In 2021, to counter China—a superpower in a hurry—the world needs a new roadmap.
On 26 December 1991, the Cold War officially came to an end post the disintegration of the erstwhile USSR a day earlier. This was a tumultuous period in geo-politics where two superpowers came close to a war-like situation more than once, threatening global peace. Though there were several proxy wars, the cold war did not turn into a ‘hot’ conflict. Thirty years later, is the world now in another Cold War? How different is the present power-play from the earlier one the world witnessed half a century ago? Is America still powerful enough to take on a rival on its own? How pivotal will be the role of nations like India in these tumultuous and dangerous times? And above all, what will it take to ensure these tensions are contained and do not spiral into a bigger conflict? Those are some of the questions that are now being furiously debated—on both sides of the Pacific.
China’s acts to subvert the world order pose a greater global threat than USSR, due to its economic might, military capabilities and vast influence across Asia, Europe and Africa. Beijing’s success in building military bases on disputed territory is testimony to its power projection and intent to create an alternate power axis in the Asia Pacific. The PLA Navy—now the largest in the world—has deployed anti-access and anti-denial capabilities and displayed its willingness to raise the cost of an escalation. China is a superpower in a hurry. Hurry to change the status quo via its expansionist policy and become the world’s hegemon; in a hurry to alter global governance to get sweeping powers to change global norms for vital issues like health, IPR, cyber security, food security etc. China’s hunger for resources is driving it to be the modern-day colonial power throwing mineral-rich smaller nations into large debt traps that they can get out of only after selling strategic sovereign assets to their lender. Even before the pandemic hit the world in 2020, experts debated if the present US-China power competition had reached the same level as the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s.
While to some, the threat from Russia was greater than China’s present day activities in the South China Sea (SCS), this author feels the present phase is bigger than the cold war and in 2021 the only way China can be countered is through a collective global response.
US Cannot Counter China’s Economic Might Alone, It Needs Japan, India and EU
Ever since Deng Xiaoping opened up China with his market-led reforms—or “socialism with Chinese characteristics”—there has been a convergence of Chinese and American economic interests. After former President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972 which established formal relations between the two countries, the US-China economic relationship prospered, culminating into a US-facilitated China entry in the WTO. Since then, as globalization blurred boundaries, China became increasingly tied to the global supply chain and is now indispensable. China’s military might, global influence and vast clout all flow from its massive economic might. Beijing’s cheque book diplomacy model, which colonises small resource-rich nations, is a naked display of its economic might. This is the reason China’s partners are bound together not by formal military pacts but by common economic interests, which matter even more in 2021 due to the globalized nature of trade and commerce. Any geo-political action against Beijing to deter it from its hegemonistic tendencies has to first focus on the underlying geo-economic impact. President Biden may try to mend some of the sourness in the present US-China business ties but as things stand now, an escalation will lead to a hard landing- both for America and the world (GDP of USA and China account for 40 % of world GDP). This scenario can be avoided only through a collective action plan, as America cannot do this alone. China’s GDP is well over 65% of the GDP of the US; as against 40% for the USSR. Not only is the economic gap between America and China lesser than the US-USSR gap, Beijing is closing in. The US economy—which has been the world’s largest since 1870—is likely to be overtaken by China in a decade. Thus, American policy may be ineffective or partially effective in creating a dent on Chinese economic might. Major economies like India, Japan and Germany will have to join forces with the US to reduce the world economy’s dependence on China and create alternate supply chains. For instance, if the US, EU, India, Japan and Germany collectively impose punitive action for Chinese goods coming from Xinjiang-the pain will be intense. It will also mean the world will be forced to search for alternatives to Chinese goods. No single country can replace China-that is not even desirable, but any collective measure can cause substantial economic pain. No world leader—not even dictatorial ones like Xi Jinping—can be immune to domestic economic pain.
China’s Influence Cannot Be Countered Only by US and Europe
China’s sphere of influence far exceeds that of the former USSR and poses a bigger threat to the world for several reasons. For one, during the cold war the world was divided into two blocks with the US-led NATO on one side and the Soviet Union-led Warsaw Pact on the other. On the other hand, China can count on having partners across Asia, Africa and Europe due to its debt trap model. Beijing is now also building presence and increasing its influence in Latin America- US’ backyard. Though, these are not formal military pacts, economic partnerships are no less important; and in the case of China, it has meant access to strategic infrastructure, from HAIFA port in Israel, to Djibouti in Africa, to Hambantota in Sri Lanka. This kind of access can be countered only through a larger partnership. Unlike the cold war, where there were a few nations who played a pivotal role, in 2021, a wider partnership will be needed to upend Chinese efforts at altering the status quo. Countries like India, Japan, Germany (Europe’s largest economy), France (superior military and has presence in the Indian Ocean Region) will play a large role.
The India Factor
Indo Pacific—and not Asia- Pacific as it was earlier called—signifies the centrality of the role that India could play in the region. India’s inclusion in any strategy to counter China—both in the seas and elsewhere—is now a given. Despite New Delhi’s lack of economic heft, its strategic location and growth potential make it an important ally in the current power competition. Apart from the US and China, India will be the third largest economy in a decade, highlighting its relevance in future power equations. As New Delhi plays a more active role in the Indian Ocean region and defines a larger role for itself than just the present one of reconnaissance, it will be a vital factor in containing Beijing – both economically and militarily. India can possibly balance Chinese naval presence– both in the Indian Ocean and in the SCS. India could be the ideal starting point for building alternate supply chains that will reduce global dependence on China; a move that must be followed through with close collaboration from US, Japan and Taiwan. It’s not just the Quad grouping where India’s participation is vital; New Delhi will also act as a counter balance to Beijing in the Asian continent. Addressing India’s traditional fears of losing strategic autonomy along with maintaining an alignment on larger issues of containing Beijing’s influence could be the defining feature of any global partnership against China. Its success will depend on how India perceives its role in Asia to be.
Focus on New-Age Technology
In the 21st century, it is not the number of aircraft carriers and frigates alone that will be the deciding factor. Apart from trade, the next frontier will be disruptive technology- both in cyber and outer space. This will make the role of strategic industries central to deciding the future of the liberal world. Answers to cyber or technological warfare do not lie in isolation and given the globalised nature of technology flows, there has to be a collective response. For instance, it is not enough that Chinese tech company Huawei is shunned from the American market, it is equally important that Huawei is not allowed to roll out 5G in other vital telecom markets like India and Germany. Likewise, it is not enough that Australia undertakes measures to make it less vulnerable to cyber espionage; a robust rules-based framework needs to be defined for the world to ensure critical data is not compromised. To stop critical data-both military and economic- to be illegally shared, there has to be a global push to reign in Chinese companies. To ensure trade and technology flows are not adversely hit, a team needs to be identified and given India’s traditional superiority in this domain, New Delhi can play a leading role.
2021 will be a defining year for the world. Not just because there will be a democrat administration that may reverse some of the earlier policy decisions. It will be a year when the new post-pandemic world order will be shaped and its effectiveness will be determined by Western powers’ realisation that they cannot take on China alone. If anything, Beijing’s success in ‘peeling’ several countries from the European Union, should be a lesson that the two-decade old template of partnerships/unions is now redundant. Even frameworks like G-7 need a revamp. After all, Italy (a G-7 member) en-cash large Chinese cheques in return for strategic access and infrastructure.
In June 2020, India showed the world that China is not invincible. 2021 marks a new decade and needs a new roadmap to counter Xi Jinping and his revisionist plans.
Gaurie Dwivedi is a senior journalist covering economy, policy and politics.