Why China's habit of picking fights with India and other middle powers is not a smart strategy

Sreemoy Talukdar

The nature of the rise of the United States post Second World War as the global hegemon was fundamentally different from the rise of China in the 21st century. The American model was incumbent on showcasing and even evangelizing the model of liberal democracy as a system that ensured economic success and geopolitical prowess while safeguarding political rights.

The US fought wars to secure its interests, including some needless and immoral ones, but it also struck alliances and treaties and used its position as the global hegemon to implement an international order founded on a rules-based system to regulate the governance of global commons, economic exchanges and management of peace and security. During the Cold War, the US in certain cases even helped European nations or Japan find its feet economically to counter the rise of its strategic rival USSR.

In contrast, the rise of China has been guided by a grievance narrative. The Middle Kingdom suffers from a sense of injury over what it calls a 'Century of Humiliation' when its wealth, power and cultural heritage fell to attacks from external and internal forces leading to "the most dire and tragic time in the nation's history".

China now seeks to return to its position of pre-eminence and become the new global hegemon based on a "few lessons" it claims to have learnt. The Chinese Communist Party has made wealth and power its "paramount goals". It believes that "weakness and technological backwardness are fatal", weakness in a state invites exploitation and "only strength and wealth can earn a nation respect and preserve sovereignty."

The grievance narrative has led China to assume the role of an aggressive, autocratic superpower that has scant respect for the rules-based international order. It has amassed enough economic, military and soft power to impose a new geopolitical and geoeconomic order where the Middle Kingdom's interests will be eternally paramount. Accordingly, China has set about creating a new space for itself by trampling on the feet of others.

China uses its $14 trillion economy €" the world's second-largest €" as a weapon to secure its political objectives and bully countries that criticize its policies. Its Belt and Road Initiative has saddled infrastructure-hungry nations around the globe with unsustainable debt leading to China usurping strategic assets in return. Beijing is also expanding rapidly its naval presence, buying up critical infrastructure and triggering alarm within NATO, and apart from posing a technological and ideological challenge to the West, China is also busy picking fights with nearly all its neighbours and putting pressure on littoral nations on the Indo-Pacific led by a medieval smash-and-grab territorial lust.

Sovereignty with Chinese characteristics

For instance, based on an imaginary 'nine-dash line' that has no legal basis, China claims almost the entire South China Sea that has huge hydrocarbon resources, is a prime maritime trade route and holds paramount strategic importance for all the littoral nations that have overlapping claims. China has also claimed the South China Sea archipelago of Paracel and Spratly island chains (contested by Taiwan and Vietnam) based on historical, presumptive sovereignty.

In recent months, China has harassed Indonesia by invading its maritime border, targeted a Japanese maritime destroyer, sank a Vietnamese fishing boat, went into a naval standoff with the US over disrupting Malaysia's exploration activity, sent fighter jets over Taiwan airspace and introduced a new language on Taiwan's unification to bully Taipei, subverted Hong Kong's autonomy by imposing a national security law and locked horns with India again in the high Himalayas at multiple locations along the Line of Actual Control.

In most of these cases, China has been guided by imaginary grievances and perceived injuries, and nearly all of the Chinese actions are in "response" to provocations. The persistent border tension with India owes to the fact that the nearly 4000 km-long LAC lies un-demarcated and un-delineated, and China has kept it this way because it serves its purpose.

Strategy of deliberate obfuscation

China has deliberately refrained from exchanging maps so that India and China may resolve the long-standing dispute, and over decades has attempted to relentlessly alter the norms, change facts on the ground and shift the status quo to slowly but interminably change the political map. Each time it shifts the claim lines, China puts the onus of maintaining "peace and tranquillity" on the other side. And it has also cultivated deliberate obfuscation to hide its real motive behind this territorial aggression.

No one knows, yet, for instance, why China has launched its latest offensive against India in Ladakh €" the western sector of LAC.

According to some analysts, China is aggrieved over India's decision last year to turn Ladakh into a Union Territory and establish direct control, even though India has been at pains to clarify that this internal decision in no way impacts the boundary with China.

Some analysts have reasoned that China is reacting to India's infrastructure-building along the LAC and these bullying tactics are meant to interfere with India's effort to catch up with China, so that Beijing may lock in its comparative advantage in terms of local power balance in case of a conflict. Some have suggested that Chinese incursion into India's territory along LAC is in line with China's new aggressive tactics elsewhere to quell internal unease over the pandemic.

Yet these are all speculations. The governments are tightlipped and we don't really know why China intruded into territory claimed by India and forced New Delhi into yet another military standoff €" the fourth in this decade. China has the requisite hard power to pull off such stunts and keep India unsettled and each time it does so, New Delhi must do the hard grind through military deployment and diplomatic engagements to restore status quo ante while taking care that the dispute does not escalate into an armed conflict and India's sovereignty is not compromised. As the bigger power, China has no reason to negotiate with India when it can occupy the territory as the aggressor. China does so because it can.

Consequences of China's aggression

In bullying lesser powers, however, China is also shaping their strategic choices and forcing the nations into changing their external posture for a greater balancing manoeuvre. For instance, China has successfully goaded an indolent India into exploring its strategic options and display balancing behaviour more prominently than it has ever before.

Mindful of the power gap between the two, India has always been wary of offending China's heightened sensitivities as Cold War 2.0 intensifies between the US and China. However, as it remains locked militarily in the mountainous regions of Ladakh in response to Chinese penetrations on Indian claim lines, there have been subtle and not-so-subtle signalling by New Delhi in coordination with Washington indicating a calibrated pressure tactic.

Unlike during the 2017 Doklam standoff, the US has been vocal about Chinese transgressions on Indian territory with statements coming in from US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and stinging comments from Alice Wells, the outgoing principal deputy assistant secretary of state for south and central Asian affairs in Donald Trump administration, who has castigated China's "provocations and disturbing behaviour" and the threat posed by China to the international system.

More recently, Eliot L Engel, chairman of the US house committee on foreign affairs, in a statement called out China for "demonstrating once again that it is willing to bully its neighbors rather than resolve conflicts according to international law."

The Indian readout of the Narendra Modi-Donald Trump telephone conversation mentioned, rather unusually, that the "situation on the India-China border" and need for reforms in World Health Organisations were discussed (https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/32719/Telephone+conversation+between+Prime+Minister+and+President+of+USA ) €" issues that New Delhi understands may trigger China. And it did. Soon after the MEA released the statement, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said in Beijing that "the two sides are capable of properly resolving relevant issues through dialogue and consultation. There is no need for any third party to intervene." https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/t1785528.shtml

China is insecure about a closer India-US strategic embrace, yet through its coercive behaviour it has hastened that very possibility. If the coordinated messaging with the US displayed India's balancing behaviour to mitigate the heightened threat posed by Beijing, some of New Delhi's diplomatic initiatives €" coinciding with the standoff in Ladakh €" denote that India is not unafraid to push some buttons as countermeasures to contains Chinese aggression, and is willing to engage more with middle powers to adopt a more resilient posture vis-à-vis China.

We saw MPs from BJP, the ruling party, virtually attend the swearing-in ceremony of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and send congratulatory messages and acting director general of India-Taipei Association represent India at the ceremony in Taipei. https://theprint.in/world/modi-govts-subtle-message-to-china-2-bjp-mps-attend-taiwan-presidents-swearing-in/426731/. Expectedly, India's manouvre drew a sharp response from China. https://www.livemint.com/news/india/outraged-china-asks-india-to-refrain-from-supporting-taiwan-11590286367628.html

India-Australia and middle power coalition

Whereas in the past India has been coy of playing the Taiwan card, the development this time indicates that the Modi government is not averse to taking a more confrontational posture. The biggest indication that India is moving towards a nascent coalition of 'middle powers' to balance the geopolitical risk posed by China came last week when prime minister Modi held a virtual summit with Australian prime minister Scott Morrison.

Among the many headlines that emerged from the interaction, worth noting is the elevation of bilateral ties into 'comprehensive strategic partnership' and the signing of a military logistics pact that will enable greater interoperability between the two navies and allow military ships and aircraft access to each other's bases.

Ironically, the greater synergy between the two Indo-Pacific democracies is being underwritten by China.

While Beijing has been constantly harassing India at the border, challenging New Delhi's regional interests, dragging India to the United Nations over New Delhi's decision to abrogate Article 370, blocking India's bid to enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group, collaborating with Pakistan to keep India off-balance in the South Asian theatre, China has also sought to punish Australia €" by exploiting its economic leverage €" for Canberra's move to seek a probe into the origins of the pandemic, and for resisting Chinese interference and espionage in Australia's domestic policies and politics.

As Sydney Morning Herald wrote after China threatened trade boycott and Chinese state-controlled media called Australia "a chewing gum stuck on the sole of China's shoes", "the virus, and the Chinese Communist Party's conduct, have exposed the urgent imperative for Australia to diversify its risk and defend its sovereignty."

Consequently, China's bullying tactics is now shaping the external posture of India and Australia and the middle powers are now deepening military integration and cooperating across a range of different issues including maritime security for a free and open Indo-Pacific, defence, supply chains, critical minerals, terrorism, agriculture, water resource management, education, culture, tourism, economic ties and the works.

In releasing a joint statement on "shared vision for maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific," and upgrading the 2+2 format to the level of foreign and defence ministers to discuss strategic issues, the driving force behind the integration is clear.

If Modi-Morrison summit displayed a bold agenda and an even greater promise for mitigating the security challenge in Indo-Pacific, credit must go to China for helping India break its habitual inertia. As National University of Singapore director C Raja Mohan has written in Indian Express, "geopolitical churn in the Indo-Pacific€¦ has opened up a massive space for consequential security cooperation between India and Australia. Delhi and Canberra know that neither of them can rely on the old formulae for securing their interests, thanks to the growing Chinese assertiveness and the uncertain US political trajectory."

'Quad' gets institutionalised

Meanwhile, the quad €" the grouping of four Indo-Pacific democracies €" met in a video conference on March 20 to discuss the pandemic and also included three new 'partners' in New Zealand, Vietnam and South Korea €" an arrangement that was called 'quad-plus' in Indian media. As Heritage Foundation scholar Jeff Smith points out in National Interest, "the Quad-Plus Dialogue assembles officials and experts from the Quad countries along with a rotating external partner to explore areas of common interest. These "Plus" partners have included the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, France, and Sri Lanka."

The weekly arrangement is focused on sharing 'best practices' and collaborates on the pandemic response, covering issues like cooperation on vaccine development, challenges of stranded citizens, assistance to countries in need and mitigating the impact on the global economy, etc., according to a Ministry of External Affairs readout. However, this is also an indication that the 'quad' mechanism is being formalized and institutionalised.

As ORF distinguished fellow Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan has pointed out, New Zealand's move to join the grouping, albeit on the issue of pandemic response and India's growing comfort with a platform that is vehemently opposed by China indicate that the strategic calculus of many nations has begun to change due to China's assertive behaviour.

"The very fact that there are more countries over the last year endorsing the Indo-Pacific concept is an indicator of things to come. ASEAN's adoption of an Outlook on the Indo-Pacific in 2019, following previous reticence to explicitly use the Indo-Pacific formulation, is a telling example. The slow but steady institutionalisation of the Quad suggests that its future expansion is a real possibility."

Worth noting, in this context, the telephone conversation between PM Modi and Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday.

Modi described the conversation as "useful" where Covid-19 and "other issues" were discussed. An MEA statement on the telephone conversation mentions "defence cooperation" and the fact that "India sees the Philippines as a vital partner in the Indo-Pacific Region."

Under Duterte, the Philippines, a US ally, has relied on bandwagoning with China to secure its interests. That still hasn't saved the Philippines from Chinese wrath. What we see therefore is increasing pragmatism from littoral nations to contain the outcome of China's aggressive rise.

Similarly, Chinese military posturing and economic coercion has forced Japan to foster an alliance based on "middle power solidarity". Notably, this change in posture is happening despite the fact that many of these nations such as Japan, Australia, South Korea have huge economic exposure to China and their economies are at risk of falling prey to Chinese belligerence.

Therefore, these middle powers are likely to forge solidarity based on the twin planks of maritime and economic security. As a Japan Times article points out, "To grapple with the growing challenge of economic coercion by Beijing, Japan should forge a consensus with other middle powers€¦ This grouping would help diversify the economic and trade portfolios of participating countries so they are not so deeply affected by the deployment of economic coercion as a tool to cajole and extort states when they disagree with Beijing."

We see some of this strategy at work in the India-Australia alignment. Finally, China's strategy of picking a fight with everyone will have long-term consequences. In Asia, China has risked antagonizing India that has a proud civilizational heritage, a billion-plus population of young age and a growing middle-class €" factors that had aided China's rise. It is a myopic strategy.

Also See: China makes hay while US burns, weaves opportunistic narrative to hit out at rival and mask its own shortcomings

'You can bark, but you can't bite': A look at why China may well call the world's bluff on Hong Kong

Expanding G7: India should see Donald Trump's suggestion as an opportunity, not a geopolitical curveball that might upset China

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