G Parthasarathy

How the world will handle China in 2021

G Parthasarathy | Updated on December 14, 2020

The US and its European allies will continue to promote policies that will restrict China’s geopolitical ambitions

While recent years have seen the remarkable rise of China’s global power and influence, 2020 will remain for long embedded in the minds of the people of India as the year marked by the death of over 170,000 fellow citizens stricken by Covid-19.

India put an end to an era of repeated famines, with a Green Revolution which made it self-sufficient in food production two decades after Independence. Its economic growth, however, was amongst the slowest in Asia, lagging behind the rapid growth of its free market-oriented eastern neighbours. The process of economic liberalisation in India was welcomed across Asia and the world, as India’s economic growth briefly touched 8 per cent, and more.

There are questions on whether such a high growth rate can be sustained. It must be acknowledged that much more is required to be done to revitalise our industrial sector, which has not risen up to expectations. The government now talks of building a “self-reliant” India, with a much greater dependence on its industrial growth, together with disincentives on industrial imports.

The US and Europe have seen a massive rise in imports from a resurgent China, causing serious distortions in their economies and raising possible threats to their security. They now appear keen on getting out of a Chinese embrace, or becoming excessively dependent on China. This is particularly in industries which have security implications. This is also evident in policies of the Trump Administration, which are likely to be followed by European allies and even by the incoming Biden Administration.

Unlike President Donald Trump, Joe Biden enjoys a close rapport with the leaders of European partners. Western countries now appear set to reduce their dependence on China for finished engineering products whose original designs were fashioned in the US and Western Europe.

It has taken five decades for the US and its European allies to realise that China has taken them for a ride up the garden path, while benefiting from their reluctance to realistically understand the dangers a close embrace of China posed.

Search for new partners

The process of the US and its allies realising that they have to look for new partners who can be reliable, has just got started, erratically under the Trump Administration. There are, however, few, if any, leaders in Europe who trusted President Trump’s ability to be a long-term partner of any country. The Trans-Atlantic relationship was badly scarred and damaged by Trump.

The Europeans would, however, be more comfortable with President Joe Biden who is known to be measured and transparent in the conduct of foreign policy. Biden is a strong believer in the importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The Europeans, in turn, are slowly distancing themselves from moves promoting China’s geopolitical ambitions. This is evident in recent moves by leading European players like France and Germany.

Despite their intense dislike for President Trump, the European Union joined the US in a group of 22 countries sponsoring a resolution in the UN Human Rights Council, on July 8, 2019, which condemned China’s mass detention of Uighur Muslims, in its Xinjiang Province. It called on China to “refrain from the arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement of the Uighurs and other minority communities”.

Not surprisingly, China mobilised support from 37 other countries to oppose the resolution. Despite its preoccupation with the coronavirus pandemic, the European Parliament recently urged the European Union to impose “targeted sanctions” on China, including a ban on export of technology to China that can be used to violate human rights. It remains to be seen how and when the EU and the US will work jointly on implementing the proposed sanctions.

One can now expect a substantial measure of cooperation and coordination between the US and the European Union in dealing with the security and other challenges China poses. Most notably, that the US will end all collaboration in telecommunications with Huawei. A number of European countries are set to follow suit. That is a serious setback to China’s global ambitions in telecommunications.

The Biden Administration will assume office next month. While one can expect a broad continuation of policies that the Trump Administration assumed on China, the Biden team will be much more measured and consistent, in the administration of strategic and economic policies. The phased US withdrawal of its excessive military presence globally and particularly in the Arab and Islamic world will be carefully undertaken.

Saudi Arabia appears to be particularly concerned by the proximity of the Saudi Royalty to the Trump family. But other Arab countries appear ready to fall in line with new American policies. Given the strength of the Jewish lobby in Biden’s Democratic Party, Israel will receive continuing American support. But Biden will work to end sanctions on Iran imposed by Trump, while proceeding cautiously on this issue, in deference to Israel’s concerns.

Biden will also have to take note of China’s growing influence in Iran, where Chinese investment is set to increase substantially. With China presently undertaking joint Air Force exercises with Pakistan, on India’s western borders, India will have to be prepared for much closer Pakistan-China cooperation on provision of real time intelligence and arms supplies. China appears to be preparing for a long-term physical presence in both Gilgit-Baltistan and in the Gwadar Port.

Fallout for India

There may be exaggerated expectations about how much India can benefit from the growing estrangement between China on the one hand, and the US and its European allies on the other. The Indian Ocean region is becoming a Centre for great power rivalry. This was evident in the Joint Air Exercises carried out by Pakistan and China recently, just adjacent to India’s eastern borders.

This was also a time when China’s armed forces are deadlocked in a military confrontation with India in Ladakh. The Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat noted recently that 120 warships of various countries are now deployed across the Indian Ocean Region. He added that: “China’s rise has been one of the most defining moments of the 21st century”. This could also be the moment when India moves together with friends and partners, to meet the challenges posed to the balance of power in the Indian Ocean region, by the rise of an assertive and aggressive China.

The writer is a former

High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on December 14, 2020

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