Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Nov 21, 2018
US message on Indo-Pacific has China rattled

< lang="EN-US">China is clearly rattled by the stiffening of American spine and the emerging coalition of like-minded countries.< lang="EN-US"> 

< lang="EN-US">How else does one explain China’s multiple tantrums and brutish behaviour last week especially at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit? The undiplomatic conduct showed a complete disconnect with the larger world, not the confidence of a superpower ready to take the reins.< lang="EN-US"> 

< lang="EN-US">On display was a full week of Chinese diplomats behaving badly -- from barring international media from venues they had the right to cover, to flooding the streets of Port Moresby with Chinese flags despite the host government’s objections, to barging into rooms to demand changes in the statement to allegedly causing the crash of the Internet while US Vice President Mike Pence was speaking -- the bullying shocked even China’s few friends.< lang="EN-US"> 

< lang="EN-US">Chinese diplomats refused to sign on to the joint statement because of a single line, and then applauded when the negotiations collapsed, showing they never wanted to reach a consensus. Their paranoia was apparently sparked by this sentence: “We agree to fight protectionism including all unfair practices.”< lang="EN-US"> 

< lang="EN-US">It was seen as an arrow pointed at Beijing and thus the desperate fight. But it’s hardly surprising given China’s concerted “narrative diplomacy” – carefully inserting loaded phrases into United Nations documents that reflect Chinese “thoughts” while resisting words deemed hostile. < lang="EN-US"> 

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< lang="EN-US">In fact, China has been scoring so many own goals lately, it could be said that currently it is alienating countries faster than it is befriending them. It is like a giant flailing its arms but unable to grab the shiny object. < lang="EN-US"> 

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< lang="EN-US">The Chinese worldview of a hierarchical order is colliding headlong with the US concept of balance of power. The Chinese believe the world is stable because of hierarchy not because everyone is created equal.   < lang="EN-US"> 

< lang="EN-US">The two paradigms are so different, there is complete incomprehension in Beijing about why the others don’t agree.< lang="EN-US"> 

< lang="EN-US">Edward Luttwak, an American military strategist, had identified China’s ailment as “great state autism” in his 2012 book, “The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy.” He defined the malady when a country’s lack of situational awareness reduces its ability to assess international realities clearly. < lang="EN-US"> 

< lang="EN-US">China intimidates and flexes its muscle to ensure its sway but is constantly surprised when countries at the receiving end rebuff it or begin forming coalitions against it. Luttwak said China suffered from a particularly virulent form of state autism. < lang="EN-US"> 

< lang="EN-US">Europe is the latest to come to grips with reality that “they will not change China while it may change them.” In the wake of aggressive Chinese inroads into various European countries, the European Union on Tuesday agreed to investigate foreign investments in critical sectors and protect strategic technologies, aerospace and critical infrastructure from Beijing’s acquisition spree.< lang="EN-US"> 

< lang="EN-US">It will be a while before the 28 EU members finalise the rules since some members such as Greece are already heavily compromised by China. But as a European diplomat told Reuters, the new rules mark the end of the age of “European naivety.”< lang="EN-US"> 

< lang="EN-US">There is little doubt that if it came to a choice between China and the United States – even under the current unpredictable leadership of President Donald Trump – the west will stick together. The Europeans agree with the substance of US policy and on the need for a transparent, rules-based world order not dominated by China. < lang="EN-US"> 

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< lang="EN-US">The Europeans also realise that the new US policy on China has bipartisan support. The Democrats and Republicans are united in the “enough is enough” doctrine and that Washington’s stance is unlikely to change under a new administration. < lang="EN-US"> 

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< lang="EN-US">For more than a decade the West disregarded issues such as human rights while doing business with China but with internment camps for Uighurs and daily reports of repression coming out, Washington has put human rights and religious freedom back on the agenda. < lang="EN-US"> 

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< lang="EN-US">The Asian scenario is far more complex and therefore more prone of exploitation by China. Beijing is already deeply embedded in East and Southeast Asian economies and has made huge inroads in South Asian countries. It has weaponised trade, creating constituencies of gullible and conniving bureaucrats and politicians. < lang="EN-US"> 

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< lang="EN-US">This has happened alongside Beijing’s strategy of sowing discord in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to prevent consensus on basic rules for years and steadily encroaching on India’s neighbourhood.< lang="EN-US"> 

< lang="EN-US">As Admiral Phil Davidson, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, told the Halifax Security Forum last week, China has been pressuring ASEAN to give Beijing de facto veto authority over who member countries will “sail, fly, train and operate with in the South China Sea.”< lang="EN-US"> 

< lang="EN-US">Meanwhile, what was a “Great Wall of Sand” just three years ago is now a “Great Wall of SAMs” with Chinese militarization of illegally built artificial islands in South China Sea with anti-ship missiles, electronic jammers and surface-to-air missiles. Incidentally, Xi had promised the Obama Administration in 2015 he wouldn’t militarise those features. < lang="EN-US"> 

< lang="EN-US">What happened in South China Sea can well happen in the Indian Ocean and around. And this is what New Delhi should focus on while deciding on the contours of its Indo-Pacific strategy. Multi-alignment can work but a more reliable mechanism – the Quadrilateral security dialogue for example – needs to be embraced to manage the China challenge. 

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Seema Sirohi

Seema Sirohi

Seema Sirohi is a columnist based in Washington DC. She writes on US foreign policy in relation to South Asia. Seema has worked with several ...

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