US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on September 2, “We’re hoping for a peaceful resolution to the situation on the China-India border…. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is engaged in a clear and intensifying pattern of bullying its neighbors”. He also expressed concern about China’s call to ‘Sinicize Tibetan Buddhism calling on Beijing to enter dialogue with the “Dalai Lama”. A US State Department spokesperson has said, “From Taiwan Strait to Xinjiang, South China Sea to Himalayas, cyberspace to international organizations, we’re dealing with theCCP that seeks to repress its own people and bully its neighbours. Only way to stop these provocations is by standing up to Beijing.” Pompeo told media separately that the entire world is now united against China’s belligerence and its unfair practices. He said nations like India, Australia, Japan, and South Korea are pushing back against China’s expansionist policies and aggressive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific region. All the nations that China views as political and military targets, with its expansionist policies and border skirmishes, as in the case of India, have united with the US.
The US Department of Defence (DoD) ‘Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China’ delineates the modernization advances of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and China’s coercive strategy. The 200-page Pentagon report,without specifically mentioning Chinese incursions in Eastern Ladakh, states that China has been using “coercive” tactics in pursuit of territorial and maritime claims in the South and East China Seas, as well as along its border with India and Bhutan, as also fast expanding military and economic influence in the Indo-Pacific region. It also says, “China’s leaders use tactics short of armed conflict to pursue China’s objectives. China calibrates its coercive activities to fall below the threshold of provoking armed conflict with the United States, its allies and partners or others in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Closer examination of the above would indicate that there is nothing new in what is being said other than the Chinese aggression in Ladakh during May this year. China has been following these policies over past decades and has been getting away with it – incrementally but firmly achieving what it wants. The US State Department’s advice “only way to stop these provocations is by standing up to Beijing” is applicable to any street bully even though China has become a global rogue. No doubt “standing up” is a must against a bully but was this done when China was expanding its control over the East China Sea (ECS) and the South China Sea (SCS)? At the individual level, have the Freedom of Navigation (FONOP) sea patrols by the US Navy in Western Pacific deterred China in any way? The answer is no. And having consolidated in ECS and the SCS, China is focused on doing the same in balance Indo-Pacific including the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
Again, Pompeo says that the “entire world is now united against China’s belligerence and its unfair practices” and that nations are pushing back against China’s expansionist policies and aggressive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific region. Yes, affected nations are against China’s belligerence and unfair practices and are pushing back against China in their own way but the question is to what ‘extent’ are they ‘united’ and in what manner? There is much talk these days about ‘Quad’ in the backdrop of China’s belligerence but didn’t China achieve what it has in Western Pacific despite groupings like the Quad and Five Powers Defense Arrangement (FPDA)? ASEAN stands diluted with Laos and Cambodia drawn into Beijing’s influence. For that matter, the United Nations can do little about terrorism and even human rights because of lack of global consensus and various other factors.
An India-Indonesia-Australia trilateral is being established now in backdrop of China’s all around aggression. To set the agenda, foreign ministers of these three countries are scheduled to meet later this month through video-conferencing. Indonesia and India had first mooted the idea of a trilateral with Australia in 2013 under the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, which did not take off. As of now, Indonesia could have simply joined the Quad and also the recently established India-Japan-Australia supply chain network, which should have been possible after visit of the US Defence Secretary to Indonesia in June 2019 to smoothen the military relationship. It is perhaps naïve for nations to try and project they have no truck with the US when China has dropped all pretenses.
China is more than happy with multinational groupings busy with discussions as long as its own aims of world domination through using every unfair means remains unhindered. Take the Shanghai Corporation Organization (SCO) whose aims include strengthening mutual trust and neighbourliness, as also making joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region. But China and Pakistan (both SCO members) continue to advance terrorism and China has deliberated invaded Eastern Ladakh in India, which doesn’t even get discussed. Another example is BRICS whose aim is to contribute towards promoting global economic recovery, reduce potential risks in the international financial markets and increase economic growth among its members. But China has destroyed economies of most of the world by releasing the China Virus and is financially exploiting the situation in addition to its unfair financial practices plus using economics as a coercive tool.
The “unity” that Pompeo mentioned boils down to purely individual national interests in practice with little scope of uniting against the common rouge. This has been on display in the ESC and SCS where countries with conflicting territorial claims have hardly united against China. Besides, geopolitics has its own dynamics. Some year’s back doubts were raised by Japanese media whether the US will come to Japan’s help if China invaded the Sankaku Islands. Eight days after a Chinese trawler rammed a Philippine fishing boat anchored in Reed Bank (Philippines calls Recto Bank) in the SCS on 9 June 2019 forcing 22 fishermen to abandon their stricken vessel leading to official condemnation of China. President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, demanded that China investigate the Sunday collision and punish the crew of the Chinese boat, which the Philippine government said had intentionally struck the vessel, leaving the Filipino fishermen at the “mercy of the elements.” The fishermen were rescued by a Vietnamese boat. US has just signed memorandum of understanding with Vietnam to protect Vietnamese fishermen against Chinese intimidation. But these are small issues for Beijing.
Together with its nuclear proxies (Pakistan and North Korea), military alliance with Pakistan and Iran, military bases coming up in Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, plus Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar being the top three importers of defence equipment from China, Beijing can hardly be tamed with the existing state of groupings. China wants to deal with one country at a time and has managed to play its game that way. The need is not only for a holistic security-cum-economic “grouping of groupings” comprising of all nations affected by Chinese belligerence in the Indo-Pacific but to speedily put the mutually supporting ‘nuts and bolts’ in place to respond to China on land, sea, air, space and cyberspace before the threat assumes gigantic dimensions. Delay in doing so will help China’s power grow. The Quad meeting in New Delhi in a few weeks from now needs to make the beginning setting the nuts and bolts in place the prelude to a larger grouping.
Similarly, focused approach is required it to tame China’s economic prowess that it uses for coercion and malpractices. India made a beginning by banning Chinese apps besides taking other measures, which led to the US also going after Tik Tok. There is need to go for holistically targeting Chinese industries (indirectly without disturbing WTO) like mobile phones, machinery, food processing, automobiles and other transportation equipment including rail cars and locomotives etc. For example, India is in the process of clearing $100 billion (Rs 73 lakh crores) mobile export proposals from global manufacturers through a production linked incentive (PLI) scheme. 22 companies had applied for the Rs 41,000-crore PLI scheme. Presently, the green signal is being given to five global applicants (Samsung, two units of Foxconn, Wistron and Pegatron) and five domestic (Lava, Dixon, Micromax, Padget Electronics, Sojo, Karbonn and Optiemus). This should signal beginning of the demise of Chinese smart-phones in India.