The Chinese are going about claiming all under heaven, while The USA with Australia and Japan is conducting naval exercise near The Philippines. Changing theaters of geopolitical confrontation towards the Indo-pacific is confirmed by the movement of US troops from Europe towards strategic locations to counter the ever-increasing aggressive posturing by China towards all its neighbors. Both sides, be it The USA or China, think that the other side wants to take advantage of the vulnerabilities caused by COVID-19 pandemic. This is the perfect Thucydides trap and in realist understanding, provides fertile ground for confrontation turning into conflict. It can be observed even by a layman that it is the struggle between an established power and a rising power. The questions here are very apparent, how long & how far will the US cede influence, what is the limit of Chinese ambition? In the following write-up, we will try to look into these questions briefly and try to make sense of the unstable world order which in many senses is being shaped by non-traditional security concerns.
The relations among the two permanent members of the Security Council have improved since President Nixon’s surprise visit to China in 1972 and ending the 22-year long isolation of Mainland China. Although the reasons may have been many, the immediate result was consolidating the Sino-Soviet split and weakening the USSR geopolitically as well as strategically. By the next decade, China went through sweeping reforms and under Deng Xiaoping opened-up to the world. The pragmatic Deng Xiaoping’s two statements best encapsulate this period, “Poverty is not socialism, to be rich is glorious” and “Hide your capacities and bide your time”, here we can understand that he was sure that without opening-up economically and becoming an economic powerhouse, the People’s Republic of China will not be able to fulfill its objectives and while in the pursuit of it, the best option is to stay humble and keep working. However, since the 2000s, the policy shifted towards the peaceful rise of China and after the 2008 financial crisis which hit western economies disproportionately, the situation provided the opportunity for China to begin creating its sphere of influence. The accession of Premier Xi Jinping brought to fore the ambitions of China and in his inaugural address, he even talked about the China Dream. The Chinese employed the strategy of coercive economic assistance and provided pompous loans to countries in ASEAN, East Asia, South Asia, and even Eastern Europe (the 17+1 initiative is a good example). The tools for this diplomacy are the Belt & Road Initiative and Debt diplomacy. With governments finding it difficult to get credit lines from the USA backed IMF and World Bank because they are not in a position to comply with the policy decisions which these organizations prescribe, the Chinese provide a solution that is too good to deny. Chinese say we do not care about what type of governments you have and we are ourselves an authoritarian regime, thus, it is not necessary to follow the politico-economic model prescribed by the liberal west to be successful. Although it may be music to the ears for many countries, China asks for something bigger in return; they ask for a great deal of deference and compliance as well as they, in the long run, take control of areas of strategic importance; a good example is Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka.
All the while the USA is continuously ceding space, moving inward, and creating opportunities for China to take advantage, unintentionally of course. Right from the 2008 financial crisis, the USA was embroiled with internal strife & division which culminated in the election of Donald Trump. The Trump slogan of Making America Great Again moved the US towards isolationism & made the Chinese more resolute to implement BRI and practice Debt diplomacy with greater vigor and aggression. However, although China is trying to carve out its sphere of influence (earlier covertly and now more & more overtly), USA will not likely let it happen while trying to contain China and for that, it has been supporting the claims of other party countries in South & East China seas, frequent military drills and exercises with allies, Malabar Exercise with India and Japan in the Indian Ocean, moving military assets in the South China Sea as well as tackling Chinese challenge on trade & technology front.
We know that the conflict between the two countries is on multiple fronts and as China has become more assertive amid the Pandemic, opening up border disputes with Japan in the East China Sea, ASEAN nations in the South China Sea, Taiwan in the straits and India in the Himalayas. This geopolitical tango initiated by China can spiral from conflict into a confrontation. And what feeds into it is the absence of any channel of communication except the top between China and USA which if existed could have held track 1.5 or track 2 talks to reach a Modus Vivendi between these two nations. Also, what feeds into this fire is that both the Xi and Trump administrations are ceding to a discourse of hyper-nationalism, which has led to further depletion of any diplomatic flexibility.
The whole world is looking at the American elections which are 6 months away, and the policy till then would be to contain Chinese aggression. Even China would take steps calculating the impacts and will focus on the elections. The middle powers (Japan, U.K, France, Germany, India, South Korea, etc.) should work out a strategy (less dependent on the USA) to focus on maintaining the status-quo (multipolarity).
Come December, the world will be different, and it will be based on the permutations & combinations that different states make for the elections and after it, that will determine the fate of this century.
Author is a journalist specializing in international relations with extensive experience working with online media. He has a keen interest in all things geopolitics and thence enjoys writing on issues pertaining to Foreign Policy, International Relations, Strategic and Security Affairs of Indo-Pacific Region.