🔴 C Raja Mohan writes: Beijing’s aggressive regional policies are driving many countries that were hopeful of deeper ties with China towards the US.
One of the many consequences of China’s assertive posture in Asia has been the emergence of geopolitical coalitions to limit the prospects for Beijing’s regional dominance. Two new coalitions that have got a lot of political attention are the Quadrilateral framework involving Australia, India, Japan and the US, and the AUKUS, which brings together Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Until recently, China was quite contemptuous of the new political formations. It had compared the Quad to “seafoam” that is here now but gone in a second. China’s dismissive attitude has now yielded place to denunciation. In Beijing’s diplomatic lexicon, Quad and AUKUS are “small cliques”. “Small cliques” are not new to international politics; nor is China unfamiliar with them. You could argue that forums such as RIC and BRICS — the former brings together Russia, India and China and the latter has, in addition, Brazil and South Africa — are “small cliques”. Hypocrisy is endemic in international life. “My cliques are great — they are about promoting a ‘multipolar world’ — but your cliques are dangerous because they threaten regional security”. Where you stand depends on where you sit.
Two big factors are behind China’s rethinking. One was the surprising emergence of American domestic political consensus on challenging China. Beijing was convinced that President Joe Biden would reverse his predecessor’s confrontation with China. Beijing believed that Donald Trump was an exception to the longstanding US policy of deeper economic integration with China and sustained political engagement. But Biden has simply reinforced Trump’s strategy. China is perhaps the only issue that cuts across the deepening political divide in the US. That brings us to the second big factor.
Trump thought that alliances are a burden on US taxpayers and relentlessly trashed long-standing allies in Europe and Asia. Biden, in contrast, has made alliances a critical element of his China strategy. The idea was to create “situations of strength” vis-a-vis China by rebuilding US alliances and developing new coalitions.
In Asia, the Biden administration moved quickly to strengthen the traditional security ties with its allies in northeast Asia — Japan and South Korea. It also elevated the Quad to the leaders-level within weeks after Biden took charge and had a physical summit in Washington six months later. It also announced the AUKUS. Not only has Washington backed the British aspirations to regain a security role in Asia, but also encouraged the Europeans to focus on the China question and contribute to Indo-Pacific security. Biden travelled to Europe in June this year to revitalise the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
Biden also decided on an early summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin that took place in Geneva at the end of his European tour. While the idea of America separating Russia from China continues to look fanciful, Washington now recognises the importance of keeping channels open to Moscow. It was only after getting his ducks in a row that Biden had his first summit with Xi Jinping earlier this month.
Biden’s team believed that the greatest strength of the US was its wide network of allies and partners. And that mobilising them was the key to rebalancing relations with China. What about China’s own alliances and partnerships?
While China’s economic reach is now global and deep, political and military alliances have not been part of Beijing’s tradition. To be sure, Beijing’s ties with Moscow have never been as close as they are. China also has strong alliance-like relations with North Korea and Pakistan. But there can be little comparison though between the kind of strengths that American allies bring to the table with those of China’s partners.
Although the US has more allies and partners, Beijing was betting on the proposition that the Asian geopolitical structure was turning, irretrievably, in China’s favour. This is based on a number of propositions.
One, America, located far from Asia, will have trouble overcoming the tyranny of geography in a conflict with China. Two, China’s hard power — both economic and military — relative to the US is growing rapidly and shifting the local balance of power in its favour. Three, the proximity of China and Asian regional integration have made Beijing the most important economic partner for the whole region. Beijing believed that few Asian nations would want to spoil their commercial relations with China and align with Washington. If someone did make the mistake of embracing the US, Beijing was confident economic punishment would bring them back to their senses.
Four, the vast imbalance in military power between Beijing and its neighbours it presumed would dissuade most Asian states from considering armed confrontations with China.
Five, China counted on the fact that it is easier to break up coalitions than build them. The country trying to construct a coalition will need to maintain unity of purpose among a diverse set of countries. That is not easy to do in a sustained manner even in the most favourable circumstances. A capable disruptor can offer valuable bilateral deals to individual members of the opposing coalition.
China has been confident, at least until now, that it can tempt the US into a bilateral deal in the name of shared great power interests and joint management of the world. But Chinese policies have driven the US towards an unanticipated internal consensus on containing Beijing.
Making a friendly America into an enemy prematurely could go down as one of Xi Jinping’s egregious strategic errors. For all claims about America’s decline, history points to the dangers of underestimating US capacity for self-renewal and the will to retain its primacy.
China’s aggressive regional policies are driving many countries like Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, towards the US. All these countries who were hopeful of deeper ties with China are now under pressure to find external support to cope with Beijing’s threats.
While the military balance of power in Asia has certainly turned in China’s favour, it has not cowed down its neighbours. Many are pursuing stronger national military capabilities to limit some of the threats from China. The US, in turn, has begun to strengthen the defence capabilities of Asian nations at the receiving end of Chinese military power. China’s expansionism has led to the inevitable militarisation of its periphery.
China’s aggressive policies have not brought the political acquiescence that Beijing expected from all its neighbours. In fact, it has had the opposite effect with key neighbours. China, which never stops to emphasise its own nationalism, appears to have underestimated the depth of similar sentiment in other Asian states. In the past, Asian nationalism was easily mobilised against the US and the West. Today, it is driving many of China’s neighbours into the US camp. It is America and not China that today talks about the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Asian nations.
Meanwhile, Chinese diplomacy, once hailed as wise and far-seeing, has now become the textbook case of how not to conduct business with other states and societies, thanks to its crude “wolf warriors”.
It has been quite fashionable in the West as well as in the East, to proclaim that China’s hegemony is inevitable, American decline is terminal, and Asian coalitions are unsustainable. Those conclusions are premature at best. For Xi Jinping has squandered many of China’s natural geopolitical advantages.
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 30, 2021 under the title ‘Beijing’s blunder’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express
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