Between 1870 and 1945 Belgium was known as the cockpit of the world because the big powers fought there. The term comes to mind when one sees what’s going on today in the Indo-Pacific. But first a little background.

The day after the G20 Summit in Delhi finished there was a very superficial article in the Chinese government’s mouthpiece Global Times saying India is just dreaming of being a global power. The reality, it said, was very different from the Indian dream.

I can’t think of any other government running down another country like this. Anyway, the central message of this article was “we don’t care about your G20 declaration.” That’s China under Xi.

But actually China does care because this G20 Summit has demonstrated to China that the world — led by the US, not India — has dumped it. It’s the equivalent of an externment order against China.

True, China still has (untested) military, monetary and economic muscle. But it’s definitely out of the global system. All the efforts of Xi Jingping’s predecessors to integrate China into the non-economic world have been nullified by Xi.

Recall all that diplomatic effort between 2000-13 about Chinese soft power. It’s done for now.

China used to have two friends — North Korea and Pakistan. Now it has three because Russia has joined this 21st century equivalent of the mid-20th century Axis powers — Germany, Italy and Japan. They went to war with the western powers. And lost so badly that all are now part of the western led world!

The moral of that story is that you can easily become a victim of your own propaganda. Xi Jingping, who alone matters in China today, hasn’t learnt that lesson yet.

Concerted efforts

The Americans have decided that the Indo-Pacific, which includes the South China Sea, and which China claims as its own, will be where China will be contained. They are making concerted efforts. You can find their approach here: uploads/2022/02/U.S.-Indo-Pacific- Strategy.pdf. So, in contrast to the last 25 years, when it was withdrawing, it has been super active, especially in the Indo-Pacific both militarily and diplomatically. It is telling the countries in that region, “Don’t worry, be happy. Hum hain na?” Basically it is telling Xi, right, enough. Now pipe down.

Towards this end it has concluded some strategic alliances, opened some new embassies and revived some old ones. It’s a very impressive list of things that the US has been doing. And it is all in addition to its existing security promises to Japan, Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines and just now, Vietnam. It’s a bilateral thing with Vietnam and a trilateral thing with Japan and Korea.

An important element of this is AUKUS, short for Australia, UK and US. This will enable Australia to build nuclear missile carrying submarines. China is miffed, but what can it do?

In addition to the security alliances, the US has been opening embassies in the island countries of the south sea, in Seychelles, in the Maldives and in Mauritius. And India, like a good partner, has opened an embassy in East Timor which straddles some very important sea lanes.

And of course there’s the Quad which its members pretend is everything but a security alliance. In reality it is just that, a mutual security group.

Will China go to war?

In 2007, for some reason, I was invited to contribute a paper at a seminar on the economic aspects of global security. China at that time was purring like a pussycat, not growling like a Rottweiler as it is now. The proceedings were published by Routledge.

I had a simple proposition: the Chinese Communist Party couldn’t imagine being out of power and so, like many rising powers in the past, it would go to war for natural resources and markets. The timing could not be predicted but aggression was certain. I was politely told by the other participants not to be a fool. In those days people believed what China said.

But the fact is that all along China has been acquiring both resources and markets. So now the rest of the world is beginning to resist. The American policy outlined above is exactly that.

Most wars are the result of miscalculation. The latest example is in Ukraine where Russia miscalculated horribly. Today the question is whether China too will miscalculate.

It will be interesting to see if China agrees to be pushed back or decides to fight. Unlike with Germany and Japan in the 20th century, its likely response will probably depend on internal political developments in China. These at the moment don’t look very good.