The medical experts at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) have been at the forefront of the global fight against Covid-19 both as a seat of medical research, and as a reliable soundboard for policy interventions. What most don’t know, however, is that the strategic affairs and diplomacy experts at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), specialising in the East Asia and Indo-Pacific, have also been busy during this period pondering on how the post-Covid-19 geo-political dynamics emerges in that region, where the United States, China, Taiwan, Asean countries and Quad partners are increasingly appearing to be closing ranks. Additionally, the recent moves by India to collaborate further and deeper with the countries of that region gain significance, as New Delhi gets embroiled in an active conflict with Beijing at the Line of Actual Control.
Professor Kent E. Calder, Director of the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at SAIS, JHU, is the lead author and researcher for two-volume publications—East Asia in the Post-Covid-19 World and The Covid-19 Crisis: Policy Lessons From East Asia. Professor Calder, who is an expert on East Asian diplomacy and strategic affairs and has authored 12 books on East Asian political economy and security, spoke at length with The Sunday Guardian, on India-China border clashes and their “wider global ramifications” to the worsening US-China ties amidst Taiwan becoming a major irritant for Beijing and the new geo-political dynamics emerging in the Indo-Pacific region. Excerpts:
Q: How do US think tanks’ experts see the latest India-China border clashes? Do you see larger implications for the world?
A: US experts focus particularly on Chinese expansionism, and are generally sympathetic to India. They are concerned about the potential for conflict between the two nuclear-armed giants, but still suppose that prospects for escalation are very low.
Since China and India are both rising global powers and the two most populous nations on earth, their clash naturally has some international implications. It is unsettling to financial markets, particularly within Asia itself, which are always sensitive to risk. The implications are limited, however, by the relatively remote location of the Galwan Valley in the midst of Ladakh, and the fact that normal armaments are not being used. If there were a significant escalation to more powerful armaments, or a parallel outbreak along other parts of the long Sino-Indian armistice line, the global impact would no doubt be magnified considerably.
Q: Do you anticipate echoes of the India-China border clash reverberating in the South China Sea and Indo-Pacific region soon? Can Singapore lead the ASEAN countries or should India play ASEAN against China?
A: We have already seen greater Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea (vs Malaysia and Vietnam), and in Hong Kong with the National Security Law. Whether we see more echoes depends on what happens next in the Himalayas. Singapore would prefer to be a quiet mediator rather than an anti-China leader. I don’t see it countering China overtly. Singapore has astute strategists, strong leadership, and broad international contacts, as well as a remarkably strong economy and powerful military for such a small nation-state of less than six million citizens. It is capable of leading ASEAN, and often does so, but it leads from behind—orchestrating the “ASEAN consensus”, and then communicating it to leaders around the world. It is also a multi-ethnic state that is more than 70% Overseas Chinese. Singapore can play an important mediating role with China, and can subtly inhibit Chinese advances, but that is about all. Any more overtly pro-active role would likely belong to India.
Q: Taiwan’s rise on the global stage with its handling of coronavirus and its prospective WHO membership, not to miss its strong US backing, have frustrated Beijing more. Do you see Taiwan as another flash point and a major irritant to already worsening US-China ties?
A: Taiwan definitely is another flash point. Developments in Hong Kong, plus the US support, make it more defiant of Beijing, rather than conciliatory. Beijing, for its part, is losing patience, and has increasing confidence in its capabilities, especially with the US preoccupied. Conflict with India, however, may make it harder for China to escalate against Taiwan.
There is no question that recent Hong Kong developments, culminating in the imposition of a new Chinese National Security Law, are hardening positions in the Cross-Strait confrontation. The “one-country, two-systems” model embodied in the Sino-British agreement of the mid-1980s is effectively dead; both Beijing and Taipei can see that, and are changing their calculations accordingly. The democratic world can also see that a gradual convergence of the Chinese and democratic political systems is also unlikely. All of these changing perceptions—grounded in changing socio-political realities—are a recipe for deepening Cross-Strait and US-China conflict. The steady technological convergence of civilian and military technologies in such areas as artificial intelligence and 5G telecommunications are other rift points. The rebooting of foreign firms and diversion of foreign direct investment away from China have a similar effect, all pointing in the direction of deepening trans-Pacific and Cross-Strait tensions. That said, they do not add up to the prospect of imminent conflict. Nor do the Sino-Indian skirmishes in Ladakh. It would take serious military incidents in the South China Sea or over the Taiwan Strait to light the match to more serious short-term confrontation.
Q: Will South China Sea experience more conflict?
A: The Covid-19 crisis is provoking tensions in the South China Sea just as in the Taiwan Strait, and for parallel reasons. On the one hand, it is provoking Chinese nationalism and external assertiveness, both out of rising confidence that China is stronger than other nations, due to its apparently superior tactics for fighting the virus, and also due to what it perceives as the weakness of others, especially the United States. This perception of US weakness is especially pronounced with respect to the South China Sea, because US aircraft carriers appear vulnerable to the virus—over 20% of the 5,000 seamen aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, for example, contracted the virus earlier this year, incapacitating the carrier for two months, and that was in the South China Sea.
The Covid situation is thus making the danger of military incidents more likely. There have already been confrontations between the Chinese, on the one hand, and Malaysians, Vietnamese, and Filipinos. It is mainly civilians who have been harassed, however, and the prospects of serious escalation are still limited.
Q: What role will the Quad play in the future?
A: It is hard to see the Quad, involving India, Japan, Australia, and the United States, evolving into a full-fledged military alliance, with India’s non-alignment tradition being one major constraint. Operational coordination, contingency planning, and implicit division of responsibilities, however might be quite rational, as would an ongoing strategic policy dialogue, and possible defence-industry cooperation. All four nations have, in particular, a strong mutual commitment to freedom of navigation through the Strait of Malacca and across the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf and beyond. They also share an interest in the stable flow of energy from the Gulf, and in deterring any revision of the Asian security status quo by force of arms.
Q: China is threatening Europe and is somewhat frustrated over its alienation from the world trade and supply chain. Will the Dragon retaliate? Will that be worse for the world?
A: Not sure exactly how they can afford retaliation, amidst the crisis, at least not beyond their immediate border areas. They will go for short-term symbolic victories that satisfy an increasingly nationalistic Chinese public, rather than making large decisive policy changes. Their European strategy is largely to veto decisive European Union opposition, through deepening ties with the Balkans, Central Europe, and the Mediterranean—not to retaliate directly.
Q: In all this what position will Russia hold?
A: President Donald Trump is according Vladimir Putin some symbolic presents, but these have little substantive importance. Russia is the new “Sick Man of Eurasia”, as the Ottomans were in the early 20th century, and little but an unlikely revival of energy prices can change that for some time. Russia’s weakness and dependence on China make the China-Europe relationship an increasingly important linchpin of global affairs, as I pointed out in Super Continent (Stanford, 2019).