Over the years, a closer look at global geopolitics reflects that China, an isolated entity until the end of the 1990s, tried to play an assertive role. This can be evident from its military prowess and economic modernisation as well.
Over the years, Beijing launched ambitious projects like One Belt One Road (OBOR) and tried to bring the European and Asian countries under its sphere of influence. Similarly, the Chinese leadership also took a keen interest in spreading its influence in the faraway Latin American and African countries as well. Economically, China became the second-largest economy in the world from an underdeveloped economy in a very short period of time.
All of these developments have certainly influenced the global geopolitics. This is evident from the fact that many of the industries of the United States shifted their base to China and this propelled many academics and policymakers to predict a promising future for China.
However, such a rosy picture has been short-lived and the fact is that Chinese power has declined substantially in the global geopolitical arena in the last couple of years. If this trend continues, China will face further marginalisation in global geopolitics in the future. The same can be studied from the following prisms.
China and the post-Covid world order
A closer look at China’s progress over the last couple of years demonstrates many pitfalls in China’s growth trajectories. At the same time, its growing footprint is causing much anxiety in global geopolitics. This was more glaringly evident from the outbreak of Covid-19, which had a devastating impact on global geopolitics.
In this context, various reports suggest that the virus of Covid-19 emerged in the scientific lab of Wuhan in China. Some reports have also related it with China’s hybrid warfare strategies. The horrific impact of Covid-19 is still felt in the socioeconomic and political spheres of global geopolitics. Covid-19 not only disrupted the global supply chain but also aggravated the health insecurity.
In the post-Covid era, there is growing apprehension from the global community regarding China’s motive and intent. This put China in a disadvantageous position in global geopolitics.
China’s isolation and the global geopolitics
The growing marginalisation of China in global geopolitics can also be evident from its aggressive moves in the Indo-Pacific region. Over the years, China has kept its ambitious geopolitical moves in mind in outlining its strategic doctrines. In this regard, it is pertinent to underline here that China’s National Defense in the New Era, published in 2019, highlights that “international strategic competition is on the rise”. Chinese policymakers underline in the same paper that to “seize the strategic commanding heights in military competition” is to achieve what is called “Chinese dream” as articulated by Xi Jinping.
China has deployed sophisticated high-end weapons threatening the neighbouring countries to project its military power over the years. For instance, recent statistical data published by the SIPRI Year Book suggests that in 2023, “China stocked a total of 410 nuclear warheads, 60 more than the figure of 2022”. Similarly, the yearbook has also highlighted how China’s long-range ICBM is equipped with nuclear warheads which threatens the global security.
As per a study by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Security (CSIS), Chinese Navy consists of over 300 ships, making it larger than US Navy’s 287 vessels. In this regard, it is pertinent to highlight that growing militarisation of the Chinese Navy will pose a substantial challenge to the security of the Indo-Pacific region, which includes the South China Sea, East China Sea, Taiwan straits, etc. Similarly, the Chinese strategy of String of Pearls to dominate the Indian Ocean results in excessive militarisation, threatening the peace and security of the Indian Ocean littoral countries. The Chinese intent to increase its military prowess in the global sphere can also be marked from the recent enunciation of the doctrine of The Global Security Initiative Concept Paper which was enunciated in February 2023.
A closer look at the Chinese military maneuverability only produces adversarial consequences for itself. For example, the ASEAN countries —except Cambodia— are aghast at Chinese military adventurism. Similarly, Quad expresses its resentment at China’s military overtures at various summit meetings. Also, in Africa, the growing resentment towards China is evident from the spiral in societal conflicts involving the local communities and the Chinese workers who are working on various Chinese projects.
Similarly, China’s aggressive illegal cartographic geopolitics demonstrated Beijing’s nefarious intent. This resulted in subsequent protests by India, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Japan. Over the years, protests have been growing in Central Asia —Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan— and Siberia and the Far-East regions of Russia amid China’s illegal land occupation. Even in Latin America, there are growing protests by local communities against China for its land- and resource-grabbing activities. By carrying such mischievous act, China is actually isolating itself from regional and global geopolitics. Over the years, China has earned itself the tag of a threat to the global peace and security.
China’s failed global geoeconomic strategies
The third arena where China is isolating itself is in the sphere of geoeconomic frontiers. China’s geopolitical maneuverability is only aimed at achieving complete dominance in global trade. Some geoeconomic projects like the One Belt and One Road (OBOR) aim at complete dominance over global trade.
China has three basic objectives regarding its geoeconomic strands in the context of global geopolitics: first, controlling resources, including critical minerals and energy in the external market, and transporting them to China. Second, China requires complete dominance over land corridors and sea routes to achieve this. At the same time, China also needs the external market to export its finished products. Third, China also pursues debt diplomacy, which provides loans to countries in such a manner that makes them vulnerable and puts them in crisis in the long run. Many countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America went into bankruptcy due to the debt trap of China.
In the case of the China-induced debt crises, one can cite the examples of Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Central Asian countries, Mongolia, Djibouti, Sudan, and Kenya, to name a few. Many of these countries have taken loans from China but failed to repay them, which led to debt accumulation. Taking advantage of the debt crisis, China took control of the resources as well as strategic assets of these countries. China’s attempt to take control of the strategically located Hambantota port of Sri Lanka for lease following the failure on the part of the Sri Lankan government to repay the loan —various studies stuggest it’s to the tune of $7.54 billion— or the control over the strategically important Gwadar Port of Pakistan are few examples in this regard.
Similarly, China took control of the natural resources in Mongolia and Central Asia by employing a debt trap means. Russia is expected to face the music of China’s debt sooner or later. Moscow is taking huge amounts of financial aid without realising its pitfalls. One may recall here that international financial institutions have warned over the years regarding the pitfalls of China’s debt trap.
It is generally believed that both land and sea trade corridors play a critical role in promoting international trade, which benefits mankind. However, China’s OBOR diplomacy and Maritime Silk Road Project have backfired and there is a growing protest in different parts of the world over these two projects. Some of the major adversarial consequences that one can summarise by looking at countries who have joined this project show negative repercussions to the domestic economy, environmental consequences of the worst forms, growing preponderance of China in the domestic political processes, impact on domestic industries, etc.
The growing dependence of countries who have joined OBOR results in the development of a patron-client relationship, leading to China’s strategic dominance. It has also been observed that there is a massive surge in street protest against OBOR projects in various countries, which has led to the accentuation of societal conflict. The same can be observed in different parts of the world. It can also be stated that both OBOR and Maritime Silk Road Projects are nothing but means for expanding the strategic sphere of influence in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Even European countries are also taking a cautious position.
It is pertinent to highlight here that the European Parliament in a report titled Towards a joint Western alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative? in 2021 highlighted: “The lack, non-disclosure or poor quality of impact assessments on economic viability, on environmental and social sustainability, and on human rights increase the risk that BRI projects would yield poor economic returns and/or create adverse environmental and social impacts or even useless ‘white elephants’. Given the absence of competition, BRI projects tend to be overpriced. Their opacity makes them particularly prone to sustaining or fostering corruption and nepotism.”
Thus, the OBOR and Maritime Silk Road attracted much attention in the initial years. In the initial years, it generated much apprehension among countries that joined it. In this context, one can underline that China is isolating itself from the global economy for its geopolitical overture, causing much anxiety in global geopolitics.
Weakening of China’s domestic economy
China holds the position of the world’s second-largest economy, but, over the years, especially in the post-Covid era, China has lost its position. There has been a rise in inflation, a slowdown in the manufacturing sector which retreads a high growth rate, and soaring unemployment.
At the same time, China’s export of manufacturing products to the international market is also declining. A recent report in CNBC suggests that exports from China to the international market fell by 14.5 per cent in July 2023 compared to the international market. The same report further suggests that exports to the United States declined by around 23.1 per cent in July 2023 compared to last year. This decline is alarming and might pose a substantial challenge to the future of the Chinese economy as the United States is the largest importer of Chinese products.
The high-handed approach of the Communist Party of China (CPC) officials also deterred foreign investors from investing in China. Since there is a significant decline in Foreign Direct Investment, it aggravates the already feeble Chinese economy. For instance, Bloomberg reported that FDI fell to the tune of $4. 9 billion — a substantial decline in the last 25 years.
The disappearance of Chinese billionaires from China at regular intervals has also raised questions regarding the state of the political economy of China. Because of the authoritarian role of the CPC and its repressive policies, entrepreneurs are also not allowed to operate freely in China. This actually hinders the growth of the Chinese economy. Along with the state, it has been observed that private entrepreneurs play a major role in augmenting domestic political economy. However, the absence of private players in China’s economy may impair political-economic development in the long run. This will put China on the back foot in the globalised economy.
China’s unholy nexus with Pakistan, Turkey, Qatar
Another important aspect that isolates China in global politics is that over the years, China has entered into an unholy alliance with Pakistan, Turkey, and Qatar, and has started patronising radical and terrorist forces.
On a number of occasions at multilateral bodies like the United Nations (UN), China bailed out Pakistan for its act of supporting terrorist activities. Beijing never criticises Islamabad’s role in supporting and providing sanctuary to terrorist forces just to achieve its larger geopolitical goals. It is a fact that state-sponsored terrorism is part of Pakistan’s foreign policy agenda. Similarly, China is turning a blind eye to Turkey and its leader Erdogan’s policy of sponsoring radicalism and terrorism which is causing security concerns in different parts of the world.
China is keeping the Erdogan regime of Turkey in good humour to achieve its own geopolitical goals, like the operationalisation of its much-hyped OBOR project to Europe through Turkey. Similarly, despite knowing Qatar as a terror-sponsoring country, China is keeping it in bonhomie for securing its energy interest. However, China’s growing engagement with Pakistan, Turkey and Qatar isolates it from the international community.
China’s failure to contribute to global normative discourse
Though China claims to be a major global power, more so since the beginning of the 21st century, a closer look at China’s rise demonstrates that it has undoubtedly expanded its economic prowess but failed to contribute substantially in terms of normative idioms to global geopolitics. This is one of the weakest links in China’s global engagement.
At the same time, some of the imperial normative idioms of China like Middle Kingdom Complex, which is the guiding light for China’s foreign policy today, have much apprehension from the global community because of its imperial overture. Similarly, the Confucious Centers, which China established in different parts of the world to project its image across the globe, have also failed largely. There is a growing backlash in different countries where China’s cultural centre exists as these centres of China are actually eroding native culture and language.
The surge in protests in Central Asia and Africa is a testimony to negative feelings towards China. Thus, China has isolated itself substantially from the global community as a normative power. If one closely looks at China’s position on issues like climate change, energy transition, and other normative issues, it takes an ad-hoc position, thus impairing the interests of the Global South.
Conclusion: China’s stands alienated despite its rise
To sum up, China has risen substantially over the last couple of years but substantially alienated itself from global processes. Beijing still needs to generate trust for itself in the international community. The economic prowess that China has demonstrated over the years has been declining in recent years.
At the same time, China has engaged itself bitterly with neighbouring countries over territorial questions as well as water disputes. The whole of South East Asian countries, South Asian countries, and Central Asian countries are engaged in a bitter conflict with China regarding the question of sharing water and territorial disputes. The aggressive, nefarious cartographic geopolitics that China has pursued over the last couple of years has further alienated itself.
(Nalin Kumar Mohapatra is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.)