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COVID 19 & CHINA’S STRATEGIC BEHAVIOR IN THE WESTERN PACIFIC: LESSONS FOR INDIA

Report prepared by Naireen Khan and Aastha Gupta, Research Interns, USI.

Report of the Web Discussion held on 20th May 2020 

The Indo-Pacific, specifically the Western Pacific is presently the primary theatre of Great Power rivalry between the U.S and China as evidenced by their strategic brinkmanship in the economic, security, political and technological realms. China has been following a two ocean (counter intervention) strategy in the region but, since January, it has upped the ante despite the corona pandemic. Likewise, America has also increased its freedom of navigation operations in the region and adopted a forward flexible posture. Notably, the impending presidential election in the U.S and the centenary of the Communist Party of China in 2021 will fuel greater strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific. With the aim to contextualize Chinese strategic posturing in the Western Pacific and to discuss its implications for India, the Centre for Strategic Studies (CS3), USI organized a web discussion titled ‘COVID 19 and China’s Strategic Behaviour in the Western Pacific: Lessons for India,’ on May 20th, 2020.

  • The keynote address was given by Maj Gen B.K Sharma, AVSM, SM and Bar (Retd), Director USI,
  • The discussion was chaired by Vice Admiral Satish Soni, PVSM, AVSM, NM (Retd), and
  • The speaker was Maj Gen (Dr) G.G Diwedi, SM, VSM and Bar (Retd).

The discussion highlights are listed below.

Factors Determining China’s Strategic Behaviour

In the development of the Chinese strategic thought, its colonial past (‘century of humiliation’) together with its analysis of the reasons for American hegemony (control of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans) have been instructive. Therefore, for China to be able establish a Sino-Centric global order (composed of a unipolar Asia and a bipolar world) and become a global maritime power, the domination of the South China Sea is imperative. Furthermore, the international furore over China’s alleged complicity in the corona pandemic outbreak has heightened the political importance of 2021, which also marks the centenary of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

This will now also be an opportunity for President Xi Jinping to effectively address and correct negative perceptions of his governance in the wake of COVID-19. Hence projection of greater control over the South China Sea will be one of the important ways in which the achievements of the CPC will be demonstrated. This portends greater aggression in the Western Pacific region. Given China’s unpredictability, it is difficult to precisely predict the nature of such posturing. However, broad trend lines and patterns can be determined by analyzing the following coordinates:

  • Strategic Culture: The four components of Chinese strategic thought include:
    • Collectivism and centrality which entails a strong centre and a weak subservient periphery. The Korean peninsula, East China Sea, North China Sea, South China Sea, South Asia, and Central Asian Republics are integral to China’s periphery and therefore must be dominated.
    • Use of force as the measure of last resort.
    • Chinese political thought is guided by real politick, which dictates that there are either friends or foes. Those who toe the line are friends; those who don’t, are adversaries. China follows a policy of “one barbarian against the other” – pitching adversarial states against one another to dent their unity therefore winning by other means.
    • The principle of shi is central to China’s strategic rubric. Shi refers to the attainment of a strategic advantage over an opponent. Such posturing was visible when in 1958 when China defined the 9-dash line and gradually gained control over the Paracel Islands by 1974. China will acquire more assets in the Western Pacific as part of similar posturing.
  • Well Defined National Objectives: The CPC has a three-pronged national agenda:
    • To establish periphery as part of the sovereignty dynamic. According to the CPC, sovereignty not only pertains to strategic autonomy but the integration, unification, and control of peripheral territories such as Taiwan and South China Sea.
    • To achieve political stability by way of an enduring and continuous role of the CPC in governing the country and the unquestioned authority of its leader. Any threat especially from Xinjiang, Tibet and Mongolia should hence be neutralized.
    • To achieve sustained economic growth. A tacit understanding between the government and the citizenry has meant that CPC’s authoritarian regime is accepted by the people as a trade off in return for a better standard of living.
  • Political System: China is governed by the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) which has seven members. Of particular importance is the unique relationship between the CPC and People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Every general in the PLA must be a member of CPC; implying, therefore, the PLA is the armed wing of the CPC. The Joint Operation Centre of the Central Military Commission (CMC) is headed by President Xi Jinping, who is its Commander in Chief. Therefore, there is no dichotomy between the political intent and the military execution in China.
  • Leadership: A far reaching anti-corruption campaign catapulted President Xi Jinping’s stranglehold on power. This anti-graft effort was notable in implicating both incumbent and former national level leaders of the PSC, thus contributing to Xi’s rise as the sole leader. Given Xi Jinping’s massive consolidation of political power and a more or less confirmed lifetime presidency, he has been able to formulate clearly defined timelines in China’s trajectory towards the global power status. By 2035 the CPC under the aegis of Xi aims to achieve a medium developed economy and a complete modernization of the PLA. China hopes to become a superpower by 2050. Therefore, initiatives such as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are steps towards developing a large strategic space and to position China as a global power.

China’s Strategy in the Western Pacific

Apart from creating artificial islands and renaming them, China has a threefold agenda in the Western Pacific. This is centred on its aspiration to gain dominance in the region, to ensure undetected navigation through the sea, and thereby:

  • Dismantle the American presence and influence in the region.
  • Insulate Asia from outside intervention in the regional dynamics. China holds that all regional issues should be addressed through a bilateral approach rather than a unified one.
  • Consolidate control over larger regions in the South China Sea by working out a mechanism with the other claimants (giving them significantly smaller areas), once the American presence wanes. This would pave the way for its unfettered presence in the Indian Ocean

Conclusion

Since 2021 will mark hundred years of the CPC, the party needs to promote its achievements. President Xi Jinping will therefore like to project China as an ascendant power by delineating strategic accomplishments such as the BRI, the economic growth and increased domination in the Western Pacific. The 20th National Party Congress in 2022 will lay the groundwork for the political architecture of the next ten years. President Xi requires particularly significant milestones to promote his protégés in key political portfolios.

Therefore, there will be increased aggression and offensive posturing by China in the South China Sea. The grey zone strategy has benefited China, and this model is likely to be replicated, later, across the Indian Ocean with certain modifications. Hence increased activity in the Indian Ocean region cannot be ruled out.  Thus, India needs to keep a close watch on China, especially its internal dynamics. India is well poised to become a major global power; however, it needs a long-term policy in the political, economic, and cultural domains geared at least till 2050. India must also leverage its position by building efficient diplomatic groupings like the Quad and work on its economy. India must signal to China that it has a well-defined strategic agenda and will not be browbeaten on issues of strategic importance.

 

Report prepared by Naireen Khan and Aastha Sinha, Research Interns, USI.
Report uploaded on 25-05-2020

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