Compacts To Collar China – Analysis – Eurasia Review
By Vice-Admiral (ret’d) Vijay Shankar *
A historical analogy may be needed to fully understand the looming conflict between Chinese authoritarianism and the uneasy democracies of the world. As World War I approached, Germany pursued a combination of militarism, authoritarian diplomacy, nationalism and the spirit of the chasm in order to achieve its political goals, despite the risk of war.
An observer of contemporary geopolitics would not fail to point out the similarities between 20th century Germany and 21st century China, especially in terms of China’s rapid economic growth, the military musculature that is at the heart of its geopolitical vision, its ambitions, its nationalism and its instincts for realpolitik. A critical assumption of China’s leadership is that this new era of rejuvenation will progress according to the scenario, which means questionable economic deals and coercion. However, this assumption is wrong. A confrontation is brewing, however involuntary, because nationalism and the predatory economy are as much a source of conflict as counter-force and economic rivalry.
The strategic culture of Chinese leadership is driven by two dynamics: Confucian ideology and realpolitik. The first is a legacy from China’s past, while the second draws its strength from the rigidity of a totalitarian regime and its propensity for “power politics”. This presents a dangerous cocktail. Confucian ideology cherishes virtue and conservatism; much of it depends on the autocrat’s sagacity to speak on behalf of society. However, for an unrepresentative nationalist state, realpolitik places power and the threat of its use at the heart of the conduct of international relations. Beijing’s territorial claims coupled with the strategic culture of its leaders provide both an incentive and an artifice for conflict.
China’s economic policies are predatory, which is one of the main reasons for the opacity of its transactions. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) opposes any awkward transparency that might force product standardization and process disclosure. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was supposed to provide billions of dollars in infrastructure finance to countries in Asia, Africa and Europe, has turned into a huge debt trap.
To interpret China’s international and domestic behavior, one has to look over the âGreat Wallâ and beyond the âLong Marchâ. The former was designed to hold back raiders from the north, but its 1,800-year completion came, ironically, at a time when invaders ruled the country. On the other hand, the âLong Marchâ was a bloody retreat into a civil war that brought out great loss of life and ruthless control. Both events were internally “grueling,” and even viewed in retrospect, they provide no basis for arguing for the use of power in today’s strategic environment. It is therefore not surprising that the CCP willingly uses force when it perceives a window of vulnerability or a window of opportunity closing in potential victims.
China’s geopolitical goals are not secret. President Xi Jinping wants to consolidate China’s control over important lands and waterways that the âcentury of humiliationâ has ostensibly wrested from its influence. These areas include Hong Kong, Taiwan, parts of Indian Territory, and 80% of the East and South China Seas. Contradictions arise when the use of force is tempered by the principles of Confucian thought. This is why, for example, the Korean War ended in a caustic stalemate; the purpose and outcome of the 1979 Vietnam War remains obscure; the frenzied creation of man-made islands for military bases in the South China Sea tramples established international standards and the recent skirmishes in Ladakh remain a continuum of the 1962 standoff. We are dangerously on the cusp of an era of turbulence .
At the right time, in response to China’s historic aggressive maneuvers, the announcement of a new trilateral alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS) and the continuation of the strategic security dialogue between the Japan, Australia, India and the United States (Quad) have made it amply clear that countering China in the Indo-Pacific is their number one priority. Ironically, Beijing’s recent white paper “National Defense in a New Era” described its territorial ambitions in the South and East China Seas, the Yellow Sea, Taiwan and Ladakh, and warned against its willingness to use force if his ambitions were threatened.
The most visible part of UKUS is the transfer of eight nuclear powered submarines (SSNs). Clearly, SSNs will not be available to Australia for the next decade and a half, but the transfer provides the basis for denial operations in those waters and provides access to a host of futuristic capabilities. AUKUS ‘mission is complemented by the Quad featuring a new security architecture that combines military and economic prowess between states that share the vision of a free and rules-based Indo-Pacific. The will to undertake a strategic confrontation against revisionism is thus underlined. Proponents of the balance of power, rightly, see a visible display of collective power as the only way to soften Beijing’s aggressive expansionism.
It is clear that these initiatives have made China nervous. immediate statements in the media and politics. In a speech to commemorate the CCP’s centenary, Xi vowed that those who hinder the rise of China will have “their heads bleeding against a great steel wall.”
States have become less enthusiastic about Chinese markets and more worried about its worrying strategic intentions. Fearing a forced unification, Taiwan is tightening its ties with the United States. In another example, Japan is engaged in its biggest military build-up since the Cold War. India is preparing strike forces along China’s borders, strategizing to close vital sea lanes in the Indian Ocean, and forging partnerships that threaten China’s vulnerabilities. Australia opens its north coast to American forces. France, Germany and the United Kingdom send warships to the Indo-Pacific to assert their strategic rights. Meanwhile, China’s questionable role in spreading the COVID-19 pandemic has left it under siege.
We started with an analogy with pre-WWI Germany. It can be assumed that given the nuclear surplus, the rise of China, with the burden of a “century of humiliation”, will require a strategy moderated by tolerance and accommodation, rather than by principles of pass. But the other truth is that fear of war, for authoritarian regimes like China, coexists with belligerence and heightened nationalist sentiments. It also stimulates profitable involvement in relentless preparation for war, even if it advances the concern for the survival of the dispensation. Here is China’s striking resemblance to pre-WWI Germany. This demonstrates the need to stick necklaces on China with unified actions that threaten the survival of the regime and challenge its warmongering in the Indo-Pacific.
*Vice-Admiral (ret’d) Vijay Shankar is Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, and former Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Forces Command of India.