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Why the Stars May Align for China in 2024

China’s rise and emergence as a challenger to US hegemony is not a product of short-sighted, arbitrary moves.

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As the world reels from the tumultuous events of 2023, with the rekindling of Cold War-era tensions in Palestine and Eastern Europe, the global focus has, to some extent, been diverted from the Indo-Pacific.

However, this region remains the primary stage for great power politics of the 21st century as China seeks to establish regional hegemony and the United States (US) seeks to contain it.

In this theatre, 2024 is shaping up to be a year where the stars may align for China, possibly advancing its position in the great power competition.

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Superpower Super-stretched

The US and its Western allies have been supporting Israel and Ukraine in the ongoing wars. They face two significant repercussions due to this policy.

First, the material and logistical resources of these nations are being stretched, which could limit their capacity to counterbalance China's influence in the Indo-Pacific. Concentrating on these conflicts is consuming attention and resources that might otherwise have been directed toward engaging with China's assertive moves in the Indo-Pacific.

Second, the political landscape within the US, especially with the upcoming elections, hints at an inward-looking policy shift driven by the flourishing of right-wing populism and a domestic exhaustion of supporting overseas conflicts.

Such domestic preoccupations may result in a reluctance to support regional allies robustly, as tensions in the South China Sea, for example, notably between China and the Philippines, continue to escalate.

Moreover, the domestic political turmoil across the US and its allies, complicity in the ongoing tragedy in Gaza, coupled with the rise of far-right factions that actively undermine liberal values, have significantly eroded the Biden administration's narrative framing great power politics as a contest between democracies and autocracies.

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The Chinese Edge

Against this backdrop, China's capabilities, recently in doubt due to its poor post-COVID economic recovery, do not appear to be drastically hindered.

There is scant evidence to suggest these issues will constrain Beijing's ambitions to reinforce its regional dominance. Recently, China has demonstrated diplomatic flexibility, dialling back on its much maligned 'wolf warrior' diplomacy. This is evident in its efforts to recalibrate relations with countries like Vietnam and Australia, signalling a potential reset in ties.

Furthermore, China's emergence as a political broker should not be underrated. It has played pivotal roles on the international stage, from facilitating the Taliban's rise to power in Afghanistan to mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and actively lobbying amongst different stakeholders in Myanmar. Regardless of China's underlying intentions, its successful interventions are likely to bolster its legitimacy as a great power.

Another diplomatic success was the Biden-Xi meeting at the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit, which witnessed the restoration of military-military communications that were suspended since Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in 2022.

The hotline between the US-Indo-Pacific Command and China’s Eastern Theatre command was also restored which would be used in the case of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait. Xi even stated that the "Earth is big enough for the United States and China to succeed."

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India’s Position

With India heading into Lok Sabha elections, the Modi government is likely to focus more on grandstanding rather than grand strategy. While foreign policy traditionally does not dominate Indian elections, any attention it does receive is usually directed towards Pakistan, a topic that sells better in polarising election campaigns.

Moreover, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government's denial of Chinese advancements into Indian territory and the absence of a coherent strategy to counterbalance China, which Professor Rajesh Rajagopalan terms as ‘evasive balancing’, does not augur well for the regional balance of power.

The situation becomes murkier due to the potential limitations of cooperation with 'like-minded' states. Even Japan, India's steadfast partner, is grappling with a severe domestic economic crisis along with questions about the longevity of Prime Minister Kishida's administration.

This uncertainty further complicates the regional dynamics and the collective response to China's actions.

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The Long Game

China’s rise and emergence as a challenger to US hegemony is not a product of short-sighted arbitrary moves. It has been a long calculated grand strategy that led Rush Doshi to term it as China’s ‘Long game’. The geopolitical chessboard of the Indo-Pacific region is poised for significant shifts in 2024.

The transactional nature of relationships amongst the US and its partners as well as a weak underlying normative agenda has invariably led to a situation where China can make further progress. If China can revive its economic model to consumption-oriented growth, it could act as a catalyst for the same.

With the US and its allies stretched handling multiple crises overseas along with complicated internal politics and factionalism, the door may be left ajar for China to extend its influence, fill the geopolitical vacuum, and solidify its status as a regional hegemon.

The Indo-Pacific region stands at a crossroads, and the actions taken by these major players in the coming year will have profound implications for the global order.

[Chetan Rana is a doctoral candidate (Diplomacy and Disarmament) at Jawaharlal Nehru University and an Associate Editor at 9DASHLINE. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them]

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Topics:   China 

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