While steadfastly pursuing its policy of restraint, China has already resolved most of her thorny problems with the world powers. Hong Kong and Macao returned to China after tough negotiations with the occupying powers in the years 1997 and 1999 respectively. It has resolved her territorial disputes with some Central Asian Republics and Russia along its 2600 kilometers long border through peaceful means. Along with Russia, China has played a prominent role in strengthening the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that now, besides these two countries and four Central Asian Republics, includes Pakistan and India. Taking advantage of her strong presence in the Central Asian region, China has concluded agreements with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan for transportation of oil and gas to her mainland cities. She has built a 1250 kilometers long oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to Urumqi costing some $9 billion. This pipeline would be further extended to Shanghai. To meet its energy need of 5 million barrels a day, it purchased majority shares in one of the biggest Kazakh oil fields. It has increased its cooperative interaction with the Arab countries and Iran. We have already elaborated its strong presence in Africa and Latin America.
China’s judicious policies
China has wisely avoided taking sides in the conflicts in the Middle East or in the European Union’s strategic contest with Russia. China has been quietly strengthening her bilateral relations with both the camps. Bilateral trade of China with Russia was within the range of $5 billion in the 1990s. This trade rose to almost $200 billion in 2014. China also signed agreements with Russia for a pipeline transporting 38 billion cubic feet of Russian natural gas to China every year. Russia has been supporting the Chinese dominated Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank and the New Development Bank. Both the countries were supporting a regional initiative for peace in Afghanistan.
China put its border dispute with India on backburner to take advantage of the huge consumer market of India. Today, the annual Chinese exports to India have already surpassed $150 billion. While having this huge trade with India, China has vigorously defended her sovereign right over the disputed border land and opposed Indian moves in the international arena that impinged on her national interests or compromised the principles underlying inter-state relations. Her opposition to the Indian bid for the membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group despite the USA pressure is reflective of its position towards India in the world affairs. The Chinese stance in Doklan and the Indian act of altering the geographical and political status of Ladakh in the Jammu and Kashmir represents a kind of consistency in its policy.
China with her rapid economic growth has already emerged as the second largest economy of the world measured by GDP. However, it is number one global economy in purchasing power parity terms. Her total global trade in goods already exceeds that of the USA. Though having a thriving bilateral trade of close to $600 billion – heavily tilted in favour of China by $350billion – and a huge mutual investment of $200 billion, the Sino-USA relations are fraught with mutual suspicion and friction on regional and international issues. China’s robust assertion of sovereign rights over the islands in South and East China Seas caused serious concerns in the USA leading to the acceleration of the American political and strategic moves to counter China.
The US countervailing moves:
The USA has since been preparing India as countervail to China in Asia. The American leaders succeeded to exclude China from the Trans Pacific Partnership; formed a ring of alliances with the countries on the periphery of China – from Vietnam to Philippines, South Korea, Japan and India; increased the deployment of USA naval and air forces in the Philippines and Vietnam and naval patrolling in the South China Sea in collaboration with India and Vietnam and encouraged Japan for militarization. They have been also planning to put in place a sophisticated anti-missile defence system, THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) in South Korea apparently to counter the threat of missile attacks from North Korea. This could, however, be part of their counter-China policy also. China is well conscious of the USA moves and has been thus far playing its cards cautiously and prudently strengthening her position in the world affairs through multilateral diplomacy.
Contributing to President Barak Obama’s “Pivot to Asia or the strategic rebalance in South East Asia and Pacific” policy, the USA strengthened its presence in the Camp Humphrey and Osan airbase in South Korea, Yotosuka naval base and Yokota airbase in Japan and increased the port calling or the patrolling of its warships in the sea waters of the region including the South China Sea. The USA has been conducting complex military exercises with the Philippines for over 30 years. The USA military presence in the region, claimed by the former Defence Secretary, Ash Carter, in one of his articles in Foreign Affairs in 2016, was aimed to defend “the principles of peaceful resolution of disputes, preserving sovereign rights of countries to make their own security and economic choices without external coercion and ensuring the freedom of over flight, navigation as guaranteed by International Law”.
Thus, the USA diplomacy was made more aggressive and also speeded up to assure the countries of the region for a meaningful economic, trade and strategic partnership. There was a marked increase in the high level visits to this region by the USA leaders. President Obama lifted the decades-long embargo on Hanoi for military purchases. Though the defence budget of Vietnam is small being less than $6 billion, it signaled the change in the USA policy. He also hosted the Summit of the ASEAN in California before leaving office.
His Secretary of Defence, Ash Carter hosted 10 ASEAN Defence Ministers in September 2016 assuring them that ‘the USA would play equally important roles from sea, air and underwater with its military presence more geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable. He claimed the USA had thus far committed 60% of its home porting naval and overseas air assets to the region including F-22 and F-35 Stealth Jets, marine patrol aircrafts, submarines, undersea drones and long range bombers’. Through the Rim of Pacific (RIMPAC) initiative launched in 2015-16, the USA has been conducting multilateral military exercises. The last military exercise in the region had brought together as many as 26 countries.
The USA has been renewing its defence ties with all the countries of the region. The Obama administration signed Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreements with Australia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand and recognized India as “Major Defence Partner” in June 2015. This entitled India for strategic as well as technological handshake with the USA in the region and elsewhere. The defence conditions with Japan were revisited after almost two decades. For the first time since the Second World War, Japan has been allowed to enhance its military capability for self defence. The USA has been encouraging major countries of the region to join hands together in close defence cooperation to strengthen their military capabilities. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are cooperating with each other within the $500 million USA sponsored “Asia Maritime Security Initiative”. The USA, Japan, South Korea have conducted missile attack warning exercises together. Similarly, USA, India and Japan held naval exercises in 2018. Such trilateral or quadrilateral exercises were also conducted by the USA, Thailand and Laos, and Australia, Japan and India. All this was aimed at encircling the rising dragon.
All these economic, diplomatic and military rebalance in Asia Pacific and the South East Asia reaffirm one obvious fact that the coming decades would witness an intense rivalry between China and the USA in the Southeast Asia and Pacific and South Asia. The USA perception about China’s potential threat to its world domination would compel American leaders to intensify and further speed up their China-specific political and strategic moves in these regions. Thus, the European Union’s moves to counter the Russian influence in the Eastern Europe and Eurasian countries and the USA policy to have an alliance of states in Asia as countervail to China would be the dominant themes of international affairs in the coming decade. This would be a great challenge to the current USA-dominated international order which is perceived to be under threat from the rise of China as well as the turmoil in the Middle East and the aggressive posturing of Russia in Europe. As already elaborated, China – given its policy of restraint in international affairs with a view to strengthening the economic gains that it has acquired as a result of consistent pursuit of Dengism, will continue to avoid any clash with the USA. China will like to overcome the huge military and technological gap with the USA within the coming three decades.
The Chinese leaders are well conscious that their country is an emerging power while the US has started decaying. It also has the largest domestic consumption market and its consumption capacity is on the increase. China believes in shared prosperity whereas the Western capitalism particularly of America is based on inequality. With its rising economy, China embarked on the poverty alleviation projects and pulled over 700 million people out of poverty in two decades whilst the number of haves-not in the American society has been on the rise. The coronavirus pandemic has further aggravated this socio-economic gap between various segments of the American population. The USA economy is not inclusive while China has an inclusive one sharing economic dividends with the poor segment of its population. The Chinese leadership has been showing greater responsibility and cautiousness in the conduct of international relations treasuring the trust of allies in striking contrast with the American leaders’ impulsiveness, immaturity and fickleness. They know time is on their side, and they have no hurry to plunge into a precipitous fall. They can tire out their rival.