May 31, 2020
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The New Silk Road To Empire

The world is no longer America’s oyster. China looms like a giant cloud spilling beyond Asian skies. What is India to do to cope with these shifting geopolitics?

The New Silk Road To Empire
The New Silk Road To Empire

There’s no dearth of post-scripts to the End of History. A quarter century ago, America was presumed to have become the sole gravitational centre of the world, with a monopoly over punitive power and soft power alike. And liberal democracy was to rain down over the universe. One sign of how the script has changed resides in an informal proposal, broached over a decade ago, that visualises a cosy relationship between the United States and China. Even without being implemented, just as a potential future, it sends waves of nervous anticipation—filling a whole host of US allies in different Asian capitals with a vague sense of dread.

As a concept, the Group of Two or G2 formalises what everyone by now implicitly concedes about the global distribution of power: we are really in a bipolar era. G2, if it ever comes to pass, will seek to bring the world’s two most powerful nations—the US and China—closer so they could address and look to resolve all major challenges together. The idea has been endorsed by several leading American foreign policy practitioners since 2005, when it was first floated. But George W. Bush and Barack Obama as US presidents were smart enough to keep the proposal on the table while dealing with China, without really putting it into force.

Under Donald Trump’s presidency, are things about to change?

From the time the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the US had been the sole superpower dominating the world—and it behaved like one. However, today that world looks like a historical relic. China looms large not only in Asia but everywhere, and seriously threatens American hegemony. The G2 concept is a pragmatic response to this changed reality: in effect, it will mean the US has been forced to make space and rearrange the political order because greater advantage may lie in non-conflictual cohabitation.

“The gap between the US and China has now reduced. But this has been an ongoing phenomenon,” says Ashok Kantha, director of Delhi’s Institute of Chinese Studies. The US’s relative decline has been talked about since the 2008 global economic crisis that began in America and spread to other western capitals. China, one of the world’s fastest growing economies for nearly four decades, became the natural source of vitality for an ailing global economy. Today, its role seems more pronounced. Trump’s advent and his ‘America First’ slogan—protectionist moves to insulate the world’s largest economy from global competition and to withdraw from multilateral trade deals with restrictive policies to safeguard American jobs and markets—have ceded more space to China.

In a sense, it’s inevitable. “When you have something as dramatic as the ‘rise of China’, the US, as the pre-eminent power, will have to accommodate and make adjustments to that,” argues Kantha, who has served as India’s ambassador to Beijing. Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says: “If the US is ceding ground to China in Asia, it is not by design.” China’s military advancement itself makes enduring US primacy unsustainable, she says.

At the UN, Xi reminded US diplomats of the Thucydides Trap—a destructive war when an old power becomes wary of a new one.

Yet, there’s a tinge of multipolarity to the new world. Several other powers, like India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Brazil, too, have been rising. “Their rise may not be as spectacular, but they too affect the broader transition of power we witness today,” says the former diplomat.

So how does a country like India deal with this new reality? During the Cold War, India had relied on both the US and the USSR to deal with China—mostly a rival and competitor, despite occasional phases of cooperation. Soon after the 1962 conflict and around the 1965 war, when Beijing had issued a warning to India to withdraw from Pakistani territory, New Delhi leveraged Washington to neutralise that challenge. Since the 1971 war, India leant more on Moscow to deal with China, taking advantage of strained Sino-Soviet relations. Post-1991, it began a serious outreach to the US—and it’s resumed its old role of a counterbalancing force for India.

“In my reading, it’s only during Bush Jr.’s time, maybe 2003 onwards, that India began to leverage its growing proximity with the US in ties with China,” says Srinath Raghavan, senior fellow at Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research. This has been New Delhi’s default stance for years, especially since it went nuclear in 1998 and cited China as a main threat to its security. Under the Narendra Modi dispensation, India has seemed more blatant in flaunting its proximity to the US, especially while sending a signal to the Chinese leadership.

Graphic by Saji C.S.

But now, with Trump seemingly keen to enlist China’s support in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear programme, the equations alter for India. Most Indian policy thinkers are sceptical about G2, confident as they are of the trajectory of Indo-US relations. Yet, some may also recall images from not too long ago, when President Clinton stood side-by-side with Jiang Zemin after India’s May 1998 nuclear tests and berated India and Pakistan, demanding that the two dismantle their nuclear programme and sign the CTBT and NPT.

The possibility of such a scenario being re-enacted—the US and Chinese presidents jointly issuing public prescriptions for New Delhi—would seem remote now. But it serves as a sobering reminder, and it’s likely that behind brave public fronts there lies the concern that, sooner rather than later, India might have to defend its interests without relying too much on the US.

Indian experts say there is no real sign yet of a retreat on America’s part from the security domain. According to Kantha, the altered US stance on global trade or climate change has no direct effect on its keenness to maintain its pre-eminent position in the Asia-Pacific. “There are contradictory signals and it is still a work in progress,” says Kantha. And yet, he concedes, China has indeed adopted a more aggressive role since the 2008 global meltdown,  especially under Xi Jinping. “There is likely to be a third wave of a more assertive China and it might start unfolding because of US ambivalence.”

One extravagant sign of its new footprint will come with the ‘One-Belt-One-Road’ Summit, to be held in Beijing in mid-May—a mega diplomatic event. It has generated a lot of interest and a fair bit of controversy. A personal initiative of President Xi, OBOR aims to revive an ancient trading route that stretches from Asia to Europe and also to Africa. The presence of 28 heads of state—including the likes of Putin—and representatives of over 100 countries will signal a China-centred world-order.

“At one level, OBOR is a repackaging of policies under way since the end of USSR,” says John Garver, professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “It’s a response to an awareness that China’s growing power is causing unease among Asian countries—an attempt to use the hundreds of billions of dollars in its foreign currency reserves to entice neighbours into win-win ‘communities of common development’.”

In a way, it’s a ‘coming-out party’ for China. Juxtaposed against Trump’s inward focus, China almost looks like an alternate “leader of the free world”, if defined in economic terms. China has already invested over $50 billion in countries in the OBOR zone since 2013—the 21st century Silk Road spins out from Xinjiang to take in Central Asia, West Asia, the Levant, Turkey, with destinations in Germany, Netherlands and Italy. The maritime Silk Road begins in Fujian and goes up to Venice. The network, in China’s plan, would include railways, highways, oil and gas pipelines, power grids, internet networks as well as maritime and other infrastructure links. Xi foresees trade volumes running into $2.5 trillion in a decade—naturally, there’s a surge of interest in sagging European economies. The Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is another transnational instrument it helms.

New Delhi is a bit chagrined at this new lustre China is acquiring. It sees the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor—a key element of OBOR—as having been built in total disregard of India’s veto, since it passes through Kashmir. As a protest, India will send only a low-level delegation to the Beijing Summit. But how effective will this strategy of maintaining a tense distance from China be? More importantly, has the strategy of relying on the US seriously worked?

“It has been useful, though there are limits to it,” says Raghavan. The Sino-Indian agreements in 2005 on strategic partnership and boundary were clearly possible, he says, because China wanted to get in there before the Indo-US nuclear deal was announced. But that strategy is useful only to the extent that Beijing believes India still has some leeway to sustain independent bilateral ties with it.

Rana Mitter, professor of Chinese history at Oxford, sees potential for a more stable Asia. “China is keen to take advantage where it can, but it would not want to provoke the US directly. Traditional US allies like Japan are more reassured than they were even a few weeks ago. A key test will be the South Korean polls this month. If the new president does not feel confident of US support, he may need to lean more towards China.”

India is thus faced with a complex, shifting map of geopolitics. Amid transitions in the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific and its multi-pronged contestations, a unitary strategy may be fraught with risk. An uncertain world demands nimble-footed diplomacy—a sustainable way to balance advantages and concerns. A rising China offers opportunities, and yet poses an implicit security threat. You cannot contain a country like China, nor can it contain a country like India. How do you take advantage, while mitigating the challenges? That is the dilemma before India and most countries.

There is a reasoned, mature way out. “So much good is also happening in this relationship that’s getting ignored. Right now, it would seem the entire Sino-Indian relationship hinges on Masood Azhar and NSG.... There are far too many issues on the problem side of the ledger or the gain side of the ledger than these,” says Kantha. Can a way be found to game the situation and maintain India’s traditional primacy in its region? Or will China’s emerging hegemony become a stepping stone to Xi’s ‘China Dream’? OBOR, CPEC, Tibet, the Dalai Lama...all are elements in that game, or as someone called it, “protracted contest”.


Wisdom, Vases & The Wall

A brief tour of the dynasties and regimes in over two millennia of Chinese history

  • 221-206 BC First Qin Dynasty King Ying Zheng unites much of Chinese heartland and uses the title for the first time of emperor. The first Great Wall of China is also built.
  • 206 BC-220 AD AD-Han Dynasty First Chinese cultural “golden age”; growth in economy; promotion of Confucianism as state philosophy; Buddhism makes first inroad into China
  • 220-589 Sui Dynasty Manages to reunite China after division amongst competing dynasties following the collapse of the Han; leads to development of southern China
  • 618-907 Tang Dynasty Unites China for three centuries and spread imperial sphere of influence for the first time to Central Asia
  • 960-1279 Song Dynasty Marked the high point of Chinese classical culture, literature; scientific innovation flourished under neo-Confucianism as the official state ideology
  • 1271-1368 Mongols conquer China Establish the Yuan Dynasty under Kublai Khan. Beijing becomes capital of a united China.
  • 1368 Ming Dynasty Overthrows Mongols, establishes agricultural economy, strong centralised bureaucracy and military. Completes construction of the Great Wall.
  • 1644 Qing Dynasty Manchu drives out Ming. Chinese empire reaches its zenith, with annexation of Tibet, Mongolia and present-day Xinjiang.
  • 1899-1901 Boxer Rebellion tries to stop Qing reforms, expel foreigners, re-establish traditional rule. Defeated with foreign intervention; Russia, Japan extract concessions from Qing.
  • 1911-12 The Republic of China is established under Sun Yat-Sen; Qing emperor abdicates after military revolt. Republic struggles before warlordism, rise of the Communist Party.
  • 1925 Chiang Kai-Shek takes over after Sun Yat-Sen’s death, breaks away from Communists and establish Kuomintang as a nationalist party
  • 1934-35 Mao Zedong emerges as Communist leader during the party’s “Long March” to its new base in Shaanxi Province
  • 1937 Kuomintang and Communists nominally unite against Japanese. Civil war resumes after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War
  • 1949 Mao Zedong leads the Communists to victory against the Nationalists; establish the People’s Republic of China. Chiang retreats to Taiwan
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