China: Changing power equationsChina must consider the consequences of an aggressive confrontation that could jeopardise its global standing.
Hindu Sanskriti Karki
The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CCP) unveiled the anticipated extension of the third term of President Xi Jinping and the commissioning of six Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) members, chiefly Xi’s disciples. The ousting of Premier Li Keqiang and the Chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Wang Yang from the PSC, and the demotion of Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua reflected the end of the influence of former General Secretary Hu Jintao in the CCP. The current PSC, staffed with four new members—Li Qiang, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang and Li Xi—is expected to work closely with Zhao Leji and Wang Huning after the legislative session in March to support the leadership.
Moreover, China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) also experienced a few tangible changes. Despite the “rule of departure”, General Zhang Youxia (72) was re-elected as the second-ranked Vice Chairman of the CMC. Likewise, General He Weidong, without serving the Central Committee of the CCP, received a double promotion to become the new CMC Vice Chairman. In this regard, the newly appointed Central Committee has witnessed appointments of cohorts—Li Qiang, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang, General He Weidong—who worked jointly with President Xi during his tenure in Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai. Likewise, General Zhang Youxia, Li Xi, and Zhao Leji are known to have a strong Shaanxi genesis linked with President Xi’s progenitor. Irrespective of such appointments, can the CPC alchemists rightly guide China through the current disruptive scenario with the US?
The mandala tapestry
In canvassing historical and current events, alliance formation is the predominant security strategy adopted by a leader to contain their competitor. Political scientist Kautilya, in his work, Arthashastra, writes that a vijigishu (desirous for or would be a world conqueror) to win a war must lure the enemy’s enemy in the mandala architecture. Similarly, the act of the global leader, the United States, impersonates traits of the legendary King Ashoka that led to the creation of the great Maurya empire. China’s growing presence in the international arenas of strategic interest to the US has induced the latter to ramp up its defense alliance with the nations that share historical animosity with the former. Positioning Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the “semiconductor” at the centre of the war strategy, the Biden administration is spreading its wing towards the Eastern frontier to contain China.
Emboldened by the support of the US, the Tsai Ing-wen government raised the defense budget by 13.9 percent as the US Senate passed the bill to authorise $10 billion in military aid for Taiwan through the fiscal year 2022-27 to deter threats from China. Similarly, the troubled Sino-Japan relationship has encouraged the Kishida administration to spend 2 percent of its gross national product in the defense sector annually. Besides, Japan Self-Defense Forces and the US military recently completed the biennial “Keen Sword” to strengthen the interoperability and combat readiness of the US-Japan alliances. Both countries have agreed to expand their military cooperation in improving Japan’s missile strike capabilities and making the US Marine unit more flexible in Japan during any escalation from China. Moreover, the US presence is also overwhelming in the Korean Peninsula. The escalation of North Korean missiles has provided a fertile ground for the US to persuade South Korea to upgrade the already controversial 2017 Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) System. The THAAD system, an irritant in the China-South Korea relationship, is being integrated with the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile defense system and a sophisticated THAAD radar system that could allow Washington to monitor China’s missile launches.
Meanwhile, the South China Sea triumph card has allowed Washington to invest $66.5 million to upgrade and transform three US military bases in the Philippines. Both countries have recently completed, by far, the largest Balikatan joint military exercise and engaged in active military procurement cooperation that included approval of sales of 12 F-16 fighter jets, more than 10 Harpoon anti-ship missiles, 24 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, and other equipment worth $2.9 billion. In the strait to Malacca, during the visit of the US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Boeing Defense, Space & Security received approval to sell arms worth $13.9 billion, which included 36 Boeing F-15 Advanced Eagle combat aircraft, engines, and related equipment, including munitions and communication system to the Indonesian counterpart. Although the Indonesian government justified this strategic partnership to upgrade its military force, the US believes it will help counter China’s position in the Indo-Pacific by strengthening Jakarta’s air deterrence capability.
Sharing a similar strategic challenge, India, which confronted China in eight border disputes recently, conducted a joint military training, “Yudh Abhyas”, with the US, just 100 kilometres from the disputed territory, in Uttarakhand. Besides, last year, the US Senate passed a $858 billion bill to strengthen defense cooperation with India to help overcome India’s defense reliance on Russia-built equipment and address the challenge China posed to America’s national security interest. Conclusively, all these tactical rapprochements offered by the US in China’s periphery have culminated in pitching a perfect containment strategy via escalation towards Beijing.
In doing this, the US deterrence motive is only cultivating the situation of active escalation and most likely drawing to another protracted conflict with China. Promoting a stringent defense alliance with China’s neighbours would only challenge Beijing’s regional strategic interests. Its anticipation of compelling Beijing to adhere to the US-based world order using the coercive diplomacy of “escalate to de-escalate” is only unreasonable. This is because the Chinese leadership has clearly outlined that any threat to its national interests shall be tackled with active defense. Following the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, the Chinese Military Commission activated the Eastern Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army that carried out defensive air and navy drills stirring the eastern parts of the Taiwan Strait. Since the US-China trade war has heightened to a cold war situation, the new PSC encounters an indispensable challenge to secure its national interests. At the same time, the Chinese leadership must think about the grave consequences of an aggressive confrontation that could jeopardise its current position in the international order.
Unlike Russia, more than half of the underdeveloped or developed world depends on the Chinese economy for its growth and development. If China survives Russia’s fate, it will likely push many economies into the black hole. The Biden administration must also think if it can reassure the world that it can compensate for the loss incurred by the countries that share economic interdependence with China in case of a Sino-US war.