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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | The global upheaval caused by China’s premature power games

Threatened by its aggressive policies, Beijing’s rivals are mobilizing geopolitical and geo-economic opposition to its rise

In a sign of its arrival as a major power, global developments this decade have largely been shaped by China’s acts of commission and omission, and by the world’s response to it. Although Beijing’s exercises of power took a sharper turn after the global economic crisis of 2007-08, China’s leaders had been preparing their country to assume the mantle of a great power at least a decade before that. In 2003, the very first year of his term as party leader, Hu Jintao organized a “collective study session" of the entire Politburo for a historical investigation into the world’s great powers. His government then commissioned a slickly produced 12-part documentary, aired on state-run TV from 2006, that got a star cast of scholars to discuss the rise of great powers from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century to the US and Soviet Union in the 20th. One of the most important lessons they must have drawn is that great power status does not just settle on you, and must be fought for and won.

For international public consumption, though, Hu’s regime floated an anodyne narrative of how China would buck the historical trend and rise peacefully. Yet, ever since the 1980s and especially after the 1991 Persian Gulf war, Beijing had been systematically investing in military capacity to counter the US, even as it exploited Western openness, investments and free trade to build its economic power. This was Deng Xiaoping’s famous “hide your brilliance, bide your time" approach. In Chinese discourse today, Hu is cast as a weak leader. Yet, it was under his term that Beijing began to move away from hiding and biding, and began flexing its muscle in the international arena. Even as the balloon of peaceful rise was being floated, in 2006 Beijing’s ambassador to India upset a period of relative bilateral bonhomie by declaring that Arunachal Pradesh was Chinese territory.

The question that today’s analysts are asking and future historians will perhaps answer is why Beijing chose this decade as the time to bring its designs into the open. Many believe Beijing acted prematurely, strengthening the resolve of its regional rivals and ultimately forcing the US to see China as a strategic adversary. While the celebrated solidarity of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) crumbled under the weight of Chinese power, Japan, Australia and India responded by drawing closer to each other and the US in the form of the Quad. The Obama administration woke up late to the strategic challenge posed by China, and responded by pivoting to what it described as the Indo-Pacific region. For all its upheavals, the Trump administration has been a lot more clear-eyed on this matter.

The transition from one great power to another almost always involves big wars. If the world has avoided one so far, nuclear deterrence is a big part of the reason. Where the military balance allows China to get away with forcefully changing the status quo, as in the South China Sea and Hong Kong, it has done so. Where that balance is not adequately in China’s favour—in the Western Pacific against the US, as also along the Himalayan border against India, or across the Taiwan straits—Beijing is strengthening its military power to be able to prevail at a later date.

In a 2012 book, Edward Luttwak presciently argued that when military and diplomatic options prove inadequate to resist China, “The only remaining means of resistance would then be “geo-economic," to apply the logic of strategy in the grammar of commerce, by restricting Chinese exports into their markets, denying raw materials to China insofar as possible, and stopping whatever technology transfers China would still need in that future." This is the strategic rationale for what has come to be called the US-China trade war. It is actually part of a much broader geo-economic contest aimed at limiting Chinese power, and an enterprise whose objectives enjoy bipartisan consensus in Washington.

It is unclear to what extent Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will help China on this front. Financing the construction of infrastructure in three continents, often in economically unviable projects, might induce political leaders in those countries to side with Beijing, but is unlikely to substitute lucrative Western markets that Chinese companies risk being frozen out of. It did not help that Beijing antagonised India—the one country that would have generated good returns on infrastructure investments—to such an extent that New Delhi kept out of it. Even before the pandemic, nationalist backlashes in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and even Pakistan demanded renegotiation of BRI contracts. After the economic devastation caused by covid-19, more countries will seek lower interest rates, longer repayment terms and outright write-offs. Slower global growth will hurt the business rationale of BRI projects to the extent they had one in the first place. If Xi’s domestic political position were to weaken, people are sure to ask what he has to show for the hundreds of billion dollars poured into the boondoggle.

History tells us that great powers decline because of overstretch. It may well be that China has overstretched itself even before becoming a proper great power.

This is the second of a three-part series on how India and the world could deal with China.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy

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