This July witnessed an intense level of escalated tensions, what came to be known as Doklam standoff, between China and India, which erupted after India, posturing quite belligerently, sent its troops to interrupt the construction of a road by the Chinese military. As the dispute lingered on, it increasingly drew both countries and their masses into an intensely-contested war of words leading to prospects of military warfare. However, diplomacy prevailed in the end and both countries agreed to ‘expeditiously disengage’ from the face-off in Doklam.
Shortly after settling the dispute, the leaders of China and India agreed, in their meeting on the sidelines of the BRICS summit on Sept. 05, to maintain a ‘forward-looking’ approach in their bilateral relations and to continue to ensure peace and tranquility on the borders.
Among many other things, this dispute arguably offers a critical strategic insight into the way China wants to conduct its foreign affairs. Despite being relatively a greater military and economic power than India, possessing complete legitimacy to defend its sovereign rights and pitted on a morally-superior position, China refrained from showing a nuclear response, threatening with military strikes or intimidating with economic sanctions. Though China did maintain a prudent military posture, it put great energy and faith into diplomatic channels to de-escalate tensions and end the dispute and also to make sure that such episodes of hostility do not occur again.
By all accounts, China adopted a more rational and magnanimous path. Not just it restored peace and stability in the region, but also increased confidence in China’s global leadership.
The end of the Cold War culminated into the rise of the United States as the sole hegemon of the world. Since then, all leaders of the US have committed to maintain American primacy in the world. As the Russian power had receded into fragmentation and China was in its initial stages of economic reformation and development, there was no power in the world potent enough to contest the unilateral momentum of the US.
But, at the turn of the century, things started to change. The ‘sleeping giant’ was no more sleeping. China began to gain considerable economic and military clout in the world.
The knocking caused by the shift in global distribution of power, consequential mainly upon the rise of China, made many politicians, policymakers and strategists to ponder over what might be the possible pattern of future interactions between China and the United States.
Some reasonable worries spring to mind. Rising multipolarity and the order it presses the world into, potentially cast dark shadows over the stability of world’s political and strategic environment. States’ manoeuvring for greater power and position may increase, and converging and diverging notions of interests and reliance on ‘self-help’ approach toward anarchical international system may become basis for major powers to forge or severe partnerships, build greater military arsenals and construct their strategies and diplomacies on employing kinetic forces and coercive means.
Agreed that there is a deepening sense that as the global distribution of power is undergoing tremendous transformation, so are the centres of power and privilege. The ‘global process of increasing economic, cultural and political integration’ and growing role envisaged by transnational actors especially IGOs like the United Nations (UN), International Monetary Fund (IMF); the World Bank; the World Trade Organization (WTO); multinational corporations; and global civil society, it is emphasized that cooperation and increasing interdependence will guide the dominant pattern of interactions among states.
However, beyond doubt is the reality that the international system at best is anarchic; that all great powers, from US to Russia and China, inherently possess some offensive military capabilities; that states cannot be certain of each other’s intentions; and that the primary motive of their actions is to survive.
Therefore, as the threats of military entanglement for states persist, realpolitik dictates of advocating greater pursuit of power through acquiring greater relative military capabilities hold currency and are reflected in the burgeoning global military expenditure that, according to a survey by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), amounted to $1.7 trillion in 2016.
But, based on dark and debatably misplaced notions of China as a revisionist power, some thinkers, especially the US-based ones, advocate a confrontational policy for containing China. While laying the fundamentals of such policy, they trace its essential blueprints from the historical events particularly characterized by circumstances of major power confrontation.
However, here, it is important to recognize that the rise of China as a direct military and economic threat to the US is exaggerated, to say the least. Where on the one hand, China itself faces enormous economic and social challenges, on the other, its economy is strongly tied to the Western countries. Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor, while asserting the importance of the Sino-US relationship, maintains: “The world’s major power and its leading challenger are economically interdependent to an unprecedented degree. China needs the United States to continue buying its products. The United States needs China to continue lending it money. Their economic fates are, for the foreseeable future, tied together.”
We should also be willing to embrace another major reality about changing global economic and political dynamics: China is not rising in isolation, rather we are witnessing, what Fareed Zakaria, a realist political journalist, characterized as the ‘Rise of the Rest’, an unprecedented level of economic growth in countries around the world which amounts to perpetuate transformative shifts. “The rise of the rest” puts Fareed Zakaria, “is at heart an economic phenomenon, but the transition we are witnessing is not just a matter of dollars and cents. It has political, military and cultural consequences. As countries become stronger and richer, and as the United States struggles to earn back the world’s faith, we’re likely to see more challenges and greater assertiveness from rising nations.”
Moreover, the truth is if Americans actually face a proximate threat, it comes only from its class of cunning leaders, consumed by hubris and personal ambitions. Therefore, it comes to no one’s surprise that relative degeneration of American power began after the 9/11 when its leaders, in order to chase inflated threats, proved willing even to glorify brute force. Observing the erosion of prudence among the US policymakers, John Glaser, Director Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, comments: “When Washington chooses to become entangled in unnecessary foreign wars, it imposes serious human and financial costs. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have killed hundreds of thousands, including almost 7,000 US soldiers, and along with other post-9/11 expenses, has cost more than $5 trillion. What we’ve gained in terms of increased safety is less clear.”
At the turn of the century, China was largely rated as a communist country juggling an open economy with a closed, totalitarian political system. On the contrary, today’s China boasts one of the world’s most vibrant, diverse and participatory political culture. Moreover, as the current US administration seems uninterested in preserving the prevailing postwar global political order, China is increasingly manifesting its willingness to ensure the continuity of global order based on mutual obligations.
Some maintain that as China grows in size and capability, it will come with a version of its own Monroe Doctrine in the Asia Pacific. But such assumptions fundamentally disregard many geopolitical realities in China’s neighbourhood. Not all states in China’s neighbourhood resemble to Nicaragua, Colombia and Panama; rather, the Asia Pacific region counts some powerful states in it, like Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, not to mention Russia. Surely, it’s not a favourable constellation to be subjected to Monroe Doctrine. It’s one thing to excel in economic and military terms, it is quite another to project imperialism.
As for China’s foreign policy, it exhibits impressively benign foreign interactions with countries throughout the globe. China is engaged closely with many countries to enhance the prospect of economic development and has been a key factor in stabilizing economies around the world. Furthermore, according to a recently published study by the College of William and Mary’s AidData research lab, China closely follows the US, and could even be poised to overtake it, in terms of the amount of foreign aid spent around the globe. The study claims that financial aid from China is positively contributing toward economic growth in recipient countries.
Of course, we have no way of knowing what the future holds; however, it is important for policymakers to learn from previous mistakes and avoid repeating them. It is crucial for both China and the US to work toward a global system where power and responsibility are widely shared. They must unite to construct a concert through collective approaches. Instead of letting the world descend into chaos and confrontation, the era should become an epitome of great power efforts to pursue the path to peace and stability.