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The new geopolitics of China’s climate leadership

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Since 2014, China has embarked on a new era of confident, independent international policy activism under President Xi Jinping – the origins of which can be traced back to the Chinese Communist Party’s 2014 Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs. That conference marked the end of Deng Xiaoping’s 30-year-old dictum of “hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead.”

The origins of China’s newfound desire to play a leadership role in the global fight against climate change can also be traced back to 2014. This includes Xi’s landmark joint announcement on climate change with President Barack Obama less than three weeks before the Party’s Central Work Conference.

Since then, China has shown a steady determination to demonstrate its own climate credentials, which increasingly has become a bright spot in China’s position on the world stage. Yet, Xi’s announcement this September that China will aim to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 marked an important new milestone. For the first time, China has signalled it is not just willing to be a participant in the international fight against climate change, but that climate leadership has crossed the geopolitical Rubicon in Beijing’s eyes. In other words, it has become a central priority for China irrespective of the steps taken by other countries, including the United States.

This marks an important new era for the geopolitics of China’s climate leadership, but also one in which Beijing must understand that it will be judged more sharply than ever before, including by its developing country compatriots. This is especially the case as President-elect Joe Biden takes office in the United States with a wide-ranging and ambitious programme to tackle climate change both at home and abroad.

To best navigate these newfound expectations and responsibilities, China will need to significantly bolster its short-term efforts to reduce emissions through its 2030 Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement, especially with regards to its future use of coal. Piecemeal steps forward in the short-term will be insufficient in the eyes of the international community. At the same time, China must also demonstrate a propensity to achieve Xi’s vision of carbon neutrality as close to 2050 as possible and start to seriously re-orient its support for carbon-intensive infrastructure overseas through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Without these steps, any goodwill generated by Xi’s recent announcement risks quickly becoming a thorn in China’s side because of the geopolitical benchmarks it has now set for itself.

Ecological civilisation

While it was President Hu Jintao that first used the phrase “ecological civilisation” in 2007 to describe China’s own brand of environmentalism, it is Xi that has made it part of the Party’s lexicon and a key pillar for the country’s development.

In doing so, Xi has deliberately sought to differentiate China’s approach from traditional Western notions of liberal environmentalism. This includes by underscoring the economic importance of environmental action, as evidenced by his regular pronouncement that “clear waters and green mountains are as valuable as mountains of gold and silver”, a phrase Xi first used in 2005 when he was Party Secretary in Zhejiang province.

Until now, domestic imperatives have been driving China’s creeping environmentalism. The single greatest inspiration for the change in behaviour between the China the world grappled with at the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 and the China that was instrumental in the securing of the Paris Agreement in 2015, was rising concerns amongst the Chinese population on the level of air pollution in their cities. Declaring a “war on pollution” during the opening of the 18th National Party Congress in March 2014 underscored this.

Popular opposition to toxic air pollution levels in China’s cities played a central role in the country’s increasing engagement with environmental issues (Image: Alamy)

However, that same year, Xi’s rhetoric also started to emphasise the international imperatives of climate action. This included his declaration that “addressing climate change and implementation of sustainable development is not what we are asked to do, but what we really want to do and we will do well”. Nevertheless, China remained cautious, as demonstrated by Xi’s decision not to attend a climate summit convened by former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in September 2014, which was billed as the most important moment in the lead-up to Paris.

Nevertheless, in 2015 and 2016, Xi embarked on an intensive environmental reform effort within the Party, including through embedding the concept of ecological civilisation in the 13th Five Year Plan and pitting it alongside the concepts of “The Chinese Dream” and “The Two ­Centenary Goals”, including to double China’s GDP by 2020. China’s vision of ecological civilisation was also a central concept in the 2015 NDC it tabled as its first commitment under the Paris Agreement.

This helps demonstrate why, by January 2017, just days before the inauguration of President Donald Trump who was elected on a platform of withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement, Xi was prepared to use an address to the World Economic Forum in Davos to signal China would nevertheless stay the course with the Agreement. The significance of Xi’s statement at the time should not be underestimated. If China had chosen to use Trump’s formal confirmation in June of that year of his intention to withdraw from the Agreement as an opportunity to obfuscate on its obligations – or worse to also seek to withdraw from the Agreement altogether – it is unlikely that the Agreement would remain intact today. For that, the world owes China a debt of gratitude.

A new era

Xi’s announcement this September that China will achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 marks an important new era for the geopolitics of China’s climate leadership. Xi’s announcement was his most important speech on climate change since his January 2017 address in Davos and his November 2014 joint announcement with Obama.

For most of the Trump era, China’s approach to the international fight against climate change had been akin to that of a substitute teacher. Beijing had never signalled a desire to do more than simply cover the field in Washington’s absence. Important initiatives such as the establishment of the Ministerial on Climate Action (MoCA) alongside the EU and Canada were more at the behest of Brussels than Beijing. And for Beijing, this was an easy win until the breakdown in relations with Ottawa beginning with the arrest of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou in late 2018, which made the optics of co-chairing this forum difficult.

However, September’s announcement demonstrated that China’s diplomatic calculation has now changed. With a deadline looming next year for countries to respond to the Paris Agreement’s invitation to develop long-term decarbonisation strategies for mid-century, and to enhance their short-term climate targets (NDCs), few expected China to make any serious pronouncements on either before the outcome of November’s US presidential election was clear. And in the event of a Biden victory, Beijing would still have a sweet spot between November and January to make announcements to head off future pressure from a Democratic administration in Washington. The fact Xi decided China should nevertheless be prepared to adopt – for the first time – a clear pathway to decarbonise its economy was therefore hugely significant.

The fact that Xi’s announcement also made no reference to China’s traditionally hard-held bifurcation between developed and developing country responsibilities, or indeed linked China’s actions in any way to the action of others, was also hugely significant. Xi’s dismissal of the Europeans’ attempts to extract such an announcement just a week earlier during a virtual EU–China leaders’ meeting underscores he clearly now sees greater geopolitical value in China’s preparedness to signal its desire to act alone compared to the domestic value of being seen to use minor steps by China as a lever for extracting stronger commitments from the developed world in return.

New geopolitical benchmarks

The challenge for China now is to live up to the new geopolitical benchmarks it has set for itself in the eyes of the international community. This includes among its G77 developing country compatriots, including the many island nations whose very existence hinges more than anything else now on the actions of developing countries such as China, as well as India (with Xi’s announcement, India is now clearly forecast – for the first time – to become the world’s largest emitter). In other words, China will now be judged on an increasingly level playing field to the United States, European Union, and regional powers like Japan, rather than simply rewarded for coming to the table.

At the same time, China will need to be conscious that with President-elect Biden’s inauguration in January, any goodwill it has built up in recent years for staying the course with the Paris Agreement will quickly be eclipsed by the weight of Biden’s own ambitions. This includes Biden’s determination to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, aggressively ramp up US short-term action through a new 2030 emissions reduction target, and to have completely decarbonised the domestic energy system by 2035.

US President-elect Joe Biden stands with his national security team, including John Kerry, who has been appointed Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change (Image: Joshua Roberts / Alamy)

China would be wise not to cut against this, including given the troubles with the wider bilateral relationship. It is in both countries’ interests to rebuild the cooperative relationship on climate change they established under the Obama administration, and which Biden – and his anointed Special Presidential Envoy John Kerry – played a key role in creating. That is because, from Biden’s perspective, any attempt to address climate change without China doing more will inherently remain limited.

From Beijing’s perspective, a cooperative relationship will help take the heat out of US attempts to extract additional efforts by China, including with regards to its domestic use of coal and the Belt and Road Initiative – as well as potentially the implementation of carbon border tax adjustment policies and alike. Through a new framework of managed strategic competition, this can also be achieved while the overall relationship remains difficult. Indeed, climate change can be the topic that protects against the “decoupling” narrative across the board, and which builds a cooperative bridge to the United States and the broader West.

This will require a sophisticated approach by China, including to overcome its traditionally tin-eared response to the views of the international community on its climate credentials, and instead to demonstrate a willingness to understand genuine areas of geopolitical weaknesses on climate and to seek to overcome them.

Mid-century ambition

First, China would be well advised to confirm that Xi’s September announcement will cover all greenhouse gas emissions and not just carbon dioxide. According to modelling by Xie Zhenhua’s Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development at Tsinghua University, and a separate study by the Asia Society Policy Institute and Climate Analytics, this would put the goal squarely in-line with the global temperature limits set by the Paris Agreement, especially if coupled with deeper cuts in the short term to avoid higher cumulative emissions over time.

Ideally, China would also join the Biden administration and European Union, plus every other G7 economy, including Japan (and now also South Korea), in committing to reach this goal closer to 2050. Few governments have a propensity for effective and centralised long-term planning as China. The celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2049 provides a ripe milestone for Beijing to have in mind.

The five-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement provides the perfect opportunity for Xi to further clarify China’s position, ameliorating criticism from some quarters of his September announcement while cementing a second wave of praise for what is at its heart a very bold step. At the very least, China could use this as an opportunity to formally deposit its long-term decarbonisation strategy with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in line with Xi’s September announcement – but unless this is met with at least some indication of a genuine attempt to build on this deadline over time, it risks merely being met with an increased level of scepticism by the international community.

Short-term ambition

At the same time, China must be prepared to do much more to reduce emissions in the short-term, including through depositing a new NDC next year in the lead-up to COP26 in Glasgow. While President-elect Biden will begin the process of rejoining the Paris Agreement on his first day in office, the United States is unlikely to be able to produce a 2030 NDC before the northern summer. And once it has, this is likely to represent a significant first restorative step, potentially by elevating the Obama administration’s pledge to reduce emissions by 26-28% by 2025 (on 2005 levels) to somewhere between a 38 and 54% cut in emissions by 2030.

China would therefore do well to heed that timeline and not seek to simply make piecemeal advancements to its own NDC before the end of 2020. While the literalists in China’s diplomatic corps will be conscious of the Paris Agreement’s original deadline of 2020 for the updating of NDCs (prior to the impact of Covid-19 and the delaying of COP26), the reality is the international community will judge the country more harshly for hastily delivering an insufficient NDC. And what is already clear is that Xi’s other announcement in September that China will now aim to peak emissions “before” – as opposed to “around” – 2030 will simply not cut it in the eyes of the international community who will be looking for China to reach this milestone by 2025, while also taking action to address the other three quantitative targets contained in its existing NDC.

Notwithstanding the flexibility provided by the likely timing of the Biden administration’s own NDC, it is also in China’s own interests to wait to table a new 2030 NDC until the main elements of the 14th Five Year Plan (2021-25) have been finalised in the first quarter of next year. By all accounts, this is likely to see improvements to China’s carbon intensity and energy efficiency measures, as well as with regards to the domestic use of coal.

But in order to be credible, China must use the Five-Year Plan process, including the production of a “Special Plan for Combating Climate Change and the CO2 Peaking Action Plan”, as well as the “Plan for Energy Development and the Plan for Electricity Development” – to commit to a cap of 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by 2025, and to control non-carbon dioxide emissions at two billion tonnes. This would require China to also commit to limiting total coal power capacity to no more than 1,150 gigawatts in 2025 and work towards a complete phase-out of all domestic coal generation by 2040. This would mean China would also cross the symbolically important threshold of reducing the share of coal in total energy consumption to below 50% before the end of 2025.

The Five Year Plan also allows China to ground the NDC in a government-wide process, rather than simply an effort contained to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE). In other words, waiting for the Five Year Plan would provide for a stronger NDC and one with more domestic buy-in to deliver it. It would also mean the NDC can help reinforce, rather than be seen to detract from, Xi’s vision of carbon neutrality.

However, much of this will rest even more immediately on the decisions China continues to take as part of its economic response to Covid-19. The approval of a large number of new coal-fired power plants this year does not augur well for ensuring there is a green economic recovery, even with Beijing’s investment in so called “new infrastructure” such as electric vehicle charging stations and rail upgrades. Indeed, the total capacity of coal fired power generation now under development in China is larger than the remaining operating fleet in the United States.

The Belt and Road Initiative

A third area that will require a sophisticated reset by Beijing concerns the Belt and Road Initiative, and especially China’s support for large amounts of carbon-intensive infrastructure around the world, including coal-fired power stations. By some estimates, China is currently involved in the construction of more than 100 gigawatts of coal-fired power stations around the world, including in South East Asia, Africa, and even Eastern Europe.

While some would counter that China’s hand in support of coal actually extends far less than that of Japan’s or South Korea’s, this is not the case when considering foreign direct investment alongside development financing and the exporting of equipment and personnel. In fact, most estimates would put the ledger at least two-thirds in the direction of China, and only likely to get worse with Japan announcing in July that it would not finance any new coal projects abroad. South Korea’s parliament is also looking to put in place a ban on their own financing, including after the state-owned utility Kepco announced it would scrap two coal projects in the Philippines and South Africa.

Hassyan coal power project in Dubai, the first power station in the Middle East to be built with Chinese investment (Image: Alamy)

Beijing should be careful not to underestimate the extent to which this has the potential to significantly impinge the BRI – the jewel in the crown of Xi’s foreign policy – in the years ahead. Already moods are shifting in many recipient countries. The awarding of the prestigious environmental Goldman Prize to Chibeze Ezekiel for organising his fellow Ghanaians against plans for a Chinese-supported coal plant in the African nation provided a powerful example of this. And this attitudinal shift will only accelerate once additional and more accessible sources of clean energy finance become available.

President-elect Biden has not only pledged to shine an uncomfortable light on China’s offshoring of emissions through the BRI on the campaign trail, but his commitment to massively ramp up America’s overseas clean energy investments also has the potential to result in a sophisticated diplomatic squeeze on China. If China does not want to be seen to be moving only at the behest of US pressure, it would be well advised to begin to make these reforms earnestly.

While the recent effort ostensibly overseen by MEE to establish a “traffic light” system for new BRI projects is to be welcome, it will require more teeth to be effective. Ultimately, the most powerful thing China could do would be to follow Japan and South Korea’s lead and halt its overseas support for coal entirely. The economic hard heads in China will find that difficult, especially as the country winds down its domestic coal sector and seeks to redeploy its human and financial capital in the sector elsewhere. But the extent to which China can at least extend many of the laws and regulations it has put in place domestically in recent years to equally apply to its overseas projects will be an important first step.

Xi’s announcement in September marked a new era for the geopolitics of China’s climate leadership. Gone are the days when China would be lauded for simply coming to the table, or for holding the table together in the absence of the United States. The decisions that China takes now as the world’s largest emitter will be judged increasingly on the same playing field as those that the United States is prepared to take, as well as the rest of the international community.

Whether China’s leaders understand this new geopolitical paradigm remains to be seen. The decisions they take in the period ahead with regards to its 2030 NDC and towards Xi’s vision of reaching carbon neutrality will be the clearest indicators of this, as will the reforms they are prepared to put in place around the Belt and Road Initiative. Piecemeal steps forward will no longer cut it, including in the eyes of their developing country compatriots.

Xi’s legacy as a climate leader in China may be assured. But his legacy as a climate leader internationally is not yet guaranteed. This is a key international opportunity for China and a key international opportunity for Xi. It is also one which aligns with the country’s domestic interests of upgrading its economy, cleaning up its environment, and shoring up its energy security.

From our partner chinadialogue

Kevin Rudd was prime minister of Australia from 2007 to 2010 and then again in 2013. He is president of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York and chair of the Global Partnership on Sanitation and Water for All.

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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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East Asia

Xinjiang: The New Ideological Battleground between the US and China

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Months before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Uighur separatists allegedly attempted to blow up a Chinese passenger airplane unleashing a decade-long orgy of violence which lasted until 2017.  Chen Quanguo, the CPC’s new party tsar in Xinjiang even proudly boasted of “zero terrorist violence” within one year after he arrived in Urumqi in 2016. This coincided with the release of President Trump’s National Security Strategy in December. Some US commentators see a close link between the NSS 2017 and the sudden shifting of the US focus on the oppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Is this why the genocide controversy or new “great game” in Xinjiang was born? 

***

Following the passage of a bill in the US Congress in September last year that would ban imports produced by Uighur forced laborers in Xinjiang, John Pomfret, the former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing and author of The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present, told the New Yorker in an interview: “I think that, fundamentally, we’re at a point where we have an ideological problem with China. The ideological competition has many parts, and one of the parts has to do with American revulsion at Chinese human-rights abuses, not only in Xinjiang and Hong Kong but in Han dominated China as well.” (Emphasis added)   

Xinjiang – China: Twentieth Century and at present

The present day political strife in Xīnjiāng – the Chinese term meaning “new frontier” – is the manifestation of the People’s Republic of China founded in 1949. Like Tibet, Mao’s People’s Liberation Army incorporated Xinjiang into the New China by force and through political maneuvers. It is the largest province in size – containing more than 18% of China’s land area – and largest administrative unit within PRC. It is approximately three times the size of France and is centrally located on the Eurasian continent. Xinjiang shares international border with seven countries in South Asia and Central Asia. Yet, and ironically, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) became the “backyard” of New China – ideally suited site for nuclear tests and nuclear weapon facilities.

Historians of the PRC formative years have argued, the CPC inadvertently took advantage of the exceptionally favorable international environment created by the Cold War in unifying China in the 1950s. “Mao’s turn to the US in 1971 and China’s support for US operations inside Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, created a basis for Islamism in Xinjiang itself and unleashed powerful forces that now threaten to once again break up China,” observed an international affairs commentator recently. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the birth of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) further turned Xinjiang into a training as well as recruitment safe haven for Mujahidin militants from among the Uighur separatists. More often than not, besides being aided and funded by the Turkish government, the CIA too proactively carried out its penetration in the region.

Apparently, alarmed by the “anti-China” foreign forces’ penetration into the region, the CPC began adapting countermeasures and decided to implement its policy of large-scale Han migration into the region in the 1990s. Probing the massive riots in July 2009 in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) capital city Urumqi, a recent research paper by Amy H. Liu and Kevin Peters claims the ethnic violence was the result of Beijing’s ambitious Great Leap West plan launched in 1999. According to the two authors, while available data does show the economic benefits have been enjoyed by all people in Xinjiang, regardless of ethnicity, relations between the Han dominated Beijing and the Uyghurs in Xinjiang have remained unchanged, if not worsened.

Unity among China’s ethnicities: Like “seeds of a pomegranate”

Undeterred by unprecedented violence erupting during the visit to the region by the top CPC leader, President Xi Jinping appeared more determined to crush Uighur separatist violence after his maiden “inspection tour” in 2014. It is pertinent to recall, a bomb tore through Urumqi railway station, killing three and injuring several on the day Xi arrived in the province’s capital. In the preceding weeks, “dozens of civilians were hacked to death at a busy train station in China’s south. A Uighur drove a car into crowds at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Forty-three died when men threw bombs from two sports utility vehicles plowing through a busy market street in Urumqi,” as reported by the Associated Press on the tenth anniversary of the July 2009 violence. But apparently, Xi had visited Xinjiang to ensure smooth implementation of what subsequently became known to the world as China’s, or rather Xi’s, most ambitious national strategy, i.e. One Belt, One Road (OBOR) or BRI – the Belt and Road Initiative.

In fact, a few months after the tenth anniversary of July 2009 Urumqi violence, an exclusive NYT report claimed newly appointed Chinese president Xi, also the party chief, had laid the groundwork for the crackdown in Xinjiang in a series of speeches delivered in private to officials in April 2014, just after Uighur militants stabbed more than 150 people at a train station, killing 31. “Mr. Xi called for an all-out struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism, using the organs of dictatorship and showing absolutely no mercy,” (emphasis added) the NYT reported.  “Shortly after arriving in Urumqi, at a Xinjiang Work Conference, Xi ordered the local authorities to remold the region to ward off ethnic extremism. China’s ethnicities could and should be united like “the seeds of a pomegranate,” the AP news, cited above, quoted state media as saying.

Interestingly, to both left and right cynics who critique China for having abandoned communism and for the party-states’ woke policies towards ethnic minorities respectively, it is crystal clear that to dismiss or deny existence of re-education or internment camps, sterilization of women, mass surveillance reliant on big tech, forced labor, market expansion and police brutality etc – in China and elsewhere – is tantamount to “embracing simplistic prescriptions.”  Not surprisingly, even Noam Chomsky, among others, signed a statement released recently stating: “China’s present signature foreign policy initiative is the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) that seeks to connect the PRC economically to the rest of the Eurasian continent through large infrastructure projects that will stimulate international trade. As a result, the XUAR has become a very important strategic region for China, and the state views its indigenous populations as an obstacle to developing its vision for this future critical center of international commercial networks.”

Genocide controversy in Xinjiang: What will China do?

However, without going into the merits of who is indulging in “false propaganda” and who is stating the truth with regards to the so-called “genocide” inside Xinjiang, the questions for us all to ponder are: when did we first hear about the million Uighurs being tortured in internment camps and of the genocide in Xinjiang; now that the United Nations has directly engaged with authorities in Beijing to send a UN delegation on an “unrestricted visit” to Xinjiang, what will Beijing do; if at all the UN demand is acceded to by the PRC, will the UN fact finding team’s report stand the test of scrutiny by the international community or by the Chinese government; and last but not the least, will Beijing dictate the composition of the UN delegation or not?

Finally, in the face of Beijing’s rigid refusal first to the European Union and most recently to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to conduct “unrestricted visit” to Xinjiang, it is increasingly becoming apparent China’s diplomacy is facing “crisis of confidence.” Besides, a recent article in ftchinese.com claims, China’s initiative to conduct a visit to the troubled region by “friendly” Islamic nations has run into trouble too. With more and more developed countries, including most recently Japan, either threatening or resorting to sanctions over accusations of genocide in Xinjiang, indicates China’s failure to convince the outside world of Beijing’s narrative on Uighur terrorism. Sadly, however, it is quite clear Chen Quanguo, who took the helm of Xinjiang by replacing Zhang Chunxian in 2016, and who is among the top party officials sanctioned by the Biden administration recently, is not amenable to any such visits by a foreign delegation. For, it is precisely the tough measures being carried out by Chen which are being condemned by the Western governments as genocide. Chen even proudly reported recently of “zero terrorist attacks since 2017.” Consider this, even the party’s fourth senior most official in charge of the violence stricken region, Yu Zhengsheng, had said in 2014 after the knife stabbing at the train station in Urumqi: “It was necessary to tell the Chinese public not to apply any label – such as terrorism – to Xinjiang.” (Emphasis added)

To conclude, the authorities in Beijing it seems had been preparing for long for the ideological battle moment with the US to arrive, as John Pomfret, cited above, observed. But at the same time, as in the words of globally respected veteran Chinese-American affairs scholar at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, professor Yan Xuetong, leadership in Beijing has been for decades extremely cautious to prevent such ideological rivalry from intensifying. “Engaging in ideological rivalry will have negative impact on China’s rejuvenation. Therefore, avoiding ideological rivalry has become a strategic principle of the Chinese government since the early 1980s when reform and opening up were gaining momentum,” professor Xuetong pointed out in an exclusive opinion piece on the day of the US presidential election last November. Perhaps, Beijing would be wise to listen to the advice offered by the ftchinese.com columnist – a mainland Chinese scholar – that Chinese foreign ministry “must display more prudence and diplomacy” in fielding critical and even embarrassing questions, including ideology!         

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