Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar.
(Published in the author’s column “The Strategist” in the IPCS web journal. May be accessed at http://www.ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5797)
Keywords: Pre-First World War Germany, China’s new era of rejuvenation, strategic culture of China’s leadership, Confucian ideology, realpolitik, South China Sea, predatory economics, Belt and Road Initiative, Great Wall, Long March, era of turbulence, AUKUS, Quad, National Defence in a New Era, Covid 19.
An historical analogy may be in order to fully understand the looming conflict between Chinese authoritarianism and the uneasy democracies of the world. In the run up to the First World War, Germany pursued a combination of militarism, overbearing diplomacy, nationalism and brinkmanship to achieve policy goals, despite the risk of war. Demanding a review of international order that would confer on it a dominant political position, in keeping with its self-perceived economic and military prevalence, Germany saw little issue in conflict being a natural corollary to its creating crises and then manoeuvring through them. In the event, it was the response to ambitious revisionism and disregard for established norms of international order that led to war.
An observer of contemporary geopolitics will not fail to note the similarity in circumstance of China’s dazzling economic growth, “military muscularity” pivotal to its geopolitical vision, ambitions, nationalism and its realpolitik instincts. The critical assumption of China’s leadership is that their new era of rejuvenation will progress per script through questionable economic deals and coercion. This assumption is flawed for as Michael Howard pointed out in his Lessons of History (pg39) “force is the midwife of (violent) historical processes.” A clash is brewing, unintended as it may be; for nationalism and predatory economics is as much a source of conflict as counterforce and economic rivalry.
The strategic culture of Chinese leadership is driven by two dynamics — Confucian ideology and Realpolitik — the former is legacy of China’s past, the latter draws strength from rigidity of a totalitarian dispensation and its propensity to ‘power-politics’. This presents a dangerous cocktail. Confucian ideology treasures virtue and conservatism; it depends largely on the sagacity of the autocrat to speak for society. However, for an unrepresentative nationalistic state, Realpolitik places power and the threat of its use central to international relations. Beijing’s grandiose territorial claims coupled with leadership’s strategic culture provide both incentive and contrivance for conflict.
China’s economic policies are predatory, a key reason is opacity of dealings, for the Communist Party is opposed to any inconvenient transparency that might compel standardising products and divulging processes. The Belt and Road Initiative, which was supposed to deliver billions of dollars in infrastructure financing to some countries in Asia, Africa and Europe, has now turned into a massive debt trap.
To interpret China’s international and domestic behaviour one needs to look over the “Great Wall” and beyond the “Long March.” The former, was conceived to hold back Northern raiders, yet its completion over 1800 years comes at a time when invaders rule within; while the “Long March” was a bloody retreat in a civil war that underscored great human loss and ruthless control. Both events were inward “racking” and do not provide advocacy for use of power in the strategic environment of today. No surprises, that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), readily resorts to strong-arming when it perceives an opening window of vulnerability or a closing window of opportunity in potential victims.
The Long March (Chinese posters.net)
China’s geopolitical aims are not secret. Xi, wants to consolidate China’s control over important lands and waterways that the “century of humiliation,” ostensibly, wrested from its influence. These areas include Hong Kong, Taiwan, chunks of Indian Territory, and some 80 per cent of the East and South China Seas (SCS). Contradictions erupt when use of force is tempered by tenets of Confucian thought; so the Korean War ends in a caustic stalemate, the 1962 conflict with India meanders to an unsettled impasse, the purpose and outcome of the Vietnam war of 1979 is clouded, the frenetic creation of artificial islands for military bases in the South China Sea tramples on established international norms and the recent skirmishes in Ladakh remain a continuum of the impasse. We stand, perilously, on the cusp of an era of turbulence.
On cue, in response to China’s aggressive manoeuvres; the recent announcement of the formation of a new trilateral alliance between Australia, UK and the US (AUKUS) and the continuing strategic security dialogue between Japan, Australia, India and the US (Quad) have made it amply clear that “countering China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific” is number one priority, and the two will do whatever it takes to succeed. Ironically, Beijing’s recent White Paper titled “National Defence in a New Era” outlined its territorial ambitions in the South and East China Seas, Yellow Sea, Taiwan and Ladakh and warned regional powers of its willingness to use force and use it first if its ambitions are threatened.
The more palpable part of the ‘AUKUS’ is the transfer of 8 Nuclear-powered submarines (SSN); clearly, the SSNs will not be available to Australia for the next decade and a half, however they provides the basis for denial operations in these waters and gives access to a host of futuristic capabilities. AUKUS’s technology-sharing mission is complemented by the Quad presenting a new security architecture that combines both military and economic prowess amongst nations that share a vision of a free and rule-based Indo-Pacific. The resolve to strategic confrontation against revisionism in the Indo-Pacific is thus emphasised. Balance of power adherents, with justification, consider a visible demonstration of collective power as the only way to dampen Beijing’s aggressive expansionism.
That these initiatives have made China “edgy” is clear from their immediate declarations: “China will certainly punish Australia with no mercy” and Australian troops are most likely to be the first batch of soldiers to waste their lives in the SCS. President Xi Jinping avowed in July that those who get in the way of China’s ascent will have their “heads bashed bloody against a Great Wall of steel”.
Nations have become less enthused by China’s market and more worried about its disturbing intent. Fearing forced unification, Taiwan is tightening its ties to the U.S.; Japan, is engaged in its largest military build-up since the Cold War; India is readying strike forces along China’s borders, developing strategies to occlude vital sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and has engaged partnerships that threaten China’s vulnerabilities; Australia is opening up its northern coast to U.S. forces and is readying for acquisition of long-range missiles and SSNs. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom are sending warships into the Indo-Pacific to assert their rights.
In the meantime China’s dubious role in the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic has left it beleaguered.
We began with a pre-First World War analogy of Germany. However, one may surmise that given the nuclear overhang, the rise of China with its burden of a ‘century-of-humiliation’ will demand a strategy tempered by tolerance and accommodation rather than principles of the past. But the other truth is, the fear of war, to authoritarian regimes such as China co-exists with belligerence and exalted nationalistic feelings that, while advancing concern of survival of dispensation, also boosts profitable involvement in the incessant preparedness for war. Herein lies the striking resemblance of China with pre-First World War Germany. And herein also lies the necessity to collar China through unified action that threatens regime survival by challenging its bellicosity in the Indo-Pacific.