The View from China!
Regional cooperation cliques formed to target a third country will not be popular and have no future
The forthcoming QUAD Summit on September 24 is the first in person meet between leaders of USA, Australia, Japan and India. It signifies their commitment and priority to take issues of common interest and concern forward to meet current and future challenges. The international environment has changed significantly since the last virtual summit in March 2021. China loomed large then. The Pandemic seemed as being brought under control. Recovery was on the horizon. Six months later. The virus has mutated. Its Delta variant has set the world on a skid row. Afghanistan has happened. China is morphing. An Sino-Af-Pak nexus is emerging. The Indo-Pacific compact has acquired a new meaning. The status of the QUAD countries has changed. Australia, UK and US (AUKUS) have announced a new security partnership for the Indo Pacific. In light of this, sterile statements like ‘the QUAD Leaders will be focused on deepening ties and advancing practical cooperation on areas such as combatting COVID-19, addressing the climate crisis, partnering on emerging technologies and cyberspace, and promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific’ sound hollow. Overall, the prospects for the QUAD have become more challenging. At the outset, it must be remarked that the QUAD countries have shown resolve to stick to a trajectory. The hope is that they will reach the intended goalposts eventually. It must also be remembered that these are still early days. Tangible outcomes will take time.
Till the last summit, everyone was focussed on the maritime domain. Indo-Pacific connoted a maritime construct and QUAD was largely seen to be addressing issues in the South China Sea. Afghanistan has changed that perception drastically. Afghanistan and South China Sea dominate international geostrategy. They exist at either end of the Indo Pacific. Both have an umbilical connect in containing China. The meaning of a free and open Indo Pacific has also changed. It was understood to refer to passages in the South China Sea only. With Sino-Af-Pak axis taking shape and the Sino- Iran relationship deepening, the meaning changes. China’s Two Ocean Strategy as posited by Kaplan is more of a reality. When China has unfettered access to the Indian Ocean, which is a high degree of possibility now, superpower status is only a step away. If containment of China is the underlying goal and if QUAD concentrates on South China Sea only, then it is obviously looking at the wrong direction. With the AUKUS focusing on Western Pacific, QUAD needs to widen its horizon. The problem is even more acute since USA has no presence North of the Gulf in West Asia as China and Russia are expanding their influence in the region. QUAD needs to rethink its overall strategy.
The South China Sea poses an enhanced problem now. China has notified new maritime rules that require ships carrying certain types of cargo to provide detailed information to the Chinese authorities when transiting through Chinese ‘territorial waters’. The ‘territorial waters’ are the disputed areas of the entire South China Sea which China claims as it its own. If the law is strictly enforced , most maritime activity in South China Sea and the Taiwan straits can occur only if permitted by China. This salami slicing tactic has wide ranging ramifications not only for the present but for the future also. It creates a flashpoint where a clash can occur. It affects all countries in the South China Sea and beyond. They will all expect the QUAD to do something about it since each of them cannot handle China individually. Already UK has sent a strike carrier group into the area. France has also waded in by sending a nuclear submarine into the area. The German Navy has also sent a frigate into the area. The QUAD countries conducted a Malabar exercise off the coast of Guam from 26-29 Aug. The AUKUS security partnership envisages Australia acquiring nuclear submarines. This new trilateral arrangement indicates the seriousness of the Chinese threat. The wider response and role of the QUAD along with ASEAN, AUKUS and EU to contain China’s expansionism and efforts counter its salami slicing should be the main agenda of this Summit, notwithstanding the diplomatic couching of public statements.
At this stage it will be interesting to assess the status of the members of the QUAD and China to get a better understanding of its prospects. USA has withdrawn from Afghanistan. It will have to overcome the humiliation, self-doubts and recrimination internally. On the other hand, it has consolidated and can focus on the South China Sea. Their Vice President recently visited SE Asian countries to reassure them of US commitments to the region. All things considered, USA will retain ‘over the horizon’ capability in Af-Pak region and ‘in Sea’ presence in the South China Sea. USA will also be resolved to refurbish its image which has lost much of its sheen in Afghanistan. A chastened US, will be far less boorish and more accommodative to other members of the QUAD, post its Af-Pak withdrawal. An under par USA whose economy is reviving is good for the world. The establishment of AUKUS over and above the QUAD is a clear indication of a US plan to pivot specifically to China. Sino- Australian trade disputes have worsened. Resultantly Australia has hardened its stand against China. Australia is not only fully committed to the QUAD but has gone a step further with AUKUS. Australian domestic sentiment, which is strongly anti-China , and its economic imperatives will be a huge glue to sustain QUAD. Very refreshingly, Australia has shown that it is prepared to change its snobbish attitude wrt India. It was evident in the recent 2+2 Indo- Australia dialogue. It portends good for the QUAD. Japan’s disputes with China over the Senkaku’s have only heightened in the recent past. Japan is also reaching out to other members of the ASEAN to counter China. While Japan’s commitment to the QUAD is unquestioned, its leadership is the issue. With a change of guard likely whose strategic direction is as yet not known, QUAD will be a bit on an uncertain wicket since Japan like India is a key regional member of the grouping. India is emerging as a key member of the QUAD. As per Tony Abbot, ex Australian PM , who led a trade delegation to India recently, the answer to almost every question about China is India. It provides a democratic tilt away from China. The emerging Sino-Af-Pak axis poses a great threat to Indian interests in the region which can be balanced by the QUAD.
The status of China over the past few months has also changed and poses an interesting contrast. Geopolitically, it has supported Pakistan’s adventurous foray into Afghanistan. It has given clear indications that it will deal with Taliban as long as its interests are looked after. Its interests are protection of its BRI assets/projects, many of which are in Muslim countries where radical groups can threaten them. The second interest is to firewall spread of separatism into Xinjiang. It is the main anchor of the Sino-Af-Pak axis. It has forged understandings with Russia, Iran and Turkey to foray into the geostrategic vacuum left by USA and expand its foot print. It has also done the salami slicing trick in the South China Sea as explained earlier. While it is expanding geopolitically, it is also stretching itself. This is happening when it has started a revisionist exercise of ‘common prosperity’ where it is redistributing wealth to the lower classes. It has taken very firm steps to cap/dismantle its Fin-tech, Ed-tech and ride-hailing sectors. There are some major banks and real estate firms defaulting. Surprisingly, China is on a wealth destruction spree at a time when its economy is slowing and its population is set to decline irreversibly with attendant adverse economic consequences. The geostrategic expansion is being attempted as new vulnerabilities are on the horizon.
The Pandemic is running riot. The emergence of the Delta variant has upended many calculations. Countries are experiencing third and fourth waves despite high levels of vaccination. As it is emerging, many countries have started accepting that the Virus will continue and are prepared to live with it as an endemic. Some reports have emerged that India might have even entered a stage of early endemicity. More importantly, vaccines from the Western world and India have proved to be quite efficacious against the Chinese virus. An important aspect is that when India was hit badly by the second wave a few months back, its QUAD partners stood by it. That has created a bonding. On the other hand, the ‘Zero Covid’ policy of the China has been seen to be unsustainable by the Chinese themselves.
Their vaccines have proven to be largely ineffective especially against the Delta Variant which is now forcing massive lockdowns, testing and tracing exercises across China. This is having a limiting impact on the Chinese economy. However that does not seem to stop the Chinese from exhibiting aggression. It does well to recount that China was at its aggressive worst; undertaking wars with USA and India despite being internally ravaged by famines and suffering Mao’s quixotic ideas of progress in the 50’s and 60’s. In that context, a revisionist China whose economy is slowing and is being seen to be following impractical policies is likely to be even more aggressive and dangerous. If ever there is a doubt that China should be contained, they have been set aside in the intervening period between the last virtual summit and the current summit of the QUADS leaders. The increased maritime activity of UK, France and Germany in South China Sea reinforces the view that China needs to be contained.
India needs to approach this Summit with this backdrop. It will need the heft of USA to counter the Sino-Af-Pak axis. Both have common interests in this area. Japan and Australia need to be convinced that they have to show commitment to the ‘Indo’ part if they need India on board in the ‘Pacific’ part. In all these discussions it should not be forgotten that India needs Russia and Central Asian Republics to counter the Sino-Af-Pak axis. Also, very importantly, the QUAD must think of an economic model which reduces international dependence on China in a systematic and timed manner. While the chances of China using its military are low, the exhibition of militaristic, economic and diplomatic coercion are high. QUAD needs to come up with a day to day response mechanism to evolving situations. All this indicates that QUAD needs a structure based on a permanent address if its goals are to be realised.
-The writer was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda