China’s aggressive Indo-Pacific policy: Quad needs to thwart Beijing’s designs
South Asia Monitor│ June 8, 2021

By Pradeep S. Mehta and Krithika Subramanian

With the Chinese economy opening up in the 1970s under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, the diplomatic focus of the nation and its leader was on making friends and influencing people. But now, under President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party – under his unfettered command – its diplomats are using wolf-warrior diplomacy to aggressively push Beijing’s unilateral interests and shape international discourse on various issues in its favor.

Perhaps as a late realization, Xi Jinping recently called for China to be both open and confident, but also modest and humble, and strive to create a credible, lovable and respectable image of the country. How far this will become China’s foreign policy mooring will depend upon so many exigencies. A leopard cannot change its spots.

Chinese diplomats have been using wolf-warrior diplomacy to hit back at primarily the global West that has been criticizing China’s handling of the Uyghur Muslims and the Covid 19 pandemic. Chinese foreign ministry spokespersons had tweeted insinuations that the US Army brought the epidemic to China and argued that one needn’t wear Chinese masks and protective gowns if the Communist nation’s medical equipment was of poor quality.

India’s troubled neighborhood

This aggression is now manifesting closer to India, with the Chinese set to take control of the Colombo Port City project, effectively placing Beijing at just an arm’s length, about 290 km from India’s southern tip Kanyakumari. Earlier China had acquired a 99-year lease of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, in its Southern Province, despite India’s objections.

India not only shares a troubled border with China (Tibet) in the north, but this development has made the southern part of the nation militarily vulnerable too. India has always wanted the Indian Ocean to be free of Chinese influence, but that now appears more remote than ever. As it is, China now has the biggest navy in the world, larger than the United States.

Most recently, China’s Ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jiming identified the Quad as a small group of elites working against China and warned Bangladesh that joining the anti–Beijing club could result in substantial damage to bilateral relations.

Indo-Pacific flashpoints

A global consequence of China’s confrontational diplomacy is increasing fear of Taiwan’s reunification by force. This fear has not only increased Taiwan’s defensiveness but has also led to president Tsai Ing-Wen reiterating its commitment to establishing alliances with like-minded nations that share similar values.

Recently, The Economist has dubbed Taiwan as the most dangerous place on earth given the threat from the Chinese Communist Party, noting that the presence of the US military had deterred an armed conflict between Taiwan and China.

It is in this context one has to understand the rise of Quad of Australia, India, Japan and the United States and its pledge to respond and address shared challenges including in cyberspace, counter-terrorism and maritime domains. These and many other challenges may be subject to test sooner than most may have expected.

The Indo–Pacific region is full of flashpoints that hold the potential to trigger armed conflicts, notwithstanding China’s desire to become ‘lovable’. Political instability in the region includes Pakistan’s border issue with India, Nepal dealing with an internal political turmoil, democracy hanging by a fine thread due to the army coup in Myanmar and activities of very powerful Islamist fundamentalist groups in Bangladesh collectively weakening the region’s ability to stand as a balancing power to China.

The Indo–Pacific region is also witnessing violations of international norms by China in its claim of the Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoal, and the broader question of claims to the nine-dash line. For regional stability, nations in the region should be functioning with relative peace that necessitates cooperation, one that is negligible in Asia.

Thwarting China

The Indian diplomatic community, too, has been calling to abandon India’s One China policy, amidst the aggravating mistrust in its dealing with China. There is not an iota of doubt that, currently, India is fighting on three fronts – Covid, economy and China. In the past, India has also called for full freedom of Tibet.

For India, the two main consequences of Taiwan coming under Chinese control include putting at risk the security of American allies. Taiwanese control will provide China with an enhanced geopolitical advantage of having undeterred access to the Indo-Pacific.

The China-Taiwan conflict, and the American administration’s concern over the stability of the cross-strait region, do not impact just the security architecture in the Indo-Pacific but is also a potential destabilizer to Taiwan’s semiconductor industry that is central to every field, from defense to agriculture.

As Mark Liu, the Chairman of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) aptly put it, “Taiwan is the Silicon Shield”. With a majority of the world dependent on the nation’s high-tech industry support, war will go against the interest of every stakeholder.

However, with China’s frequent air patrols into Taiwan’s airspace, and the United States supplying advanced defense equipment to Taiwan, the region has been red-flagged for a potential flashpoint between the two superpowers. While the United States has attempted opening channels of communication with China since June 2018, it has not been successful.

It is thus imperative for the Quad to look at the Taiwanese perspective, and give it appropriate international recognition. While one can foresee hurdles in the Quad’s approach on account of contrasting perspectives of the member nations, it is logical to reiterate that all nations have a common interest in the region – upholding the rule of law and democratic principles, promoting security and stability through trade, investment and connectivity.

If the Quad can thwart China’s attempt to take over Taiwan, it will prove its relevance to the world and send a strong warning against the imperialist agenda of the ‘lovable’ Chinese Communist Party.

(The writers work for CUTS International, a global public policy think tank. The views are personal)

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