China speaks of the ‘community of the shared future for mankind’, and ‘win–win cooperation’; it plays balance-of-power politics and acts in ways that take advantage of others in adversity. China’s aim is to establish its supremacy in areas of productive technology, trade networks and financing options in ways that shut out competition.
In the past 10 years, the biggest change has been the sharp escalation in China’s naval activities in the northern Indian Ocean, including through its hydrographic surveys in the exclusive economic zones of littoral states, growing deployment of submarines and unmanned underwater drones, and establishment of its first overseas military facility in Djibouti.
If this is the beginning of a larger Chinese naval presence throughout the Indian Ocean, a close examination of China’s intentions and behaviour is warranted.
China claims that its naval activities are normal and reasonable and assures the rest of the world that it will never seek hegemony.
When the Chinese say that they will not exercise hegemony, they presumably mean not the American kind. They are not seeking to assume the role of a paramount state that uses its power and influence to impose rules and order on an otherwise anarchic world. Pax Britannica is not for them either. They have shown no appetite to directly control large tracts outside the homeland or to carry the flag, as David Livingstone did, for ‘Christianity, commerce and civilization’.
Exercising the sort of hegemony that the Soviet Union did is entirely ruled out. The lessons of Soviet failure due to overreach in the export of communism globally are compulsory reading for all members of the Chinese Communist Party.
What China seeks is the pursuit of national self-interest through persistent and consistent actions to become the dominant state in the Indo-Pacific. The shape of possible Chinese hegemony may be uniquely Chinese in character—a kind of Chinese hegemony with socialist characteristics. Covid-19 has made this more, rather than less, likely for three reasons.
First, the fundamental shift in the world’s centre of gravity from the Atlantic–Mediterranean region to the Indo-Pacific region has occurred faster than the West had planned for. China is the central actor in this drama, but ASEAN, India and others have also hastened the process.
Second, expectations from a decade ago that the balance of power between China and the United States would likely remain decisively in America’s favour at least for the first half of this century are being proved wrong.
China has not only demonstrated the determination to challenge American power in the Indo-Pacific, but it is building the capacity to neutralise America’s naval superiority in the Western Pacific. It is unlikely that China can, any longer, be confined within the first and second island chains in the Pacific.
Third, it is building a parallel universe in trade, technology and finance that will selectively reduce its vulnerabilities to American hegemony. China’s international behaviour in the year of Covid-19 gives legitimate cause for concern to the peripheral and proximate states of the Indo-Pacific.
The Belt and Road Initiative is creating a Sino-centric system of specifications, standards, norms and regulations that will favour China’s technology and services to the exclusion of others.
Those who worry that the primary problem with the BRI is the potentially high level of indebtedness that vulnerable Indo-Pacific economies may face are missing the larger point. Beijing doesn’t aim to impoverish its potential clients, but to ensure that their national systems are fully oriented towards the consumption of Chinese technology and services and are in sync with China’s strategic interests and policies.
Digital dependencies are integral to this objective. Huawei, 5G and fibre-optic networks are some of the ways that China is rewiring the region to its long-term benefit.
In the Chinese version of hegemony, so long as its industry and services enjoy supremacy in the Indo-Pacific and thus ensure the prosperity and wellbeing of the Chinese people, China is content to provide the public goods and financing for the region’s benefit as a sugar-coated pill.
The other facet of China’s potential hegemony is the idea that it is the region’s responsibility to accept and respect what China calls its ‘core’ concerns and interests. These are flexible and change according to the situation, but are always non-negotiable. What is ‘core’ will always be defined by China. The definition has expanded beyond issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity to cover economic, social and cultural issues, and even the persona of the Chinese leader. Those who don’t fall in line are apt to be taught a ‘lesson’.
India believes that the interests of the region are better served through a balance of forces rather than the preponderance of any single force—whether it is the Americans or the Chinese. This is one of the pillars of India’s Indo-Pacific vision.
Giving any country in this region a veto in the matter will be only at the peril of the security of the whole region. It should also be a matter of concern for others when China chooses to confuse the Indo-Pacific vision with plurilateral mechanisms like the Quad. The Quad is a platform for a group of countries that share common interests in the region they are located in. The Indo-Pacific is as much home to India, Australia and Japan as it is to China.
Many in the region look upon the US as a resident power, whose benign presence has been helpful to the region’s stability and growth. China itself has benefited from the American presence, not least in securing the capital and technology that has helped in its national rejuvenation.
Hence, labelling the Quad as a security hazard and threat to peace and development seems to be contradictory and self-serving. Contradictory, because China is the initiator of similar plurilateral mechanisms, including some in India’s neighbourhood. Self-serving because China doesn’t wish to permit any other platform that offers alternatives to the region.
The claim by China that the Quad is a historical regression and a danger to peace and security rings hollow, especially when it seeks to press centuries-old territorial claims on sea and land through the use of force.
If China is committed, as it claims, to uphold the principle of peace and stability and is ready to practice its diplomatic philosophy of affinity, sincerity and inclusiveness, it should desist from tilting at windmills and demonstrate this diplomatic philosophy in deeds.
China could begin by winding down the aggression it has displayed against its neighbours by unilaterally altering the status quo, and join the open discussion on the future of the Indo-Pacific.
India is willing to discuss Asian security with all parties in accordance with the principles of democratic and transparent engagement, and on the basis of respect for globally agreed norms of behaviour.
Vijay Gokhale was India’s foreign secretary until January 2020 and is a former ambassador to China. This is an edited version of a chapter in the Regional security outlook 2021 published by the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific.