The Chinese diplomacy and military strategy are largely subservient to its idea of “Century of Humiliation”- the period between 1839 and 1939, when China lost a huge territory to Western colonial powers, Russia and Japan. Although, in the last three decades it has seen unprecedented growth and development, the insecurities in the Chinese assertions are more than evident.
The ‘Xi Jingping era’ saw towering Chinese territorial and economic aspirations. The ambitious Belt Road Initiative (BRI), believed to be China’s attempt to assert its strategic footprints across the world, has also revealed the true nature of Chinese hegemonistic goals. The BRI is considered to be Xi’s personal indulgence in taking China and his leadership to the status of a global power never thought of before. This, however, rekindles the vices of 19th century economic colonialism in the garb of 21st century modernization and global interdependence.
Xi ensured his imaginations take shape into reality and went all out to achieve his goals before the recent roadblocks posed serious threats to his ambitious project.
To begin with, the U.S-China trade war and the worsening relations with the White House post the Coronavirus pandemic has made the slightest hopes of a trade negotiation seem like a distant dream. With a temperamental leadership in Washington, that is infamous for its diplomatic overreach and an equally adamant Beijing, China and U.S are bleeding each other financially. It is clear though that the one with the longest economic endurance has the highest chances of surviving the brawl.
The American economy suffered a mild blow as US companies had to cough out a little more than $46 Billion as import taxes till January 2020. But, it was the Chinese economy that saw its largest downslide in the last three decades. To make matters worse, companies have started shifting their manufacturing hubs outside China to other lucrative zones in Asia, thus shattering the Chinese supply chain monopoly. With Trump showing no signs of negotiation, China is expected to bleed a lot more in the future.
With the U.S sending signs of a changing world order and reboot to the G10 in place, China is more skeptical of its strategic isolation. The decline of the West and the rise of East may finally be the order of the day which may seem like an exciting new prospect for Beijing. If China is able to fill the present void in global leadership by its economic and political assertions, then it will be able to establish its stronghold for a sustainable period in the future by dislodging U.S and the West.
Xi’s BRI had an unprecedented take off within the European Union (EU), especially in countries like Italy, Greece and the Balkans since its launch in 2013. Three major economies in EU, namely France, Germany and Britain have had the lion’s share of the Chinese investments, despite being non-signatories of the BRI project.
Initially, aimed at Western Europe, the BRI now has its focus shifted to Eastern European countries like Austria. Although, the meteoric rise in Chinese footprints were always seen through a tinge of skepticism, dissonant criticism was restricted to countries like Belgium. The response amounted to a combination of curiosity, confusion, criticism, and concern. Critical voices in the intra-EU debate tended to characterize BRI as a Chinese geopolitical strategy aimed at achieving global dominance and rewriting global rules. There was a general belief among observers in the EU that BRI would undermine European interests, such as rules-based public tenders, reciprocal market access, and European environmental and social standards. BRI was also criticized within the EU for lacking an official definition of its geographical scope, as well as for the lack of classification and clear rules for projects to be included.
Furthermore, it was argued that BRI was neither structured as a single institution nor embedded in an overarching international framework, and that its implementation was mostly done in a China-dominated bilateral manner. BRI was partly seen as a direct threat to Europe, in particular instances, in which China purchased ports (Greece), built bridges (Southeast Europe), and invested in the European Union’s periphery (Turkey).
These dissonances and inhibitions became more vocal when the Coronavirus pandemic struck EU and exposed the vulnerabilities of BRI projects owing to its dependency on Beijing.
The supply chain backbone of Europe almost had a breakdown in the months succeeding the outbreak of the pandemic. Countries like Britain and Italy have openly called out for reducing Chinese dependency and the “marshall plan” for restructuring EU post the pandemic has a reflection of the same.
China’s attempt to mask its failure in containing the disease within its territorial limits has also not been successful. A massive outreach campaign coupled with an aggressive propaganda to rebuild its image as the global leader in pandemic management hasn’t found any steam as the global sentiments are still largely against Beijing.
China’s multi-front aggression, including a diplomatic and economic spat with Canberra vide a series of symbolic steps like banning of Australian beef and other imports, issuing an advisory to its citizens against travel to Australia at the backdrop of a Chinese media rhetoric against Australia are measures that could be seen as aggressive diplomatic steps to prove a point.
Consistent military forays in the Senkaku Island area last year and this year has left Japan worried and angry. The introduction of the Hong Kong security law has opened new fronts of diplomatic hostility as UK plans to revisit the extant citizenship law for the British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders in Hong Kong, smoothening their path for an easier British citizenship.
With its trade war in US, and the European Union expressing its inhibitions on future Chinese investments, China is pushed to the wall and Xi visualizes the grand failure of his ambitious dream of global dominance. Hence, one can see an aggressively cautious strategy for South Asia, which has largely evolved due to looming insecurities of its strategic ambitions.
From the recent naval maneuvers in the South China Sea, to the sinking of the Vietnamese fishing vessel in April this year. From the aggressive border postures in Ladakh, to its support for Nepal’s adventurism against India, the dragon seems to be blowing out its fire to cover its insecurities.
The border standoff with India being one of the most aggressive in the recent past is a fallout of China’s growing fear for India’s attempt to shift the status quo in the region.
In the center of Chinese fears are its economic investments in Pakistan, in the form of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
CPEC from Tibet Plateau to Gwadar port on Makran coastline is vital to Chinese interests as alternative access to the Indian Ocean maritime trade routes. CPEC is the most ambitious project under BRI as it helps China by giving it access to Gwadar port – an alternate route of Malacca strait that is dominated by the Americans.
China aims to position its military bases all along the Pakistani coastline, thus enhancing its strategic outreach. These bases will be linked to China’s western province of Xinjiang through a web of rail and road networks which are being built through the disputed territory of Gilgit-Baltistan. This explains the deep interests China has in the Gilgit-Baltistan territory. It’s a place where regular confluence of China, Pakistan and Iran takes place. It’s also its gateway to West Asia.
The dragon’s behaviour vis-à-vis its stand on border disputes and claims over Hong kong and Taiwan recently can be attributed to a larger fear that looms the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A fear of failing in its strategic investment projects linked to the ambitious BRI plan and its loosening foothold in the global economy has made it desperate and vile. Beijing’s worst nightmares of revisiting the ‘’Century of humiliation’’, has encouraged the recent military and diplomatic overtures. It has shown no interest in either resolving or taking a step back from its current stand. This, however, is likely to prove detrimental to its image in the longer run.
As global supply chains and manufacturing units are planning to dump China en masse, it can be seen as a subtle indication by the Dragon to those units choosing India and Vietnam as alternate locations. China is trying to prove it point by flexing its muscle and declaring itself as the only stable option in the whole of Asia.
Meanwhile, China continues its diplomatic efforts for bilateral and trilateral cooperation in South Asia through the China-Japan-Korea (CJK) trilateral summit. The previous summit held in December 2019 between the three Asian powers in Chengdu could be seen as an attempt to turn the ‘’rise of east’’ concept into a reality.
China realizes that with the decline of US diplomatic might, a certain void can be created making way for a new regional power to emerge and this can only be possible by playing a proactive role , which can also come in handy in case of a flashpoint in South East Asia.
The failure of US-North Korea talks and Kim Jong Un’s proximity to Beijing, puts China in a better position to see through a regional de-nuclearization than US. Keeping India out of the CJK is yet another example of the attention Beijing is paying to limit India’s growing regional assertions and neutralize its competitor.