In the recent past, growing China’s engagement in the Indian sub-continent in particular and its growing footprint in global affairs in general categorically reveals its overarching strategy to expand its global influence. The main force behind this move is, of course, its remarkable economic growth that it has accomplished in the last three decades.
The ongoing decline in the role of the US as a global super power has only afforded China an opportunity to present itself as a reliable alternative model with its own set of values—its “core national interests” namely, territorial integrity, One China policy, and the Chinese party-state governance model. Leveraging on its fiscal strength it has simultaneously funded infrastructure projects in smaller countries located in Africa and the Asian sub-continent, which incidentally minimizes its suffering from any trade disputes—should they arise at a later date—while maximizing its ability to inflict serious economic damage on the host countries.
This strategy has indeed helped China’s political system to fan the nationalist sentiment domestically. And this in turn helped its political leadership to consolidate its party-state governance model that facilitated the leadership to get away with no democratic accountability which incidentally bestowed on its leadership additional strategic options such as faster and quieter mobilization of resources—both men and material with ease unlike in the democratic countries.
Its place in the United Nations Security Council as its permanent member has bestowed on it significant clout which it is using to advance its geo-political interests very shrewdly. Additionally, it is also building up new institutions with a hope to ultimately act as their head. And this cumulative strength is being used by it to offer opportunistic support or to deny it as it suits its strategic options—as for instance offering support to Pakistan on Kashmir issue and blocking a proposal much sought by India at the United Nations to designate Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist four times.
President Xi Jinping has made “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” as his objective and this well reflects in its military build-up, and expansive territorial claims. Against this backdrop, though China claims its initiatives such as Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, ‘Brics Bank’, ‘Belt and Road’ project, etc., as ‘win-win’ meant for “common destiny of mankind”, its neighboring countries perceive them as “self-serving and expansionist”.
In its march towards its goal of national revitalization, China is now spending huge sums to “doubling down on indigenous innovation and developing core technologies” and transform itself from a state of ‘technology seeker’ to a state of ‘technology generator’. According to its MIC 2025 plan, huge investments ranging between $100-150 bn through public and private funds are envisaged in the frontier fields of IT, machine learning, quantum computing and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Within these sectors, China is according highest priority to develop its capabilities under AI with an objective to become world leader in AI and associated technologies by 2030. Its spending on R&D that has gone up from $13 bn in 1991 to $376 bn by 2015 is in itself an indicator of how committed China is to acquire self-sufficiency in “core technologies” within the prioritized industries. This urge to acquire mastery over core technologies implicitly reveals China’s ambition to surpass and even displace advanced economies as manufacturing super power worldwide.
This intense pursuit of its ambitions under MIC 2025 has obviously caused the US anxieties over China’s emergence as a rival for American leadership. As a result, it initiated a range of technology denial measures against China. It is also pressuring its allies to follow the line. But containing China, that is today strongly embedded in a densely interconnected global economy, besides being an active member of several critical supply chains, is not that easy. Over it, for the last two-three decades, China has been making systematic effort to acquire, adopt and assimilate advanced technologies from the US and other western countries.
Since launching liberalization policy in 1978, China has been sending thousands of its young students to study at top American Universities and upon returning they constituted its bedrock of knowledge that not only sustained its economic growth but has also built technologically sophisticated military power. It is also known to have used cyber capabilities to gain access through hacking to cutting edge military technologies developed by the US firms. It was even accused of influencing US citizens of Chinese origin working in sensitive facilities to clandestinely transfer confidential plans and blue prints to Chinese entities.
Such acquisition of technology has also enabled China to pursue “civil-military fusion” and thereby achieve ‘jointedness’ among its land, sea, and air forces. They have even started developing asymmetric warfare capabilities. Their military strategists are even talking about “intelligentized warfare” using AI in weapons development and military tactics. They are also talking about “algorithmic competition” in battlefield. Driven by the logic that when the US could have as many as 800 overseas bases in as many as 80 countries, there is nothing wrong in China trying for the same, they are also planning to establish foreign military bases with an ultimate strategy of developing global footprint to rival the US.
Technology is thus becoming the power of China today and it certainly poses many challenges to India’s security. So, what is needed for India is: to assess these threats comprehensively and draft a strategy and move towards mastering the emerging technologies to counter the threats posed by China’s might. Unlike in the past, India must now involve private industry to harness technologies and speed up building asymmetrical warfare capabilities soon. And private entrepreneurs too need to respond speedily and innovatively. Given that, it would only be apt to say multipronged approach alone could enable India to counter the challenges likely to be posed by China in the days ahead.