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Isolating China, as proposition and the reality

  • 11 August, 2020

  • 10 Min Read

Isolating China, as a proposition and the reality

By, M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal


  • The latest round of talks, on August 2, between the Military Commanders of India and China, did not produce any breakthrough, and the situation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Ladakh sector thus remains essentially unchanged.
  • All that is evident is that China has indicated a willingness to resile from occupying territory beyond its 1960 Claim line. A return to the status quo ante prior to May this year, is nowhere in sight.
  • Meanwhile, a war of words between India and China has broken out.

China-U.S. ties and rhetoric

  • In the meantime, relations between the United States and China continue to deteriorate.
  • After years of cooperating with one another, the U.S. and China are currently at the stage of confrontation, with both seeking allies to join their camps.
  • The rhetoric has begun to resemble the Cold War era and both sides are even willing to display their military muscle.
  • This places several countries, especially in Asia, in a difficult position as most of them are loathe to take sides — especially with a belligerent China as a neighbour.
  • The contrast between the U.S. and China could hardly be greater. While the U.S. may not necessarily be the first choice for many countries of Asia and the Asia-Pacific region, in the case of China it is clearly more feared than loved.
  • No one in Asia (Pakistan is perhaps an exception) nurses any doubts about China’s ‘imperialist ambitions’, or about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian worldview.
  • Beijing’s virtual takeover of Hong Kong, paying scant regard to the concept of ‘one country two systems, has only confirmed what had long been known about China’s intentions under Mr. Xi.
  • Well before this, the region had been a witness to China’s rampant land grab in the South China Sea.
  • In the 1970s, China grabbed control over the Paracel Islands from Vietnam.
  • In the 1990s, it occupied Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, an area of the South China Sea that the Philippines had always considered its territory.
  • In the 21st Century, China has continued with the same tactics of taking control over territories belonging to smaller neighbours; one which attracted international attention was the Scarborough Shoal confrontation in 2012 when Chinese Marine Surveillance Ships came into direct confrontation with the Philippine Navy.

Aggressive and expansionist

  • In March-April this year, while the rest of the world was wrestling with the COVID-19 pandemic, China further stepped up its aggressive actions, renaming almost 80 geographical features in the region as an index of Chinese sovereignty.
  • Complaints galore also exist about China’s expansionist attitudes beyond the South China Sea; Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia and South Korea have all complained about China’s menacing postures in their vicinity.
  • China’s favourite approach, it would seem, has been unilateralism rather than compromise, when dealing with its smaller neighbours.
  • Implicitly also, it reflects the unwritten code of the Belt and Road Initiative and the Maritime Silk Road.
  • Notwithstanding all this, China is far from being quarantined. Hardly any country in Asia is willing to openly confront China, and side with the U.S. Many countries, especially those in East Asia.
  • Neither the presence of U.S. aircraft carriers in the South China Sea, the presence of China’s missile sites in recently reclaimed areas, or the wariness that most Association of Southeast Asian Nations display vis-à-vis China, has been enough to make countries in the region openly side with the U.S. and against China.

In a strong grip

  • Despite a series of diktats from Washington to restrict economic and other relations with China, the United Kingdom’s decision to end reliance on Chinese imports and call off its Huawei 5G project, and growing anti-China sentiments heard across Europe — all of which makes for a good copy — China remains unfazed.
  • China seems confident that its stranglehold on the global economy ensures that it does not face any real challenges.
  • It is equally necessary to realise how fickle some of these countries can be when it comes to economic issues.
  • Australia is a prime example. The latter is a member of the Quad (the U.S., Japan, Australia and India), which is widely seen as an anti-China coalition.
  • Australia made it clear that China is important to Australia, that it would not do anything contrary to its interests, and a strong economic engagement was an essential link in the Australia-China relationship.
  • Likewise, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Dominic Raab, recently stated in its Parliament, that the U.K. wants a positive relationship with China, would work with China, and that there was enormous scope for positive constructive engagement.
  • It is thus more than evident that few nations across the world are willing to risk China’s ire because of the strong economic ties that have been forged over the years.
  • Economic ties are proving way stronger than military and strategic ones.
  • Even in Asia, while a majority of ASEAN countries have grave concerns about China’s predatory tactics, with the ASEAN has become one of China’s biggest trading partners, it adopts a default position. viz., “not to take sides”.

India and the neighbourhood

  • At this time, when the dice should actually have been loaded against China, it is India that is finding many of its traditional friends being less than helpful.
  • India’s relations with Nepal, meanwhile, have hit a road block. Relations have soured in recent months, and Nepal has gone to the extent of publishing new maps which show the ‘Kalapani area’ as a part of Nepal.
  • Pakistan has come up with its new map demanding Siachen, Junagarh, Sir Creek and J&K.
  • In Sri Lanka, the return of the Rajapaksas to power after the recent elections does not augur too well for India-Sri Lanka relations.
  • It is, however, the strain in India-Bangladesh relations (notwithstanding the warm relationship that exists between Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Indian leaders), that is a real cause for concern, since it can provide a beachhead against Chinese activities in the region.

Beijing moves ahead

  • In July, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi organised a virtual meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan,.
  • Here, he proposed taking forward an economic corridor plan with Nepal, styled as the Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network, and expanding the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan, touting benefits of new economic corridors on the lines of the CPEC.
  • Iran and China are reported to be currently pursuing an economic and security partnership that would involve massive Chinese investments in energy and other sectors in Iran, in exchange for China receiving regular supplies of Iranian oil for the next 25 years.
  • China has also dexterously positioned itself to circumvent India’s monopoly over the Chabahar Port, by providing a munificent aid package for the Chabahar-Afghanistan Rail link, thereby undercutting India’s offer of aid and assistance for the rail project.
  • Geo-balancing is not happening to China’s disadvantage. This lesson must be well understood, when countries like India plan their future strategy.


Source: TH


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