The United States is keeping a close watch on China. The assertiveness and “arbitrary dominance” of Beijing over regional powers—Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia—in the South China Sea has pushed President Donald Trump’s administration to signal the world about its “war readiness” against the Dragon. The border clashes with India last week have only precipitated US’ anger against Beijing. In fact, it has given Washington DC an excuse to mobilize forces and get battle ready to “safeguard India and Southeast Asia against ‘expansionist’ China”.
Thrice in the past week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has slammed China for its “aggressive expansionism” in the Indo-Pacific region. He has also talked about moving US troops from Europe to South-East Asia in the Pacific waters to what he calls, “protecting regional allies and ‘friends’ against China.” Both President Trump and Secretary Pompeo have criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping for “trying to change the status quo unilaterally in East and South China Seas, on the India border and Hong Kong.” Think tank experts in DC are anticipating certain possible scenarios. Is the US heading for a full-blown war against China? Will India be involved? Will the Indo-Pacific waters be the new war theatre? Many in Washington DC still view Secretary Pompeo’s “battle readiness” as a “political exigency and strategic posturing” by President Trump, currently battling the heat of presidential elections and corona handling criticism and “trying to overwhelm that with a stronger anti-China rant”.
But one thing is almost certain that India should be prepared for more disturbances from the side of China as it is not going to de-escalate as pledged in diplomatic briefings in both sides. Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of Woodrow Wilson Center, told The Sunday Guardian: “Beijing will try to push harder—either by refusing to remove all its forces on the Indian side of the LAC, or by staging new incursions.”
This may give the US even stronger reasons to march ahead in the Indo-Pacific region as it had already pressed its three aircraft carriers there, much to the irritation of Beijing, already frustrated over the US support to Taiwan and Hong Kong. Kugelman elaborates by saying, “I don’t think we should overlook by any measure the fact that the US has sent aircraft carriers to the South China Sea. There is a lot of signalling going on here from Washington’s part, to project power and, perhaps, an implicit warning to China to ease up on its provocations there.”
On the possibility of a war, going by Secretary Pompeo’s mood, Kugelman added, “I wouldn’t go that far. As hostile as the US-China relationship has become, I don’t expect a conflict. Neither side wants one, and neither side can afford one. Expect plenty of angry rhetoric—and especially from both presidential candidates on the US election campaign trail—and more provocations from China in areas that are a key to US strategic interests.”
US’ strategic interests currently include India, ASEAN nations, Taiwan and Hong Kong and the Quad alliance partners. The “virtual battle front—the Indo-Pacific region” has many genuine reasons to be one in the near future. Satu P Limaye, Vice President and Director of East West Center in Washington, is an expert on the Indo-Pacific region. He says, China will persistently press reunification with Taiwan and territorial and maritime claims across the region. It has used force before and will continue to use a combination of force and grey zone tactics. The US appreciates the China challenges to Taiwan and territorial and maritime claims and is seeking to develop capabilities and to work with allies and partners on deterrence, dissuading and defending against China.
Hinting that the US-China rift is here to stay, Limaye said: “China sees Taiwan and Hong Kong as part of its reunification and territorial claims. I see no prospect of China backing down on these claims and efforts at reunification.”
Another Asia expert and Director in Hudson Institute, Aparna Pande explains the shift in US policy against China by saying, “For some years now, the US has changed its view about China’s long-term objectives. The US strategic community understands that China’s aim of global pre-eminence is harmful to American national interests. Secretary Pompeo, both in his tweets and in his speech, has addressed China’s latest moves, from Hong Kong to Senkaku islands to South China Sea and the India-China border. The US views India as a strong strategic partner and will always support a democracy against an autocracy.”
Will China see this as a threat or defy the US military challenge in the Indo-Pacific region? Kugelman says, “I think it’s a combination of many things. On the one hand this is China sending a message that it can stage these provocations just because it can. In effect, while much of the world-including the US is bogged down by Covid-19, China has sufficiently recovered and has the ability to demonstrate strength and clout. This is also a case of defiance. While the world has developed a consensus in opposition to China’s problematic initial response to Covid-19, Beijing is keen to show that it’s still a global player to be reckoned with.”
Limaye argues that he doesn’t see “China being arbitrarily assertive”, but he wants the US to work against the challenges posed by China. The EWC Director told this newspaper: “It has clear though expansive illegal claims and threatening actions and coercion.
In other words, China has national sovereignty ambitions outside of international law and frightening to neighbours. The US should continue to work with allies and partners to refine and increase deterrence, dissuasion and defence.”
Pande, however, echoes Kugelman. She added: “China has the ability to make multiple moves across various theatres and it has done so taking advantage of global focus on Covid-19. China has done so both for domestic reasons (to shore up legitimacy and show strength) and for international reasons (change the global narrative that blamed China for Covid-19 and again demonstrate China’s military prowess).”
This is all part of a broader power game, with Beijing trying to push back against its bitter-and most powerful-rival, the US, says Kugelman adding: “One can draw a straight line between China’s increasingly muscular moves in the South China Sea, its worrisome rhetoric and moves with Hong Kong and Taiwan, and increasing US support for Hong Kong and Taiwan—even as the US-China relationship continues to plummet.”
The experts see a close relation between China’s growing anger and frustration over its worsening ties with the US and the recent “bloody” border clashes with Indian forces on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Limaye says, the causes of the most recent flare up of border clashes between China and India are the most serious in decades. He said: “Precisely why is unclear. The basic problem of both countries un-demarcated LAC and ongoing efforts to reinforce capacity and infrastructure at the border appears to be the primary cause. I do think this is mostly a local issue rather than part of a grand strategy on the part of China.”
Pande, however, sees the India-China clashes as a product of many factors, but the key point is that China is a revisionist power that has never accepted the borders it inherited and has always sought to change them.
“The internal domestic legitimacy challenges faced by President Xi Jinping and desire to push back against any internal or external criticism are additional immediate reasons,” Pande said.
To Kugelman, China’s anger against India is a “combination of factors”. He says, “Unhappiness with Indian infrastructure building, opposition to India’s Article 370 repeal—which, let’s not forget, affected Ladakh—and a strong desire to send defiant messages to Washington and New Delhi as their relationship grows, and to a broader international community that has hit out at China for its initial coronavirus responses.”
Pande sees China “miscalculating” in the recent border clashes with India. “If India rises above these challenges and becomes the global player that countries like the US and others in Asia would like India to become, then China will have truly made a mistake with the border clashes,” Pande said.
Additionally, the growing Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region may alienate Beijing further from Washington’s diplomatic and economy channels. Added Kugelman: “If anything, China’s assertiveness will only cause the US to double down on its partnerships with its treaty allies—such as South Korea and Japan—that are directly impacted by Beijing’s South China Sea moves, and to accentuate the important role that Washington envisions India playing in the US Indo-Pacific strategy.”
Not to miss some key players, an expert in Southeast Asia and Indo-Pacific, Limaye feels that Sri Lanka and Myanmar are increasingly important in a contested Indo-Pacific region.
“The US reopened full relations with Myanmar in 2012, but they are quite limited on the security front. Sri Lanka has received more attention. The US should continue to seek opportunities to work with both including through the maritime security initiative and with other allies and partners such as India and Japan,” Limaye concluded.