Containing China: A helpless hope?

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: November 26, 2018 21:06:25 | Updated: November 26, 2018 22:32:05

-Reuters file photo

China may have spawned a second East-West conflict through two flanks: its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an economically-driven ice-breaking global leadership announcement; and its South China Sea politically/militarily-designed island-construction. At stake is the economically frayed Atlantic order, its managers reduced to merely constructing political/military defences.

This is not the first East-West tussle. In an earlier East-West confrontation, the 'east' merely meant Europe's east: Russia/the Soviet Union. Prior international relations were played out predominantly in this arena for a few centuries. On the other hand, the 'west' merely witnessed a power shift, from the European continent) across the Atlantic to the United States. Though the Cold War was played out in three other continents (Africa, Asia, and Latin America), its 'east' was a geographically blind reference, chosen purely for ideological convenience.

Though the Cold War invoked many less developed countries (LDCs), the underlying chasm was not economic, such as between 'haves' and 'have-nots', but political/military. A 'North-South' divide did appear in the 1970s addressing soft-power resources, only to quickly evaporate as many 'have-nots' climbed up the economic ladder, some brandishing 'have' claims.

The emerging East-West split, on the other hand, has thus far been economic (which the original was not, in spite of competition between the Marshall Plan or the Alliance for Progress against a Soviet Council of Mutual Economic Cooperation counterpart): there are no advancing troops or an 'Iron Curtain' of sorts being drawn by those troops, as in the former East-West conflict. Yet, the latest global split is increasingly turning military. This was difficult to observe behind the news-grabbing Chinese BRI investments to build infrastructures the world over. They seem embedded in the simultaneous economic helplessness along the Atlantic shores becoming a populist tidal wave. Behind both these signals, BRI economic flows may just play out unfettered, equally strident, closed-minded, and determined.

This entire series has shown (a) the alternating heat and chill in China's Asian power-contenders, such as India and Japan, from being corralled by China; and (b) how they have begun to slowly team up with Atlantic-order players, with Australia representing the most authentic representation of that order inside Asia, and France riveting its own Asian power claims and expectations based on colonial possession claims to a string of tiny islands. In the wake of a possible US retreat, or even if a full-fledged US stay continues in and around Asia, it still does not look any one of these Asian contenders and externally concerned countries can face China alone: economically they do not have the resources to make that commitment, which is important since any competition now must be played out with economic instruments, given the high stakes in invoking political/military options that now include nuclear capabilities; yet without political/military infrastructures in place, there will be very little they can do, since none of the countries discussed in the series can match China economically, some too handcuffed to even try. By the time they re-launch their political/military structures, China could be farther economically and militarily ahead than now. These growing gaps cannot easily be narrowed.

Evolving dynamics show alliances of various sizes cropping up here and there. In the short-term, they serve as speed-bumps to China's single-minded, no-slackening approach to pitching its economic network globally. Thereafter they must turn to political/militarily safeguards. Against these forces, this series observed how the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) depicts one 'beefing up' possibility, but when it disaggregates into '2+2' groups, each of its 4 segments (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) show other interests than QSD fortification: bilateral Chinese relations have become too large for them to be confrontational. Hopping aboard, France was not just a 'gate-crasher' in post-World War II global rivalries, but its island possessions gives it more authentic credentials than any other Atlantic country, except the United States, to make leadership claims.

Beyond appraising these networks and developments, the series recognised Great Britain's role. Its European exit (i.e., Brexit), gives it more global options, but particularly its appeal to Australia and India for both cultural and imperial reasons makes it a robust possible anti-China partner. In particular, its amiable US relations supplies any anti-China coalition from this flock extra weight and consideration. Yet, Britain needs Chinese markets more, not any tests of strength.

The central problem with this potential alliance is with resources. Not only do they not have enough in their individual and collective coffers to match China's BRI expenditures, but each also depends critically on foreign trade with China and investment relations with that country to buoy the domestic economy. Since no other market or investment location is currently more lucrative than China's, they must tread gingerly. Among them, the United States decided to 'defect' from partnership, in a game theoretical language, by imposing tariffs upon China, even threatening European allies, Japan, and India. The size of its own economy allows it the margin to do so, but something no other possible Atlantic partner, or their Asian allies, can replicate. Nevertheless, its economy has only just begun to recover from the Great Recession, and there is no guaranteed pathway as yet to make that revival irreversible. Without a more dramatic shift in the political/military direction, making noise, alerting its domestic and democratic external audiences of the need for more military expenditures, it cannot automatically carry any given day in a confrontation. In other words, the United States may be reduced to facing a tyranny of ill-conceived decisions certain to breed tension in the interim. That is not reassuring news for possible Asian and European China-constraining partners.

A more distant problem for any such potential alliance is how the 21st century is filled with too many interweaving networks, such that no one country can advance too far along the pathway towards conflict because of some other offsetting alliances. Not only have front-line Asian players, India and Japan, made peace presently with China, but they also interact with China through ASEAN (Association of South-east Nations)+3 (or 10+3, the 10 being ASEAN members, and the 3 representing China, Japan, and South Korea) meetings, India through the BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) team, and so forth. Indeed, with the BRICS outfit bringing Russia into the picture, Asia's unfolding rivalry with the Atlantic order now even has a 'spoilsport', given Russia's recent behaviour across EuroAsia. Yet, without deeper anti-China populist domestic sentiments, India and Japan may just not be able to go too far to prepare long-term defenses against China. These might not develop given India's sudden search for global leadership and Japan's increasingly elderly population constraints.

If time is of essence, China further benefits. Other countries have to satisfy domestic audiences to retain democratic claims, but must also search for allies abroad, some of them too incorrigible for a democratic grouping. These require time and resources, which they are in short supply of. In a nutshell, the sluiceway to Chinese global leadership is too open to not see it in one form or another. If it happens, the economic climate might be less disrupted, although far more skewed given the debt-traps inherent in the BRI projects. More likely impediments will litter the pathway, making future global leadership fluid, contested, costly, and unpredictable.

In the next, final series piece, how that leadership will persist is discussed further.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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