Continued from: Was COVID-19 born in the United States? (part 5)
From 1830 to 1895 the British and Russian empires schemed and plotted over control of Central and South Asia.
At the heart of the ‘Great Game’ was the United Kingdom’s certainty that the Russians had designs on India. So wars were fought, borders drawn, and generations of young met death in desolate passes and lonely outposts.
In the end, it was all illusion. Russia never planned to challenge British rule in India and the bloody wars settled nothing, although the arbitrary borders and ethnic tensions stoked by colonialism’s strategy of divide and conquer live on today. Thus China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nepal battle over lines drawn long ago in London, while Beijing, Tokyo, and Seoul vie for tiny uninhabited islands, remnants of Imperial Japan.
That history is important to keep in mind when one begins to unpack the rationales behind the increasingly dangerous standoff between China and the United States in the South China Sea.
To the Americans, China is a fast-rising competitor which does not ‘play by the rules’ and threatens one of the most important trade routes on the globe in a region long dominated by Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has essentially called for ‘regime change’ – nothing less.
According to Ryan Hass, former China director on the National Security Council, the Trump Administration was trying to “reorient the U.S.-China relationship toward an all-encompassing systemic rivalry that cannot be reversed” by administrations which follow – in short, a cold war not unlike that between the United States and the Soviet Union.
To the Chinese, the last 200 years period – and China’s leaders do tend to think in centuries, not decades – has been an anomaly in their long history. Once the richest country on the globe, which introduced the world to everything from silk to gunpowder, 19th century China became a dumping ground for British opium, incapable even of controlling its own coastlines.
China has never forgotten those years of humiliation or the damage colonialism helped inflict on its people. Those memories count deeply in the current crisis.
But China is not the only country with memories. The United States has dominated the Pacific Ocean – sometimes called an ‘American lake’ – since the end of the second world war. Suddenly Americans have a competitor, although it is a rivalry which routinely gets overblown.
An example is The New York Times conservative columnist Bret Louis Stephens, who recently warned that China’s Navy has more ships than the United States Navy, ignoring the fact that most of China’s ships are small Coast Guard frigates and corvettes. China’s major strategic concern is the defence of its coasts, where several invasions landed in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Chinese strategy is ‘area denial’, that is to say: keeping American aircraft carriers at arm’s length. To this end, Beijing has (illegally?) seized numerous small islands and reefs in the South China Sea to set up a barrier to the United States Navy.
But China’s major thrust is economic, through its massive Belt and Road Initiative, (B.R.I.) not military, and is currently targeting South Asia as an area for development.
South Asia is enormously complex, comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Tibet, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. Its 1.6 billion people constitute almost a quarter of the world’s population, although it only accounts for 2 per cent of the global Gross Domestic Product and 1.3 per cent of world trade.
Those figures translate into a poverty level of 44 per cent, just 2 per cent higher than the world’s most impoverished region: sub-Saharan Africa. Close to 85 per cent of South Asia’s population makes less than US$2 a day.
Much of this is a result of colonialism, which derailed local economies, suppressed manufacturing, and forced countries to adopt mono-crop cultures focused on export. The globalisation of capital in the 1980s accelerated the economic inequality that colonialism had bequeathed the region.
Development in South Asia has been beholden to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which require borrowers to open their markets to western capital and reduce debts through severe austerity measures, throttling everything from health care to transportation.
This economic strategy – sometimes, and euphemistically called the Washington consensus’ – generates ‘debt traps’: countries cut back on public spending, which depresses their economies and increases debt, which leads to yet more rounds of borrowing and austerity.
The World Bank and the I.M.F. have been particularly ungenerous in lending for infrastructure development, an essential part of building a modern economy. It is “the inadequacy and rigidness of the various western monetary institutions that have driven South Asia into the arms of China,” wrote economist Anthony Howell in the South Asia Journal. (South Asia’s Last Resort: Is China’s One Belt-One Road Initiative the Only Road to Prosperity?, 06.08.2020).
The Belt and Road Initiative (B.R.I.) takes a different tack. Through a combination of infrastructure development, trade and financial aid, countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe are linked into what is essentially a new “Silk Road.” Some 138 countries have signed up.
Using a variety of institutions: the China Development Bank, the Silk Road Fund, the Export-Import Bank of China, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Beijing has been building roads, rail systems, and ports throughout South Asia.
For decades, western lenders have either ignored South Asia – with the exception of India – or put so many restrictions on development funds that the region has stagnated economically. The Chinese Initiative has the potential to reverse this, alarming ‘the West’ and India, which is the only nation in the region not to join the B.R.I.
The European Union has also been resistant to the Initiative, although Italy has signed on. A number of Middle East countries have also joined the B.R.I. and the China-Arab Cooperation Forum. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt have signed on to China’s Digital Silk Road, a network of navigation satellites which compete with America’s GPS, Russia’s GLONASS – Globalnaya Navigazionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema, or Global Navigation Satellite System, and European Union’s Galileo – all practically eclipsed by the Beidou satellite navigation system. China also recently signed a US$400 billion, 25-year trade and military partnership with Iran.
Needless to say, the United States is hardly happy about China elbowing its way into a U.S.-dominated region which contains a significant portion of the world’s energy supplies and ‘client-countries’ such as Australia. In a worldwide competition for markets and influence, China is demonstrating considerable strengths. And that generates friction.
The United States, and to a certain extent the European Union, have launched a campaign to freeze China out of markets and restrict its access to advanced technology. The United States successfully lobbied the United Kingdom and Australia to bar the Chinese company Huawei from installing a 5G digital network, and is pressuring Israel and Brazil to do the same.
But not all of the current tensions are economic.
The Trump Administration needed a diversion from its massive failure to control the pandemic, and the Republican Party made China-bashing a centre-piece of its election strategy. There was even the possibility that the United States may deliver an ‘October surprise’ with some kind of military clash with China.
It was unlikely that President Trump wanted a full-scale war, but an incident in the South China Sea might rally Americans behind his Administration, and – unfortunately – Australia behind the United States. The danger was real.
But the tensions went beyond President Trump’s desperate need to be re-elected. On the other hand, China is re-asserting itself as a regional power and a force to be reckoned with worldwide.
That the United States and its allies view that with enmity is hardly a surprise. Britain did its best to block the rise of Germany before the first world war, and the United States did much the same with Japan in the lead up to the ‘Pacific war’.
Germany and Japan were great military powers with a willingness to use violence to get their way. China is not a great military power and is more interested in creating profits than empires. Nowadays a war between nuclear-armed powers is almost unimaginable.
China recently softened its language toward the U.S., stressing peaceful co-existence. “We should not let nationalism and hotheadness somehow kidnap our foreign policy,” said Xu Quinduo of the state-run China Radio. “Tough rhetoric should not replace rational diplomacy.” (J. C. Hernández, As Relations With U.S. Sink, China Tones Down ‘Hotheaded’ Nationalism, The New York Times, 15.08.2020).
A moderate new tone suggests that China has no enthusiasm for competing with the United States military, but would rather take the long view and let initiatives like the Belt and Road work for it. Unlike the Russians, the Chinese did not want to see President Trump re-elected and they clearly have decided not to give him any excuse to ratchet up the tensions as an election year ploy.
China’s recent clash with India, and its bullying of countries in the South China Sea, including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei, have isolated Beijing, and the Chinese leadership may be waking to the fact that they need allies, not adversaries. Chinese are world-known for patience. (C. Hallinan, China & the US: 21st Century’s “Great Game”, Foreign Policy in Focus, 20.08.2020).
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