union during the Cold War and ultimately led to the failure of Communism.

The highlight of the Robert Kaplan's 2009 article was that the South China Sea is full of energy wealth that the Chinese wish to exploit. It is the Pacific gateway to the Indian Ocean. It frustrates the Chinese no end that the U.S. Navy maintains a presence there. The U.S. Navy cannot stay solo in the region and needs a partner. India can afford to be that partner.


The Indian political establishment needs to seize the moment: India will help itself greatly if it can establish a tri-service command in the Arabian Sea just like the present one in the Andaman and Nicobar. This will help India to project its might in the Horn of Africa and in those East African states where the need arises.

After all, the U.S. geo-strategy is based on the concept of the 20th century geo-strategist and the "godfather" of the containment strategy, Nicholas John Spykman, who declared: "who controls the rim land rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world." The "rim land" refers to the maritime fringes of the Eurasian continent.

Spykman also emphasized that the U.S. needs partners in the rim land to counter any rise of the Heartland (Soviet Union) or the Middle Kingdom (China). There is no prize for guessing why 2010 USQDR implicitly talks about the importance of having India as a strategic partner to balance the power of China in Eurasia.

This was understood by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she called Indo-U.S. relations "as an affair of the heart" during the first Indo-U.S. Strategic Dialogue in Washington in June 2010.

Recommendation and Conclusion

Before Obama visits India on his scheduled trip in November this year, he will do himself a great favor if he re-reads "Diplomacy" by Henry Kissinger, focusing on 'balance of power' and 'real politick'. This will help Obama to pre-empt the cold war about to start between the U.S. and China, in which India could tilt the balance in favor of the former as envisaged by the 2010 USQDR.

However, U.S. policy makers need to understand that to contain a maritime and continental power like China requires courting alliances with countries considered both maritime and continental powers. India offers that luxury to the U.S. For that, the U.S. needs to be more sensitive to the needs of India. India-U.S. cooperation is critical for securing the vital interests of both nations, for example the Sea Lanes of Communications. Only such cooperation can give practical meaning to the large number of India-U.S. joint military exercises being conducted. This needs to be done as early as possible before July 2011 when the U.S. troops start withdrawing from Afghanistan.

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