By Dr Subhash Kapila
China has decidedly moved up in adversarial crosshairs of the United States in 2019 when the geopolitical, geostrategic and geoeconomics dots are joined on the United States radars both globally and regionally in terms of Indo Pacific Security. United States President Trump seems to be moving towards a more robust strategy of checkmating China, short of containment.
US President Trump unlike past US presidents had put China on notice in his very first National Security Strategy Document that United States perceives that China is engaged in undermining US global and regional influence and many of its moves impact adversely on United States national security interests.
Unlike past US Presidents strikingly noticeable was that in terms of United States policy approaches and policy thrust lines towards China, earlier US policy terms like ‘Cooperative Engagement’, Competitive Partnership’ and ‘Congagement’ stood discarded.
In my assessment the term best appropriate to describe United States policy formulations in 2019towards China would be “Combative Engagement”, not strictly in military terms but in a cross-spectrum switch in attitudes from economic to strategic and military.
Short of war, the United States in 2019 is notably actively engaged in what can be termed as ‘economic warfare’ against China to limit China’s potential to damage US vital security interests globally and in the Asian region. The ongoing US-China Trade Wars are the major manifestation of US ‘China Policy’ in 2019 with accompanying US opposition to China’s One Belt One Road grandiose project of Chinese President Xi Jinping which has reduced many weaker Asian economies like those if Sri Lanka and Pakistan into Chinese debt traps.
China had it coming in that on ascension to unparalled power in Beijing and with all the Party, political and military levers in his hands, President Xi Jinping felt emboldened to pursue China’s switch to ‘Hard Line Strategy’ actively and without restraint. The Chinese President seemed to have been unmindful both of the contemporary geopolitical churning and resentment surfacing against China because of its aggressive military brinkmanship and also that the run-up years of 2015-16 to US Presidential Elections had given enough indications of incoming US President Trump’s forthcoming policies.
In fact, it can be said that the national mood in Washington cutting across political lines was one advocating strong stances against China. This was expected from even president Trump’s Democratic challenger Hillary Canton.
The ‘Great China Dream’ expounded by President Xi Jinping and its hidden motives of projects like the One Belt One Road incorporating the Maritime Silk Road and China Pakistan Pecuniary Corridor did not take long for China’s strategic underlying motives to surface. In one form or the other these grandiose projects of China undermined United States power and influence.
By 2018, it was clear that these projects of Chinese President when added to China’s Maritime Strategy Document 2015 and the preceding years of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and East China Sea were decidedly aimed at undermining with multiple aims in view of limiting US predominance in Western Pacific, denting US image in South East Asia and an overall challenge to US power resting on its naval supremacy across the world’s oceans.
Geopolitically, the situation for China in 2019 is certainly not in its favour as it was in the middle of the decade when China had gone on a rampage in the Western Pacific maritime expanses with its new found expansive naval power and US reluctance to shed its ‘Risk Aversion’ policy. Resulting from such military aggressiveness of China then was fearful concerns in Asian capitals in Indo Pacific of China’s not so peaceful rise.
Pointed out in my past writings was that the above induced a certain polarisation against China in East Asia and South East Asia and extending to India. Even the fence-sitters in this region like Indonesia began to have second thoughts on China. Geopolitically, Asian nations on peripheries of China were awaiting a switch in United States ‘China Policy’ and US regaining control of its traditional role as nett provider of security in Indo Pacific.
Geopolitically, the United States made that policy switch with advent of President Trump in power in Washington. Washington political stances saw a hardening of stances on China, intensification of the US-India Strategic Partnership with added defence contours, putting China’s proxies like Pakistan and North Korea on notice and more geopolitical attention to Vietnam and the Philippines. Japan of course remained the vital linchpin of US security architecture in the region.
In 2019, the United States stands geopolitically much taller than China than in 2015 and when coupled with accompanying geostrategic and geoeconomic thrusts against China, it could be stated that United States had moved notches higher in terms of geopolitical preferences in Asian capitals. There was evidence of a certain measure of firm intents in United States policies in terms of dealing with China in adversarial contours.
Geostrategically, United States under President Trump broke out of US Congressional defence budget sequestrations shackles which limited preceding President Obama giving substantial shape to his ‘US Pivot to Asia Pacific’ strategy. Defence budgets stand enhanced, US nuclear arsenals being upgraded and all of these focussed on a possible future conflict with China—limited or otherwise.
United States seemed also to be engaged now more pointedly in reinforcing its strategic alliances and partnerships in Indo Pacific with emphasis on maritime domains aimed at retaining US traditional mastery in both Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean. More multilateral joint naval exercises stand set in motion both in Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.
In 2019, Geoeconomics has emerged as the most potent and latest weapon in United States armoury being employed against China. The “War by Other Means” strategy expounded by Robert Blackwill, a former US Ambassador to India seem to be acquiring firm footing in US ‘China-policy’ formulations. Blackwill had argued that the United States for far too long had relied on military power options when intended aims of limiting challenges to US power by potential challengers like China could be achieved by economic and trade means.
Towards this end, one can expect that the United States will not blink in its adversarial confrontation in the US-China Trade Wars ongoing. United States renewed sanction on Iranian oil exports can also be read as a US economic weapon aimed not only at Iran but more against China which relies heavily on Iranian oil supplies.
The United States applying and tightening financial screws on Pakistan along with military aid cut-off can also be read as part of US economic warfare against China and its highly flaunted China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Pakistan which relied heavily on China under new PM Imran Khan and with his distaste for asking IMF for economic bailout was rudely shocked that China could not provide matching funds as could be flowing from US dominated IMF. The most stringent condition laid by IMF for Pakistan was to account in detail the Chinese financial outlay in China Pakistan Economic Corridor and give firm assurances that Pakistan will not divert IMF loans to service its China debts.
What needs to be noted is that the United States is well placed in 2019 to use Geoeconomics as a potent weapon against China whose economic rates of growth have considerably reduced, its manufacturing industry strengths reduced and countries ensnared in Chinese debt traps like Pakistan defaulting on loan repayments. All this will ultimately add up to domestic discontent within China with the Chinese economy losing its vibrancy.
The above will also have a cascading effect on China’s burgeoning war machine which emboldened it to challenge United Sates global and regional predominance.
Concluding, it would be worthwhile emphasising that the myth of China’s exponential power rise was overblown more by United States policy circles as a weapon in its US-Russia confrontation. China too exploited the China Card thus provided in its policy formulations related to United States and Russia. The United States belatedly has realised that China’s power rise so induced was not benign and nor was China ready to emerge as a responsible stakeholder in global affairs.
The United States has finally recognised that China’s national aim is to challenge United States supremacy as the prime contender. What the United States has now set in motion is the checkmating of China across all domains if not a full blown military containment.