China's imperial overstretch is risky for the world

A reverse string of pearls surrounds China with the US, the EU, Japan, India and South-East Asia harbouring grievances all at the same time
Last Updated : 12 October 2021, 06:20 IST
Last Updated : 12 October 2021, 06:20 IST

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At first glance, the belligerent diplomatic and military posture of the last decade gives the image of China winning the global disruption war.

Aggressive assertion of Chinese claims from the icy heights of the Himalayas on the Indian frontier to the vast Pacific Ocean where Chinese nuclear submarines dive deep spotted on long-range missions way beyond the Japanese islands of Okinawa underline this narrative. The world's second-largest economy is on the move.

An annual defence budget of $209 billion — three times of India's spending — and a doctrine of offensive defence has seen the Chinese repeatedly fly fighter bombers over Taiwanese airspace, maintain submarines and warships in ports like Gwadar in Pakistan and at its sole overseas base in Djibouti in the horn of Africa straddling the Arab oil routes. Indeed, scarcely a day passes when one does not hear of a Chinese military presence far from its mainland.

Add to the mix the world's largest-ever infrastructure project, the belt and road initiative. This $1.3 trillion project aims to transform global infrastructure with Chinese loans (not investments as was earlier the plan). So far, the project has already disbursed a staggering $282 billion to countries throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe at an average rate of interest of 11 per cent, which some of the receivers are finding very hard to pay back.

Every which way you look — diplomatic, military or economic — China looks set to challenge the post-world war order led by the USA.

So what could go wrong? Plenty.

The world's major powers were getting uncomfortable when they saw the systemic threat of an assertive China rising in the early 21st century. They could see that the grand tradeoff that began when China opened up in the mid-'80s that allowed the West and Japan to import cheaply and offshore labour and environmental constraints in their own countries was starting to backfire. Covid-19 accelerated that process with the approval rating of China plummeting in the eyes of the western voter. More than anything, the Covid carnage and the abiding disruption it wrought on global civilization accompanied by a brazen cover-up of its origin by China has swung the world away from any idea of a constructive engagement with the people's republic. The next decade could well be the story of how this disengagement plays out.

Almost all countries that counted on greater economic integration to moderate Chinese behaviour only five years ago are now turning against it. From Malaysia and the Philippines, who contest Chinese aggression and forceful intervention on their claims in the South China Sea, to countries as far ashore as Britain and Australia, that chafe at humiliating and threatening Chinese wolf warrior diplomacy, all are now asserting economically and militarily in a push back aimed at a grand containment.

Yet, this containment is not the containment of the Cold War aimed at the Soviet Union. Currently, it's diffused, at best symbolic, with Britain sending her biggest warship, the aircraft carrier HMS Elizabeth to the South China Sea for a long-range deployment to Australia, which is looking at a new sanction regime in reaction to China having already imposed multibillion-dollar tariffs on Australian exports.

By taking on the USA through aggressive military diplomacy and brazen intellectual property theft (Huawei is a virtual copy of Cisco or Baidu would not exist if Google was allowed China market access even as China enjoys a $200 billion surplus with the US in 2020), China is making too many enemies too soon. Its current rise historically speaking is only 20 years old. A reverse string of pearls surrounds China with the USA, the European Union, Japan, India and South-East Asia harbouring grievances all at once.

This situation is not new to the world order, and the premier precedent is unsettling – Weimar Germany. Then, as now, the world order was in flux, and there were two significant miscalculations that Germany did. First, that it could take the path to imperialist expansion without too much resistance from Britain, the ruler of the seas, and a power it perceived – as China does about the US today - to be in decline. Second, the technological breakthroughs in the pre-First World War period allowed for armaments that promised a shortcut to deny enemies space in its own neighbourhood as reflect by German strategy before WW1 and China's aggressive "area denial "strategy with missiles like DF21 dubbed the aircraft carrier killer employed to keep America at bay in the Strait of Taiwan or Japan away from the South China sea.

The world is a dangerous place because, increasingly, it is apparent that for Xi Jinping, the Straits offensive appears to be a variant of Germany's Schlieffen Plan that aims at a quick deceive attack on Taiwan where the USA, after its Afghanistan disaster, will not intervene in a significant manner.

That could be China's greatest historic miscalculation and is the world's greatest risk hiding in plain sight. Unlike Weimar Germany, an American led reaction and Chinese miscalculation could have devastating consequences for the world order – there were no nuclear weapons in 1914. Maritime democracies must speak in one voice, and given that the Chinese are famous for their pragmatism, hope that they listen and better sense prevails. In today's everyday normal, the world is staring down an abyss.

(The writer is a journalist)

Published 12 October 2021, 06:20 IST

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