The inexorable rise of China has been the most significant event in global geopolitics over the past three decades. From less than 3%, it now contributes 15% of the annual global output of goods and services. It is not only the second largest country economically, but also, there is a wide chasm separating it from Japan in the third place. Not surprisingly, it aspires for a role and influence in world affairs commensurate with its economic clout.
Nothing unusual about it; historically, every rising power has wanted a say in how the world affairs are run. Until recently, China followed the dictum of Deng Xiaoping to 'hide your strengths and bide your time'.
With Xi Jinping taking over in 2013, this policy was abandoned and China began to assert itself in global affairs. However, it wants to play by its own rules, disregarding global institutional order, international norms and the interests of the other countries, in particular its neighbors. It also suffers from a perceived feeling of historical injustice. The two, together with the dictatorial governance structure of China, form a recipe for disaster.
The threat posed by China is nothing new. It has disregarded global norms for a long time. Since Xi Jinping took over as the head of the Communist Party of China (CPC), such threats have taken on ominous proportions. Lack of any significant opposition seems to have further emboldened China. In fact, during the current tragic COVID-19 crisis, it has started flexing its muscles even more. And the list of indiscretions and transgressions is now a rather long one.
China has always claimed Taiwan to be its own territory and has firmly rejected the two nation theory. In recent times, it has threatened Taiwan militarily and its aircrafts have repeatedly violated Taiwan’s airspace.
China has passed the Hong Kong Security Law which ensures that for all practical purposes, Hong Kong is as integral a part of China as any other of its territory. It hardly felt constrained by the ‘One Nation Two Systems’ pact it had signed with the United Kingdom, as part of the handing over of Hong Kong in 1997. The agreement is lodged with the United Nations but is practically defunct now.
China has been threatening to take control of the South China Sea for the last few years. It has ignored the judgement of the International Criminal Court (ICC) which ruled that there was 'no legal basis for China to claim historic rights' over the area. Countries in this region, such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, are all mortally in fear of what China may do next to hurt their interest. The area is critical since one third of global shipping passes through it.
There is no better demonstration of China’s insidious ways than the way its relations with Australia have panned out. China has used its muscle and money power to influence politics in Australia. There have been instances of buying off politicians to influence their political thinking and even voting in the Parliament. Australia has been subjected to extensive cyberattacks by China. China has officially issued 'threats of economic coercion' when Australia proposed an enquiry into the origins of COVID-19.
Australia, much smaller in size, is heavily dependent on China to keep its economic engine going. Hats off to the country for taking a principled stand on the matter and look China in the eye.
The animosity with Japan is an old one and only getting worse, especially with China claiming sovereignty over the Senkaku islands.
The worst and the most gruesome, of course, has been the attack on Indian soldiers and the attempt to annex Indian territory. China may have thought India would easily cave in; that was foolish and it has been in for a surprise it had not bargained for. India is now digging in for a long struggle and the cost to China may be more than it ever imagined.
China has not learnt to work amicably with other countries. It regularly engages in a disinformation campaign, twisting truth to suit its own viewpoints. There is brutal opposition to anything they consider inimical to their interests. Wolf Warrior is a term coined to describe the aggressive nature of Chinese diplomacy or its social media policy towards other nations. The number of countries it has ‘warned’ for anti-Chinese activities over the past six months is large.
Will China continue in its own merry ways, disregarding the rights of other nations and the global institutional order? Or, will the world have the courage and the sagacity to stop China’s nefarious ways?
Over the past few months, China has overplayed its hands. It has behaved less like the great power it can be and more as a local bully. Initially, when a bully exercises its power, people give in, not wanting to pick up a fight. That emboldens the bully to ultimately overreach himself and burn out on his own.
Or, its repeated misdemeanours unite everyone and the bully is effectively crushed.
I firmly believe that China has shot itself in the foot on both counts. Simultaneously picking up fights with so many countries, at a time when it has itself been weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic and its own economic woes, is not very sensible. These weaknesses are likely to hurt China and ensure it is the loser in the fight.
Second, China’s intransigent behaviour is likely to lead to a united alliance that will confront China on many fronts – economic, political and military.
Until recently, many countries were keen to maintain cordial relations with China, mainly due to its enormous economic strength, its high growth rate and the potential for business. Most of them are bound to have a rethink.
Majority of European countries, Australia, Canada, Japan and now, of course, India have been hurt by China’s acts of aggression and must dread its likely future behaviour if left unchecked. Smaller, less powerful neighbours who have been in awe of China, now realize that left to itself, China is going to gobble them up, slowly but surely.
What the world must now do is to form an alliance against China and fight it at every stage, irrespective of the possible costs, financial or otherwise. China has left the rest of the world with no alternative. Such confrontation should have happened much earlier but now there is no time to lose. We either get together to fight China as one or be prepared to pay the price individually.
The global front against China must be led by the US, being the largest economy and possessing by far the largest military resources.
That ability has been undermined in the past few years by Mr Trump, who exudes no confidence with his lack of appreciation of issues involved and thinking required for such leadership.
Most world leaders are unlikely to trust the US as long as Mr Trump remains the President. It is imperative that Mr Trump is defeated in the next US presidential elections in November later this year. Never ever has a US presidential election been so critical to global affairs.
India, on its part, must change its strategy and be prepared to take on China wherever and whenever required. We were oscillating between aligning with the US and riding on two boats simultaneously. The shocking action in the last few days has forced our hand and left India with no choice. The time for any strategic ambiguity is over. We must actively promote and in fact, be in the forefront of the anti-China alliance. The need for such an alliance has never been more imperative and the chances of success never better.
This promises to be a long struggle, in fact, a permanent one and we must be prepared to play it, keeping only our interests in mind, without worrying about how China perceives any action we take.
We need not be too apprehensive of the fact that China is much stronger than us. China’s aggressive behaviour on multiple fronts could possibly stem from its weaknesses rather than its strengths. Its economy is weakening, growth is declining and the financial system unsound. Weaknesses of a dictatorial system of governance are not immediately apparent; but when they manifest, the system implodes. No one believes China is nearing implosion but the weaknesses could be leading to dissensions and significant opposition to Xi and the CPC members. An internal struggle for power, a weakening economy and simultaneous battles on many fronts does leave China vulnerable. We must keep that in mind, without ever lowering our guard.
(Sunil Mahajan, a financial consultant and teacher, has over three decades experience in the corporate sector, consultancy and academics.)