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An overambitious party state and the perils of imperial overstretch

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Here, I analyse the rise of China under an overambitious Communist Party (CCP), and what it means for the rest of the world, despite all its exceptional domestic accomplishments. How do the CCP’s acts of belligerence in China’s neighbourhood openly challenge the notion of peaceful coexistence?

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The People’s Republic of China is one of the only five remaining ‘politically’ communist states in the world, the others being North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba. On July 1, 2021 the ruling Chinese Communist Party observed its 100th anniversary of establishment with much pomp and splendour in the historic Tiananmen Square of Beijing.

The party was formed by a small group of radical Chinese intellectuals in the eastern city of Shanghai in 1921, without much expectations of ruling a vast country like mainland China in a matter of decades, which was then in its Republican Era that continued till 1949.

The CCP seizes power

With the fall of the nationalist Kuomintang government led by Chiang Kai-shek in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949) the communists seized power in Beijing with the proclamation of the People’s Republic on 01 October 1949 by Mao Zedong, then Chairperson of the Communist Party, in Tiananmen Square, a name that would turn infamous after four decades for a brutal crackdown on democratic aspirations by the CCP using the armed forces and the massacre of hundreds of Chinese youths, including university students, in 1989.

The party’s leadership is enshrined in the Chinese constitution and its top leader, the General Secretary, is the de-facto head of the Chinese state. Over the past 72 years many charismatic leaders have occupied this particular post like Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and the current leader Xi Jinping, who has been in power since 2012. In times of Xi, the party’s goal has gone beyond the traditional goal of national rejuvenation and state consolidation towards the assertion of might and comprehensive national power.

The centennial: From consolidation to assertion

32 years after the bloody Tiananmen incident, in the same Square, General Secretary Xi Jinping delivered a keynote speech highlighting the CCP’s achievements in front of more than 70,000 attendees, marking the party’s centennial celebrations, followed by glaring military parades, cannon firings and mesmerizing aerial shows by the air force. Other prominent figures present alongside him included former General Secretary Hu Jintao, ex-premier Wen Jiabao, and the respective chief executives of the special administrative regions (SARs) of Hong Kong’s and Macau, over which he said Beijing exercises “overall jurisdiction”.

Among other things, General Secretary Xi stated that realizing China’s complete “reunification” by resolving the Taiwan question is an unshakable commitment and mission of the Communist Party and resolute action will be taken to defeat any attempt toward “Taiwan independence”. This was an indirect political message to the United States.

He also said, “The Chinese people will never allow any foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave us. Whoever nurses delusions of doing that will crack their heads and spill blood on the great wall of steel built from the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people”. This was a direct message to all democracies of the world that relate with the concerns of the Taiwanese people on the preservation of the island’s democratic system.

By invoking such historical revanchist sentiments of the Chinese people and repeated reiterations of ‘the century of humiliation’ faced by imperial China under colonial powers, Xi Jinping gave a blunt warning to all present-day foreign powers, which includes China’s systemic, strategic and geopolitical adversaries.

By pledging to expand China’s military capabilities and global influence, he reiterated the end of China’s peaceful rise, something which he already hinted two years back, in 2019, when the People’s Republic observed its 70th anniversary. The rhetoric was overly nationalistic in tone, in many ways resembling that of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, which also spilled similar toxicity.

The party has indeed led the Chinese state to becoming a formidable economic giant in about three to four decades, starting from 1978, when economic liberalisation ushered in the era of prosperity in the country. The party embraced a self-contradictory capitalist economy since 1978 and has skilfully adjusted itself along opportunistic lines throughout its later history.

Today, the party has about 92 million members out of China’s population of 1.4 billion. The CCP, along with the other four communist countries, has outlived the collapse of the Soviet Union and its affiliated Eastern bloc.

All Chinese leaders have initiated their own signature philosophies as the guiding force of the CCP’s state policy during their respective tenures. It includes, “Hide your strength, bide your time” (Deng Xiaoping), “The Three Represents” (Jiang Zemin), “Scientific Outlook on Development” (Hu Jintao), and the current “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” and the “Community with a Shared Future for Humankind”.

The CCP is currently ruling over the world’s most populous nation and an economic superpower. The global power transition is not going to be smooth, while the Western alliance led by the United States is rising up to the new challenge by renewing their alliance. This seems also true considering the party’s hidden agenda to dominate the world on all perceivable aspects of society, primarily by utilizing its superior economic and technological might, supplemented more recently by boosted military capabilities.

Imperial overstretch

The concept of ‘imperial overstretch’ is put forward by Paul Kennedy, a Yale University historian to explain a situation wherein an empire or a major power extends itself beyond its military and economic capabilities, which would eventually lead to its collapse. This was true in the case of rise and fall of powers and leaders such as Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815 and Adolf Hitler in 1945.

In today’s scenario, the 72-year old regime in mainland China under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) show signs of such an ‘overstretch’ in its neighbourhood. But, unlike in the distant past, the nations of the world are interconnected and interdependent on each other, making the situation much more complex.

A quote on imperial China, then under the Qing dynasty, often attributed to French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte goes like this, “Let China Sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world”. As said, it turned out that China’s new rulers, the Communist Party, is arguably adept in ‘shaking’ the status quo of peace, using a combination of economic, military and diplomatic tools with both tactical and strategic implications.

For short-term gains, it is antagonizing all the countries that refuse to accept Chinese hegemony in Asia. The CCP often forgets the fact that it has to co-exist peacefully with other nations, or it’s not willing to, and constantly attempts to alter the existing regional and global order and power equations in a unilateral manner.

Both Adolf Hitler and Xi Jinping and his predecessors since Deng Xiaoping were successful enough in building a strong domestic economy and strikingly good enough in bringing in rapid industrialisation of their respective countries, but the real problem lies with its engagement with the rest of the world.

Germany too was incredibly industrialized during Hitler’s regime, but the problem was a lion’s share of it was oriented towards the accomplishment of military objectives. It’s not about how much economic muscle has been built up over the years or what size is the country’s economy but how it is being used in a way jeopardizing the interests of other nations, particularly in the periphery and neighbourhood.

Contentious periphery and neighbourhood

The communist state’s armed forces, which calls itself the People’s Liberation Army has sworn their allegiance to the party and not the Chinese state, unlike democratic countries. It has annexed predominantly Buddhist Tibet in 1951 and much before that predominantly Muslim Xinjiang or East Turkestan was also incorporated into the People’s Republic. Instead of liberating peoples, the communists themselves turned into oppressors.

Today, the CCP is using economics as a tool to correct its political wrongs, particularly in Tibet, where it is intensifying infrastructure development. Once the current Dalai Lama, who is in exile in India, attains nirvana, the CCP will also attempt to install a puppet by diluting the institution of the Dalai Lama itself, thereby jeopardizing the Tibetan culture and religion. This would bring the CCP in collision with India, where tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees live.

Most recently, China has also been trying to exploit unemployment in areas close to Tibet’s border with India, such as the strategic Chumbi Valley wedged between Bhutan and India’s Sikkim state. The CCP has started recruiting militias of Tibetan origin, who are accustomed to high altitude warfare, to fight for the CCP’s armed wing, the People’s Liberation Army. India too has a secretive force comprising of Tibetan refugees, called the Special Frontier Force (SFF). In the event of a flare-up in these areas, it is going to be Tibetans versus Tibetans, fighting on rival sides.

In the Himalayan frontiers, the CCP is engaging in the strategy of ‘salami-slicing’ by laying claims on lands belonging to its Himalayan neighbours – India, Bhutan and Nepal – by making gradual advancements, followed by mobilisation of troops. This was most recently evident in the Galwan incident and standoff, last year, wherein the Chinese laid claims on the entire Galwan Valley, belonging to India, after locking horns with Indian troops.

The CCP makes ten steps forward and later retreats two steps back after negotiations that follow. India and China fought a war in 1962 when the latter unexpectedly attacked and defeated the latter, in a hugely asymmetric war, as an attention diversion tactic to bury Mao’s domestic failures.

Similarly, in the south, Hong Kong’s autonomy has been jeopardized by introducing a draconian national security law last year. This is now being used to crush democratic dissent and freedom of the press, as evident the circumstances leading to the closure of pro-democracy newspaper and CCP-critic Apple Daily, following the arrests of its journalists and seizing of its assets. Democratic gatherings are also banned.

Potential for great power rivalry in the maritime domain

Coming to the Taiwan Strait, there has been an exponential rise in air space incursions by PLA jets in the past few months, indicative of a looming threat of annexation of the self-ruled island state by the CCP.

In the South China Sea, located at the centre of the Indo Pacific region between China and Southeast Asia, the CCP has resurrected an old and legally invalid idea of ‘Nine-Dash Line’ in 2013 to claim over 90% of waters of the sea as its sovereign territory, which overlaps with the legitimate territorial waters and exclusive economic zones of neighbouring countries such as Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia.

However, the recent origins of the CCP’s assertion goes back to late 2000s, when Chinese PLA navy submarines surfaced in the middle of US naval ships engaged in freedom of navigation operations in the East China Sea. It was a kind of political message to the otherwise great power active in the region, the United States.

The Chinese have been openly disregarding international maritime law and the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Seas of 1982, of which Beijing itself is a party, by making such illegal claims. This is nothing but blatant cartographic aggression by the CCP.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in Netherlands has ruled these claims as illegal in a landmark 2016 verdict, which was in favour of the Philippines, a key security ally of the United States in the region. For Manila, it was matter of food security as well, considering the large section of its population that engaged in fisheries as a means to livelihood. But, the dispute still continues, as Beijing decided not to respect the 2016 verdict and naval collisions occur periodically even to this day.

The CCP also has a dispute with Japan, another US ally, over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The US always had a security presence in Southeast Asia, the backyard of China, right from the 1950s when SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation) existed and the subsequent isolation from the region following the debacle in the Vietnam War. But, at that time China never projected its power in the region, as it did from 2013 onwards with new ambitions for strategic influence. Today, even a once adversary Vietnam finds strategic convergence with the United States, considering the South China Sea dispute.

The United States greatly values its right of freedom of navigation and conducts passage exercises in maritime regions across the world. In the recent past, this has increasingly come in direct collision with China-claimed territorial waters when US ships frequently encounter Chinese ships in the region. Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made it clear in July 2020 that “the South China Sea is not China’s maritime empire”.

Last year, an annual report released by the Pentagon showed that the People’s Republic of China has built the largest navy in the world, surpassing even the US Navy, in terms of overall battle force. In 2020, China had approximately 350 ships and submarines in comparison to 293 of the US.

As part of the PLA Navy’s modernisation efforts in the recent past, it has embarked on a rigorous ship-building programme that includes “submarines, surface combatants, amphibious warfare ships, aircraft carriers, and auxiliary ships as well as indigenous weapons, sensors and command and control systems”, the report stated.

But, the dragon is still far behind the eagle in terms of overseas bases and comparative operational reach. This means, China is using this enormous amount of naval might in the contentious seas in its backyard, the South and East China Seas, aimed at its maritime neighbours.

The Indian Ocean too is vulnerable to potential Chinese militarization in the near future, particularly in places such as Sri Lanka, which is trapped in Chinese debt-trap. The first Chinese overseas military base in Djibouti and the strategic Gwadar port in Pakistan, where the BRI’s maritime route meets land, are already operational.

The other side of the China story

One of the many things that China admirers and the left-leaning fraternity of intelligentsia, academia and the media in democratic countries keep on articulating is the way China rapidly modernized and industrialised in the past three to four decades and how it lifted about 800 million of its citizens out of poverty, and crediting that success as the basis for legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party among the Chinese people. They say China achieved the feat by not subjugating other countries, unlike the West.

But, in fact what they comfortably neglect or rather doesn’t wish to mention is how that is achieved and how the original communist ideology is tweaked to the highest extent possible for that purpose or how sustainable that development model is. They don’t wish to say how the northern and eastern frontier provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang, which was culturally never part of historical China Proper or the Chinese civilization, was forcefully annexed, ‘colonized’, its natural resources drained and subjected to ‘Han’ization of those regions’ demography.

They seldom talk about the murder of democracy in Hong Kong or the threat of Beijing’s potential invasion of Taiwan. In Xinjiang, reportedly over a million Uyghur Muslims are arbitrarily put in re-education camps where alleged forced labour is taking place, which supposedly includes production for world markets.

One of the other tactics followed by the CCP in the 1990s was pretending to abide by and be part of the liberal international world in order to convince the United States other Western countries to support China to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which it ultimately accomplished in 2001, thereby beginning a new era of international competition wherein cheap Chinese products began flooding world markets in a matter of few years.

From ‘peaceful’ to ‘disruptive’ rise

The CCP has reshaped the rules of geo-economics since early 2010s by initiating a spree of investments and infrastructure projects in trillions of dollars in vulnerable countries and regions of the world such as in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Africa, with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) being its core. Many a times it leads the country into a spiral of inescapable debt-trap. By doing so, the CCP envisions positioning China as the centre of global economy and trade, which it already more or less is.

It has been trying to split the West and the United States by fishing in troubled waters using the same geoeconomic tools by leading groupings such as Cooperation between China and 17 Central and Eastern European Countries (17+1) and also by engaging Latin American countries such as Nicaragua, where it is building an alternative waterway to the Panama Canal that connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Moreover, Beijing sides with Moscow to take on the Western alliance. If the world’s democracies fail to tame the dragon, it might plunge into another war, more possibly in the Taiwan Strait or in the South China Sea or may be even in the Indian Ocean.

There was a time when ‘peaceful rise’ was the party’s policy orientation as advocated by Deng Xiaoping and his immediate successors. Today, under Xi, it has grown into a global ambition supported by a daunting grand strategy, often with disruptive characteristics.

The need for balancing singular concentration of power

For the first time, in June 2021, the 30-member NATO alliance and the G7 acknowledged China as a systemic challenge to be handled with, other than Russia. New infrastructural projects are also in the offing to counter its Chinese equivalents. New balance of power coalitions are taking shape such as the Quad grouping of democracies, consisting of the US, Japan, India and Australia.

Democratic nations are coming together in bilateral, trilateral and multilateral mechanisms to prevent one disruptive power from dominating others. The Biden administration is heavily investing on Washington’s diplomatic capital in renewing America’s alliances across the world that was put in a sorry state to the advantage of China by his predecessor. He is building on coalitions and partnerships intensified by the previous administration, as well.

The world today is dealing with a delusional power that exhibits an increasingly confrontational style of diplomacy, often called ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’ that seldom cares about co-existing with other countries in peace or respecting each other.

So, there is strong need today for preventing singular concentration of power and for balancing power with the involvement of more responsible actors that is willing to coexist peacefully, so do the need for a new set of confidence-building measures among rivals, drawing lessons from the past.

A larger task of this power balancing is at hand for the world’s democracies, which includes the preservation of rules-based international order, prevention of expansionist policies from gaining ground, and the promotion of alternative development models with sustainability at its core and without ulterior motives.

Bejoy Sebastian is an independent journalist based in India who regularly writes, tweets, and blogs on issues relating to international affairs and geopolitics, particularly of the Asia-Pacific region. He also has an added interest in documentary photography. Previously, his bylines have appeared in The Diplomat, The Kochi Post, and Delhi Post.

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Will US-China Tensions Trigger the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis?

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Half a century ago, the then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger flew to Beijing in the hope of seeking China’s alliance to contain the Soviets. His visit culminated in the U.S. agreement to recognize Beijing as the only legitimate government of China instead of Taipei, going back on the promise he had made to the president of the Republic of China, Chiang Ching-kuo, merely one year previously that Taiwan would never be abandoned by the US. The realistic American diplomat may have never thought that one day Taiwan, once ruthlessly forsaken by the US, would become the latter’s most important strategic fortress in East Asia to contain a rising China.

In 2018, the passage of the Taiwan Travel Act encouraged more high-ranking American government officials to visit Taiwan and vice versa1. The US Undersecretary of State Keith Krach landed in Taiwan two years later, rendering him the highest-level State Department official to visit the island since 19792. The Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, announced the cancellation of all restrictions on official contacts between the U.S. and Taiwan in January 20213 – an action that was vehemently denounced by the Chinese government as Trump’s “last-ditch madness” that would “push the Taiwan question deeper down the road of no return”4.

Just when the world thought of Joe Biden’s ascension to power as a harbinger of softer attitudes toward Beijing, especially regarding Taiwan issues, the diplomatic muscle flexed by the newly elected US president is as eye-tingling as his aviator shades – first, his Secretary of State, Blinken and Secretary of Defense, Austin made an explicit announcement of the U.S. support for Taiwan; second, he sent former Deputy Secretaries of State Richard Armitage and James Steinberg and former senator Chris Dodd to Taiwan in honor of the 42nd anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act.

America’s incremental interest in the island is not confined to actions from its executive branches, but it has permeated its legislative system. The introduction of the confrontational “Strategic Competition Act of 2021” in April signals the anti-Soviet-style containment of China which was backed by The Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This bill echoes the “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance” released by the Biden Administration in March, and it emphasizes the urgent need to “achieve United States political objectives in the Indo-Pacific” and back closer ties with Taiwan5. With strong bipartisan support, the bill is expected to be signed into law by President Biden and to serve as a legislative compass to counter China at all levels. In that respect, Taiwan Strait is more likely than ever to become “ground zero” by the U.S. and China.

On the other hand, the crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement under the new National Security Law by Beijing proved to be successful due to the limited backlash received from the West. On top of that, Beijing’s handling of Xinjiang cotton issue seems to have managed to incite nationalism among Chinese people on a short notice to boycott “anti-China forces”6. With a record of 380 incursions into Taiwan’s airspace by Chinese air force during 2020, there is reason to believe that Hong Kong and Xinjiang were “guinea pigs” used by Beijing to test its capability for the fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis, the probability of which has been enhanced by Xi Jinping’s attempt to seek reappointment and Beijing’s need to divert domestic attention away from the escalating social conflicts brought about by the stagnant economy.

So, the pertinent question is: if the fourth Taiwan Crisis does break out, when will it happen? It could be sometime after the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games7 as it is unlikely for China to discard the opportunity to showcase its image and test its comprehensive strength8. This could be déjà vu in light of Russia’s successful Blitzkrieg-style invasion of Ukraine in 2014, which occurred only three days after the end of Sochi Winter Olympics. However, China is not the only one who can learn from history. When the rest of the world anticipates China’s intent with regard to Taiwan, preemptive precautions will be taken. The game-theory-type strategic interaction may hence spur China to launch its attack before the upcoming international sports gala.

Another critical timing could be prior to the 20th National Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2022. Xi Jinping’s abolishment of term limits through constitutional amendment may pave the legal foundation for his reappointment, but the “widespread opposition within the party”9 renders the legitimacy of his extended tenure unlikely. That is why some may find it hard to conceive of Xi’s attempt to “start an unnecessary war with Taiwan” before his re-appointment10, but his insatiable desire for a 3rd term may push him over the edge. For the time being, Xi seems to be seduced by his burgeoning self-confidence that China is charging into an epoch of opportunity where “the East is rising and the West is declining,”11 and what time is better than now to consolidate his authority in front of dissidents with a military show-off targeting Taiwan?

As Henry Kissinger12 said, “The historical challenge for leaders is to manage the crisis while building the future. Failure could set the world on fire.” When the leaders of the two greatest powers both see their own countries as the future “Leviathan” of the world, the definition of failure can no longer be merely confined to internal mismanagement, but being surpassed by international competitors. Kissinger may have overestimated some leaders’ senses of honor to bear the responsibility of the “historical challenge”, but he can be right about the catastrophic consequences of their failures. But this time, failure is not an option for either side across the Taiwan Strait nor across the Pacific Ocean

Reference

  1. Chen, Y., & Cohen, J. A. (2019). China-Taiwan Relations Re-Examined: The “1992 Consensus” and Cross-Strait Agreements. University of Pennsylvania Asian Law Review, 14(1).
  2. Mink, M. (2021). The Catalyst for Stronger US-Taiwan Ties. https://keithkrach.com/the-catalyst-for-stronger-us-taiwan-ties/
  3. Hass, R. (2021). After lifting restrictions on US-Taiwan relations, what comes next? Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/01/11/after-lifting-restrictions-on-us-taiwan-relations-what-comes-next/
  4. Global Times. (2021). Pompeo may toll the knell for Taiwan authorities. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202101/1212378.shtml
  5. Zengerle, P., & Martina, M. (2021). U.S. lawmakers intensify bipartisan efforts to counter China. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/us-lawmakers-look-advance-sweeping-bid-counter-china-2021-04-21/
  6. Cui, J., & Zhao, Y. (2021). Boycott of Xinjiang cotton use opposed. China Daily. https://www.chinadailyhk.com/article/161495
  7. Everington, K. (2021). Former US security advisor says Taiwan in “maximum danger” from PLA. Taiwan News. https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/4189160
  8. China Daily. (2021). Preparing for Winter Olympics promotes quality development – Opinio. China Daily. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202101/22/WS600a131ba31024ad0baa44f1.html
  9. The Guardian. (2020). China’s Xi Jinping facing widespread opposition in his own party, insider claims. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/18/china-xi-jinping-facing-widespread-opposition-in-his-own-party-claims-insider
  10. Roy, D. (2021). Rumors of War in the Taiwan Strait. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2021/03/rumors-of-war-in-the-taiwan-strait/
  11. Buckley, C. (2021). Xi Maps Out China’s Post-Covid Ascent. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/03/world/asia/xi-china-congress.html?_ga=2.178218534.2000768907.1619749005-1359154941.1599697815
  12. Kissinger, H. A. (2020). The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-coronavirus-pandemic-will-forever-alter-the-world-order-11585953005

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Quad Infrastructure Diplomacy: An Attempt to Resist the Belt and Road Initiative

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Over the years, the competition between the great powers in the dual space of the Indian and Pacific Oceans has been rapidly increasing. In the face of the aggravation of relations between the PRC and the United States, the defence dimension of the rivalry between the two contenders for global leadership traditionally comes to the forefront. However, in today’s context, the parties will most likely not engage in military action for the strengthening of their dominance in the region, but they will try to achieve the goals by expanding of economic influence. In this context, along with the well-known trade wars, there is an infrastructure rivalry in the region, which is enforced on Beijing by Washington and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad).

The role of Infrastructure in Indian and Pacific Oceans’ countries

The countries of Asia traditionally drawing the attention of the world community due to the high rates of economic, technological, and social development. In less than three decades, their per capita income has increased by 74%, millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, as well as a growing middle class has emerged in the region. All this became possible due to the multilateral cooperation institutionalization and the integration of the economies of the Indo-Pacific. However, the strengthening of trade and economic ties and the future prosperity of Asia largely depends on the infrastructure (ports, highways and railways, airports, pipelines, etc.), which contributes to a more active movement of goods on a regional and global scale. Moreover, back in 2009, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) published a report according to which collective investments in infrastructure in the amount of US$8 trillion will be required to maintain rapid economic growth in Asian countries.

The most prominent infrastructure initiative in recent years is the «Belt and Road Initiative» (BRI), which was launched by China’s leader Xi Jinping in 2013. The BRI helped to fill numerous infrastructure gaps, but the United States and its partners increasingly paid attention to the geostrategic aspect of China’s actions. It’s no secret that the Belt and Road plays an important role in the development and integration of China’s provinces with neighboring countries. However, with the growing number of countries participating in the BRI, as well as the strengthening of China’s influence on a regional and global scale, criticism of the strategic tools for expanding Beijing’s economic influence gradually increased. The Belt and Road has faced a number of critical remarks, including those related to accusations of purposely involving the regional countries in the so-called «debt traps». Regardless of the degree of truthfulness or study of the issue, from year to year, media reports have contributed to the building of a contradictory attitude to China’s BRI among the residents, experts, and political elites all over the world.

Moreover, as soon as Donald Trump became the U.S. President in early 2017, Washington modified the nature of its policy towards China to greater confrontation. This trend has become a direct expression of the intensified great powers’ rivalry and their struggle for hegemony in the Indo-Pacific, as well as a motivation for the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which includes the United States, Australia, India and Japan. However, the interaction of the Quad has long been built on the basis of defence.

This trend continues nowadays, as evidenced by the frequent exercises and the growing Quad naval presence in the Indo-Pacific but in 2021 the Quad countries expanded their range of issues on a multilateral basis. Now the agenda includes vaccine diplomacy (providing 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines to Indo-Pacific countries, climate change, technological cooperation, maritime security, cybersecurity, and external development assistance. According to Kurt Campbell, Indo-Pacific policy coordinator at the National Security Council, Washington is looking to convene an in-person fall summit of leaders of the Quad countries with a focus on infrastructure in the face of the challenge from China.

Quadrilateral infrastructure diplomacy as the continuing vector of the Trump’s administration

The infrastructure agenda also became an important part of the last summit of the G7 countries’ leaders, during which the parties expressed their willingness to establish a BRI counterpart called Build Back Better World (B3W). In total, there are 22 mentions of infrastructure in the final G7 Summit Communiqué. Even despite the traditionally restrained position of India, which took the time to «study the specifics of the proposal», infrastructure diplomacy of Quad is becoming a new area of geostrategic competition in the Indo-Pacific.

There’s one exception: the activities on the infrastructure track are not a new trend of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, but a continuation of the foreign policy vector set during the presidency of Donald Trump. It was he who turned Sino-U.S. rivalry into a geo-economic level. Back in 2017, the Foreign Ministers of the Quad countries stated the need for high-quality infrastructure development in order to ensure freedom and openness of sea routes, as well as improve intra-regional ties. In 2018, MoU was signed between the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia, aimed at implementing major infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, the Quad countries raised the question of the BRI countries’ growing debt during their official meeting in Singapore.

It was clear that the Belt and Road Initiative is perceived by the Quad countries as the main factor in expanding the economic and political influence of the People’s Republic of China, as well as China’s influence of the domestic political processes in the countries of Indo-Pacific. At the same time, the combination of economic and defence rivalry enforced on Beijing by Washington, as well as Quad’s efforts to build a balance of power in the region actually indicates the explicit anti-​China nature of the Quad.

In this case, it’s important to note that each of the Quad countries has its own levers of influence, which they can combine in infrastructure competition with Beijing. For example, in 2015, in response to the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative and the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) by China, Japan made the Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (PQI). The United States, in turn, announced the infrastructure project Blue Dot Network (BDN), as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia established a new Partnerships for Infrastructure (P4I). All these initiatives are united by a commitment to inclusive economic growth, «quality infrastructure», climate change, disaster response, and social development. The capitalization of the Japanese, American and Australian initiatives is US $110 billion (US$50 billion from Japan and over US$50 from the Asian Development Bank), US$30-60 million, and US$383 thousand (including access to US$4 billion of foreign aid and $US2 billion from the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific), respectively. Given the ongoing discussions about debt traps, the emphasis on «high-quality infrastructure» may give special features to the initiatives of the Quad but even the total amount of funding will not be able to compete with the US$770 billion investments already made in 138 countries of the world and announced by China.

Anyway, Quad is stepping up its infrastructure diplomacy in at least three areas, including Southeast Asia, Oceania, and the Indian Ocean. For example, Australia, Germany and Switzerland have already allocated US$13 million to the Mekong River Commission For Sustainable Development (MRC) to assist Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and, Vietnam «to respond to pressing challenges while safeguarding the ecological function of the Mekong River and improving people’s livelihoods».At the same time, Australia signed US$300 million MoU with Papua New Guinea, aimed at the ports reconstruction in the major state of Oceania (the ports of Vanimo, Kimbe, Motukea, Lorengau, Oro Bay, Daru, Lae, etc.). It is important to highlight that the increasing economic and infrastructural presence of China in the countries of Oceania, energize Australia’s policy in the South Pacific, which is a traditional zone of influence of Canberra. At the same time, the expansion of Australia’s aid and investment to the broader Indo-Pacific is due to the commitment of the current Australian government to the U.S. foreign policy.

In turn, the reaction of the Southeast Asian countries to the intensification of Quad infrastructure diplomacy will be more restrained. According to the latest Pew Research Center survey, the most unfavourable view of China is in the United States (76%), Canada (73%), Germany (71%), Japan (88%), Australia (78%), and South Korea (77%), while in Singapore — the only country representing ASEAN in the survey — the percentage of unfavourable views on China is at a low level (34%). Moreover, considering the aspects of infrastructure diplomacy in the region, we should definitely refer to the survey of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) of the political elites of the region «Powers, Norms, and Institutions: The Future of the Indo-Pacific from a Southeast Asia Perspective», published in 2020. Despite the intentional exclusion of Russia from the survey, it approximately reflects the trends in the Indo-Pacific countries at the present stage. Thus, as a result of the survey, American experts revealed that the political elites of Southeast Asia positively assess China’s activities in the field of infrastructure development, which has brought tangible benefits to most Southeast Asian countries.

Beijing’s Response

China is actively reacting to verbal attacks from the United States and Quad. The infrastructure agenda was no exception, but China responded by modernizing its global Belt and Road Initiative. In response to criticism about the involvement of the countries in debt traps, Beijing has developed a new Foreign Policy White Paper «China’s International Development Cooperation in the New Era». The document was published in early 2021. According to the provisions of the new White Paper, China will pay closer attention to the process of implementing projects within the aid framework, take an active part in evaluating projects in order to monitor their quality, maintain an appropriate level of confidence in its projects to China, as well as conduct bilateral consultations to identify difficulties with debt repayment and make sure that partners do not fall into a debt trap. It’s possible that the new vision of the PRC will appear especially quickly in countries where the Quad will primarily try to implement their infrastructure projects.

China is the first country in the region, which pays significant attention to the issues of large-scale infrastructure development. Moreover, Beijing has a number of advantages over its opponent — Quad. First, the Belt and Road initiative is more structured and aimed at intensifying trade, economic, cultural and humanitarian cooperation with neighboring countries, while the emerging Quad infrastructure agenda is «dispersed» among numerous individual initiatives, doesn’t have the same level of stability as the BRI, and even after 3.5 years of building the agenda is considered through the prism of expectations.

Second, China’s initiative is aimed at a single infrastructure connection between the PRC and the rest of the world and acts as a potential basis for the intensification of global trade in the future. At the same time, today’s projects of the Quad are of a “sporadic» nature and can’t contribute to the infrastructure linkage between Europe, Africa, South and Southeast Asia on a global scale.

Third, China can already offer the Belt and Road members not only logistics infrastructure but also the opportunities in the field of green energy. At the end of 2019, China produced about a third of the world’s solar energy and retained a leading position in the number of wind turbines. Within the foreseeable future, the Quad countries, and especially the United States, will have to compete with China even in the field of the climate agenda, which is so close to the new administration of the U.S. President Joe Biden.

Finally, during his recent speech on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (​CCP), PRC’s Leader Xi Jinping confidently declared the great revival of the Chinese nation, its contribution to the progress of human civilization, and its readiness to build a new world, which undoubtedly indicates China’s decisiveness to respond to challenges to its address, including from the Quad.

Conclusion

The ongoing transformation of the regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific, both in the defence and economic areas, will be an important aspect in the post-pandemic era. China has repeatedly stated about the «covered» Quad activities to deterrence Chinese policy in the region, but the expansion of the Quad’s agenda by infrastructure diplomacy allows us to speak about the evident vector of the Quad strategy against the PRC.

However, nowadays the Quad countries had been left behind. China already has the world’s most numerous land forces, the largest navy, as well as an ambitious global Belt and Road initiative that includes almost 140 countries and a capitalization approaching US$1 trillion. Of course, Quad is moving towards the institutionalization of its infrastructure cooperation and the potential expansion of the number of participating countries to the Quad Plus format. However, to reach China’s achievements for the period 2013-2021, the new alliance will need at least a decade.

At the same time, the rivalry of the Belt and Road with the Quad’s infrastructure initiative will help the countries of the region to diversify their infrastructure ties but will make their choice even more difficult, since it will primarily be regarded as support for the foreign policy vision of one of the parties, and not a pragmatic estimate of economic benefits. All this makes the regional environment in the Indo-Pacific increasingly complex and forces middle powers and smaller countries to adapt to new geostrategic realities.

From our partner International Affairs

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East Asia

Bushido Spirit Resurrected? Japan publicly bared its swords against China

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Recently, Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso declared that Japan will join forces with the US to “protect Taiwan.” There has been a lot of turmoil, but even though the US directly announced that it will follow the “One China policy,” Japan has not given up its secret intentions. Japan’s new “Defense White Paper,” which was just approved, not only continued to link the US, but also displayed greater animosity toward China.

The Japanese government just finished the 2021 version of the “Defense White Paper,” according to the Global Times, but both the cover and the substance of the white paper are full of “provocative” meaning. The first is the front cover. According to the image released by Japanese media, the cover of Japan’s new “Defense White Paper” is an ink drawing of a warrior on horseback. According to a spokesperson for Japan’s Ministry of Defense, the horse samurai on the cover represents the Japanese Self-Defense Force’s commitment to defend Japan. However, after seeing it, some Japanese netizens said that it was “extremely powerful in fighting spirit.”

From a content standpoint, the white paper keeps the substance of advocating “China menace,” talking about China’s military might, aircraft carriers, Diaoyu Islands, and so on, and also includes the significance of “Taiwan stability” for the first time. A new chapter on Sino-US ties is also included in the white paper. According to the Associated Press, the United States is expanding its assistance for the Taiwan region, while China is increasing its military actions in the region. This necessitates Japan paying attention to it with a “crisis mindset.”

Japan has recently grown more daring and rampant, thanks to a warlike cover and material that provokes China and is linked to the US. Japan has recently bared its swords against China on several occasions.

Not only did Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga take the lead in referring to the Taiwan region as a “country,” but after meeting US President Biden, he issued a joint statement referring to the Taiwan region, and tried his best to exaggerate maritime issues such as the East China Sea and the South China Sea, and Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, Deputy Defense Mizuho, and Deputy Defense Mizuho. It has all made inappropriate statements on Taiwan and publicly attacked the “One China Principle.”

After China clearly voiced its disapproval, Japan not only refused to be constrained, but actively increased its antagonism toward China. Do they truly believe China is simple to provoke? The tensions between China and Japan will undoubtedly worsen as a result of Japan’s publishing of this white paper. Although Japan has the bravery to provoke, it lacks the guts to initiate an armed war with China. After all, even the United States, on which they have traditionally counted, would not dare.

It is simple to employ force against China, and if the Japanese Self-Defense Force want to fight the People’s Liberation Army, it is preferable for them to be prepared for any catastrophic outcomes. Furthermore, China has long been Japan’s most important commercial partner. Even with Japan’s sluggish economy, they should be wary of challenging China. If they refuse to examine this, China may let them face the consequences of economics and trade.

Furthermore, the US has declared unequivocally that it will pursue the “One China Policy” and has intimated that it will not “protect Taiwan” with Japan. The stance of the United States demonstrates that, despite Japan’s determination to constrain China on the Taiwan problem and invitation to the United States to join in “safeguarding Taiwan and defending Japan,” the United States is hesitant to offer such refuge to Japan. As a result, Japan should be clear about its own place in the heart of the United States and attach itself to the United States, although it may be beaten by the United States again in the end.

In reaction to this event, the Hong Kong media stated that Japan should focus on making friends and generating money rather than intervening in Taiwan’s affairs, saying that “provoking Beijing is a fool’s errand.” As a result, if Japan continues to challenge China, they will be exposed as a total fool. And how good will a fool do in a game between countries?

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