In August this year, China has reportedly tested a nuclear tipped Hypersonic missile. This was in the backdrop of growing Chinese belligerence against India, Taiwan, Japan and the littoral states of South China Sea, on the strength of the growing might of its armed forces.
Chinese belligerence has set alarm bells ringing around the world. It has seen a rise in the China- US Cold War and increasing numbers of alliances focussed at curbing China in which AUKUS is the latest. This article attempts to understand the Chinese geo political aspirations, its compulsions and tipping points which may spur it to launch a war, in the backdrop of a historical perspective.
It is no secret that China wants to regain its place in the comity of nations as the “middle kingdom”, a status it enjoyed in history before being ravaged by foreign powers and humiliated, between 1839 – 1949. In 2018, Xi Jinping stated to US Secretary for Defence that “we cannot lose even one inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors”.
Its geopolitical aims are to integrate Taiwan, humiliate Japan, annex Indian territories of Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh and nearly 80 percent of East and South China Sea and emerge as the ‘numero uno’ in Asia and Western Pacific.
Accordingly, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is set on a path to cultivate strong nationalism in China, making them unable to think rationally and to accept status quo as a compromise, in the context of regaining lost territories and its status of “middle kingdom” status. School children are taught 1839-1949 era as a “century of humiliation” and national holidays commemorate theft of Chinese land. The CCP is also in the danger of loss of its legitimacy if it fails to regain the lost territories and this compulsion in itself may drive China to launch war.
Western Pacific, with democratic Taiwan, Japan and Philippines being allies of US, is a major impediment to China for uncontrolled access to through South and East China Seas. They form a formidable strategic barrier for access to Pacific and to the Indian Ocean.
CCP envisages annexation of Taiwan to make China “one whole” again. It also aspires to make South and East China Seas as Chinese lakes, in its march to become the Asian and possibly the world’s ‘numero uno’. In its determination to do so, it is increasingly facing challenges, resistance and encirclement on many fronts, a situation which in the history has provoked China to preempt to launch war.
Since 1949, China, whenever it geo political interest have been threatened, have launched surprise attacks, to send a message to the world and to teach a lesson and in doing so it has not hesitated to punch above its weight.
China also launches aggression when it finds that the chance to overcome the threat to its territories and geo political interests are fast receding or when it perceives that the window of opportunity to consolidate its control on disputed territories, is fast closing.
This saw a bankrupt, struggling and a nascent China to enter into Korean War as it perceived that US occupation of North Korea will make China vulnerable to US attacks in future. In doing so it suffered over one million casualties, suffered a decade long torturous sanctions and the threat of nuclear war.
In 1962, China perceived India’s actions of building military outpost on the Line of Actual Control as an ingress into its territories. The fear of loss of face at home and the growing threat of encirclement by Indians, Americans, Soviets and US aided nationalist Taiwan, prompted it to move against India, sending a strong message to all that it will be pre-empted to launch war, if it feels threatened.
March 1969saw China launch a war with erstwhile Soviet Union to reclaim the land as per agreement made between Qing dynasty and Russian empire on ownership of Outer Manchuria in the 19th Century. Earlier in 1964, Mao Zedong had told a visiting Japanese delegation that Soviet Union has illegally stripped China of territory in Siberia and Far East. The March1969 border conflict on the Ussuri River remained inconclusive but was in consonance with CCP thinking and sent a strong message to the world on its commitment to regain lost territories. It won US admiration and in 1971, US send Henry Kissinger to China for secret talks which led to President Nixon’s visit to China in July 1972, a gigantic moment in the history of the modern world, the ramifications of which are still unfolding.
In 1977-78, Vietnam leaned towards Soviet Union and aided by it, in 1978it invaded Cambodia, then ruled by Chinese ally, the dreaded Khmer Rouge. In retaliation, China, launched an attack on northern part of Vietnam in February 1979 and in March 1979 withdrew, terming its punitive mission as success, though Vietnam did not withdraw from Cambodia till 1989. However, in this war, China amply demonstrated that it will go to war to safeguard its geopolitical aims.
Against Taiwan, China has time and again attempted to deter it from growing close to US and to grow stronger militarily with US military aid.In1954-55, 1958, 1995-96 the Chinese have resorted to attacking Taiwan with artillery and missile fire. In 2021, there have been numerous transgressions into Taiwan’s airspace by Chinese Airforce.
The above examples from history amply demonstrate that China resorts to war when its territorial integrity and geo political interests are threatened.
Since 1988, when China shot 64 Vietnamese sailors in the South China Sea over Spartly island dispute and till advent of Xi Jinping in 2012, the world has witnessed a relatively peaceful China, a façade which it has tried to publicise as its peaceful and honourable intentions to play by the existing rules of the world order. But this period of peace is more an aberration than real. It capitalised on its peaceful image by making its booming economy an opportunity for the world to profit from andin doing so it grew in double digits, attracting all major companies of the world to invest into China.
To gain entry into China’s booming economy, its vast domestic market and its low cost of production; saw many nations grant concessions to China, many of which fulfilled its geo political aims, without firing a bullet.
In 1997, UK handed over Hongkong, 1999 saw Macau being acceded by Portugal. US too hastened China’s entry to World Trade Organisation (WTO). Between 1999 and 2019 many nations resolved their border disputes with China or agreed to put them in backburner and over 20 nations severed their ties with Taiwan, to appease China.
But in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, its resultant disruptions in supply chains, the dawning reality of overdependence on China for vital goods, has seen emergence of a world which seems to have seen through the Chinese game of attempting to regain its “middle kingdom “status by covert and overt means and to establish its hegemony, disturbing the world order.
Chinese economy too has slowed down. Its growth rate in 2019 was half of 2007 and during this period its debt grew by eight times. Compounding these problems is China’s ageing population wherein by 2035, 70 million more Chinese will be aged, making the total number of the aged population to 140 million, then. This is in the face of slow population growth too.
Chinese aggressive designs under Xi Jinping have made the world now wary of its designs and the enthusiasm for a piece of Chinese market and to gain from its low cost of production, has waned.
Taiwan is enhancing its military strength and today has US troops stationed on its soil. President Biden has recently committed that US will come to Taiwan’s aid if China attempts to annex it. Japan has reinterpreted its armed forces for peace and has invested heavily in defence and concurrently strengthened its ties with US with which it often holds military exercises. India is fast developing infrastructure in its areas adjoining its northern border, has deployed a Strike Corps against it, besides holding the northern borders in strength with regulars. India too is nuclear and has a strong armoury of ICBMs. It too is member of the QUAD.
The world, post the pandemic has also witnessed strengthening of international coalitions such as QUAD and emergence of new ones like AUKUS, to deal with belligerent China. NATO, US, UK, Australia, India are now frequently reinforcing the UN treaty on Sea Lines of Communication, namely the Freedom of Navigation, by traversing the South China Sea more often with warships. The littoral states of South China Sea too are investing heavily in their defence, namely its surface and submarine naval fleets and long-range bombers, with an aim to interdict Chinese shipping in the choke points of the Malacca and Sunda Straits and other choke points between Indian Ocean and South China Sea which is China’s lifeline. NATO too is increasingly keeping the Northern route through a melting Arctic under increased surveillance.
The global opinion against China is on the rise and its adversely effecting Chinese polity. In recent times it saw Xi Jinping skip the G 20 meet in Rome and the UN conference on Environment “COP 26” at Glasgow. This foretells a Chinese aggression as it experiences its window of opportunities to be fast shrinking. Its attempts to strong arm Philippines by its Navy masquerading as Coast Guard for developing closer relations with US is a case in point. Its 2020 border aggression with India is its retribution for India’s growing closeness to US. It’s frequent aggressions off Senkaku Islands, raising the heat against Japan for buying US arms and for their growing defence cooperation is another instance of its growing intolerance to what it perceives as encirclement and threat to its global aspirations.
China has invested over $3 trillion in modernising Chinese armed forces in the last three decades with an aim to gain supremacy in Asia, in South and East China Sea and to negate the influence of Western powers. Chinese realm of warfare transcends the realms of conventional warfare and embraces perception management, its nuclear triad, cyber warfare and space. This has upped the ante for its neighbours and the rest of the world, which now finds itself vulnerable to evil Chinese machinations in many spheres including civil and military.
This has led to its neighbours seeking alliances with other world powers and foregoing their long standing policy of strategic autonomy.
Growing anti-China alliances which includes nearly all its neighbours, is giving Beijing a growing sense of insecurity. Coupled with this is its slowing down economy and its growing debt, it now is perceiving the window of opportunity for achieving its hegemonistic designs as fast closing.
Growing militarisation of Taiwan and commitment of US to protect it is seeing this window of opportunity fast diminishing in achieving its aim to annex it and this may prompt China to act aggressively to annex Taiwan, before it is too late. Its recent air aggression are indicators of its intentions.
As per current vintage of the US fleet and ongoing Chinese inductions into its Navy, by the mid-2020, the US naval power will start declining vis a vis China before again tending to rise with induction of new combat ships in mid-2035 or so. This too then provides China a fleeting window of opportunity to act against Taiwan, Japan, Philippines and to establish its hegemony in South and East China Sea.
However, if China unleashes war, will it be able to keep it localised to that theatre only or will it then activate all the alliances against it and then their joint punitive action will take China back by decades, prompting it to then go even nuclear, to prevent further destruction, is a moot question the CCP needs to war game, before it launches a war.
China aims for to win a short, swift war, aiming to catch the opponent by surprise. But with coalitions like QUAD, AUKUS and its neighbouring countries likely to join the war against it, will it be able to achieve a short war and swift victory is another question CCP should ponder upon.
All of the above points to the fact that 2020s is the decade for China to act to achieve its geo political aims and to regain all its lost territories. The geopolitical dynamics of today are both threatening China of encirclement and is closing its window of opportunities, both of which in past has driven it to launch aggression to regain initiative, to regain lost territories and to teach lessons. Its actions and warnings are already flashing danger signals to the world, which the world now can hardly ignore any more, dictating as the need of the hour a joint, concerted and committed action, to stymie China’s hegemonistic designs in this “Decade of 2020s”.