The transitioning world order is not a debatable streak anymore and the liberal world order led by the liberal hegemon has almost met its preordained fate. In this new era of great power competition, the status quo power United States of America (USA) has found a perfect revisionist nemesis in China which – after making dramatic economic rise during the past 03 decades–asserts its due prominence and demands substantial role in the international system. Although the geostrategic competition between the two giants was already unfolding in various spheres, the outbreak of COVID-19 again pitted the two giants in a direct confrontation, and this time the USA has found its traditional allies – which were earlier circumspect in confronting China – standing alongside.
Notwithstanding the fact that the highly contagious virus does not distinguish among its victims and has flattered the humanity as a whole, the vicious reality of power politics stormed in to undeniably overshadow if not overwhelm the global response to the pandemic.
The trade of barbs between China and its peer, the USA did not accompany the outbreak. In fact, after China announced the outbreak and later imposed a lockdown – categorized by West as “draconian” – to contain the spread, President Trump was all praise for his Chinese counterpart and the government for their dealing with the novel virus. Despite the media reports about the initial missteps by the local government of Wuhan and amidst allegations that the country may have attempted a cover-upin the early phase and is withholding information which may have allowed the infection to spread throughout the world, alarm bells did not ring in the Western capitals. Arguably, it was the period when the First World had yet to see a massive outbreak of their own and a few of them might have been amused to watch the “biggest economic miracle” of the 21st century meet its own fate.
The conjectured amusement did not last too long and thanks to globalization, the virus took weeks to reach Europe. As the First World stood oblivious and unprepared to tackle such a prodigious crisis, the disastrous aftermath was always on the cards. The virus raged through Europe killing thousands and ultimately wreaked havoc in the USA which to date is the primary hit.
As the Western countries started facing the brunt, the praise for China’s actions abruptly changed into reproach calling out the country for its initial cover-up and withholding of information. Interestingly, none other than President Trump himself – the person who had praised China’s response just weeks before – led the assault with his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo categorized as“face” of the USA’s tough approach towards China by China Global Television Network (CGTN). The blame-game soon turned into a vicious information war to control the narrative about the COVID-19; ultimately, leading towards the pressures of economic repercussions and demeaning each other in the crudest way possible, for all intents and purposes constituting a virtual “Cold War”.
Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 outbreak was initially mishandled by China and the country’s contagion outbreak detection system – developed in the aftermath of the SARS outbreak in 2003 – failed to detect the outbreak in its initial phase. To add is the complex nature of the Chinese bureaucratic model whose representatives in Wuhan – possibly to avoid political instability – reprimanded and muzzled the doctor who initially reported cases of a pneumonia-like disease in December 2019. Nonetheless, as the spread became overwhelmingly palpable, the authoritarian Chinese government swung into action and imposed brutal lockdowns, which at the end became the primary reason for the country’s obvious victory over the virus.
As China was able to significantly control the menace at home, it embarked upon “health diplomacy” which consist of dispatching relief, medical equipment, and assistance to some of the worst sufferers of the pandemic. Shrewdly, China was trying to fill the void created by the US withdrawal and the recipients of aid did not hesitate to shower their “Chinese friends” with praise and gratitude.
The US Federal Government’s response, on the other hand, was lack lustre and lethargic. President Trump initially downplayed the threat; next, he peddled dubious and unverified medical treatments to the virus; following were the spats of President with his own governors and finally, he tried to dodge the responsibility. Devoid of leadership at the federal level and without a coherent plan to combat the virus, the US health system faced overwhelming setbacks and casualties till now has touched 77,000 which President Trump fears reaching as high as 100,000.
However, humanitarian loss is only one aspect and economic devastation caused by the virus is even overpowering. The US economy shrank by 4.8% in the first quarter of 2020 and is estimated to contract by 11% in 2020 while the unemployment rate has reached as high as 14.7% – economic demolition not seen since the great depression.
A devastated economy – as opposed to a robust one, which President Trump would have marketed to win a second term in the office – is a nightmarish scenario for the Republican incumbent. Amidst his declining popularity at home, President Trump intensified his attacks on China calling the COVID-19 as “Chinese virus” and peddled unsubstantiated theories that the COVID-19 was leaked from a Chinese lab – a claim even contradicted by his own intelligence community and members of Five Eye intelligence-sharing partnership. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo also touted the virus leakage theory – only to backtrack later on – joining President Trump and both the high-ranking officials claimed that they have seen evidence to the claim. Regardless of China’s own initial shortcomings to deal with the virus, the mudslinging by President Trump and his top foreign policy aide clearly had any angle of safeguarding the declining popularity of GOP by finding a scapegoat abroad.
Imitating the response of their ally across the Atlantic, European countries at the outset also downplayed the threat and approached the calamity without apt preparation marked by overconfidence and procrastination. Resultantly, Europe became the second epicentre of the pandemic with the United Kingdom leading the count with thousands of deaths.
The initial reaction in Europe was also anti-China flare-up and as opposed to the past – when the Western countries used to maintain an equilibrium between the USA and China and evaded directly confronting China – this time the USA found cronies among its traditional allies in Europe against China. The criticism of China’s initial mishandling of the virus only softened after it lobbied extensively in European Union and pressurized some members to account positively about its COVID-19 response.
Australia – another US ally and exporting about 38% of its products to China – joined the party and called for an inquiry into the outbreak of COVID-19; a call that regularly reverberates in the Western press also along with demands of compensation from China for the damage caused by the virus.
The intense information campaign was then augmented by calls for economic coercion. As the fate of phase one trade deal between China and the USA hanged in limbo, President Trump threatened to cancel the strenuously reached contract if China does not abide by its promises – a condition which China may not be able to meet given the slowness of its economy by the virus. Furthermore, a proposal to cancel the US debt obligations of US$1.1 trillion towards China was also discussed in White House prompting Chinese media to impart the USA about the repercussion of such a move.
In response, China’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomats also did not mince words and departing from their traditional way of conducting diplomacy in a circumspect and calculated way, pushed hard against the West for trying to “demean China”. The unusually aggressive Chinese diplomatic behaviour was surprising for many and conveyed the impression that China may be offhandedly repudiating the Deng Xiaoping dictum of “hide your strength and bide your time”. Chinese State media resorted to derision for the countries criticizing and questioning China’s initial response, and personal attacks were made against the high-ranking US officials. Some of their diplomats based in the Western countries – who recently flooded the twitter with their presence – attracted the ire of their hosts owing to their reckless comments. Lijian Zhao – a deputy spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs – went as far as to peddle a conspiracy theory that COVID-19 may have been brought by the US Army to Wuhan – an observation that would earn him widespread criticism.
Shrewd business-oriented China also dragged-in the economics and Chinese Ambassador to Australia threatened to reconsider his country’s business relations with Australia if the later continues to push for the inquiry into the origins of the pandemic. These were the latest unveiled threats by China after intimidating some of the Western countries with “consequences” for their questioning of China’s human rights record.
On the face of it, China was augmenting medical aid with an aggressive diplomatic campaign and economic coercion, which in turn would benefit the beleaguered Xi regime to incite nationalist sentiments at home and thus, fortifying the domestic support base in the wake of the crisis, which irrefutably has dented the Chinese economy and has aggrieved masses. May be useful at home, the aggressive Chinese diplomatic blitz is damaging the country’s international standing and the carrot in the “health diplomacy” now seems to be overwhelmed by the stick in belligerent rhetoric and intimidation.
Undeniably, the COVID-19 crisis deepened the divisions between China and the West, especially the EU nations, and given the recently enlarged trust deficit, the relations between the deeply entangled economic partners may never restore to pre-COVID-19 state. With the USA, China is already engaged in a geostrategic tussle for global dominance, and “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy marked by aggression and bellicosity does not seem to be convincing wherewithal to woo the traditional allies of the geostrategic peer.
Undoubtedly, China has made remarkable rise during the past few decades and has virtually shaken the international system but it may be too early for China to acquire the wherewithal to act as a global hegemon. The USA may be in a retreat and the West may be facing a decline, but by virtue of globalization, the two sides are so deeply interconnected and interdependent that even a little downsizing of economic relations will be more devastating for China than the West. The trade war with the USA already slowed the pace of Chinese economic growth and if a retrenchment happens with the West also, it will be business-oriented China taking most of the brunt.
China’s own geopolitical venture, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – disguised as a benign scheme focusing on geo-economics – is in its initial stage of implementation and China has yet to erect its own world order parallel to the liberal one led by the USA. China has certainly expanded its influence in the BRI host countries and there are bright prospects of BRI turning into a Chinese led bloc; but can those countries substantially compensate for the economic partnerships at this moment if a retrenchment vis-à-vis the West happens, remains a big question mark.
Given the aforementioned limitations of China with respect to its economic relationship with the West, a more preferable and prudent approach will be to deal with the Western criticism with unyielding but discreet diplomacy while maintaining the “fighting spirit”. Unveiled economic threats and insensitive derision for other countries –as opposed to the previously exercised policy of delicately balancing between diplomatic and economic relationship – will only result in a backlash, as happening in the current scenario. Resultantly, the Western world will turn even warier of China and the dragon’s aims to strengthen its economic relations and create space for itself into the Western tech market will receive jolting shocks. The resultant state of affairs will be in complete contrast to the liberal policy of engagement which the western world adopted towards China; ultimately leading towards China’s ascendance to the world stage and will effectively push the world on a path to de-globalization.
Who would bell the China cat?
If the G-7 and NATO china-bashing statements are any guide, the world is in for another long interregnum of the Cold War (since demise of the Soviet Union). The G-7 leaders called upon China to “respect human rights in its Xinjiang region” and “allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy” and “refrain from any unilateral action that could destabilize the East and South China Seas”, besides maintaining “peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits”.
China’s tit-for-tat response
The Chinese mission to the European Union called upon the NATO not to exaggerate the “China threat theory”
Amid the pandemic, still raging, the world is weary of resuscitating Cold War era entente. Even the G-7 members, Canada and the UK appear to be lukewarm in supporting the US wish to plunge the world into another Cold War. Even the American mothers themselves are in no mood to welcome more coffins in future wars. Importance of the G-7 has been whittled down by G-20.
Presumptions about the China’s cataclysmic rise are unfounded. Still, China is nowhere the US gross National Product. China’s military budget is still the second largest after the US. It is still less than a third of Washington’s budget to be increased by 6.8 per cent in 2021.
India claims to be a natural ally of the G-7 in terms of democratic “values”. But the US based Freedom House has rated India “partly free because of its dismal record in persecution of minorities. Weakened by electoral setbacks in West Bengal, the Modi government has given a free hand to religious extremists. For instance, two bigots, Suraj Pal Amu and Narsinghanand Saraswati have been making blasphemous statements against Islam at press conferences and public gatherings.
India’s main problem
Modi government’s mismanagement resulted in shortage of vaccine and retroviral drugs. The healthcare system collapsed under the mounting burden of fatalities.
Media and research institutions are skeptical of the accuracy of the death toll reported by Indian government.
The New York Times dated June 13, 2021 reported (Tracking Corona virus in India: Latest Map and case Count) “The official COVID-19 figures in India grossly under-estimate the true scale of the pandemic in the country”. The Frontline dated June 4, 2021 reported “What is clear in all these desperate attempts is the reality that the official numbers have utterly lost their credibility in the face of the biggest human disaster in independent India (V. Sridhar, India’s gigantic death toll due to COVID-19 is thrice the official numbers”, The frontline, June 4, 2021). It adds “More than 6.5 lakh Indians, not the 2.25 lakh reported officially are estimated to have died so far and at best a million more are expected to die by September 2021. The Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that actual Indian casualties may be 0.654 million (6.54 lakh), not the official count of 0.221 million (2.21 lakh as on May 6 when the report was released. That is a whopping three times the official numbers, an indicator of the extent of under-reporting”.
Epidemiologist Dr. Feigl-ding told India Today TV on April, 16, 2021 that “actual number of COVID-19 cases in India can be five or six times higher than the tally right now” (“Actual COVID-19 cases in India may be 5 to 10 times higher, says epidemiologist. India Today TV April 16, 2021).
India’s animosity against China is actuated by expediency. There is no chance of a full-blown war between China and India as the two countries have agreed not to use firepower in border skirmishes, if any. Modi himself told the All-party conference that not an inch of Indian territory has been ceded to China. In May this year, the Army Chief General M M. Naravane noted in an interview: “There has been no transgression of any kind and the process of talks is continuing.”
It is not China but the Quad that is disturbing unrest in China’s waters.
History tells the USA can sacrifice interests of its allies at the altar of self interest. India sank billions of dollars in developing the Chabahar Port. But, India had to abandon it as the US has imposed sanctions on Iran.
Xinjiang? A Minority Haven Or Hell
While the G7 meets under the shadow of Covid 19 and the leaders of the most prosperous nations on earth are focused on rebuilding their economies, a bloodless pogrom is being inflicted on a group of people on the other side of the world.
In this new era, killing people is wasteful and could bring the economic wrath of the rest of the world. No, it is better to brainwash them, to re-educate them, to destroy their culture, to force them to mold themselves into the alien beings who have invaded their land in the name of progress, and who take the best new jobs that sprout with economic development. Any protest at these injustices are treated severely.
Amnesty International has published a new 160-page report this week on Xinjiang detailing the horrors being perpetrated on Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Amnesty has simultaneously announced a campaign on their behalf.
Persecution, mass imprisonment in what can best be described as concentration camps, intensive interrogation and torture are actions that come under the definition of ‘crimes against humanity’. More than 50 people who spent time in these camps contributed first-hand accounts that form the substance of the report. It is not easy reading for these people have themselves suffered maltreatment even torture in many instances.
The UN has claimed that 1.5 million Muslims (Uighurs, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Tajiks) are in these internment camps and China’s claims of re-education camps made to sound as benign as college campuses are patently false.
People report being interviewed in police stations and then transferred to the camps. Their interrogation was frequently conducted on ‘tiger chairs’: The interviewee is strapped to a metal chair with leg irons and hands cuffed in such a manner that the seating position soon becomes exceedingly painful. Some victims were hooded; some left that way for 24 hours or more, and thus were forced to relieve themselves, even defecate, where they sat. Beatings and sleep deprivation were also common.
Activities were closely monitored and they were mostly forbidden to speak to other internees including cell mates. Trivial errors such as responding to guards or other officials in their native language instead of Mandarin Chinese resulted in punishment.
Amnesty’s sources reported the routine was relentless. Wake up at 5am. Make bed — it had to be perfect. A flag-raising and oath-taking ceremony before breakfast at 7 am. Then to the classroom. Back to the canteen for lunch. More classes after. Then dinner. Then more classes before bed. At night two people had to be on duty for two hours monitoring the others leaving people exhausted. You never see sunlight while you are there, they said. That was because they were never taken outside as is done in most prisons.
The re-education requires them to disavow Islam, stop using their native language, give up cultural practices, and become Mandarin-speaking ‘Chinese’.
Such are the freedoms in Xi Jinping’s China. If China’s other leaders prior to Mr. Xi effected moderate policies in concert with advisers, it is no longer the case. Mr. Xi works with a small group of like minds. He has also removed the two-term or eight-year limit on being president. President for life as some leaders like to call themselves, then why not Mr. Xi. His anti-democratic values make him eminently qualified.
An enlightened leader might have used the colorful culture of these minorities to attract tourists and show them the diversity of China. Not Mr. Xi, who would rather have everyone march in lockstep to a colorless utopia reminiscent of the grey clothing and closed-collar jackets of the Maoist era.
Looking back on India-China ties, one year past the Galwan incident
Two nuclear-armed neighbouring countries with a billion-plus people each, geographically positioned alongside a 3,488-km undemarcated border in the high Himalayas. This is the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. Differences in perception of alignment of this border for both sides have contributed to a seemingly unending dispute.
Chinese unilateral attempt to change status quo in 2020
One year back, on 15 June 2020, a clash between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley of eastern Ladakh turned bloody, resulting in the death of 20 soldiers in the former side and four in the latter side. It was an unfortunate culmination of a stand-off going on since early May that year, triggered by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops encountering Indian troops who were patrolling on their traditional limits.
It was followed by amassing of troops in large number by China on its side and some of them crossed the line over without any provocation, thereby blocking and threatening India’s routine military activities on its side of the traditionally accepted border. It was a unilateral attempt by the Chinese Communist Party-run government in Beijing to forcefully alter the status quo on the ground.
The LAC as an idea
Over the years, the LAC has witnessed one major war resulting from a Chinese surprise attack on India in 1962 and periodic skirmishes along the various friction points of the border, as seen in the years 1967, 1975, 1986-87, 2013, 2017, and the most recent 2020 Galwan Valley incident, the last being the worst in five decades. Post-Galwan, the optics appeared too high on both sides.
The LAC as an idea emerged with the annexation of Buddhist Tibet by Chinese communist forces in the early 1950s, bringing China to India’s border for the first time in history. This idea just emerged and was taking shape through the Jawaharlal Nehru-Zhou Enlai letters of correspondence that followed.
In 1962, while the world was engrossed upon the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chinese inflicted a huge military and psychological debacle on unprepared and outnumbered Indian soldiers in a month-long war along this border.
Even to this date, there is still no mutually agreeable cartographic depiction of the LAC. It varies on perceptions.
What could’ve led to 2020 stand-off?
One of the reasons that led to the current new low in India-China ties, other than differing perceptions, is the improvement in Indian infrastructure capabilities along the rough mountainous terrains of the Himalayan borders and its resolve to be on par with China in this front. This has been a cause of concern in Chinese strategic calculations for its Tibetan border.
The carving up of the Indian union territory of Ladakh with majority Buddhists from the erstwhile Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 has indeed added to Beijing’s concerns over the area.
For the past few years, India has been upfront in scaling up its border infrastructure throughout the vast stretch of LAC, including in eastern Ladakh, where the 2020 stand-off took place. There is a serious trust deficit between India and China today, if not an evolving security dilemma.
Several rounds of talks were held at the military and the diplomatic levels after the Galwan incident, the working-level mechanisms got renewed and new action plans were being formed before the process of disengagement finally began.
The foreign ministers of both countries even met in Moscow on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meet in September, which was followed by a BRICS summit where Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping came face-to-face in November, although virtually.
By February 2021, the process of disengagement of troops gained momentum on the ground around the Pangong lake area. So far, eleven rounds of talks were held at the military level on the ground at the border. But, the disengagement is yet to be fully completed in the friction points of Hot Springs and the Depsang Plains.
Diplomacy is gone with the wind
All the bilateral border agreements and protocols for confidence-building that were signed between the both countries in the years 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 were rendered futile by the Chinese PLA’s act of belligerence in Galwan.
The spirit of two informal Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping summits to build trust after the 2017 Doklam standoff, one in Wuhan, China (2018) and the other in Mamallapuram, India (2019) was completely gone with the wind. This is further exacerbated by the Chinese practice of ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’, which is clearly undiplomatic in nature.
India’s diversification of fronts
Coming to the maritime domain, India has upped the ante by the joint naval exercises (Exercise Malabar 2020) with all the Quad partners in November, last year. Thereby, New Delhi has opened a new front away from the Himalayan frontiers into the broader picture of India-China strategic rivalry. Australia joined the exercise, after 13 years, with India, Japan, and the United States, a move indicative of militarisation or securitisation of the Quad partnership.
Recently, India has been consolidating its position over the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, lying southeast to the mainland, and close to the strategic Strait of Malacca, through which a major proportion of China’s crude oil imports pass through before venturing out to the ports of South China Sea.
Economic ties, yearning to decouple
Last year, India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar remarked that border tensions cannot continue along with co-operation with China in other areas. In this regard, the Narendra Modi government has been taking moves to counter China in the economic front by banning a large number of Chinese apps, citing security reasons, thereby costing the Chinese companies a billion-size profitable market. The Indian government has also refused to allow Chinese tech companies Huawei and ZTE to participate in India’s rollout of the 5G technology.
Moreover, India, Australia and Japan have collectively launched a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) in 2020 aimed at diversifying supply chain risks away from one or a few countries, apparently aimed at reducing their dependence on China. In terms of trade, India is still struggling to decouple with China, a key source of relatively cheap products for Indian exporters, particularly the pandemic-related pharmaceutical and related supplies in the current times.
But, the Indian government’s recent domestic policies such as “Self-Reliant India” (Atmanirbhar Bharat) have contributed to a decline in India’s trade deficit vis-à-vis China to a five-year low in 2020, falling to around $46 billion from around $57 billion in 2019.
The broader picture
The border dispute remains at the core of a range of issues that define the overall India-China bilateral relations. Other issues include trade and economics, Beijing’s close ties with Islamabad, the succession of Dalai Lama who has taken asylum in India since 1959 and the issue of Tibetan refugees living in India, educational ties, and the strategic rivalry in India’s neighbourhood, i.e., South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region, among others.
Chinese belligerence has led India to find its place easily in the evolving ‘new Cold War’
The more China turns aggressive at its border with India, the more it will bring India close to the United States and the West. Despite India’s traditional posture of indifference to allying itself exclusively with a power bloc, in the recently concluded G7 summit, India referred to the grouping of liberal democracies as a ‘natural ally’.
India has been raising the need for a free, open and rules-based Indo-Pacific in as many multilateral forums as possible, a concept which China considers as a containment strategy of the United States. Possibly, India might also join the G7’s newly announced infrastructure project for developing countries in an appropriate time, as it is initiated as a counterweight to China’s multi trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.
There was a time in the past when the former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought to lead Asia by cooperating with China. Considering today’s changed geopolitical realities and power dynamics, nowhere in anyone’s wildest dreams such an idea would work out. Prime Minister Modi’s muscular foreign policy imperatives are aligning well with the Joe Biden-led Western response to the looming common threat arising from Beijing.
Today, encountering Xi Jinping’s grand strategy of Chinese domination of the world (by abandoning its yesteryear policy of ‘peaceful rise’) is a collective endeavour of peace-loving democracies around the world, to which Asia is particularly looking forward. Most notably, it comes amid an inescapable web of global economic inter-connectedness, even among rival powers.
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