China’s space weapons test ten years on: Behemoth pulls the peasants’ plough


This post is based aspects of a forthcoming paper presented at the ISA Annual Convention 2017 in Baltimore, MD.

Ten years ago, on 11th January 2007, a road-mobile SC-19 Chinese antisatellite (ASAT) weapons test renewed interest, debate, and occasional polemic hysteria, in the role of space weapons in international security and Sino-US relations. The test destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite, and in the process created thousands of pieces of debris which threatened other satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO), the bulk of which will take another 30 years to de-orbit. It also caused some chaotic, heated, and embarrassing diplomatic fallout: three months later, China was due to host the 25th annual meeting of the international Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee. .

This instance was part of a wider programme of Chinese space weapons development and testing – which has included a series of ‘cleaner’ kinetic-kill tests at allegedly higher altitudes (almost reaching geosynchronous orbit ), laser dazzling, and radiofrequency jamming – and which is the fruit of the larger program of military modernization in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its supporting defence industrial base that stretches back to Plan 863 from 1986. This space weapons programme itself is part of a larger drive to modernise the PLA to enable it not only resist and inflict punishment and pain on a spacepower-enabled adversary (such as the United States), but also to develop its own space infrastructure in support of terrestrial military capabilities.

These two pillars of Chinese military spacepower have altered the balance of forces significantly 20 years after the Taiwan Crisis of 1996. As well as flooding the Taiwan Strait with over 1,200 short range ballistic missiles in support of an amphibious assault, China is on its way to holding US Navy carriers, naval bases, and air strips across the western Pacific hostage with precise long-range weapons systems. These long-range weapons systems depend upon Chinese space services to provide targeting data and to cue terrestrial air, land, and sea reconnaissance and targeting systems. This dependence on space systems will only increase if aerial and naval drones are increasingly deployed

The 1991 Gulf War demonstrated the potential of spacepower in terrestrial warfare. Spacepower supported mechanised forces are, generally speaking, faster, more mobile, flexible, precise, and efficient than those without, as the ‘Highway of Death’ and Schwarzkopf’s ‘left hook’ in the Iraqi desert proved. China, like many other powers, is developing or refining armed forces that can effectively target what they can see as rapidly as possible – and space technologies are central to this endeavour.

Since 2007, Chinese space infrastructure has grown tremendously. China has been launching rockets with orbital payloads at almost twice the usual rate of the preceding years, at around 15-20 Long March launches a year. China has over 180 satellites registered to it, whilst Russia registers just over 140. The United States meanwhile, registers approximately 580 satellites, both military and non-military. Russia’s involvement in Syria demonstrates some of its progress in long-range command and control, as well as in precision munitions with cruise missiles and guided bombs. China has been consistently investing for longer in space technology for ‘force enhancement,’ and has a far larger chequebook and space industrial base to rely on than Russia. The space security community is still waiting for the watershed moment in Chinese space support for its military. Recently, a reorganisation of the PLA created the PLA Strategic Support Force, which combines PLA ‘space troops,’ ‘cyber troops,’ and ‘electronic warfare forces’ as one independent service. Whilst it is too soon to draw any firm observations from this, it is clear that China is thinking strategically about the role of its space systems as the connecting mesh between its terrestrial forces, and how it should be protected and exploited.

The dual-use nature of satellite services means that space infrastructure can be used for military and non-military purposes rather easily. China’s maturing position as a major spacepower is thus not solely a military story. Its development of a navigation system – Beidou/Compass – to rival GPS is as much an economic infrastructure as it is a military asset. Similarly, Chinese Earth observation and continental communications satellites are about economic development as well as military modernisation. China’s international space diplomacy continues apace, and is making inroads in developing satellites, services, as well as control and tracking stations in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Chinese space systems now take centre place in civic planning, infrastructure development, and the building of a high-data urbanised economy.

The economic take off from the late 1980s gives Chinese spacepower huge potential, and this is being delivered upon through efficiencies in resource use, communications networks that span a continental state, and the consumer markets that emerge from that infrastructure. Spacepower is essential for China’s ongoing ecological crisis and for managing the worst effects of climate change and urbanisation. Should President-elect Trump fatally wound the United States’ leading position in Earth science and climate change monitoring, China is on track become the single-largest 21st century spacepower contributing to climate politics and developing a less carbon-intensive advanced economy.

Chinese spacepower development has been so rapid in the 20 years since the Taiwan crisis, and the ten years since its controversial space weapons test, China has not only developed an ability to threaten aspects of US spacepower and military capability but also begun to mirror the United States in its multifaceted dependence on spacepower for conventional military power and economic well-being. True, in a Taiwan war China will be less dependent on space systems than the United States. However, Chinese long-range weapons systems needed cueing and targeting information from space to strike American and Japanese ships and bases at a distance. However, for missions other than Taiwan, the PLA would find greater use for space communications, especially as its Navy begins operations further afield. And it is these expeditionary operations or regional wars with non-nuclear states that are far more likely to occur for the PLA than a ‘tweet’ that launched a thousand missiles.

In the context of a maturing Chinese military space power, American worries of a ‘Space Pearl Harbor’ are making a comeback. A crippling Chinese attack on US space infrastructure would no doubt hamper US abilities to conduct a war in the Pacific. Yet, the details required to plan such a scenario cast doubt on its practicality. Some satellite constellations can suffer significant losses before services even begin to degrade – such as the Global Positioning System. Those who worry of a pre-emptive space attack are right to worry, but the effects of such attacks will depend upon whether an adversary can disrupt or destroy enough of the right satellites and communications networks. That caveat and lack of information is sometimes missing in public debate. Specific satellites provide specific services, and the timing of such attacks must be coordinated with terrestrial operations for space warfare to have any meaningful effect. Furthermore, the United States continues to explore methods to not only adapt to space warfare, but also is developing latent space weapons technology of its own, with a dual-use capability in the Aegis-equipped ‘missile defence’ destroyers and in on-orbit manoeuvring technology in the X-37B and the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program. Simplistic notions of surprise attacks at the outset of hostilities in space clash with the ability of many space systems to actually be resilient in warfare. Space weapons do not herald the era of certain doom for, or easy solutions against, high-technology militaries.

China and America are two leading space powers that are integrating spacepower into their military, political, and economic power. It is no surprise, then, that both are hedging against the possibility of space warfare – although rhetoric and proposals on space arms control seem to ignore this reality. Indeed, even European and Japanese space infrastructure has increasingly military potential through dual-use services. The growing Chinese orbital behemoth, like America’s celestial leviathan, is a fount of economic and technological momentum, as well as a source of simultaneous vulnerability and resilience depending on the space systems relied upon and threated. Although China has continued its space weapons development on a steady course in the past ten years, it has been hard at work launching many more targets of its own into outer space.

Image: a US SM-3 missile launch to destroy the NRO-L 21 satellite, via wikimedia commons.

Power and Plenty in US-China Strategic Competition


NB: This is a short summary of Trading with the Enemy: the Making of US Export Control Policy toward the People’s Republic of China, Oxford University Press (February 2016, available here).

In the twenty-first century, the US-China relationship is characterized by a mixture of economic interdependence and rivalry in the military realm. On the one hand, since the establishment of their diplomatic relations in 1979, the economies of the United States and of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have grown increasingly intertwined. On the other hand, coupled with the thickening of their economic relations, there have been growing concerns within the US government over China’s military modernization in the post–Cold War era. The combination of China’s defense budget increase, foreign technology imports, domestic research and development (R&D), and military-industrial espionage have fueled a major military modernization effort. As a consequence, successive US administrations have carefully scrutinized and responded to the evolution of the strategy and military capabilities of their “most likely future politico-military near peer competitor.” The United States and China have therefore become, as David Shambaugh put it in 2013, “tangled titans” in a “cooperative-competitive dynamic.”

The complexity of managing the conflicting security and economic dynamics in the US-China relationship was eloquently expressed by former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Winston Lord in 1994 when he asked “how do we reconcile our competing goals in a post–Cold War agenda when security concerns no longer lend us a clear hierarchy?” Arguably, this mixture of multiple and contradictory interests is one of the fundamental features of the post–Cold War international environment. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were economically independent of each other. As a consequence, economic statecraft was integrated with and subordinated to US security objectives. In the post–Cold War era, the absence of an overarching strategic threat, coupled with growing economic interdependencies, has created an international system in which the two objectives of economic welfare and the protection of national security can increasingly represent trade-offs. As Richard Rosecrance argues in 1997, “the essential problem for countries seeking to enhance both security and the economy is that success in one may involve a trade-off that entails failure in the other.”

In light of the intertwining logics of military competition and economic interdependence at play in US-China relations, in Trading with the Enemy I examine how the United States has balanced its national security and economic interests in its relationship with the People’s Republic of China. To do so, the book investigates a strategically sensitive yet under-explored facet of US-China relations, namely the making of American export control policy on military-related technology to China since 1979. Export controls stand at the frontier between military considerations (the maintenance of military preeminence by avoiding the transfer of sensitive technologies to potential competitors) and economic interests (job creation, exports, and economic growth). At any time, a balance must be found between the economic interests involved in exporting high technologies and the military implications of potential transfers of sensitive technologies. Trade-offs are therefore intrinsic to export control policy. This field of inquiry therefore allows to investigate how the US government has balanced potentially competing national security and economic interests in its relationship with the People’s Republic of China and whether this balance has evolved over time. As Adam Segal put it in 2004, “the problem of designing effective export control policies for China exemplifies paradigmatic changes in the relationship among technology, trade, and national security since the fall of the Soviet Union.”

The book examines the making of US export controls toward China during the three decades that followed the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979. To do so, it relies upon a broad and unique collection of primary oral and written sources including 199 interviews conducted in the US, the PRC and France , declassified archival documents, and diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks. One of the key findings that emerges from this study is the “hopelessness of containment” in the Post–Cold War Era. The United States is today unable to implement a strategy of military/technological containment vis-à-vis China in the same way it did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War because of the erosion of Washington’s capacity to restrict the transfer of military-related technology to the PRC. Although since the end of World War II the United States has been the major proponent of stringent controls on strategic trade with potential competitors, in the post–Cold War era the capacity of the United States to control the diffusion of military-related technology considerably decreased under the impact of several factors: the weakening of the multilateral institution governing export controls, the commercialization and global diffusion of technology, China’s growing indigenous capabilities, and the domestic pressures to liberalize export controls that resulted from the thickening of Sino-American economic relations.

These dynamics testify to the hopelessness of applying a strategy of military/technological containment of the People’s Republic of China in a globalized economy. The overlapping and intertwining of the logics of military competition and economic interdependence at play in the post–Cold War international system attest to the growing complexity of interstate rivalry in the 21st century. Furthermore, these findings have major consequences for Sino-American relations and, potentially, for the prospects of US dominance in the twenty-first century. In the longer term, a consequence of these trends could be, as stressed by a 1999 report of the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board, the leveling of the international military/technological playing field, which would pose a “direct challenge to the fundamental assumption underlying the modern concept of US global military leadership: that the United States enjoys disproportionately greater access to advanced technology than its potential adversaries.” Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether the security, technological, and economic dynamics examined in this book will erode American primacy in world politics and eventually lead to its decline in the face of a rising China.

Image: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, at the outset of a bilateral meeting on May 17, 2015. Courtesy of State Department Photo/Public Domain.

Three Questions for Indian Nuclear Policy


India’s nuclear forces are growing in diversity and technical capability. Unprecedented new nuclear posture options are being placed in the hands of Indian defence planners. India today stands ready to field the first of an indigenous fleet of nuclear-armed submarines; ICBM-range ballistic missiles; and a new generation of short-range ballistic missiles. The triad of nuclear forces deliverable from land, air and sea that was first envisioned in India’s 1999 draft nuclear doctrine is therefore finally coming into operational view. With a growing range of technical choices for how it wishes to structure its nuclear force, India must soon select from among these its preferred posture.

This notable technical progress coincides with a strategic environment that is growingly complex. China’s defence outlook is increasingly assertive, and it is fielding a new generation of SSBNs and restructuring its nuclear force governance in order to strengthen deterrence. Pakistan is estimated to have one of the fastest-growing nuclear arsenals in the world and is developing 60km-range tactical nuclear missiles in order to immediately threaten nuclear consequences at any level of future conventional conflict with India.

Combined with the new technical force options available to India, these shifts in the strategic environment create conditions that merit a review of India’s nuclear doctrine and posture. Some factors that should be integrated into this review can be summarised into three questions.

  1. What role should India’s nuclear force play in deterring new threats in the land domain?

Since 2003, India has articulated a no-first-use nuclear doctrine, but one promises massive retaliation to any adversary nuclear attack. Indian strategists have been frustrated by the ability of Pakistan conventional forces and by militant groups operating from Pakistan, undeterred by Indian nuclear weapons, to launch subconventional and limited conventional attacks. Slow Indian military mobilisation in reaction to these attacks have weakened the potential Indian response. Propelled by these frustrations, the Indian Army developed a “Cold Start” concept in 2004. This concept intends to quickly mobilise and launch integrated battle groups to seize and hold limited tracts of Pakistan territory within 72 to 96 hours. While the Army and Indian government have denied that the concept represents actual military doctrine, recent Army exercises involve manoeuvres similar to Cold Start thinking.

Pakistan announced the development of a 60km-range “Nasr” nuclear missile in 2011, and claims that this new nuclear capability is intended to deter any Indian Cold Start-like operation. Combined with a new nuclear concept of “full spectrum deterrence”, Pakistan now intends to threaten immediate nuclear escalation of almost every level of potential conventional conflict with India.

India simultaneously faces new land-based threats from China. China’s nuclear and conventional military technology is at least one generation ahead of that of India. Beijing has long held the ability to hold the entirety of the Indian mainland at nuclear risk. However, recent developments include the restructuring of Chinese nuclear forces under a new Rocket Force, strengthening their governance; heavy investment in ballistic missiles, presenting difficulty for Indian defence planners to distinguish between their potential nuclear or conventional missions; and logistics advancements close to the disputed border with India. While India struggles to raise enough forces along the border to generate an effective conventional deterrent, concerns about perceived Chinese dark intentions and conventional superiority has led to calls to end India’s no-first-use policy.

  1. How should India manage regional seaborne nuclear deterrence?

India, China and Pakistan are all currently working on fielding nuclear-armed naval forces. India’s first indigenous SSBN, the Arihant, was reported as ready for service on February 23. China is developing a Jin-class SSBN fleet, while Pakistan agreed in October to purchase 8 diesel-electric submarines from China. The latter boats are widely viewed as intended to be assigned nuclear missions in future. These three states have little operational experience of managing seaborne nuclear forces, and will naturally gain this experience partly through incidents that are learned from.

These nuclear-armed vessels join already fierce conventional naval competition. Pakistan is focusing particularly on anti-access/area denial capabilities, including submarines, fast missile boats, and anti-ship ballistic missiles, in order to challenge India’s carrier-based naval forces. Chinese submarines were suspected to be exploring waters close to a major Indian military command last month, and have previously docked in Colombo, Gwadar and Karachi. With virtually no maritime dialogue among these states and little shared understanding of naval and nuclear intentions, the risk grows of misperceiving an adversary nuclear-armed vessel as a conventional boat, with inadvertent escalatory implications.

  1. How should a nuclear doctrinal review be conducted?

Calls for a review of Indian nuclear doctrine are growing, and have recently been made by a retired External Affairs minister, a former Strategic Forces Command chief, a retired Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, and a former National Security Advisor among others. The election manifesto of the BJP government, elected in 2014, appeared to accede to this pressure, promising to “revise and update” the doctrine “to make it relevant to challenges of current times”. However, this prompted robust international concerns that any doctrinal revision could end the no-first-use policy and generally assign nuclear weapons a greater role in Indian defence than at present. This furore erupted as India continues to seek acceptance as a “responsible nuclear power” as a full member of global nuclear order institutions, such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group and Missile Technology Control Regime.

Facing these pressures, newly elected Prime Minister Modi declared in August 2014 that “we are not taking any initiative for a review of our nuclear doctrine.” However, this still leaves unaddressed the issue that the doctrine has not been publicly reviewed since 2003 in light of the evolving challenges detailed above. With Indian nuclear force advancements one of the few bright spots of general Indian military modernisation, there is a worrying tendency for Indian analysts to occasionally suggest that new nuclear platforms have a relevance to conventional challenges. This occurs due to the absence of a recent iteration of nuclear doctrine that addresses the new strategic environment and clearly structures the roles of Indian conventional and nuclear forces within this environment.

Given the pressures against India revising its stand-alone nuclear doctrine, India should instead conduct a broader public official defence review. This review would incorporate assessments of the above strategic challenges and assign conventional and nuclear forces to each challenge as necessary. Crucially, it would reiterate that nuclear forces only obtain credibility as a last-resort tool to safeguard national survival and that other challenges should be met by building and deploying strong conventional defences.

Whether or not this official defence review is conducted, the future of Indian nuclear policy and regional stability will depend to a great extent on how New Delhi answers these three questions. Those interested in Asian security should watch closely.

Dr Frank O’Donnell is Lecturer in Strategic Studies at Plymouth University at the Britannia Royal Naval College, specialising in Indian and Asian security issues. He obtained his PhD from the Defence Studies Department in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter @frank11285.

Image: Construction site of the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tale of Two Visits: THE UK’s Outreach to China and India

This post is based on a seminar series talk organised by King’s College London’s Regional Security Research Centre (RSRC), which took place on 24 November 2015.


As the UK tries to reenergise its economy, manage its diverging interests with the US and the EU, and debate its role in the Middle East (especially the latest decision to bomb ISIS in Syria) and Afghanistan, it has reached out to the two Asian giants – China and India. Given their economic prowess these two competing Asian powers have tremendous global appeal. Reciprocating the UK’s overtures, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited London in October and November 2015 respectively. Going by media optics and the series of economic and other agreements signed, both the visits were big successes. For the UK to increase its strategic appeal in the long run, however, it needs to ensure that it is seen more than just a trading partner in Beijing and New Delhi. For, despite the importance of increased trade, the UK still does not figure high in the political agenda of both these countries. What will go a long way in bringing some strategic parity, however, is a sustained dialogue on some well-known political roadblocks. If China’s tendency to build massive trade surplus with its partners and complicated human rights records were two problem areas, Pakistan and Afghanistan were the (literally) unspoken thorns during Modi’s visit.

Golden Era?

The Chancellor to the Exchequer George Osborne termed the 21st century as a ‘golden era’ in UK-China bilateral relations, and PM David Cameron projects UK as China’s ‘best partner in the West’. China for its part invested nearly £40 billion (US$ 62 billion) in Britain, the proceeds of which, government claims, will help create 3,900 new jobs. Reflecting a pragmatic angle to bilateral ties, economic relations between the two countries have grown tremendously over the past ten years. The UK attracted nearly US$12 billion of Chinese foreign investment in 2013, more than France and Germany combined, while China became the sixth largest goods export market for the UK in 2014, up from rank 14 in 2003. With its steel production reaching over-capacity, China requires buyers lest its growth bubble deflates (though unlikely). This was one reason why the nuclear power, automobile, healthcare, public works, and railroad sectors in the UK benefitted tremendously from Chinese investment. And all this happened despite the worries of an ‘aggressive’ and ‘expansionist’ China, which has no democracy, is routinely charged for violating human rights, and is the biggest source of cyber attacks against Western targets. Though a cyber-security pact was signed to convince London that China would not undertake commercial e-espionage against British firms, there was no mention of the human rights issue.

The US, Britain’s traditional strategic partner, not surprisingly, did not take kindly to London’s pragmatism towards China. How will the UK negotiate its Chinese ‘golden era’ with Washington? Arguably, this should have been the least of London’s worries given the whopping US$579 billion (2012 estimate) trade between the US and China. But even the free trade debate was at its most intense this year, as the US’ trade deficit (with China) surged to US$ 51.4 billion in March 2015 from US$ 35.9 billion just a month earlier. There has been no sign of this deficit reducing anytime soon. Not just the US, but also its allies – including India – complain that China’s massive trade surplus gives it a strategic edge over its competitors. The fact that the UK is entertaining Beijing, at the exact moment when the latter’s primary strength – excessive industrial production – is becoming its primary weakness, is difficult to accept for many in the US. More than the economic implications of the same, it is the political symbolism that ruffles the feathers.

Huge moment?

Modi’s visit, despite having divided the South Asian diaspora and some members of the UK Parliament, was termed a ‘huge moment’ for UK-India relations. India had just overtaken China to become the fastest growing economy in the world. For the second half of the 2014-15 fiscal year, India’s growth rate touched 7.4 per cent whereas China stood at 6.9 per cent. Further, Modi and Cameron signed deals worth more than £9 billion and pacts on wide-ranging issues such as defence, cyber-security, railways, and nuclear power. Ranking 18th in the top 25 trading partners of India, bilateral trade between the two countries stands at US$ 14.34 billion. The biggest strength of this relationship, however, is the 1.6 million plus strong Indian diaspora that occupies an important place in Britain’s social and economic fabric. The grand welcome reception at Wembley stadium, where close to 70,000 British Indians were present to cheer Modi on, was a reflection of these cultural links. And unlike Beijing, New Delhi is not seen as much of a threat by any of the UK’s Western allies barring on the issue of climate change. But some critical issues remain, such as the UK’s approach towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have done much harm than good to this relationship.

Kashmir and the Afghan war are issues on which New Delhi and London don’t see eye to eye. In 2009, for instance, British foreign secretary David Miliband said that the road to peace in Afghanistan was connected to Kashmir, cementing the perception in India that London was favourably biased towards Pakistan. The 2010 London Conference on Afghanistan that baptised the reconciliation process with the Afghan Taliban was also seen as a sell out to Pakistan. Britain wanted Kabul and the Afghan Taliban to launch a dialogue without any preconditions. Such talks, New Delhi argued, would be sabotaged by Pakistan. London’s persistent questioning about the role of Indian consulates in Afghanistan and their alleged anti-Pakistan activities only added to India’s consternation. Not surprisingly, Modi refused to discuss either Pakistan or Afghanistan with Cameron. Despite progress in all other spheres, the UK is one of the most mistrusted coalition members in Afghanistan among Indian officialdom. Even Cameron’s delicate handling of this issue during his 2010 India visit (and afterwards) did little to change New Delhi’s mind.

Strategic Parity

Political hot topics that are untouched in such situations are often the most critical in making or marring relationships. Despite Cameron’s three visits to India with major business delegations since 2010, London was Modi’s 27th stopover in his busy travel itinerary since becoming PM in May 2014. Xi’s visit too occurred at a time when China was witnessing a financial downturn. Despite the various promises made and deals signed, the context in which these two visits occurred, reflect the fact that the UK is not a strategic priority for the two Asian giants. And trade links will take these relationships only so far. What is needed is an ongoing dialogue not just with China and India on these political ‘no-go’ areas, but also an alignment of ideas with the US. London can easily mismanage its outreach to China and become Beijing’s lonely partner in the West – and eventually lose its appeal in the long run. Or else, it can take the political lead and become an effective ‘bridging power’ that brings these two world powers closer. As for India, having set the ball rolling during Modi’s visits, London should ensure that the damage its Afghanistan-Pakistan policy has done, is addressed. Even just showing that it cares about Indian sensitivities on these key regional issues – for they matter a lot among Indian officials – will make a considerable difference.

Image: PM Modi with President Xi in New Delhi, September 2014. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

China’s Rise Tests India’s Non-Alignment

Indian Prime Minister Modi Delivers Remarks at a Luncheon Co-Hosted by Secretary Kerry and Vice President Biden


Every September, a host of global political leaders descend on New York for the United Nations General Assembly’s annual summit and every year there are one or two leaders whose visits are highly anticipated. If last year it was the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was visiting the US for the first time after coming to office, this year it was the Pope and the Chinese President Xi Jinping. While Pope’s visit had its own charms, it was Xi’s first state visit to the US and so predictably it generated a lot of commentary on the present state of affairs in Sino-US relations. Though Xi had formally met with U.S. President Barack Obama twice before — once during the US-China Sunnylands Summit in June 2013 and Obama’s November 2014 visit to China – his latest visit happened against the backdrop of worsening Sino-US ties and great turmoil in the strategic landscape of the Indo-Pacific.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has managed to move historic defence reforms through the Japanese Diet, enabling Japan to better cooperate with America to defend its interests in Asia in the face of growing dangers from a rising China. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army will also be getting rid of 300,000 soldiers from its ranks in a bid to shed dead weight, reduce overhead, and use the savings to buy more high-tech ships, planes, and make its army leaner and more professional. Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the cuts in a public address after a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the country’s victory over Japan in World War II.

There still remain many unanswered questions about the future trajectory of the new Chinese military reform program but what remains certain is that the Chinese military of the near-future will be very different from the Chinese military of the recent past. And this will predictably cause consternation in the region and beyond. Already regional powers are responding to the rise of China in several ways.

China’s disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea and its willingness to assert those claims with a military build-up has rattled some countries in the region, pushing them towards greater military cooperation with the United States. The US has reached an agreement with Malaysia to let American P-8 Poseidon and P-3 Orion spy planes use airbases in the country to spy on China’s activities in the waters off Malaysia’s coast. The Philippines has also welcomed the US plan to deploy air and naval assets to the country as part of the next phase of Washington’s rebalance to the region. The US troops are likely to have access to at least eight Philippine military bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed last year between the two states. In a sign of warming US ties with Hanoi, Washington has partially lifted a 40-year ban on providing lethal military support to Vietnam in order to enhance its maritime security. The arms embargo was a major stumbling block on the American side of the road to closer US-Vietnam relations. In a significant change in the communist regime’s attitude toward Washington, Hanoi has decided to allow the US Peace Corps to operate in Vietnam.

India too has been recalibrating its regional ties at this time of great strategic flux. China’s display of its military might is prodding New Delhi to invigorate its defence policy and diplomacy to tackle China’s rise in its vicinity. India hosted its first-ever bilateral naval exercise with Australia earlier last month, and will conduct maritime exercises with Japan in November. India has also invited Japan to join its Malabar exercise with the US in the Bay of Bengal after eight long years. Although Australia and India have participated in military events and exercises together before as well, this will be the first time that the two nations will be jointly planning and participating in a military drill of this nature.

Non-alignment has been a central feature of Indian identity in global politics that is manifest in continuities: India has been in pursuit of strategic autonomy since independence, which in practice has led to semi-alliances fashioned under the cover of non-alignment and shaped by regional dynamics. In this setting, the rise of China now raises an interesting conundrum for Indian policymakers as New Delhi seeks to balance the benefits and risks of an increasingly assertive neighbor and a network of alliances with like-minded countries. In order to effectively balance China’s growing influence, India has become more assertive in building these alliances, as the success of its modern-day pursuit of strategic autonomy may well rest on a strong foundation of strategic partnerships. The coming to office of the centre-right National Democratic Alliance government in May 2014 has signaled a move away from even the rhetoric of non-alignment with significant implications for the future of Indian foreign policy.

This theme is fully explored in my International Affairs piece, here.

Photo: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers remarks at a luncheon co-hosted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on September 30, 2014. Courtesy of: State Department photo/ Public Domain.