Author : Sushant Sareen

Originally Published 2020-07-06 09:45:04 Published on Jul 06, 2020
China: Who will bell the cat?

Amidst a tense border stand-off with China, Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing Indian troops in Leh said that the age of expansionism is over and that this is the age of development. He added for good measure that such expansionist forces are either destroyed or forced into retreat. Modi didn’t name the great bully of Asia. He didn’t need to. The Chinese reacted by denying China was ‘expansionist’ and claimed that China’s disputes with its neighbours were exaggerated and fabricated. But denials cannot airbrush Chinese expansionism, bullying, intimidation, threats, predatory economic policies (including debt-trap diplomacy).

Signs of Chinese assertiveness have been visible for sometime, only no one was really ready to recognise the reality staring them in the face, much less do something, anything, about it. Virtually every country looked at the ominous rise of China as a benign development. They turned a blind eye to China’s roguish behaviour, until they could no longer brush under the carpet the monster they had created and which they now confront. China, in recent months, has quite brazenly started to flex it’s muscles and browbeat, bully, intimidate, threaten not just smaller countries in the neighbourhood, but also some of the bigger powers. Clearly, the old policy of ‘hide your strength, bide your time’ has given way to what is now called ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy – an in-your-face, aggressive, abrasive, and arrogant style of dealing with other countries.

It is this self-confidence – some would call it over-confidence – that has made China open multiple fronts against other countries. There is already an on-going trade war with the US which is now looking like the start of Cold War 2.0. But alongside, the Chinese have opened up fronts against Australia, Japan, India, Vietnam, Myanmar, Bhutan, Taiwan, Philippines. China’s strong-arm tactics in Hong Kong have meant that countries like the UK, Canada and others are also pushing back. There are other smaller countries which have been watching and suffering China’s overbearing attitude but have been keeping quiet for now.

The Chinese assessment seems to be that they are economically and militarily powerful enough to open multiple fronts at the same time and still come out on top. This assessment is based on a calculation that, apart from the US, all the other fronts that China has opened can be dealt with individually at the same time. To be sure, if all these countries were to confront China together, they would form a formidable economic, military and technological force to cut China to size. But if each of these countries is going to do this on their own, none of these fronts will pose a significant challenge to China which can bring its considerable hard and soft power to bear against them. The Chinese anyway don’t see much chance in the short, and perhaps even medium term, where these multiple fronts coalesce and confront China jointly. And by the time they do coalesce, China would have done what it wanted to do and would be ready to smoke the peace pipe, on its terms.

Late as it is, the epiphany about the threat China poses is hopefully not too late. The problem, however, is that there is as yet no clarity, much less a cogent and coherent plan, on how to contain, constrict, cauterise the monumental folly of having facilitated the rise of China. What is worse, there is no one stepping up to the plate to take leadership of a possible alliance arrangement. The US which would normally be the natural leader of such an alliance is politically just too distracted, divided and even in disarray, to forge this alliance. The American establishment might be ready to do this, but it is not clear if the American political class and corporates are ready. Not only is there no leadership of this putative alliance, there is also no structure or framework for such an alliance. In short, there is as yet no one who is ready to bell the cat.

While many analysts in India have spoken in favour of junking the hoary and quite meaningless mantra of ‘strategic autonomy’ and to become part of such an alliance, at the political level there is as yet no clarity on whether India is ready to enter such an alliance? Doing so will involve major compromises and significant adjustments. This will take some doing for Indians, who are very prickly and jealously guard their sovereignty. Over the years, Indians have always demanded complete reciprocity, even equality, especially from countries more powerful than their own. They will now have to learn to live with the asymmetry in relations between alliance partners, something that is inherent in a formal treaty arrangement between countries with vast power differentials.

A security alliance arraigned against Chinese expansionism is only one part of the strategic push-back. It will amount to very little until China is attacked where it hurts – economically. The economy is what catapulted China to a position of consequence, and it is denial of markets, shifting of production lines and supply chains that will deal the biggest blow to the bully. Without US, EU, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, India, and some of the bigger South East Asian countries, large parts of the Middle-East, what will China be left with? Pakistan? To be sure, denying markets and shifting supply chains can’t happen overnight. But once the trickle becomes a torrent, the bully’s balloon will start getting deflated.

This commentary originally appeared in Mail Today.

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Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador   ...

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