Hegemony, not territory is China’s goal

China’s incessant aggressive behaviour in recent times have been raising question. It is fighting with India in the highlands of Ladakh. It has introduced a new security law for Hong Kong that eliminates basic civil rights. Chinese military jets are flying into Taiwan’s air defense space. It has raised a border conflict with Bhutan in a specific area. The sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea. It is caught up in territorial disputes in the same maritime area with not only Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia but also Indonesia. China is also meddling in Australia’s domestic politics, for the first time giving rise to critical voices against China in a country which until now has been extremely reluctant to criticize its most important trading partner.
Is China shooting itself in the foot by making more foes than friends? Or is China’s muscle-flexing, not only in the Himalayas but also in the South China Sea, in Hong Kong and over Taiwan, a sort of Cold War litmus test to gauge which nations are willing to openly criticize Beijing’s more assertive posture and which will remain reticent? Is China, as some analysts would argue, merely testing the limits of impunity?
It is hardly any secret now that Chinese President Xi Jinping sees himself as the third great leader in modern Chinese history. Mao Zedong destroyed the old order and liberated China from feudalism and oppression. Deng Xiaoping laid the foundations for a modern economy. And Xi wants to turn China into the dominant world power that the rest of the world has to listen to, not oppose.
In Asia, China, it seems, is keen to send a message to India and its neighbors on who is the ruler of the region, particularly at a juncture when India and many of its allies and partners—not the least the United States—struggle to contain the Covid-19 pandemic at home.
It is becoming clear that the confrontation in Ladakh is not about which side should control an uninhabited piece of barren mountain rock, instead, it is about something much bigger: strategic rivalry between Asia’s two giants. More specifically, a desire on the part of China to punish India for rejecting Xi’s pet project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China’s vernacular media did not cover the bloody events in Ladakh, but the English-language Communist Party mouthpiece The Global Times published strong threats against India. On June 15, it quoted a supposedly independent scholar in Shanghai saying that ‘if India escalates border tensions, it could face military pressure from two or even three fronts’, namely China’s ‘reliable strategic partners’ Nepal and Pakistan.
India, clearly, is seen as a major obstacle on China’s road to greatness. Hence, the need to humiliate it in the Himalayas, and ongoing efforts to pick off one smaller country in South Asia after another.
Pakistan is an old ally; China may be succeeding in Nepal as well. When Nepal banned all Indian news channels except Doordarshan on July 9, China no doubt was pleased as it was the latest of many signs of Nepal’s drift away from India and towards China. More importantly, Nepal is a partner in Xi’s BRI and plans are still under way to extend the Lhasa-Xigaze railway to the Nepalese border and even as far as Kathmandu, thus lessening the landlocked Himalayan country’s traditional dependence on India for foreign trade.
But it has not been only smooth sailing for Xi and his government in Beijing. In November 2018, China’s man in the Maldives, Abdulla Yameen, lost his position in the presidential election and, in April last year, his pro-Indian enemies in the Maldivian Democratic Party won a landslide victory in the country’s parliamentary election. The Maldives are a small but strategically important country from which China had hoped to protect its lines of communications and shipping routes with the Middle East, Africa and Europe. China has not lost the Maldives completely, major investment projects are still on the books, but India has regained considerable ground once lost to China in the Indian Ocean nation.
In Myanmar, another target for Chinese penetration, the country’s powerful military chief General Min Aung Hlaing stunned many observers by lashing out in an interview with a Russian news channel in June against “terrorist groups” that exist “because of the strong forces that support them.”
Although he did not name any group or force in particular, it was clear that he was referring to the insurgent Arakan Army in the country’s western Rakhine State, which is equipped with Chinese-made weapons.
In November 2019, the Myanmar military seized a huge cache of Chinese weapons, including brand-new rocket launchers and a surface-to-air missile, from another rebel army in northern Shan State. In Myanmar, the Chinese carrot consists of loans, grants and support for anti-Covid-19 campaigns while the stick is giving some of the country’s many ethnic rebel armies access to China’s huge, informal arms market, which is grey rather than black. The aim is to gain more influence in Myanmar, a country that would provide it direct access to the Indian Ocean. The so-called ‘China-Myanmar Economic Corridor’ is a crucial BRI link China would do anything to control and protect.
Bhutan is another country attracting increased Chinese attention, not because it is important for trade and economic expansion, but because it is seen as a close Indian ally. Bhutan is the only neighbouring country with which China does not have diplomatic relations, which complicates matters. But China’s soft-power overtures towards Bhutan have been wide-ranging, including the dispatch of circus artists, acrobats and footballers, and by granting a limited but growing number of Bhutanese students’ scholarships to study at Chinese universities.
Seen in this context, the newly-invented “border conflict” with Bhutan is nothing more than a ruse, which in the absence of diplomatic ties, will enable Chinese officials to meet their Bhutanese counterparts. The dispute with Bhutan—and the much more serious confrontation in Ladakh, may have been concocted by Beijing for wider strategic purposes, but the Chinese shenanigans in the region come, hardly by coincidence.
However, as recent events also show, China has gone too far, and the challenge for India is how to face up to these new realities. As anti-China sentiments get stronger in Myanmar, India has new opportunities to improve government-to-government as well as people-to-people relations. It is also important to call China’s bluff and not fall into the trap of believing that the conflicts in the Himalayas are about border demarcation. They are about hegemony.
In the Indian Ocean, India will have to work closely with regional partners such as Japan and Australia. In short, it will have to be proactive rather than reactive. At the same time, India will have to tread carefully in its relations with countries such as Bhutan, the Maldives and Myanmar so as not to antagonise them as it did Nepal with the 2015 blockade. If skilfully mastered, the endgame might well be that Beijing’s aggressive postures make the encirclement it supposedly dreads a reality.