Chinese sayings (yanyu) have deep resonance in the political discourse and belief systems of its citizenry, and especially for President Xi Jinping who invokes them regularly to contextualise his thinking.
But the usually thoughtful Xi might as well ponder on the priceless wisdom in the Chinese saying, "A little impatience will spoil a great plan’ (Xiao bu ren ze luan da mou) – as the grandiose neologism of the 21st Century as the ‘Chinese Century’ (Zhongguo shiji) to suggest Chinese global dominance via initiatives like Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), sovereign bailouts, ‘Xiconomics’, ‘world’s factory’ & epicenter of global supply chains, territorial expansionism, militaristic muscle-flexing etc – did lead to credible portents of emerging Sinosphere.
But did the proverbially carnivorous and fire-breathing Dragon eat a lot more than it should have, and too soon? Was the Dragon’s seemingly unsatiable appetite and unstoppable juggernaut too impatient?
It would certainly seem so, as for once there is a massive pushback beyond words, and the counter-pushback is effectively weaponised.
China’s Ruthless Military Policy
In the last five years or so, China went on the offensive with a no-holds-barred trade war with the United States, ensnared economically desperate ‘third world’ countries, lured and coerced simultaneously with its ‘military-industrial complex’ and wounded territorial integrity of neighbours like India, Bhutan, Nepal and recklessly teased and intimidated Taiwan, Japan and other countries along the restive South China Seas.
The ‘Free World’ was still twiddling its thumbs with inconsistent and unaligned reactions and conceptualisation of the QUAD (Quadrilateral with United States, Japan, India, and Australia) and mulling over possible responses.
Basically, all talk and little walk. The humiliating retreat of US troops from Afghanistan and the dare of Xi’s self-confessed ‘best friend’ Vladimir Putin in Ukrainian misadventures did not help optics, and something had to give way.
Ironically, even the Covid-19 pandemic was posited as a leveler and it had ostensibly inflicted equitable misery onto world economies, and surprisingly China seemed to have handled it better, at least officially.
Suddenly, the cookie crumbled, and the last six months have seen a decidedly concerted and aligned counteraction instead of just vacuous words and conceptualisation – the language, engagement, tenor and decisions from the Sino-wary ‘bloc’ seems to have acquired an acute sense of purpose and dovetailing. The guns as it were, are now pointed at the Chinese mainland.
It seems the ‘Free World’ has had enough and are working in tandem to ‘spoil a great (Chinese) plan’, as the wise Chinese saying goes.
Reading the Tea Leaves and Participants of the ‘Free World’ Counterreaction
At around the same time, the Canadian Police had arrested a worker for Chinese ethnicity at Hydro-Quebec on charges of espionage and claimed that he had, 'obtained trade secrets to benefit the People's Republic of China, to the detriment of Canada's economic interests.'
Xi Jinping was not amused, and Trudeau had shown a rare spine and refused to buckle under Chinese bullying.
The traditionally stiff-upper-lipped and cautious approach of Brit diplomacy was given a pass, as the Desi-born Rishi Sunak confirmed the end of ‘golden era’ of bilateral relations with China.
Sunak went on to openly slam China as a “systemic challenge to our values and interests” and warned its citizenry that in needed to take a “longer-term view on China”.
With the signing of the trilateral security pact AUKUS (United Kingdom, Australia and United States) dedicated towards the Indo-Pacific region and its decision to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines is sure walking the talk (more decisively than QUAD).
This is over and above the Five Eyes (an intelligence alliance comprising UK, Canada, Australia, United States and New Zealand).
Aussies signed an updated Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation with Japan with, “accelerating the consideration of…..future rotational deployment of Japan’s fighters including F-35s in Australia."
Further, the Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) agreed upon, “rotations of air, land, and se forces to Australia”, and further agreed to “invite Japan to integrate into our force posture initiatives in Australia”.
The plan for eight nuclear submarines for a country like Australia, is plain surreal. Such a weaponised posture can only be directed at China.
Even beyond signing up on AUKUS and QUAD, the reconsideration of giving lease to Chinese company for Port of Darwin, following a securitised approach to trade (including for lithium) etc, demonstrates a multidimensional approach to checkmate the Chinese footprint.
Can Taiwan Combat China’s Expansionist Strategy?
Taipei is doing everything possible to make the cost of its threatened invasion extremely prohibitive for Beijing.
It has passed a double-digit increase in defense budget (USD 19 billion for 2023) with focus on building asymmetric capabilities (surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship weaponry etc, after learning lessons from Ukraine, of inflicting unsustainable costs on a larger invader) as part of its prickly ‘porcupine strategy’.
More than once, US President Joe Biden has shed the traditional ‘strategic ambiguity’ when it came to promising to defend Taiwan in case of an invasion.
And the news coming out of Ukraine, seems to bolster Taiwanese resolve and confidence in preparing itself with its revised strategy as President Tsai Ing-wen says presciently, “Xi has to weigh the costs. He has to think twice”
Tokyo more than anyone else has weaponised its thinking, strategy and arsenal – a fundamental break from self-imposed pacifism is giving way to unprecedented ‘counterstrike’ capabilities. It has openly called China the ‘greatest strategic challenge’ and upped its defense budgeting dramatically.
From a ninth biggest spender on military, it will become the third biggest (after US and China), and everything from a sixth-generation fighter plane, and missiles to the increased deployment of US marines is par for course.
As a US Ambassador to Japan says, “They’re helping us put a capital D in deterrence”! Serendipitously, Indian Air Forces SU-30 fighters along with other planes are pursuing Veer Guardian 2023 exercises and building interoperability capabilities on Japanese soil!
Chinese on the Backfoot, for Once
Meanwhile, back in China, the chickens are coming home to roost as it continues grappling with the backbreaking consequences of its ‘zero covid’ policy as the global outlook on the same does not look so bleak. Sizeable investments in BRI have yet to fructify and are seemingly stalled eg, Gwadar (in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor – a BRI arterial imperative) storyline is not exactly rosy and with allies like North Korea and Russia having their own existential crisis, the Chinese seem to have sowed a lot more than what they have been able to harvest.
The Partnership for Global Infrastructure, a G-7 initiative widely seen as a USD 600 billion counter to China’s BRI will only add to China’s suffocation, when it rolls out.
From Hambantota port to Maldives, the growing perceptions of Chinese ‘debt-traps’ has not added to its sovereign credibility as a viable alternative to the ‘Free World’ model, despite the Chinese whispers about all its purported inefficiencies and inequities.
So, is it case for Chinese burnout? Perhaps not yet, as it still has solid levers and leverages that it can still flex but its impatience is all too obvious.
Where’s India Amidst This Gang-Up?
Despite the inexplicable and regrettable silence on the explicit mention of China by the highest offices of the land, Delhi is indeed burying its heels to defend itself, but not with the same strategic clarity and commitment demonstrated by Japan or even a distant Australia.
India’s traditional problem of lacking a ‘strategic culture’ ensures that there is no equivalent ‘long-term’ thinking on national security.
The more visibilised and thunderous statements by the External Minister and knee-jerk acquisitions of weapon systems doing the media rounds may enthrall and galvanise the partisan cadres but that is not a substitute for strategic thinking, global jointsmanship and actioning.
A rote combination of constant partisan one-upmanship, flagellation of the ‘past’ and electorally driven ‘muscularity’ is disallowing from articulating a more calibrated (politics-agnostic) and long-term security planning.
The previous Chief of Indian Army joined the chorus for the formulation of a National Security Strategy. India has certainly inked deals on critical imports of technology and weaponry (‘Made in India’ hype notwithstanding) and partaken military exercises with allies, but it is still more of the same and is essentially reactive and very mealy-mouthed (remaining either silent or ambiguous eg, ‘transgressions’!).
This is seemingly odd for it is not Taiwan, Japan, Australia, United States, United Kingdom or Canada which drew blood with the Chinese forces in recent times, but India.
There are clear countermoves and strategic posturing by the ‘Free World’ against China and the orchestrated alignments are dovetailing into each other as force-multipliers.
India needs to join these efforts in a more strategic and long-term way, by explicitly naming, aligning and committing itself onto a strategic roadmap and imperatives.
(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)