China and US competition for primacy in the Indo-Pacific

The focus is this region

China seeks to replace the USA as the most influential nation in the Indo-Pacific region. This strategic goal may have been an aspiration among Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent predecessors, but it has become under him the engine of most of China’s day-to-day foreign policies. Convinced that the USA is in secular decline and the only questions being how fast and how far, Beijing projects its increasing economic and diplomatic power to undermine the foundations of the US posture in Asia, beginning with the US alliance system. As Lee Kuan Yew, the late Singapore PM, emphasized, China has transformed a poor society by an economic miracle to become now the world’s second-largest economy, on track, as Goldman Sachs has predicted, to become the largest. They have followed the US lead in putting people in space and shooting down satellites with missiles.

Theirs is a culture 4,000 years old with 1.3 billion people, a huge and very talented pool to draw from. How could they not aspire to be Number One in Asia, and in time the world? It is China’s intention to be the greatest power in the world.

China’s tactics will change over time; its desire for dominant influence, at least in the Indo-Pacific region, will not. One sees this in the effective conciliatory speeches Xi and his senior colleagues make in international forums, which contrast vividly with former US President Trump’s bitter, resentful outbursts. Indeed, Beijing remains a verbal champion of international cooperation precisely when the Trump Administration largely abandoned it.

This is not to say that China does not make mistakes in implementing its strategic goals through its tactical actions. Its crude, threatening “wolf warrior” diplomacy is counterproductive. The financial terms of its Belt and Road Initiative have aggrieved some countries in the developing world.

China’s military actions in the Himalayas along the India-China border in the early summer of 2020 in unforgiving mountain terrain have dramatically changed public opinion in India and pushed it geopolitically closer to the USA. So this is far from an error-free team in Beijing.

This absence of diplomacy perplexes because it widens the U.S.-China gulf and increases the likelihood of eventual violent confrontation. History is replete with examples of how such conflict-ridden policies by contending states lead to tragedy.

The crucial variable in whether China is successful in its strategic purpose is the domestic, economic, military, and diplomatic strength and resolve of the USA and its allies, and not Chinese actions. As the Biden Administration enters office, the USA is deeply divided on political, economic, and racial issues, marked by a polarized Congress and an angry partisan public fed for years by Trump’s divisive rhetoric and actions exemplified by the chaos and violence at the Capitol on 6 January 2021. In this context, President Biden has an enormous challenge to unite the country in pursuit of agreed domestic and international goals. He will benefit from available vaccines and other medical positives in the early months of his term that could lift some domestic pressure and give him more international flexibility. Should he succeed in reanimating American power and intensifying ties to allies, managing China’s rise becomes substantially less daunting, and Beijing would likely slow its aggressive push toward Asian dominance. Should he fail, he would only reinforce the view in Beijing and in some allied capitals that the USA has joined all the other nations that dominated the international system, then faltered, then failed.

The USA with its allies and partners can successfully compete with China, and there is no reason for intrinsic pessimism. Although the following are not perfect comparisons, they are illustrative. The combined economies of the USA, Japan, South Korea, and Australia far outstrip that of China. US nominal GDP in 2019 was $21.4 trillion compared to China’s $14.3 trillion. The 2019 total for the USA, Japan, South Korea, and Australia was $29.5 trillion. When measured by purchasing power parity, China’s $23.5 trillion exceeds the USA’s $21.4 trillion, but is still behind the $30.4 trillion of the USA’s -Asian  alliance. Even if the economic fallout of the coronavirus changed  those numbers significantly for 2020, it is difficult to imagine that the  immediate ramifications of the pandemic could close the GDP gap between China and the USA and its Asian allies. Additionally, PRC exports in 2019 totaled $2.6 trillion, compared to $2.5 trillion in the USA, but US allies in Asia make up almost $2 trillion in additional exports. Combined defense spending by the USA, Japan, South Korea, and Australia outpaced China in 2019. Washington spent $684.6 billion and budgeted $69 billion for war funding. The allies combined to spend an additional $113.9 billion.

China put about $181.1 billion toward defense. That said, it is difficult to quantify or accurately break down PRC military expenditures, and Beijing does not pay as much per soldier as Washington does. Of course, what matters most is what is being purchased. China has modernized its force at a blistering pace since 2000, but US allies are also increasing budgets to acquire more advanced weapons and improve their navies’ blue-water capabilities.

The four now have advantages in most general military dimensions over China, including US superiority in naval tonnage, higher-quality submarines, and superior long-range stealth aircraft. However, these sorts of measures of inputs shed relatively little light on who can sustain prolonged combat and where. The PRC has major advantages in its ability to sustain fighting on a large scale in the seas and airspace near Taiwan. Beijing often cannot match the united diplomacy of Washington and its allies and partners in Asia and Europe, but this situation is evolving. The USA and NATO allies UK and France hold three of five of the permanent UN Security Council seats. Although China acquired chairmanship of four UN specialized agencies, the USA and its European and Asian allies combined hold chairmanship of six. But China does not stand idle. It is strengthening its military partnership with Russia. It maintains close relations with Iran, Pakistan, Myanmar, and North Korea. All of these except North Korea have conducted joint military exercises in several locations.

China, Russia, and Iran have carried out joint naval exercises. Russian and Chinese bombers have flown together in patrols over the Sea of Japan. Moreover, PRC economic linkages and dependencies have a value that can influence and compel behaviour even among US allies, the Philippines being a case in point. For instance, China recently concluded both the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in Asia, which includes all five US Asian treaty allies and a bilateral investment treaty with the EU. Although China is catching up, the USA still generally leads in the application of advanced technologies. Moreover, Beijing’s soft power and values appeal only to governments with authoritarian tendencies. India, although not a treaty US ally, increasingly sees its capacity to avoid intimidation from Beijing as linked to ever-closer relations with the West. Further, publics in the democracies now decisively see China as a threat.

In October 2020, a Pew poll showed that in 12 democracies in Europe and Asia, majorities of at least 70 percent had a very or somewhat unfavorable view of China. A November 2020 report by the Central European Institute of Asian Studies revealed that in all 13 European nations surveyed, respondents had a negative view of China’s “effect on democracy in other countries.” Finally, in addition to all these factors are the many substantial domestic problems China currently faces that will to some degree constrain its external behaviour. In short, there is much repair to be done with respect to the USA’s international influence and alliance systems after the Trump years, but enormous potential power resides in these nations to work together to deal successfully with China.

The USA and China are well on their way to confrontation, which could eventually lead to war. During the past two years, almost every international issue divided Washington and Beijing. They disagreed about the most effective ideological underpinnings and political structures for modern societies, the futures of Hong Kong and Taiwan, freedom of navigation and the nature of maritime claims in the South China Sea, how best to curtail the North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons programmes, nuclear weapons and arms control, cyber-penetration and other influence operations, the place of alliances in the current era, bilateral trade and intellectual property, human rights, 5G networks and advanced technology, climate change, China’s Belt and Road Initiative and geoeconomic coercion, the India-China dispute in the Himalayas, and the proper roles and missions of international organizations. In the fervo4r of the just completed U.S. electoral season, many of these disagreements have worsened a problematic reality that the Biden administration just inherited.

of late, Beijing and Washington seemed uninterested in using diplomacy to arrest the potentially catastrophic decline in relations. Few meetings have been held between their top diplomats, and crisis management mechanisms are moribund. Thus neither the USA nor China made any serious effort to reduce disagreements on major issues. Instead, they hurled daily public accusations against the other.

When Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo all but said that Washington could not successfully address its problems with Beijing as long as the Chinese Communist Party ruled there; in short, a call for regime change. China in its media has found nothing good to say about the USA, from its racial and class problems to its international behaviour.

This absence of diplomacy perplexes because it widens the U.S.-China gulf and increases the likelihood of eventual violent confrontation. History is replete with examples of how such conflict-ridden policies by contending states lead to tragedy.

No grand bargain will be struck between the USA and China on world order. This is especially true given that both the US and Chinese governments currently strive for illusionary primacy in the Indo-Pacific.

Dr Muhammad Akram Zaheer
Dr Muhammad Akram Zaheer
The writer has a PhD in Political Science and can be reached at [email protected]

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