Calling the bully’s bluff

The visit was meant to convey a strong message to China reinforcing, firstly, USA’s support to Taiwan and secondly China cannot do as it pleases in the Pacific.

Calling the bully's bluff
Image courtesy: AP

By Commodore Anil Jai Singh

After much speculation and uncertainty, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives landed in Taiwan as part of her Asia tour which also includes visits to Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.  This was the most senior level visit in 25 years since one of her earlier predecessors, Newt Gingrich had visited in 1997. The visit was meant to convey a strong message to China reinforcing,  firstly, USA’s support to Taiwan and secondly China cannot do as it pleases in the Pacific. China had strongly protested the visit and even warned of unspecified consequences including that its military ‘won’t sit idly by’. Once the visit was confirmed, it reiterated its threat and launched its fighter aircraft and began military live fire exercises to highlight its displeasure.

More than the US decision to go ahead with the visit, it was a very courageous decision on the part of Taiwan. Despite the constant Chinese threat of military action and deliberate acts of provocation every now and then, the latest being Chinese fighter aircraft flying in its airspace,Taiwan has decided to stand up to Chinaand not  allow itself to get intimidated. China must be at the end of its tether, having tried everything to bring Taiwan to heel politically, diplomatically and to a certain extent, militarily as well without any success.

China has been behaving like a petulant bully for over two decades and the world is weary of its belligerence. Constant intimidation of its maritime neighbours with its Grey Zone tactics, ensuring that the pot is kept simmering by deliberately ignoring its maritime disputes, its rude wolf- warrior diplomacy and its overbearing approach are leading to a pushback which it perhaps did not expect. Its handling of the Wuhan virus through a carefully orchestrated narrative of lies, deceit, bribery and intimidation has led to untold suffering across economies and in millions of families the world over. This has shown China for what it is, not that any proof was ever required; the world is understanding the implications of a Chinese hegemony on the global order and countries within its economic stranglehold are looking for a way out.

It is facing a considerable pushback to its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. Even a small island state like Maldives rebuffed Chinese economic ‘largesse’ after succumbing to it for a short period. Tanzania and Kenya, two leading East African countries have also realised the folly of falling into the Chinese debt trap.

Sri Lanka’s economic implosion and the insensitive Chinese reaction, as against the helping hand offered by India has further exposed its intent. Pakistan is headed the Sri Lankan way – the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, considered the flagship programme of the BRI with the Chinese investing in projects worth $61 billion is unravelling by the day.  Pakistan is seeking a bail-out package from the IMF to avoid a repayment default instead of asking China.

Nearer home, Thailand has cancelled its three submarine programme from China after taking delivery of one and countries in South East Asia like the Philippines and Vietnam are turning to India for their defence requirements. Australia, Japan and India, till recently reticent about voicing their apprehensions about the Chinese intent , have now openly articulated their concerns and have hardened their individual as well as collective positions on China.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), despite its multi-sectoral capacity building initiatives is underlined by the threat from China to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and towards checking that country’s attempts to re-orient the international rules-based order into one with Chinese characteristics. With more than 60 percent of the world’s population residing in the Indo-Pacific and generating almost two-thirds of the global GDP, this region is critical to the well-being of the interconnected global supply chains and trade dependencies transcending traditional geographies.

China is well aware of its limitations and is unlikely to jeopardise its larger global powerplay for any short-term gains through a military escalation beyond the brinkmanship it often resorts to. It is known for biding its time – Taiwan is its core interest as is the South China Sea so these will continue to be part of its larger strategic ambition. 

Its Grey Zone tactics are a clear manifestation of this approach. It has engaged India in a protracted stand-off along the 3800 km long disputed border marked by the  Line of Actual Control (LAC). Sixteen rounds of border talks at the level of Corps Commanders have yielded no positive results. Bilateral interaction between Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister and Dr S Jaishankar, the Indian External Affairs Minister on the side-lines of the BRICS Summit, the G20 ForeignMinister’s meeting and more recently at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting, have yielded no tangible results. In the meantime, China is continuing to develop its military and dual-use infrastructure on its side of the LAC and is consolidating its position there.

This continental military stand-off notwithstanding, China has stayed clear of the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean. This is not a coincidence. China is well aware of its limitations in engaging the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean. While it may have the largest navy numerically, it lacks the power projection capability and capacity to sustain a large blue water naval presence in the Indian Ocean or engage with a balanced and powerful Indian Navy.

However, it has embarked on a very impressive naval shipbuilding programme and it is expected that at least one-third of its anticipated 450 ship Navy (by 2030) will be blue water capable. Its base in Djibouti, its de facto control of the Pakistani port of Gwadar, its overtures to Iran to gain a foothold off the Straits of Hormuz, and if recent reports are to be believed, its attempt to establish a base in Madagascar should be viewed with concern.

Its hold on the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, where a Chinese survey and research vessel has docked, as is being written, the construction of a submarine base (BNS Sheikh Hasina ) in Bangladesh and its deep military engagement with Myanmar are aimed at creating adequate logistic and base support facilities to support its surface and submarine deployments in the future. These countries should be wary of deepening their military engagement with China. Bangladesh would be naïve to believe that it needs a dedicated submarine base to cater for two 40-year old Ming class submarines with limited operational capability.

The rebuff by Taiwan will obviously not go down well with China. The Xi-Yi  terribletwosome will  be smarting and looking to salvage some pride. Xi Jinping is at a critical stage of his leadership as he bids for his third term on the basis of selling his lofty vision of China to his people. However, internally too, there are fault lines, caused in part by his handling of the virus and the economic headwinds that the country is facing. Any foreign misadventure could irrevocably damage the veneer of invincibility he has created, that already stands greatly eroded abroad. However, some retaliatory action on Taiwan can be expected after the Pelosi visit even if it is symbolic for the Xi-Yi duo to salvage some pride.

China’s long-term strategy towards achieving its goals set out for 2035 and 2049 is well articulated with a coherent roadmap and distinct milestones to monitor the progress. Any escalatory military adventurism by China risks derailing this. Whether China can control its impulsive actions and frequent brinkmanship and align its short to medium-term actions with its longer-term goals is the challenge it will face as it seeks to balance its internal imperatives with its external objectives. The question therefore is – can the bully rein itself in or risk facing a credibility deficit in the long term.

The author is a former Commodore in the Indian Navy. He is the Vice President of the Indian Maritime Foundation and an Honorary Adjunct Fellow of the National Maritime Foundation.

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First published on: 08-08-2022 at 13:48 IST