India’s action of making Article 370 toothless has set the alarm bells ringing in the corridors of power in China and has elicited strong reactions from them. It is wrong to interpret their reaction merely as a friendly gesture towards Pakistan. Rather, it is the result of the Chinese leadership feeling threatened about their stranglehold over power. In their view, India’s move is a step towards a war against them by a coalition consisting of India, the United States, and other countries.
The Chinese government views the world as a stage for its exclusive use and every other country except Pakistan as an adversary. Even in the case of Pakistan, it is not treated as an ally or a friend but as a pawn that will advance the Chinese government’s interests. Pakistan has willingly become part of this abusive relationship as it is driven by the singular goal of opposing India. It is very likely that China has even forced Pakistan to share the F-16s in its possession and has replicated them. Thus, Pakistan may actually be telling the truth when it claims that it did not use any F-16 aircraft against India in February 2019 when it brought down an Indian plane in a dogfight. That aircraft used by Pakistan was probably a copy of an F-16 made by China.
In recent years, China has pursued a policy of making its presence and influence felt all around the world and it has done this in an aggressive and deceptive manner. For example, it financed and built Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, and Sri Lanka rapidly found itself in debt that could not be redeemed and was forced to cede control of the port to China. This method of engineering a debt trap by both financing and building infrastructure projects around the world has become the standard operating procedure for China in its Belt and Road Initiative (earlier, One-Belt-One-Road, OBOR). Such an aggressive and expansionist program to control and monopolise world trade is viewed dimly by America. In 2017, James Mattis, the then American Defense Secretary, stated that US did not agree with the idea of one country putting itself in a position of dictating one belt and one road as the world had many belts and many roads. He also opposed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that would connect the belt to Gwadar port, and highlighted the fact that the corridor passed through the disputed territory of Gilgit-Baltistan.
China’s presence in Gilgit-Baltistan has turned Jammu and Kashmir into an extremely important place from the geopolitical perspective. Stability in Kashmir valley makes China nervous as it is right next to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. On the other side of CPEC is Afghanistan where an American-led effort to strike a deal with the warring groups and install a government is underway. That effort could result in China being completely shut out of Afghanistan. A government in Afghanistan that does not kowtow to Beijing’s line combined with a stable Jammu and Kashmir would impede China’s hegemonic ambitions as the corridor would be in an extremely vulnerable position in case of a conflict involving India and other powers.
Mattis did not restrict his opposition to just BRI. He also targeted China in general when he stated, “[W]e should be under no illusions. There are areas where, also, strategically, we need to confront China where we think it’s unproductive—the direction they’re going in.” Apart from Mattis, American President Donald Trump too has expressed his displeasure with China. In particular, he has attacked China for manipulating its currency and is now engaged in a trade war against them. No one knows the details of China’s currency manipulation schemes as their policies are kept secret and they have created multiple currency systems without much transparency.
China’s goal of controlling the world’s trade has also manifested itself in other ways, chiefly in the form of their confrontational actions in the international waters of the South China Sea. Ships passing through the shipping lanes of the South China Sea account for more than one-third of the global maritime commerce and China seeks to hold this region hostage and dictate its terms to the world. It routinely intimidates ships belonging to other countries and has taken over and built illegal military bases on islands and reefs that do not belong to it. Steve Bannon, who worked on Donald Trump’s election campaign in 2016 and then worked in the White House, has advocated going in and dismantling these bases. Bannon has cited a ruling against China by an international tribunal to justify such an action.
The US is not alone in its concern over China’s attempt to take over the international waters of the South China Sea. Russia, Japan, South Korea and India share this concern along with other countries in the region such as Vietnam and Philippines. Russia has another reason for its unhappiness against China. Russia’s far east has been flooded with Chinese nationals and China is attempting to take over this region by altering its demographics.
China’s hostility towards other countries and its general lack of ability to realise that it is in the wrong can create conditions for a conflict. A single incident could trigger such a conflict with other powers, and China will be isolated in any such conflict with only Pakistan on its side.
Such a conflict will not occur and China’s expansionist ambitions will even be encouraged if the old guard in the US consisting of the proteges of pro-China leaders such as Henry Kissinger, George H.W. Bush, Zbignew Brzezinski, John McCain and John Kerry return to power in 2020. It is never easy to predict how the future will unfold, but there is an old Chinese curse wishing interesting times upon one’s opponents, and that curse may now be casting its spell on China, which should fear interesting times.
Arvind Kumar can be reached at email@example.com