Trump is scorching the road to Beijing. Trump knows his legacy in foreign policy will be the China pushback. It will be difficult for Joe Biden to reverse course on China.
New York: China has lost it!
Its state-owned citizens had sacrificed their liberty, now the Communist Party has hacked their brains.
So-called Chinese scientists alleged that the Wuhan virus came from the US, then it was France (where elderly patients were left to die), now it is India where exceptional mid-summer heat made humans and animals drink from the same water source, and that created the virus. This is science with Chinese characteristics!
Even China’s son-in-law, the man who heads the World Health Organization, has shied away from commenting on this.
Now the Deputy Director General of the Chinese Foreign Ministry posts a video on his official Twitter account of an Australian soldier threatening an Afghan child with a knife. The incident was being investigated by the Australian government, but since the Chinese have highlighted it, the world wonders if it was a fabrication.
So much for China’s global credibility! Do they not learn?
In Alice in Wonderland there is an imaginary tea party every day at the same time. It has no rules, everyone makes their own. The Mad Hatter calmly explains how Time has been upset ever since the Queen of Hearts said the Mad Hatter was “murdering time” while he performed a song badly. Since then, Time has stayed fixed at six o’clock, which means that they exist in perpetual tea-time.
In today’s China, it is perpetually Xi-time (sorry, Alice!).
If Pakistan or any other nation slows down the Bilk and Rob Initiative (BRI), it would be accused of creating the virus.
I firmly believe that Xi Jinping, of supremely limited intelligence, is a wannabe deadly combination of Adolf Hitler (“Third Reich for a thousand years”) and Genghis Khan (“I am the punishment of God…If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you”).
The world committed a cardinal sin in not accepting China as the undisputed lord and master of the Universe for the next millennium. So, the world had to be punished with the virus. Dictator Xi Jinping waited till 25 November 2020, the day before the quintessential American festival, Thanksgiving, to call and congratulate Joe Biden, President-elect of the United States. Why, when most world leaders had already done so, including India’s Prime Minister, with the notable exception of Vladimir Putin? The official Chinese explanation is that they were waiting for the General Services Administration to officially declare Joe Biden the winner (by the way, that official announcement came on 30 November 2020).
This is arrant nonsense. Since when did China respect democratic norms and practices? Election results there (and now in its faithful sidekick Pakistan) are decided years in advance.
A more plausible explanation is that some of Xi’s fawning advisors felt that Joe Biden would call Xi Jinping to express undying fealty to the wannabe emperor of the world, and suggest that they divvy up the planet among themselves. If that had indeed happened, Xi would be President for Life and After-life, and the world would play Ping-Pong for a century.
It is also believable that China did not wish to go overboard in demonstrating its glee that America will have a President whose financial dealings with China (and those of his son) were much discussed during the election campaign. That would have been too gauche, even for China’s one-track officials.
Chinese diplomats are street fighters, lacking the competence, finesse, and charm of their counterparts from other countries. Their ability to think and analyse independently is severely constrained by the overarching desire to tell the ruler what he wants to hear. So, if China wished to assert itself in Ladakh, its fellow in New Delhi would have tried to find out what Xi had in mind. And he would have told him: Go ahead, boss, India will not retaliate. When India did, and slapped China hard, the Chinese Ambassador in Delhi started making conciliatory noises about civilizational links etc. China’s officials, like its leader, are stupid and predictable. Telegraphing one’s intentions in advance of a battle is the surest way to lose it!
On many TV debates I hear people recalling that that buffoon Mao Zedong talked of Tibet being the palm, and Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan the fingers. They all seem to know what China wants.
In the legendary Hollywood film, Patton, my favourite scene is when US General George S. Patton has just spent weeks studying the copious writings of his vain German adversary Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. As he pulverizes Rommel’s feared Panzers in an epic tank battle in Tunisia, Patton gloats: “Rommel, you magnificent bast***, I read your book.”
In his telecon with Biden, according to Chinese media that is more loyal than the King, our Lord Pingpong talked of non-conflict, and development and peace and win-win. But not a word about the issue that roils America—the virus that kills over a thousand Americans every day and has ruined millions of lives and livelihoods. And as every school kid now understands, win-win for China means heads I win, tails I win.
Lasting peace is not built on injustice, occupation, and deception. Ask the Tibetans and Uyghurs.
China’s predatory deception has been exposed. Its free ride is over.
Donald Trump and Xi Jinping both used megaphones in their diplomacy. China lost badly, partly because of its belligerence and aggression in its neighbourhood.
At the virtual UN General Assembly in September, Donald Trump rattled his sabre, and called the pandemic what many people believe it is: a plague and invisible enemy unleashed by China to frighten and divide the world, and then rule over it. He was playing to the fears of a large section of the American population. For most Americans, their country is simply the best, exceptional, and destined to triumph. It did not matter if the President was conflating America First with Trump First.
Totally immersed in dealing with the virus, the liberal democratic world collectively failed to protect Hong Kong from Xi’s insatiable maw, and could lead Beijing to calculate that it can also now swallow (if not digest) Taiwan.
Trump is not castrated yet. In the American system, he can still take actions that would be difficult to reverse. Until Biden is inaugurated, Donald Trump exercises the full powers of the presidency. The American duck is never lame. Reversing a China-focused executive order by the incoming administration will be difficult, if not impossible. Realising this, Beijing is scared of what its media calls Trump’s “final madness”.
Trump is scorching the road to Beijing. He has already banned US investment in several dozen more Chinese companies, and sent several high-level officials including an admiral to Taiwan. He is likely to issue executive orders to protect US technology from Chinese thieves, authorise further sanctions on China’s egregious human rights violations (which the Chinese try to mask as corrections of human wrongs!) in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang. And he might just put a spanner in the works of China’s estimated US$23 bn illegal fishing industry. Apart from his economic achievements, Ronald Reagan (of the Iran Contra scandal) is best remembered as the President who took down the USSR. Trump knows his legacy in foreign policy will be the China pushback.
It will be difficult for Joe Biden to reverse course on China. For years he was a part of failed US policies of engagement and cooperation with China. Now his position has significantly shifted as the US and its allies realise that Communist China can only become a responsible global player when it is the only player. The 2020 Democratic party platform promised a tough line on China in all areas where the US has “profound economic, security and human rights concerns”.
Thanks to Trump’s cavalier approach to his allies, he was unable to build global alliances to address the China issue. On vital global challenges such as climate change and human rights, Trump’s transactional America preferred to be missing in action. Joe Biden has a more consensual approach and prefers multilateral solutions.
As Joe Biden’s foreign policy slogan puts it: America is back. Where the Trump government had packed up its bags and bolted from the conference table, Biden will send people to resume America’s place at the head of the table. The world will be doing its own Rorschach’s test on Biden’s Administration to find out its personality characteristics and emotional functioning. The world wants an America that is sober and reasonable, not gung-ho and rapacious, that realises its own limitations and takes like-minded countries along (which means almost all bar a few recalcitrants led by China).
Hillary Clinton’s famous 2011 “pivot to Asia” was in essence a realisation that with the absorption of Germany into the western alliance and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Atlantic was about as stable as it could be. Latin America and Africa were still a long way off from becoming the geopolitical centre of the universe. The action should shift to the high growth area—Asia. Barack Obama came into office as avowedly “the first Pacific President,” convinced that George W. Bush’s administration had ignored Asian regional issues and that the United States should intensify its traditional engagement there (remember the wars in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan etc?). All the emerging big fellows were in Asia—India, Indonesia, Japan, China, Australia, South Korea.
When America formally joined the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2011, Obama’s inaugural attempt was to focus on difficult, concrete security issues in the region, especially maritime security. In theory this sounded good. Except for the joker in the pack—China. Most EAS participants supported the American approach, but China was hopping mad that its not-so-peaceful rise would come under greater scrutiny, and so accelerated its military development. This produced the classic security dilemma, wherein each side believes that the growing capabilities of the other reflect hostile intent and responds by producing that reality. America’s friends looked to see if the “Pacific President” would commit sufficient resources to the Asia-Pacific region, to reassure them about its staying power as well as maintain the military capabilities necessary to deter Chinese aggression.
Then along came Trump and upended everything.
But the Asia of 2020 is vastly different from that of the pivot years. There are many more countries willing to take China head-on. I remember seeing a film called The Candidate, in which a senator, who wins through a combination of means (not all above board), asks his team: What do we do now? US friends and allies in Asia are confident that Joe Biden will not repeat the strategic failures of the Obama administration, namely, allowing the rise of China on American capital and technology in the foolhardy belief that a rich and powerful China would be a factor for peace and stability. China laughs all the way to the bank and has bought a dictionary to understand the meaning of peace and stability.
Many scholars that I have interacted with expect Joe Biden to abandon the Trump administration’s heavy-handed dealings with its partners that damaged Washington’s credibility as a military ally in the region.
Many years ago, I had a mild attack of urticaria (wheals), probably caused by an allergic reaction to lobsters. Take an anti-histamine if you feel very itchy, my doctor said, otherwise it will go away by itself. It did.
Geopolitical issues are not like hives. They do not go away with strategic patience. Think of Palestine and North Korea and Eritrea and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Islamic terrorism. These are festering sores that need surgical intervention. Communist China is the most serious hives of the lot.
Biden made promises to boost the minimum wage, strengthen union protections and impose a wealth tax on billionaires. He has to push for a public health insurance option and for investments in infrastructure, new energy, and climate renewal.
While Obama’s Affordable Care Act created some long-overdue consumer protections, it reinforced private insurers, who booked huge profits, while millions of Americans lost their health insurance or began to pay much more.
In 2008, angry at George Bush, Americans gave the White House to Barack Obama. He took office under economic crisis conditions. Biden will be inaugurated with the Chinese virus ravaging America and the world. The danger is that domestic issues will consume Joe Biden. America’s divisions are too deep to be healed by being left alone. If he lessens his attention to China’s aggressiveness in its neighbourhood and beyond, we should all join Confucius Institutes.
Fortunately, it is easy to get China right. You do not need a degree in rocket science. Its brashness and aggressiveness rise in proportion to the perceived weakness of its opponent. Confronted with a superior foe, China quietly backs off, growling. Fighting to the end is what it expects from its subordinates, not from itself.
Within my memory, I have seen how, when great powers falter, China rushes in to advance its interests, especially in the South China Sea. As American forces withdrew from Vietnam in the mid-1970s, the Chinese grabbed the Paracel Islands from a debilitated Saigon. When the Soviet Union withdrew from Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay and the United States terminated its base agreement with the Philippines, China quietly occupied Mischief Reef to the dismay of Manila.
When the nonsensical G-2 concept was being pushed by China in the first decade of our century, Asian capitals feared that the proposed condominium would make decisions over their heads. But instead of being reasonable and quietly revelling in American willingness to cede half the world to it, China felt that this concession was a sign of America’s weakness and decline. True to form, it wanted more. Drunk with its economic success, China’s hubris manifested itself in a series of intimidating actions in its neighbourhood.
The latest concept of an open and democratic Indo-Pacific and America’s loud commitment to it, has badly unnerved China. While some countries had worried about intensified US-China strategic competition in their region, China’s lunacy has pushed them to welcome the US back.
In 2018, France made it clear that it was a resident power in the Indo-Pacific with its island colonies and territories, home to some 1.5 million French nationals.
In 2020, Germany and the Netherlands have officially declared their abiding interest in a free and open Indo-Pacific. They are likely to want to join the Quad.
Had it gone about its business quietly (as India did in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands), China would have ruled the waves in the South China Sea. But it is by nature a braggart and a show-off, and has earned international opprobrium, compounded by its devastating virus.
The march of folly continues
International goodwill is like dry ice. If you do not use it properly, it vanishes. China’s is long gone.
Every action that China takes, howsoever benign (which is very rare) is carefully examined under a microscope because of its reputation for lies and deceit. Just five years ago, Pingpong had promised Barack Obama that “relevant construction activities that China are undertaking in the Nansha (Spratly) Islands do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend to pursue militarization”, even as his country was building airfields and bunkers on the islands! So, a muscular anti-China partnership among nations angered and aggrieved by China (the Quad is the most obvious example) will make China think twice. In the Himalayas it has backed off yelping.
My non-existent “sources” (at least I am honest enough to say so, unlike our TV reporters) tell me that Beijing is deeply worried about the new global interest in its “backyard”, and has placed an emergency order for Valium (for its leaders) from its iron friend Pakistan!
Joe Biden’s task is cut out for him. Work closely with your tried and tested friends (give and receive respect) to pummel China and keep democracy alive and kicking, even as America bounces back.
For America has this enviable ability to self-correct.
Ambassador Dr Deepak Vohra is Special Advisor to Prime Minister, Lesotho, South Sudan and Guinea-Bissau; and Special Advisor to Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils, Leh and Kargil.