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China and the US in Asia: Four Scenarios for the Future

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A few months ago, the author wrote an article for the RIAC website on possible variants of the new international architecture on the European continent that might take shape over the next few years. Arguing that European politics will turn towards Moscow–Brussels relations, the article attempted to construct several scenarios for Europe’s future depending on the possible development trajectories of Russia and the EU through 2024. The scenario matrix for Greater Europe was built along two axes: a weak (fragmented) EU versus a strong (coherent) EU and Russia without reforms (running by inertia) versus Russia with reforms. The outcome was four generalized scenarios (“Eurasian Melting Pot,” “Two-Fold Greater Europe,” “No Man’s Land,” and “New Cold War”).

The article was viewed many times and prompted multiple comments, including questions as to whether the proposed scenario scheme was applicable to other regions, particularly Asia. The text below is a brief sketch of a scenario matrix for Asia, or rather for its greater part. West Asia – from Iran to the Eastern Mediterranean – appears to be an independent sub-system of international relations developing according to its own laws and requires a separate matrix.

Choosing independent variables

Even if we exclude the Middle East, which is hugely important for the region, Asia remains a far greater, far more complex, and far more fragmented continent than Europe. There are no thousands of years of common history, no clearly dominant religion, no apparent analogue to “European values.” Multilateral institutions in Asia are not as well-developed as in Europe and security problems – from nuclear proliferation to border conflicts – are more numerous. Economic paradigms and political regimes in Asia are less homogeneous than in Europe; any choice will be subjective and overlook important bifurcation points in the development of Asian order/chaos.

Nonetheless, we might suppose that development of international relations in Asia in the coming years will be largely determined by two basic factors. First, the dynamic of correlation between the economic, academic, technological, military, strategic, and political potentials of China and the US. The general tendency here is obvious: over at least the last three decades, the balance of power has been steadily shifting toward China. There is no reason to believe that this tendency will change in the near future. Of course, the process is not linear: accelerations, decelerations, halts and even backward movements are possible, This is especially true of the military, strategic, and political components of a national power, as they are less prone to inertia and are more flexible than the economic, academic, and technological components.

Second, Asia’s future largely depends on the correlation between elements of collaboration and conflict, stability and instability, inter-dependence and protectionism, universalism and particularism, moderation and extremism, etc., in the continent’s development. Traditionally, most Asian countries have succeeded in finding an acceptable balance between the imperatives of the region’s economic development and those of the domestic political agenda. However, maintaining this balance in the near future is far from guaranteed. The general growth of nationalism, rise of religious fundamentalism in Asia, increasing military spending, resurrection of old hostile historic narratives, risks of WMD proliferation, and rise of international terrorism suggest considering a “confrontational” scenario for the international system’s evolution as at least possible, if not the most probable scenario.

Combining the horizontal axis (which records the changing balance of power between China and the US) with the vertical one (which measures the correlation between elements of collaboration and conflict in international relations in Asia), we get a matrix of four development scenarios for China-US relations and for the international system on the Asian continent as a whole. Naturally, this matrix is highly schematic and in no way exhausts all the development possibilities of international relations in Asia. Nonetheless, it can serve as a starting point for more comprehensive and more complete scenario forecasts concerning the future of the Asian continent.

Washington consensus 2.0

This scenario is based on the Trump Administration’s success in preserving – at least temporarily – the geopolitical status quo in Asia. In this scenario, the US is able to slow down or suspend entirely those changes to the balance of power between China and the US that are negative for the US. Economic development of the US accelerates while China’s economy decelerates significantly, accumulating fundamental structural problems. The economic pressure Washington consistently puts on Beijing bears fruit. The deficit in US-China trade decreases significantly. Trump succeeds in wringing concessions out of China on other fronts as well (currency exchange rates, non-tariff restrictions, intellectual property, etc.). There are no dramatic shifts in China’s favor in the military strategic balance between the two countries either: the consistent increase of China’s military spending is parried by large-scale efforts to modernize the US military, including its Navy.

At the same time, military political tensions on the Asian continent generally deescalate. Pyongyang freezes its nuclear and ballistic programs and the North Korean conflict gradually becomes less critical. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea remain unresolved, but they do not provoke bitter political crises in Southeast Asia. Economic interdependence between Asian states deepens and the expanding middle class in most Asian countries becomes the foundation of Asia’s political stability. The US returns to the idea of joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, taking into account new bilateral economic and trade agreements already signed with partners in the Asia Pacific. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership promoted by China is stalled by numerous multilateral and bilateral disputes on specific issues. Political extremism and international terrorism in Asia are on a downward trend. The arms race between Asia’s leading countries slows down, and in its place is competition in the economy and competition between social development models.

This scenario means preserving and, in some areas, bolstering American influence in Asia. The Pacific and Indian Oceans remain free for navigation, including navigation by the US and its allies’ Navies and Air Forces. Traditional American allies remain loyal to Washington even though they actively develop economic collaboration with China. US–China cooperation continues and expands in the G1.5 format rather than the G2, with the US the senior partner setting the rules of the game. It is even possible that the US and China will reach some agreements on nuclear arms control, although the US has a decisive nuclear advantage (particularly in sea- and air-based nuclear strategic forces).

On the other hand, the US continues to put pressure on China on such issues as human rights, civil society development, and Internet freedom. This pressure resonates with certain groups within China, particularly among educated urban youth and the growing Chinese middle class. Preservation and bolstering of America’s positions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans compel Beijing to pay greater attention to resource and transit options afforded by continental Eurasia, thereby increasing the significance of Russia and Central Asia for China’s strategy.

China–India Axis

In this scenario, the US does not succeed in slowing down further growth of China’s power in any of its manifestations: economic, research, technological, military, strategic, and political. Moreover, a new cyclical crisis in the American economy (2019–2020) speeds up the shift in the balance of power between the US and China in the latter’s favor. Washington’s positions in Asia are also undermined by the profound and ongoing domestic political crisis in the US that prevents Washington from conducting a consistent foreign policy. The US political establishment remains deeply split on the country’s optimal strategy regarding China: proponents of consistent “containment” of Beijing are opposed by adherents of “engagement.” At the same time, the US’s harsh unilateral policies toward their partners and allies in Asia accelerate the relative decline in American presence in Asia. Washington’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has long-term negative consequences due to the US’s inability to exert a decisive influence on shaping new rules in Asia Pacific. On the other hand, China achieves major successes in structural revamping of its economy without sacrificing either sociopolitical stability or its high growth rate. China’s economy opens up, especially toward neighboring Asian states. China takes the place of the US as the chief proponent of free trade in Asia and in the world in general. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership steadily progresses; the free trade zone in Asia extends beyond its original geographic boundaries and gradually turns into a continent-wide integration project.

Asia’s military and political situation develops along the lines of the first scenario: elements of international cooperation come to exert ever greater dominance over elements of confrontation. A major military political crisis in Beijing-Washington relations is avoided; territorial and border conflicts gradually become less of an issue; the logic of economic interdependence wins over that of the geopolitical balance of power. The “reset” in China-India relations gains particular significance, comparable in its consequences to the “reset” in Russia-China relations in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. China, on the rise and confident in its power, agrees to significant concessions to India on border issues, recognizing India’s strategic leadership in South Asian trade and economic relations. India joins China’s “One Belt – One Road” project. The degree of India’s involvement in Asian trade increases rapidly.

Ultimately, Asia’s life is being determined by the emergent China–India axis, similar to the central role the Berlin-Paris axis played in West European integration in the second half of the 20th century. China–India cooperation is primarily economic but gradually spreads into the political. The US endeavors to balance the Beijing–New Delhi axis by boosting military political cooperation with India, but as India’s relations with China improve, New Delhi needs the US security umbrella less and less. Russia also nudges China’s leadership toward more active cooperation with India, since it is highly undesirable for Moscow to have to choose between Beijing and New Delhi. At the same time, additional risks emerge for Russia owing to Beijing possibly revising its economic and strategic priorities in favor of South Asia at the expense of Russia and Central Asia. Transforming the China-India axis into a fully-fledged China-India-Russia triangle remains Moscow’s strategic objective, primarily economically.

Since Washington loses positions in continental Asia, it has to rely mostly on its traditional allies on the periphery of the Asian continent, from Japan to Australia. With each passing year, these traditional allies find it increasingly hard to combine their pro-American military and political orientation with an economic reorientation toward China and the consolidation of Asia as a whole.

Multipolar balance of power

The scenario is based on preserving US hegemony on the continent (as in the first scenario), but under a significantly escalated military political situation in Asia. Increasing socioeconomic problems in most Asian countries, including China and India, lead to a rise in nationalism and political radicalism. Border conflicts and other territorial problems become the focus of national priorities, and populists bolster their positions in both democratic and authoritarian states on the continent. The arms race in Asia proceeds on an ever greater scale. Numerous attempts to agree on multilateral confidence-building military measures fail. From time to time, the continent is rocked by critical political crises and border clashes. Plans for economic unification of Asia fail under the onslaught of protectionism and bitter fights for resources.

Chronic political instability, separatist movements, religious conflicts, and numerous terrorist attacks prevent major infrastructural projects from being implemented on the continent. As a result, China’s “One Belt – One Road” project is realized in a reduced form with limited consequence for Asian countries. Instead of developing a single Asian economic space, most Asian states in their trade and economic strategies are oriented toward external markets (North America and Europe). Asian countries are locked in a fierce struggle over US and EU markets, allowing the West to secure profitable terms of trade with the East.

In such circumstances, the US can afford to play the role of an “offshore balancer”, maintaining a multilateral balance of power on the Asian continent and conducting a policy of “mediated” containment of China by providing incremental support to its real or potential opponents on the continent, including Japan, South Korea, ASEAN countries, Australia, New Zealand, and India. India is the principal, though not the only, counterbalance to China, and enters into a de-facto alliance with the US (or even becomes a de-jure American ally). Shipments of US arms to Asian countries increase. Bilateral and multilateral agreements with old US allies are renewed.

Containment of China, naturally, does not exclude Washington’s selective cooperation with Beijing, just as it does not exclude using the “Chinese menace” to further consolidate US positions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. China’s relative weakness and the numerous tensions among Asian countries allow Washington to minimize its immediate involvement in conflicts in Asia while maintaining a complex multilateral balance of power in Asia. In other words, Washington implements the strategy that the British Empire tried to implement with varying success in continental Europe in the 19th century (China’s closest analogue in this case being the Russian Empire).

New bipolarity

The fourth scenario entails a simultaneous rise of China (as in the second scenario) and a general slump in socioeconomic, military, and political stability in Asia (as in the third scenario). Growing challenges to national security in Asian countries make it increasingly difficult to preserve the freedom of political maneuver, and the countries face a harsh choice between Beijing and Washington. As a result, Asia and the international system as a whole is divided into “Chinese” and ”American” blocs locked in a political, military and strategic, and possibly economic confrontation. Like the Soviet-American bipolar world of the 20th century, this new bipolarity gradually establishes new rules of the game acceptable to both parties, adopting the requisite agreements and generating new mechanisms for arms control. One could even imagine emergence of some new “non-aligned movement” and countries defecting from one camp to the other.

The crucial question in this scenario is the location of the “great Asian rift.” If the US succeeds in enshrining today’s tendency of India-US strategic rapprochement, the rift will divide “maritime democracies” from “continental autocracies.” If the US fails, the rift will run between the Asian continent and the island states of the Pacific. On the other hand, India may take a stance similar to that of De Gaulle’s France: while remaining within the general framework of the “maritime democracies” partnership, it will not immediately participate in anti-China military alliances (as in 1966, when Paris withdrew from NATO’s military structure).

The new bipolarity will increase Taiwan’s strategic significance for the US, and the American strategy will counteract attempts at economic integration and political unification of Taiwan and China. The Japan-China confrontation will not only be preserved, butwill gain additional impetus. With regards to Russia, the emergence of a new bipolarity will increase Russia’s dependence on China, since attempts to retain a “diversified portfolio” of political investment in Asia by expanding cooperation with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, and India will inevitably run into the harsh logic of bipolar confrontation.

It is hard to say how the new bipolarity will work in a globalized and interdependent world. Will the parties succeed in separating economic collaboration from political confrontation? Will they discipline their “junior partners” and non-state actors in global politics? Will they agree on joint approaches to global problems? Today, hardly anyone is ready to offer answers to these questions. One thing is clear: the new bipolarity of the 21st century would, in any case, be less stable and dangerous than the old bipolarity of the past century. It would apparently, sooner or later, evolve toward one of the three preceding scenarios.

“Black swans”

Any forecast should contain references to “black swans.” These are critical events with hard-to-predict probability that can fully or greatly change the forecast. Several such events may be mentioned in creating a forecast for the Asian continent.

A large-scale military conflict in Asia. Although such a conflict does not appear particularly probable, the possibility cannot be entirely discounted. Setting aside the probability of violence escalating in certain Asian countries (Afghanistan, Myanmar, etc.) and of the situation destabilizing in one of the Central Asian states, we should keep in mind at least three variants of a large-scale war on the continent: (1) a war on the Korean peninsula involving the US and China; (2) naval clashes between China and the US or land clashes between China and India; (3) another border conflict between India and Pakistan escalating into a full-blown regional war. This conflict would have different impacts on China-US relations and on the situation in Asia as a whole but, in some way, would push the continent toward new strife and bipolarity and would limit the possibilities for economic unification of the continent.

The rise of Islamic radicalism. The Muslim population of Asia, even without the Middle East, will grow at rates outstripping the overall population growth of the continent. Islam is gaining particular influence in Southeast Asia, where some countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines) already have a network of international terrorist cells. A series of major terrorist attacks or attempts to seize power would have a great influence on both the political agenda in some Asian countries and on the priorities in their cooperation. For China, equally major challenges would be Islamic radicalism joining forces with separatist movements in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and growing discrimination against ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia. The common threat could become an additional stimulus to multilateral cooperation in security, but ethno-nationalism and religious intolerance will impose strict limits on such cooperation.

An unexpected and severe financial and economic crisis that far exceeds the Asian crisis of 1997–1998 and the global financial crisis of 2007–2008 in both scale and depth. Shaken foundations of Asian economies would lead to major adjustments to the continental balance of power, changes to the macroeconomic strategy of leading Asian countries, and negative consequences for sociopolitical stability in some countries. Such a crisis could result in a relative weakening of the “Asian periphery” and strengthening of the “Asian nucleus”, primarily China. Another possible outcome of financial turmoil would be another “fine-tuning” of the global monetary financial system. It appears unlikely, however, that if the monetary and financial dominance of the West is preserved, Asia would gain anything substantial from such “fine-tuning.” Rather, Asian countries would have to shoulder major expenses to emerge from the crisis.

A major technological breakthrough of global significance. A technological revolution in one of the principal areas of today’s economy (energy, transport, artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnologies, e-commerce, 3D-printing) is capable of changing significantly the established rules of the game in global economic relations. For instance, it could create opportunities for bringing much industrial production back into Europe and the US from Asia, cutting sharply the need for Asian labour force in individual manufacturing and non-manufacturing sectors and radically changing the geography of global investment. Economic and social consequences of a major technological breakthrough would have a significant impact on the entire world, but the biggest players in new forward-looking technologies would reap the major benefits. China remains such a player, and, with qualifications, so do India and Japan. Foreign political influence would further shift from traditional instruments (military power, raw materials, and energy resources) to non-traditional (human capital, education, innovations). At the same time, Asia might become the main victim of the next generation of international cybercrime, more comprehensive and larger in scale than previously recorded.

“An economic miracle” in Russia or Japan. Russia and Japan are two large Asian countries that, for a long time, have been developing much more slowly than their dynamic neighbours on the continent. The “relative weight” of Russia and Japan in Asia’s economy is steadily falling and so are, accordingly, their long-term possibilities for influencing the future of Asia’s political space. Russia and Japan also have similarly severe demographic problems not typical of most other countries on the continent. A further drop in the “relative weight” of the two countries on the continent is considered by leading actors both in Asia and beyond. The presumption is that, should current trends remain, Japan will follow in the wake of US policies in the Asia Pacific and Russia will follow that of China’s Asian policies. Even so, if Japan’s “Abenomics” or Russia’s “economic spurt” strategy during Vladimir Putin’s fourth presidential term succeed, the situation might change drastically. The configuration of continental balances will become far more complex and the new continental order is likely to be more stable.

First published in our partner RIAC

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East Asia

North Korea’s Nuclear Threat and East Asia’s Regional Security Stability

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Authors: Raihan Ronodipuro& Hafizha Dwi Ulfa*

The East Asian region’s anarchy system is colored by mutual distrust, which makes the countries in this region constantly competitive. There are both internal and external forces driving countries in this area to continue to improve their national security.

North Korea, like other East Asian nations, believes that it must continue to strengthen its armed forces in order to defend itself from external threats. Internally, North Korea is considered to have a juche philosophy, which emphasizes independence from other countries and emphasizes military force as a defensive policy.

Meanwhile, North Korea raises its military strength in self-defense efforts to balance the United States’ defense alliance with South Korea and Japan, where the alliance is perceived as a challenge to North Korea in the region.

Likewise, South Korea sees nuclear North Korea as a major threat to its security as a neighboring nation that threatens international peace and wishes North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Since the 1950s, North Korea has been working on developing nuclear missiles. North Korea’s production and testing of nuclear missiles has heightened tensions and fears in the East Asian region. North Korea has performed a series of nuclear missile drills, which are believed to be destabilizing the region’s atmosphere.

In 2006, this nuclear test was performed for the first time. This move attracted a strong reaction from the international community, with several nations, including Russia and China, who have diplomatic contacts with the communist state, condemning North Korea’s test action and urging all parties concerned to show caution in order to prevent regional tensions.China’s active involvement is also expected to have a positive impact, but in reality China always has a double role. Beijing finds itself caught in a dilemma in preventing North Korea nuclear strategist. In this context, China’s relations position with United States as an influential country in the region will have an important role for the nuclear settlement process on the Korean Peninsula.

Furthermore, China and the United States debated the prospect of a UN Security Council resolution in reaction to North Korea’s nuclear test. The international community is still concerned about North Korea’s ongoing nuclear production and research. The production of nuclear missiles by North Korea will strengthen the United States, South Korea, and Japan by improving military technology to fight the North Korean nuclear threat.

The presence of growing mistrust between countries could also spark a traditional arms race in East Asia. North Korea’s defiant posture is shown by the trials it continues to conduct, rendering the situation in the country more complicated and unpredictable. North Korea, South Korea, and Japan all agree that their countries must continue to strengthen their defense in order to protect themselves from external attacks.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons have three kinds of consequences: international stability, proliferation, and the nuclear nonproliferation policy. North Korea’s nuclear weapons production will increase security vigilance in the East Asian zone, potentially making events volatile.

This nuclear proliferation has a major effect on the stability of regional security in the East Asian region, and it has the potential to ignite a nuclear arms race among regional countries, as well as the expansion of capabilities among other countries with nuclear weapons, such as the United States, China, and Russia, as well as the rise of interest in nuclear weapons by a nation that does not have one.

To maintain equilibrium in an anarchist international system, such as the viewpoint of realism, a balance of power is needed. This power balance is complex in nature, and it can move in response to changing developments at both the national and international levels.Apart from the United States interests as an influential country in the East Asia geopolitics and geostrategy, it is hoped that United States can implement policies that maintain the stability and security of the East Asian region.

In the end, an equilibrium will arise, either through peace or through war. This is consistent with East Asia’s complex balance of power, in which one country’s defense policy affects other countries in the region, causing mistrust between countries to surface and color their relationship. Because of their mutual mistrust, these countries are able to use military force or wage war in the East Asian region.

In a realist perspective, the state is a rational actor, and the interactions carried out by the state are nothing other than the interests of the state itself, which is not unusual if the greedy existence of this state then creates a confrontation if there are gaps of interests between nations. In this situation, the public interest may be viewed as a weapon used by the state to accomplish its goals.

A state’s national interest also serves to defend its citizens and its territories. North Korea’s interest in nuclear production is motivated by a desire to strengthen its country’s defense in the face of external challenges, especially from the United States and South Korea. In this situation, it is clear that North Korea is attempting to amass as much strength as possible within its boundaries.

Then it is related to the theory of National Security, which is characterized as the allocation of resources for the development, execution, and implementation of what is known as a coherent facility, which is used by the state to achieve its country’s interests. North Korea’s nuclear program is designed to strengthen its national security defense and negotiating power. The presence of this nuclear weapon force, however, allows for the rise of an arms race and has an impact on security stability, especially in the East Asian region.

*Hafizha Dwi Ulfa is a Research Assistant of the Indonesian International Relations Study Center with focus analysis in ASEAN, East Asia, and Indo-Pacific studies.

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The Galwan Conflict: Beginning of a new Relationship Dynamics

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The 15th June, 2020 may very well mark a new chapter in the Indo-Chinese relationship and pave the way for totally new politico-strategic equations, shaping the way for a more complex and unstable world order in the near future. On this night, a bloody, violent and unusual armed clash took place between two of the world’s fiercest armies, Indian and Chinese, at the heights of Galwan Valley in Ladakh. Officially, India has admitted losing 20 of its soldiers, including a senior officer while China, continues to be discreet about PLA casualties and after a good 8-months hiatus, came up with a what everyone knows a blatant lie– a 4-death figure.

This border conflict however, has made the situation volatile between the two Asian powers. The borders between the two, almost 3,400 Kms continue to remain unclear and non-demarcated in the form of Line of Actual Control (LAC) and that is something the Chinese side, is quite keen to continue with. It is the Chinese strategy that it has employed since 1950s to continue occupying territories without firing a single bullet. From Tibet to Aksai Chin to South China Seas, China has gained territories by portraying itself as a great military power but not really able to showcase its military might anywhere.

However, the efficacy of its military remains questionable on certain credible grounds. It is well known that the Chinese PLA comprises of officers and troops who are recruited on account of their loyalty and service to the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) and not entirely on professional grounds and hence, is a politicized force. Internal reports leaked out from China have also indicated of massive restructuring and training exercises for the PLA to keep it as a proper fighting force, being initiated on direct orders of the Chines President, Xi Jinping.

The PLA again does not have a distinguished military track record. In 1954, it occupied Tibet, a free, sovereign country till then who had at best, a medieval age, security force to defend itself. In 1962 border conflict with India, it won due to the impuissance of Nehru and his lack of politico-strategic vision and leadership. However, the border conflict at Nathu La with India in 1967, proved to be its undoing with PLA losing more than 300 soldiers against Indian losses of 80 troops.

Even in the Vietnam war, it failed to emerge as a clear winner against the tiny Vietnam. Since then, it has had no real time fighting exposure. In one of the highly embarrassing episodes, a unit of the PLA as part of the UN peacekeeping duties, ran away leaving their weaponry and armaments, in Sudan in 2016. In the very recent Galwan fight-off with the Indian border troops, again the PLA failed to show it in a gallant light as in spite of a virtual 4:1 ratio against Indians, it failed to ensure a victory and in fact had to concede the area to Indians it had occupied surreptitiously a few weeks ago.

It is true that since the commencement of economic reforms in China in early 1980s, the single party political dictatorship has helped China to grow economically and emerge as the manufacturing hub of the world. The impressive economic turnaround has helped China to enhance its political stature in the comity of nations while also providing with enough money to use them for furthering its politico-strategic objectives. From making huge investments in national economies of Europe, US, Canada to Africa, South and South-East Asia to becoming a major player in global capital and bond markets, China has strategically made its presence felt.

With Xi Jinping’s accession as the Chairman of CCP, ambitions of China got a new fillip. The highly ambitious politico-strategic initiative, in the form of debt diplomacy, the much-touted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) emerged as the innovative neo-colonialist Chinese weapon to secure the political and military control of the world. Already many countries beneficial of Chinese strategic benevolence like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Congo, Senegal, Kazakhstan are feeling the pinch. Their politico-strategic sovereignty is under a severe threat from China. No wonder, other countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, Maldives and many others are trying to balance their politico-strategic relationship with the middle kingdom.

Subsequent to the Galwan fiasco, after the Doklam setback in 2017 China seems to be in a catch-22 situation. It is not in a position to go for even a limited war with India while compelled to a negotiated settlement with India, has affected its perceived military capability adversely. While losing the political and military trust of India in a hurry, it has made India more emboldened and cautious.

India has suddenly gone into a military build-up overdrive with scores of new missiles and armaments that have been tested in recent months. On the politico-strategic front, much to China’s dismay, QUAD is getting into a shape while the US Navy and Air Force is constantly increasing its presence in South China Seas. Taiwan too, is getting bold and willing to face China, with the US as its protector.

Japan that till recently maintained its dependence on the US alone for its security, too has opened up and started bolstering its defences with China in mind. Countries in the region like Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam are getting into strategic dialogues with India to counter China’s strategic dominance. They are also opening up to arms imports from India. And most importantly India has started seeing itself as a strategic rival to China, more explicitly. Voices in New Delhi regarding getting closer to Taiwan, are undoubtedly a pointer in that direction. And so is the Chinese reactions when its embassy is seen publishing full page advertorials in Indian media, cautioning against abandoning the so-called One-China policy.

While military and diplomatic negotiations on disengagement and de-escalation continue between India and China, it will remain debateable if China actually gained out of its latest incursions in Ladakh. While its PLA had an element of aura till Galwan, since then questions repeatedly are being raised on the capability and leadership of the entire PLA. How far those assessments are correct or otherwise need to be seen but it seems absolutely certain that China has lost much in the process. It will have to prepare for a new, emerging politico-strategic dynamics that could well be not to its liking.

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Sino-US rivalry and the myth of Thucydides Trap

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The writer of the view that are an outcome of complex phenomena. One can’t understand them through the lens of Thucydides trap which he considers nothing short of a China-bashing myth. He points out that nuclear capability itself is a great deterrence to war adventurism.  He stresses that wars are outlandish in terms of postulates of Modern theory of Conflict Management; that states conflict is not spread by a black sheep but it is natural to human relations. It can’t be eliminated by eliminating the blacksheep. The key to success lies in keeping the conflict to its minimal point while remaining peacefully engaged with one’s adversary.

Wars end in ceasefires, “grand concerts’, and realisation that they were avoidable. That they were cumulative upshot of reciprocal stupidities of belligerents.  Post-World War II period has not witnessed any war between major powers as they realise that how destructive a nuclear war would be. The potential belligerents nowadays enjoy armchair warfare blaming one another of hostile intentions.

Fallacy of thinking templates

The best way to analyse why a war broke out in the first place is to interview the key warriors or belligerents. But, most of them stand perished in wars unable to tell their part of the story. As such, major powers rely on thinking templates like Thucydides Trap to create imaginary rivals to fit in the crucible of their templates.

Thucydides’s Trap comes about “when a rising power threatens to displace an established power. Graham Allison, in his Destined for War (page vii) says, ‘As a rapidly ascending China challenges America’s accustomed predominance, these two nations risk falling into a deadly trap  first identified by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides…He explained: It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled  in Sparta that made war inevitable’. Though key players may abhor wars “unexpected events by third parties or accidents that would otherwise be inconsequential or manageable, but even ordinary flashpoints in foreign affairs, can act as sparks that trigger large-scale conflict”.  Thucydides trap could perhaps be rephrased as stupidities trap.

Arnold Toynbee once said” history is something unpleasant that happens to other people”. Through their myopic decisions rulers sleep walk into the vortex of war. They are sure that their enemies would perish both they would survive. Yet the outcomes are quite pungent. Look at the outcomes of the World War I (1914-18) and II (1939-45). When the World War I ended  in 1918, the Austro Hungarian Empire had vanished, German Kaiser ousted, Russian Tsar shown the door, France, Britain and so many other countries were left to mourn loss of depletion of their treasuries and extinction of youth  capital (scientists/engineers/doctors/teachers/intellectuals-to be). At the end of the World War II, Germany could not replace the United Kingdom. Two unexpected hegemons the erstwhile Soviet Union and the USA were born out of the womb of the war. The UK lost the fifty colonies that Hitler much talked about in his fiery speeches.

Before committing suicide, Hitler must have reminisced ‘ I was mistaken not to have thought about eliminating England as they were sons of a German tribe l’anglais who migrated to britain due to vagaries of nature’. ‘I was a fool to have ventured into the freezing Russia’. John Fitzgerald Kennedy rejected the dictum “better dead than Red”. Yet many of his decisions pushed closer and c loser to a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. During post-WWII, McCarthyism had blurred American vision so much that they saw red in everywhere.

Classical versus Modern theory of conflict management

Relations and conflicts between states  

Thucydides trap takes a simplistic view of relations and conflicts between states.Thousands of years back Chanakya posited his mandal (interrelationships) doctrine.

One of his most misunderstood postulate is ‘all neighbouring countries are actual or potential enemies’. So they have to be subdued. Little attention is paid to another of his counter-balancing postulate, mandal (interrelationships) doctrine. In mandal, Chanakya thinks in terms of intersecting and just touching circles. He focuses on intersecting section of two intersecting circles like in mathematical solution set theory.

Even Kissinger, Kafka, et al, believed in establishing effective ‘spheres of influence’. Rich, powerful and progressing countries could but would not shun their poor pals in the comity of nations.

History shows that weakness invites aggression. Often militarily strong countries have attacked weaker nations with ‘litany of problems’ on one pretext or another. Economic motive could be unearthed in both modern and ancient wars. For instance, the Trojan War (1250 BC) was caused by an economic rivalry between Mycenae and Troy. Grants by Persia of good western Anatolian land to politically amenable Greeks, or to Iranians, created a casus belli for wars with rivals.

Yet all wars are justified by the now discarded  Classical Theory of Conflict management, and rejected by the Modern Theory of Conflict management.

According to modern theory of conflict management, terrorism or any conflict for that matter is not really caused by a few black sheep, as assumed under the Classical Theory of Conflict Management.

The Classical Theory says that “conflict is created by a blacksheep. If he is eliminated the conflict is eliminated there and then”. The modern theory, on the contrary postulates “No matter what you do conflict cannot be eliminated. It is natural to relations. However, through effort, it could be kept at its minimal point. And the minimal point is the optimal point”.

Fallacy of rising Dragon

It appears that Joe Biden is not a prisoner to Thucydies trap. He views rivalry with China as intense competition not as confrontation. He calls the shots but then quickly defuses the situation. For instance, to pacify furious China about `freedom of navigation’ in the South China Sea, he dispatched USS Pal Jones into the Lakshadweep waters. The aim was to send the message, that China need not fume and fret much about the Quad. The USA still thinks in terms of some principles.

Neither Sparta nor Athens was a nuclear power. If so, they would have perhaps preferred to remain engaged in a long period of cold war. In the ancient Greek world, it was Athens that threatened Sparta. In the late 19th Century, Germany challenged Britain. Today a rising China is believed to be challenging the United States. But, neither China nor the USA is structurally similar to Sparta or Athens. For ease of thinking we liken the two states to either China or the USA.

Today’s China is more inspired by Song dynasty which pushed economic progress through peace rather than wars like some other dynasties. China remarkably grew in terms of Gross Domestic product, imports, exports and reserves. But it still lags behind the USA.

China’s GDP of 7%  as a percentage of the United States’  in 1980 rose to 61 % in 2015, imports from 8%to 73%, exports from 8% to 151%, and reserves from 16% to 3140%.  Chinese economy doubled every seventh year. Still, it is no match for the USA. Chinese workers have become more productive. Yet they are quarter as productive as the American.  China still lags behind the USA in major economic indicators. Look at Chinese economic size in terms of GDP:  year 2000 ($ trillion 1.211), 2010 (($ trillion 6.101), 2016 (($ trillion 11.199). Corresponding figures for the USA are: U.S. 2010 ($ trillion 10.285), 2011 ($ trillion 14.964), 2016 ($ trillion 18.624). GDP per capita ($) for the aforementioned years from 2010 to 2016: China 940.  4,340, 8,250. U.S. 36,070, 48,950, 56,810. Researchers in R&D (per million people) China: 547.3, 903, and 1176.6. Corresponding figures for the US:  3475.7, 3868.6, and 4232. R&D expenditure (% of GDP) China:  0.896, 1.71, and 2.066. U.S.: 2.617, 2.734, and 2.794.

True, China has been the fastest-growing economy since 1979. Yet, it is nowhere near surpassing the USA even on one account that is gross Domestic Product. Heretofore are China and US figures of economic growth for the years 1977, 1987, 1997, 2003, 2008, and 2019. China: China 843,097, 1,883,027, 3,706,647,   6,187,983, 8,908,894, US$ trillion) 14.4.  USA: USA: 3,868,829, 5,290,129, 7,109,175, 8,431,121, 9,485,136, and 21.44.

Engagement not containment

Wars precede isolation. A benign corollary of Sino-US rivalry is that they are not isolating from one another but engaging in multi-dimensional economic relations.

Mr. Trump was viscerally predisposed to viewing China as a looming military threat to peripheral countries, in general, and the USA, in particular. True, Mr. Biden is also viewed as an America Firster.

Biden realises that China is much behind the USA in economic and military prowess. China trails behind the USA in terms of expenditure on its defence forces and possession of actual military equipment. Despite ongoing modernization, China spends approximately $ 5 billion in arms export far below US exports of about $ 46.5 billion. China’s sales are about three per cent of global sales while the USA’s are about 79 per cent.

The US has over 8,000 operational and inactive warheads as against China’s 240 mostly non-deployed.  The US has 2,000 nuclear weapons with strategic/intercontinental-range compared with China’s twenty. The US have sixteen ballistic missile submarines compared with China’s one, and more than 1000 US nuclear cruise missiles, compared with none for China.

The US has ten aircraft carriers plus one under construction attached to the Fifth and Seventh Fleet. China currently has two aircraft carriers, with a third in early construction, and a fourth planned for sometime in the mid-2020 or 2030s. Their first carrier, the Liaoning was commissioned by the PLAN in 2012, though it was first laid down in the early 1990s.

Shades of China’s critics

China critics in the USA are not monolithic. They have many shades including `Engagers’, `Realists’, `Duopolists’, ` China Lead’, `Declinists’ and so on.

The `Critics’ have an un-reconcilable antipathy toward China because of its repression of a wide spectrum of human rights (religious, labour, media and ethnic minority).

The `engagers’ lookup for common ground with China as a matter of national interest. The `engagers’ are optimistic that globalization, economic interdependence and rules of multilateral trade will lead to democratisation in China.

`Realist engagers’ are convinced that China has learnt lessons from the collapse of the former Soviet Union about the dangers of imperial overstretch. As such, China understands the realities of the current international system and limited capacity to change it.

`China Duopolists’ believe the USA and China could cooperate to bring into being a Chimerica (G-2), being the two most important countries.

The `China lead’ school believes China is already on the verge of replacing the USA as the world’s number-one power.

The `Declinists’ believe that the demise of the US global leadership already occurred as `Washington consensus’ has been replaced by `. It is now Beijing, not Washington that is dictating new rules to govern the international economy.

Joseph Biden belongs to the `America Firster’ School that China can’t replace the USA as number-one, even if it tries to. After visiting China, Biden wrote `the United States has nothing to fear from China since it is far ahead of China in size of the economy, per capita income, scientific innovation, and educational excellence among other indicators’ (Biden, China’s Rise Isn’t Our Demise, New York Times, September 7, 2011, online ed.).

Global Leadership

At present, China lacks the soft and hard power to supplant the USA.  To do so, China needs to:

(a) Command loyalty of the majority of the countries. (b) Initiate, innovate and articulate policies, programmes and activities, including dispensing rewards and punishments. (c) Being a `model’, worth emulating, of values, culture, language, laws, and social and political practices. (d) Excel in soft-power resources such as educational and public-health systems

Concluding remarks

Thucydides traps is a china-bashing myth. Biden is a whiff of fresh air, though he has no magic wand to change the climate and trade atmosphere.  He has promised to rebuild America’s decrepit infrastructure, spend more on health and education, and ease immigration.  He has pledged to raise tax on firms and the wealthy.

He is no revolutionary though his policies are tilted to the left of what Trump did. His job is to re-unite fractious American democracy. He is inclined to shun the personalized style of his predecessor’s rule, scorning decency and truth.

Joe understands China better than his predecessor. But, it remains to be seen how the USA would set right the topsy-turvy alliances that Trump had interwoven. Confrontation with China will make it difficult for Biden to deliver his promises to the American electorate.

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