Write of Centre
Great empires and countries often fall victim to hubris. The realisation that you are on top of things cansometimesmakeyouactrecklessly in conflict. The mighty AmericansexperiencedthisinVietnamand a few decades before that Nazi Germany, tried to grab everything in Europe only to suffer the most humiliating of defeats. The Turks in the 17th century, when they tried to stretch their hands to grab the most important of all prizes, Vienna, and the British Empire’s short-lived excursion into Afghanistan are examples of reverses suffered by great powers when their ambitions tried to defy reason and logic.
Modern-dayChinaisinasimilarsituation. Two years ago, the Middle Kingdom’s problems were only economic. There was a dispute with Japan and another dispute over islands with South-east Asian nations but that was it. China’s biggest problem then was to stop its economy from sliding into middle to low single digits and accomplish the great triple transition, the shift from investmenttoconsumption,manufacturingto services and exports to domestic market.
The fate of that transition today still hangs in balance but China has unwisely managed to get itself embroiled in some ugly geopolitical disputes. What is more, these disputes are with powerful countries who have the ability to hurt its interests. Whether China has done its due to overconfidence, hubris or just plain recklessness is unclear but what is clear is that China’s ambitious attempt to project power only tells a part of the story. It hides a problem, a problem that is likely to get bigger the more intransigent its leaders get.
Let’s examine more on this issue. North Korea is a festering sore with the US continuously haranguing China for its inaction in tackling the nuclear menace. The spat over South China sea islands continues and may getuglier.TheTrumpadministrationmaybe more assertive in dealing with Chinese infractions than the Obama national securitystate department team and that is not good news for Xi Jinping. The biggest problem of them all is the stand-off with India in Doklam. China’s intrusion into the Bhutan- Tibet-India trijunction, its desire to build a road and get access to the commanding heights overlooking the Siliguri corridor is an example of the assertive politics that Chinese leaders and generals are willing to play. In 1962, China took advantage of Indian weakness and the foolish Forward Policy brinkmanship of the Jawaharlal NehruKrishna Menon duo to quickly teach India a lesson. In Doklam, as things stand today, we don’t know what will happen. Military experts and writers have talked about India’s strategic ground advantage and its tough stance and how China could be forced into looking for a face-saver given that India is not backing down. There could a war. Even if there is, is India better prepared than it was in 1962? We will never know for sure till it happens, but there is some evidence to believe that we are.
But let’s not talk of military action. Let’s look at trade where China is vulnerable and we are not. If China continues to be intransigent, can India hit back at investments and trade? Can India show that it can hurt China by stopping, reversing investments and clamping down on imports? This, to some extent, is already happening and it should know that trade is its soft underbelly and that India can hit where it hurts.
Trump,forChina,isafarbiggerthreat.The US president has been warning China of trade repercussions if it does not behave. So far China has played ball only reluctantly and Trump has not been afraid of using the stick when he wants it. A recent China-US trade meet was not a happy one and Chinese banksandindividualshavebeentargetedfor sanctions. Chinese investments in US may be next on radar.
India, US and Japan, either together or separately have the ability to damage and thwart China’s ambitions. It can be done through trade, through joint military or diplomatic posture and even joint approach to strengthening relations and building investments in the emerging world. In 1962, India had no trade leverage over China. That’s not the case today. Will China be able to stomach a billions of lost opportunity in investment and trade if India decides to apply pressure? With the US, the lost opportunity in trade is bigger. A recovering Chinese economy can ill-afford this hit. Some experts believe that Trump, despite his bravado, will not act against China. But that may be a hasty conclusion. Trump has shown that he is not afraid to act when it comes to protecting US interests and won’t hesitate to poke the dragon in the eye if he feels that it will serve him well politically.
Yes, China can probably not be defeated on the battlefield by a single nation without using massive power. But a club of nations, acting together or alone, can definitely peg back China’sambitions.Chinashouldrealisethat the world has changed drastically since 1962.