The Chinese reaction to QUAD meeting in the US has reflected its worry over the alliance which it views as a challenge to its authority. That the QUAD identified soft power as its main agenda left China relieved, yet considerably scratchy. It had earlier dismissed the alliance as “so much froth in the Sea”. Post the meeting in the US, Chinese spokespersons opined that the alliance will not last.
Either China is harbouring a wrong perception of QUAD or it is putting up a brave face. The ground reality is that QUAD will not only survive, it will also evolve and prosper. In fact, it will not be the only trajectory thrown by the US towards China in the near term, as is evident from the resurrection of the AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom and United States) alliance which has a larger military significance than the QUAD. If India and Japan were to give support to AUKUS while being effective members of QUAD, there would be a 360 degree net around China involving both hard and soft power.
While the world gets its act together, the internal situation in China is deteriorating at a fast pace, especially so, on its economic front. It’s much touted Belt Road Initiative (BRI) is in tatters. Countries like Pakistan, where the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been created under BRI, are in no position to pay back the huge amounts taken as loan for the projects. It is often said that China will occupy the real estate, but then, of what use is real estate that gives no returns? It will require money for maintenance, thus incurring more losses, before it is finally shelved as non-productive.
Internally, huge Chinese companies are facing bankruptcy with billionaires being executed and jailed. These actions are in line with the so-called concept of “common prosperity'” created by President Xi Jinping, ostensibly for building an equitable society. It involves forcible transfer of the assets of Billion Dollar Chinese companies to the common people who have been badly impacted due to the COVID created recession and are now grappling with loss of jobs, extreme poverty levels and huge disparities of income. There are visuals available of Chinese people forcibly occupying headquarters of former Corporate houses and demolition of half constructed towers of infrastructure companies.
Xi has a personal axe to grind since his future is to be decided in 2022 when he completes his two terms and the maximum age limit of 68 years. Can Xi afford to be brazen with the world while his own house is in absolute disorder? The manner in which he is going about trying to remain afloat may well backfire on him quite badly.
India will need to look at the larger Chinese picture with great sensitivity. While she has gained the support of the west and its Indo-Pacific allies, the immediate neighbourhood remains a matter of concern. China has Pakistan as a viable tool to contain India; India sadly, has nothing to show to offset the Chinese advantage.
Chinese interest in Afghanistan is well known and in direct conflict with India’s deep relationship with the country nurtured over decades of engagement. India will need to have a stake in the foreign investments called for by the new government in Afghanistan first to secure her considerable assets in the country and then to shore up her economic presence in the country. India has a disadvantage in the form of the China-Pakistan alliance that is taking advantage of shared borders.
The problems of Chinese interventions in other neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar persists. For India it is essential to explain to these countries the folly of falling into the debt trap that China is so assiduously creating within them.
In the next step comes the Indo-China border conflict that periodically escalates into high levels of tensions taking both countries to the verge of an all-out war. As the time for President Xi Jinping to leave draws nearer, there will be a high degree of desperation to cling to power, leading to the possibility of the border face-off escalating to unacceptable levels, only to feed his ambitions. India, therefore will need to be prepared for a big bang along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in 2022. The trigger will be provided by India’s face-off on issues involving the neighbourhood and the Indo-Pacific region.
India cannot afford to base her response on assistance coming from any outside resource be it the west or other countries aligned with her to contain China. It is so because even today all countries of QUAD are following an independent trade policy with China while also remaining in the alliance.
Notable for mention here is that Japan has a net trade surplus with China which it can ill afford to ignore and Australia has trade relations with China far in excess of what it has with India. The US wishes to contain China more in its role as a business competitor than a strategic adversary. India, therefore, has a long, lonely battle to fight against China along the “Hot Border” that it shares with the country. It is best to stay alive to the reality that it can be forced into a conflict at any time and needs to remain prepared accordingly.
Staying prepared does not imply that India should shed the option of building bridges with its neighbour. That, in fact, should get the biggest thrust. We need to replicate the policy being adopted by other QUAD members. It would also not be in the interest of India to look at China from the same prism that it looks at Pakistan with, even though the two countries seem to be tied together with an umbilical cord. There may be some lessons to be learnt from the manner in which Russia has resolved its disputes along the border and in other aspects with China, but then, the matter stops at the dictum, “it takes two to clap”.