The devastation caused by COVID-19 in Europe and America, the quick recovery of China from the pandemic and China’s re-emergence as the world’s factory supplying COVID-19 detection and protective kits to over 100 affected countries, have combined to pose a formidable threat to US dominance in the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR).
“Experts have begun to question whether the current crisis may reshape the global order in China’s favor. If the U.S. fails to act more decisively in the region, it could be sowing the seeds of a radical shift in the future regional balance of power,” says Dr. Jeffrey Becker of the Center for Naval Analysis in a recent piece in the US website “Defense One”.
China has been extremely proactive with its medical diplomacy after it defeated the coronavirus at home. But the US is embroiled in internal conflicts made more acute by the political exigencies generated by the November Presidential election. The opposition is accusing President Donald Trump of tardiness, naivety and indecision. An increasing number of Americans are saying that the shutdown of the economy has been both unnecessary and counter-productive. Trump is with the latter lobby but is held back from acting on it by his health sector advisors.
Unable to do anything constructive, even as the death toll shot up to 56,000 and unemployment went beyond 21 million, Trump has gone back to the old ploy of blaming China for the pandemic and saying that he might seek a hefty compensation from that country for allegedly giving the virus to the world.
In comparison with Chinese assistance, US assistance to the poorer countries has been unimpressive. India has got $ 2.9 million, Sri Lanka $ 1.3 million and Bangladesh $ 3.4 million. The US will have to make a massive effort to be a credible bulwark against China’s economic, political and strategic expansion in the IPR, which according to the US Department of Defense, is critical for the US economy and defense.
An US Department of Defense (DOD) report on the Indo-Pacific region dated June 1, 2019, notes that the IPR accounts for 60% of global GDP; includes the world’s largest economies, the US, China, and Japan, and six of the world’s fastest growing economies, India, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Nepal, and the Philippines. A quarter of US exports go to the Indo-Pacific, and exports to China and India have more than doubled over the past decade. The DOD argues that this is made possible by free and open trade routes through the air, sea, land, space, and cyber commons that form the current global system.
But this system is now under threat from expansionist China, the US believes. According to the DOD report, China is willing to flout and challenge the system in pursuit of its political, economic, and security aims. It alleges that China does not recognize that it has itself benefitted greatly from the free and open regional and international system and that the system has enabled it to raise millions of its citizens out of poverty.
“Chinese nationals acting in association with the Chinese Ministry of State Security were recently indicted for conducting global campaigns of cyber theft that targeted intellectual property and confidential business and technological information at managed service providers,” the report says.
It points out that “China has continued to militarize the South China Sea by placing anti-ship cruise missiles and long-range surface-to-air missiles on the disputed Spratly Islands and employing paramilitary forces in maritime disputes vis-à-vis other claimants.”
“In the air, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has increased patrols around and near Taiwan using bomber, fighter, and surveillance aircraft to signal Taiwan. China additionally employs non-military tools coercively, including economic tools, during periods of political tensions with countries that China accuses of harming its national interests.”
“China is investing in a broad range of military programs and weapons, including those designed to improve power projection; modernize its nuclear forces; and conduct increasingly complex operations in domains such as cyberspace, space, and electronic warfare operations. China is also developing a wide array of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, which could be used to prevent countries from operating in areas near China’s periphery, including the maritime and air domains that are open to use by all countries,” the report says.
Of course, any rising economic power will naturally enhance its military power. But again, naturally, this is seen as a threat by the existing power structure in the IPR.
According to Adm. Philip S. Davidson, Commander, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command: “Beijing is leveraging its economic instrument of power in ways that can undermine the autonomy of countries across the region…easy money in the short term, but these funds come with strings attached: unsustainable debt, decreased transparency, restrictions on market economies, and the potential loss of control of natural resources.”
Interestingly, the DOD’s report acknowledges that China’s investments bring benefits for recipient countries, including the US. But it cautions that some of China’s investments result in negative economic effects or costs to host country’s sovereignty.
“Chinese investment and project financing that bypasses regular market mechanisms results in lower standards and reduced opportunities for local companies and workers, and can result in significant debt accumulation. One-sided and opaque deals are inconsistent with the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific, and are causing concern in the region.”
“For example, in 2018, Bangladesh was forced to ban one of China’s major state firms for attempted bribery, and in the same year, Maldives’ finance minister stated that China was building infrastructure projects in the country at significantly inflated prices compared to what was previously agreed. Furthermore, a Chinese state-owned enterprise purchased operational control of Hambantota Port for 99 years, taking advantage of Sri Lanka’s need for cash when its government faced daunting external debt repayment obligations,” the report says.
No Opposition For Opposition’s Sake
However, the report makes it clear that the US “does not oppose China’s investment activities as long as they respect sovereignty and the rule of law, use responsible financing practices, and operate in a transparent and economically sustainable manner.”
“But the US has serious concerns with China’s potential to convert unsustainable debt burdens of recipient countries or sub-national groups into strategic and military access, including by taking possession of sovereign assets as collateral. China’s coercive behavior is playing out globally, from the Middle East and Africa to Latin America and Europe,” the report alleges.
Taming China Through Military Cooperation
According to the report, one of DOD’s strategies for containing China will be to have a military relationship with it to foster “transparency and non-aggression”.
The report asserts that the “pursuit of a constructive, results-oriented relationship between our two countries is an important part of US strategy in the Indo-Pacific. As the scope of China’s military modernization and the reach of China’s military activities expands, the need for strategic dialogue and safe and professional behavior consistent with international law is crucial. When China and the PLA operate in a manner consistent with international norms and standards, the risk of miscalculation and misunderstanding is reduced.”
“Recognizing this, our bilateral military engagements with China, which include high-level visits, policy dialogues, and functional exchanges, are centered on building and reinforcing the procedures necessary to reduce risk and prevent and manage crises.”
“Through our military-to-military engagements, the Department of Defense will continue to encourage China to engage in behaviors that maintain peace and stability in the region and that support – rather than undermine – the rules-based international order.”
However, the DOD warns that the US “will not accept policies or actions that threaten to undermine this order, which has benefited all countries in the region, including China.” (PKB/SAM/CT)
(The featured image at the top is that of US aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt which had several coronavirus cases on board)