PLA centenary celebration has generated over-confidence in the Peoples’ Republic of China. Together with that, President Xi’s aggressive tone does not reflect a conciliatory mood towards her neighbours with whom China is at loggerheads. Democracies in general and the Quad, in particular, take it an irritant. Is the world getting divided not between the two rivalling blocks but between two contradicting political ideologies of democracy and unilateralism?
What China is wedded to is Maoism in its current avatar – an ideology focussing essentially on economic growth or to be precise of subjecting political interests to economic overgrowth.China developed the export policy in contravention of all socialist isms something akin to traditional money-lenders whose cumulative interest lay in “my pound of flesh.”
The Quad, viz. the US, Japan, Australia and India, all are leading countries of the democratic world. Except for the US, the rest of them are within the maritime reach of China. We are not talking of some smaller countries of the Indo-Pacific for the time being. Japan and India both have noted the vicious approach of the Chinese naval presence within their waters. China’s belligerence against Taiwan or India in Eastern Ladakh or along India’s eastern border and Arunachal, all are matters of great security concern for the affected countries. The hurdles China is creating in Sino-Australian trade relations has made Australia apprehensive of China behaving more as a regional boss rival a partner in trade and security matters.
After acquiring economic prosperity, China embarked on economic colonization starting with such developing Third World countries in Asian and African Continents as needed de-freezing of their economies necessary for their survival. China was selective in her choice. Oil-producing countries in the Gulf region or Kazakhstan in Central Asia and politically influential or strategically located countries hit her priority list though apparently, Chinese leadership claimed that humanitarian angle was primary to their policy. Bu t we know that China has never been transparent on human rights issues be it the Tiananmen Square carnage or the concentration camps for ethnic Uighurs’ of Xinjiang.
In a geographical region, where from enormous quantities of merchandise are shipped across the Malacca Strait, China enjoys a strategic position with the potential of disturbing the smooth flow of trade in the Indo-Pacific. Besides, China’s substantially developed naval power can pose threat to the mercantile navies in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
Chinese missiles are deployed in battle readiness in the proximity of Taiwan in the southern waters and also along the LoC in Ladakh. Unconfirmed news is that President Xi Ping has recently paid an official visit to Tibet which makes him the first President of China to visit Ladakh in the last 27 years.
Despite not having too smooth relations between Moscow and Beijing in the recent past there has appeared common strategic interest between in challenging the Quad-4. In essence, China and Russia both are sceptics about the real intentions of the US Indo-Pacific strategy security plan which in their perception is the strategy of containing the rise and influence of China.As far as Russia is concerned, she would not like the four powerful democracies establishing their influence in the Far East.
The two countries have walked away from the bitter memories of the past and have expanded their relations in several fields. They are partners in combating Covid-19. They have deepened cooperation in trade, economy, and scientific and technological innovation. Russia partly meets China’s energy requirement and in return obtains access to defence technology. On June 1, the foreign ministers of China and Russia marked the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation. True that Russia suspects China covets a segment of Russian territory to the north-east but considering the urgency of catering to larger strategic interests, globally, the existing irritants have been shelved for the time being.
The two other countries that are slated to be part of the China Quad are Pakistan and Iran. The common thread running among the four countries is about the autarchic character of their regimes. Like Russia and China, Iran and Pakistan, too, are distrustful of the Westminster type democracy. They call it a legacy from the British for the three countries of the Quad-4; Japan though not a colony is very close to its western concept of democracy. The role of the armed forces and their intelligence chapters being a necessary adjunct of the defence forces in all the four countries of China Quad is almost comparable. Apart from this, the political and strategic interests of the two Islamic countries – the would-be partners in the China Quad – would become the catalyst to a parallel formation.
Commenting on Sino-Pakistan bonhomie, the Hindustan Times of 22 July summed it up succinctly as follows:
- Then there is China’s relationship with Pakistan, fuelled by a shared hostility towards India, which are of a different level of depth altogether. In a joint statement on November 25, 2018, the two nations projected themselves as “good neighbours, close friends, iron brothers and trusted partners” with an “All-Weather Strategic Cooperative Partnership” from which Pakistan continuously draws political and economic dividends.
- China recognises the central geostrategic location of Pakistan, and its value in keeping India pinned down to being only a regional player. Strategic congruence, economic benefits and close security cooperation make up this relationship. It’s attempted collaboration to counter the “three evils” of extremism, terrorism and separatism should not fool anyone, except to signal that Islamabad refrains from any action that hampers China in dealing harshly with its Muslim minority.
- Since 2013, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), with its generous package worth $62 billion covering projects in infrastructure, transport, energy, industry and agriculture, has become the centrepiece of the relationship. Experts, however, point out that lately, CPEC has lost some of its salience, as the Pakistan economy has failed to grow due to the absence of economic reforms as well as enhanced security challenges. Islamabad is now also enmeshed in working out its options in a post-US Afghanistan where it needs to reconcile its interests not only with China but also with Iran, Russia, Central Asian neighbours, and, to some extent, India. Pakistan will remain China’s steadfast partner, but given its long-standing relationship with the US, it will also be responsive to Washington’s overtures and offers of assistance in both the military and economic domains.
What brings Iran closer to China is the shared hostility towards the US. China realizes the importance of Iran as an energy source and at the same time is alive to the debilities created for the Iranian economy owing to the imposition of sanctions by the US for a long time. The relaxation given after the nuclear deal of 2015 was withdrawn by Donald Trump before he quit office.
Recent presidential elections that returned a hardliner cleric Ebrahim Raisi to power is a shot in the arm of Beijing. In his first press meet meeting, the new Iranian President demonstrated a much harder policy towards the US than his predecessor Hasan Rouhani.
In March, China and Iran had agreed to a 25-year commitment to enhancing comprehensive economic cooperation. At the heart of this deal is China’s plan to invest $400 million in Iranian projects against a long-term supply of oil and gas to China. The Iranian foreign ministry clarified that “the agreement contained a roadmap but not any contract, figure or exclusive rights to the other party.” President Xi Jinping had visited Iran in January 2016 and the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement that has now see the light of the day is to support “their core interests” such as independence, national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and Iran’s commitment to the One China policy.
After the US exited from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015, China firmly endorsed upholding of Iran’s sovereignty and national dignity and has called on the US to return to JCPOA. The $400-million investment plan, says Alex Vatanaka, a senior fellow at Frontier Europe Initiative, can be Iran’s “insurance policy for economic renewal if US sanctions continue and the US-China fight escalates.”
This then is the speculative formation of a parallel Quad which could be on the wish list of Beijing as a counter-strategy to the initial major democracies. However, the sailing cannot be smooth as is the case of almost all alliance initiatives. In his recent meeting with President Biden in Geneva, Russian President Putin created the impression that he favours improving relations with the US and the European Union. Iran has given indications that she would be happy to respect the JCPOA conditionality provided the US withdrew the sanctions under which Iran is reeling and returned to the agreement. And as far as Pakistan is concerned, the army chief Bajwa likes to bury the past and start a new chapter of reasonable relationships with India.
The Chinese Quad encompasses limited common interests. It is marked by narrow and short–lived rivalry rather than strong, transparent and appealing ideology. As we said in the beginning the entire narrative boils down to unilateralism standing up to democratic order. Democracy has fought two wars and defeated the enemy in both. In whatever form unilateralism surfaces in the developing world, the roots of a cry for freedom of speech and movement are deep and widespread. We do not rule out a process of reforming democracy to make it compatible with the times in which we are living. Constitutional and administrative reforms are integral to democracy and so are the initiative and enterprise. The world will not be bullied by the “lend and grab” antics.