The latest addition of the novel corona virus to the rogues’ gallery of infectious diseases has had an unintended consequence. If the pandemic has thrown the entire world into a state of economic panic like never before in human history, it has also exposed the economic risks and geopolitical fault lines between China and the free world, including India. As a result, the virus that originated in Wuhan poses geopolitical and economic challenges that could prove as consequential as the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union. Corona has disrupted the global supply chains, revealing an open secret—the overdependence of the world on China for everything from mobile phones to medicines.
The West won the first round with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of communism in the Soviet Union. And the high priests of strategic thinking led by Francis Fukuyama, an acolyte of Huntington declared what famously became known as the End of History. However, even before the ink of the obituary of the communism could dry up, the dragon began to breathe fire. From bossing over the South China Sea, Doklam, Laddakh and the shores of Vietnam to repression in Hong Kong, China has begun to assert its hegemony in a way even the former Soviet Union never did.
When Britain transferred Hong Kong to China, there was an agreement between the two countries that the city would maintain its freedom and autonomy for 50 years. Now Beijing has brought in legislation to enforce its security laws in Hong Kong to place it under the Chinese dictatorship. If Indian Prime Minister visits Arunachal Pradesh, Beijing fires salvoes of protest. In spite of their civilizational ties, China has shown no inclination to resolve the border dispute and consistently opposed India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG).
However, Beijing has never hesitated to throw its weight behind Pakistan to protect the anti-Indian terrorist groups from being blacklisted. Though its own abysmal treatment of the Uighur Muslim minorities in Xinxiang makes China the worst violators of human rights, it has no qualms in shielding anti-Indian activity from Pakistani soil. Emboldened by its inexorable economic rise within three decades, unprecedented in history, China has begun to challenge Japan, the West and, above all, the United States. Beijing showed its true colours in 2010 when it stopped the supply of rare earth to punish Japan following the Senkaku boat collision incident. To send its message of displeasure loud and clear, China producing 97 per cent of the world’s rare-earth material, which is used in computer chips and other high-end technologies, chose a retaliation that hurt Japan the most. Though the issue was resolved, it did not act as an eye-opener.
The economy of Japan, the earlier powerhouse of Asia, has been contracting for the past two decades what with its fast greying population and steep decline in birth rates. Now the two other global top dogs-- the European Union and the U.S.--have been pushed to the brink of a depression by the pandemic.
China, too, has been affected. However, unlike the democratic world, it is not in a state of paralysis. It has the great advantage of its command economy. It can deploy labour and resources as it wishes unshackled by public opinion. The U.S., hamstrung by Trump’s isolationist agenda and the impendingPresidential election, is not in a position to deal with the global fallout of Covid-19. Beijing, by contrast, has avoided going into waiting mode and begun to use its soft power to expand its influence.
How has the free world come to such a sorry pass? One is reminded of the famous remark of Bismarck that ”The task of a statesman is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history and try to catch his coattails as he goes past.” Let alone hearing the breath of the Chinese dragon, it apparently failed to read the writing on the wall. The U.S. got a bloody nose in the Korean War at the hands of China, yet it refused to heed the warning. The strategic thinkers in Washington were so blindsided by the threat from Soviet communism that they began to toy with cultivating ties with China in the 1960s, while the latter supported Vietnam in a war that drained the U.S. of both blood and greenhorns.
Nixon, the classic anti-communist hawk, made an opening with China in 1972 with his historic visit, facilitated by Henry Kissinger who had made a secret visit to Beijing via Pakistan. But much before the China visit, Kissinger had written in ‘The Foreign Affairs’, the voice of the American establishment, in 1967 that “we cannot leave China outside the family of nations”. Translation: It would be better if China was inside the camp and controlled rather than outside and uncontrolled. The U.S. kept piling up blunder after blunder. In 1979 it handed over another of its trump card by derecognizing Taiwan and accepting the ‘one China Policy’. By doing this Washington not only lost its powerful leverage but created a kind of perennial diplomatic dilemma for itself. It continues to maintain a robust relationship with Taiwan and even providing it security cover. No wonder, every time Beijing threatens Taiwan, U.S. finds itself caught as a party to the dispute.
Apart from China’s anti-Soviet motivation, the greed of the American corporations was another major factor in its rise as an economic powerhouse. This fact was illustrated by a cartoon with the tagline ‘One billion customers cannot be wrong’ published in ‘The New York Times’ on the eve of Nixon’s visit to Beijing. No wonder, when Deng Xiaoping threw open the Chinese economy to outside investment, there was a Western scramble to set up factories, lured by cheap labour and the pent-up demand of the Chinese consumer base, in a race for a piece of the action.
What is surprising is that a bipartisan consensus was reached in Washington on strengthening economic and business ties with Beijing, ignoring that this would create a Frankenstein for the West. China did everything it could to bring itself on a par with the West in science and technology. It forced American companies to transfer technologies and stole new inventions. Of course, there were mild voices of concern in the strategic community. Nobody seemed to bother over the looming threat. Before Donald Trump burst onto the American political scene with his ‘America First’ clarion call and challenged the mercantilism of China, one Jeremiah to raise an alarm with his best-selling book, ‘A Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower’, was Michael Pillsbury.
Published in 2015, Pillsbury’s book exposed the naivety of the American establishment by citing an episode in which a Chinese artist named Cai Quao Qiang set off a bizarre firework billed as a ‘Black Christmas Tree’ less than a month before Christmas. And behold! the U.S. Secretary of State at that time handed a cheque for $250,000—U.S. taxpayers’ money-- to the artist as a prize. Pillsbury’s book based on extensive research shows how China immediately after the end of its civil war under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung mapped out a 100-year plan to overtake the U.S. as a superpower. And every action of China from winning over U.S. allies and forging closer ties with one-time rival, the Soviet Union, to using its economic muscle to force countries in Africa and Asia to toe its line on international fora was of a piece with that strategy.
After Trump became the President in 2016, he challenged China to change its business behaviour and slash its massive trade surplus. He also curbed the overt or covert transfer of sensitive technologies, particularly those that go into the making of 5-G mobile phones of Huawei, a Chinese company with close links with the country’s military. But there is a chink in Trump’s armour. Rather than building an alliance of the countries with democratic values, he seems to be bent on hara-kiri by scrapping almost all trade agreements with close allies, including Japan, a front-line country in the battle against China. This has greatly impaired the U.S. ability to win the trade war with China.
It’s not Trump alone who is guilty of dividing the free world. The role of the European Union and NATO has been no less culpable. Ideally, the U.S. and its NATO allies should have avoided a confrontational policy towards Russia. Rather than assuaging the anger of Russia, the West has added salt to its injuries. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Western Europe had conveyed assurances that NATO will not be expanded to the east European countries, Moscow’s one-time allies. But the former went back on its word by granting membership to the erstwhile Warsaw Pact countries one by one. It was enough to rile Putin and push him closer to Beijing.
Though weakened economically, Russia has remained quite advanced in military technology. It has taken its revenge against the West wherever possible. It annexed Crimea, and intervened in the Arab conflicts to thwart American allies in Syria and Libya. There is no doubt that Putin flexes muscles and has subverted the democratic process in his country. But he is not the only such leader. What the West should ask itself is, If it can have President Erdogan of Turkey and many other dictators of the Arab world in its circle, why can’t it give some space to Putin?
The biggest problem in dealing with the threat posed by China is the reluctance of the free world to sing from the same hymn book. When the U.S demanded an independent inquiry into the origin of the circumstances in which the Corona virus had originated in Wuhan, Australia turned out to be the only vocal supporter of the U.S. , no matter that it provoked the wrath of Beijing. With disarray in the free world, Beijing has every reason to feel confident of having its way. When China launched its ambitious Belt and Road Imitative (BRI) in a modern avatar of the ancient Silk Route via India, Afghanistan and central Asia to Europe, except the U.S. and India almost all the other countries kowtowed before the communist behemoth.
India not only refused to endorse the BRI but also lodged a strong protest as a portion of the China-Pakistan corridor passed through the Pakistani-occupied part of J&K. The Chinese investment is fraught with risks for Islamabad as its debt servicing charges will be massive. The consequences of China’s neo-colonialism, a term used by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Muhammed, can be seen from Asia to Africa. China bullied its way to taking over Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, funded and developed by Beijing, when Colombo failed to repay its debt. In the process, China grabbed a huge swathe of nearby land on a lease of 99 years.
China’s Middle Kingdom mentality at the core of its nationalist ideology is reflected in its perception of all people outside its borders as barbarians. But it has astutely used its historical grievances about the colonialism of foreign powers from the mid-19th century till 1949, when it became a united and independent country, to camouflage its own arrogance and win the sympathy of the Asian and African countries which had also been subjugated by the Europeans.
This makes China a more formidable rival of the democratic world than the former Soviet Union. The latter had a powerful military but its economy was moth-eaten. By contrast, China has a unique combination of powerful economy, large population and a political system that enables it to quickly adopt a geopolitical course in pursuit of its own interests. In the longer term, a menacing global reality such as China looms as a bigger threat to the other nations than the virus currently wreaking havoc. The pandemic has decoupled China from the rest of the world for the time being. Now it is for Japan, Europe and the U.S. to ensure that this isolation of the Middle Kingdom is a lasting affair before global safety can happen.