The U.S. disengagement from Asia has opened new doors for China in the region
Kautiliya, writing in Arthashastra: The theory of Mandala is based on the geographical assumption that the immediate neighbor of a given state is most likely to be an enemy and a state next to the immediate neighbor is likely to be one’s friend … Thus, this forms circles of friends and foes with the central point being the King and his State.
There was a time when the Republicans in the U.S. didn’t care for ideology and based their global outlook on economic interest; Democrats, meanwhile, tended to care for “freedoms” and opposed totalitarianism and other coercive creeds in foreign states. With the roles now largely reversed—at least on the surface—the stage has been set to secure China its status a global superpower.
During the Cold War, American Republicans didn’t care that Pakistan was “ideological and coercive,” as they partnered it in the war against global Communism led by the Soviet Union. The Democrats, although staying within the Cold War bifurcation of the world, cared for democracy in India even though Delhi was in the wrong Cold War camp. Pakistan tended to be happy when the Republicans ruled in the U.S.; it got into trouble when the Democrats came to power.
Today, however, in the absence of the “ideological Cold War,” the roles are reversed. The Republicans are focusing on China’s worldview and see it as a threat to the American way of life. Donald Trump asserts “China and the U.S. are at odds primarily because China’s Communist Party (CCP) rule is ideologically committed to destroying American liberty.” In a trade-dominated world, he is thinking of “liberal democracies” as being under threat from China. One of his advisers thinks that CCP’s ideological agenda “represents a threat to the idea of democracy itself, including in the United States.” And his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo goes on record with: “Our children’s children may be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party.”
The Republicans have certainly got it wrong. A more acceptable theory about the rise of the Chinese economy is put like this: “China’s edge over the West, though, doesn’t come from superior technology. China’s economic takeoff stems from what Nobel Laureate economist Edmund Phelps calls mass flourishing—the willingness of the whole population to embrace innovation. China’s plan will push disruptive new technologies into the grassroots of the economy, transforming daily life in several ways.”
The European Union, economically and institutionally tied to the United States, doesn’t look at China in the same “ideological” manner and is reluctant to follow the “economic boycott” politics the U.S. recommends for it. “Free democracies” of Europe are under threat from another “ideology”—that of Islam—and is tending to “regulate” themselves to protect themselves from it while welcoming trade with China, which helps their economies without threatening their way of life. They are reluctant to use tariffs against China as America does under Trump but if they go along reluctantly it is because of the importance of the American market. American sanctions tend to be more effective than U.N. sanctions because of this promised access—or lack thereof.
When punitive excise duties are imposed on Chinese goods it is not China but the American citizen who ends up paying. Today, America “punishes” China by increasing its own trade deficit and reversing its growth-rate. Following the U.S. in its anti-China “ideological” brawl, Australia has gone into recession; and partners Japan and South Korea fear being punished by China economically. One commentator actually wrote: “Cozying up to the U.S. will make it harder for India to recover from an 11 percent economic contraction and not gaining an inch in its border dispute with China.”
The Communist Party of China, at home, might not allow the kind of freedoms that America and Europe hold dear, but then today’s “ideology-free” world elsewhere is already acting against such human rights as the freedom of expression. This kind of curtailment is becoming manifest in India, too, although in the past freedom of expression distinguished it from Pakistan. In the Islamic world most states don’t allow freedom of expression and deprive their citizens of the right to free media. Pakistan, for reference, ranked 145 in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index—dropping three positions from a year earlier.
India has traded successfully with China—with whom it has a boundary dispute—and in 2019 the volume was $92.89 billion, which makes China India’s largest trading partner. There is wisdom in this if you think in terms of economic advantage—the sort of advantage Pakistan has avoided by not trading with next-door India. Lately, by imposing a “punitive” ban on border-trade with India, Pakistan has hurt itself. Most of the province of Sindh, which benefited from this trade, is actually suffering because of non-availability of affordable medicines that came from India.
India has been more “realistic” than Pakistan in dealing with its “enemy”; but today both find themselves caught in an “ideological” battle of “religions” that affect their populations more than each other. For the first time, India is in the Kautilyan paradigm of “challenging its neighbors” while linking up more positively with the states beyond. The world sees India challenging its “anti-status-quo” neighbor Pakistan and its trading-partner China at the same time. This forces change in the China-Pakistan equation too, inclining Pakistan to be more forthcoming on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), thus dragging the conflict into a three-way nuclear war.
The importance of CPEC to China can’t be overstated. It wants a direct trade route to the Gulf states, where it has become the largest exporter of goods. The Kautilyan ring of India seems threatened in 2020. In the east, the ongoing river-water and population-transfer disputes have Bangladesh worried and therefore more attracted to the economic presence of China in the region. Pakistan in the west fears Indian aggression directly on the Line of Control and from the internally chaotic state of Afghanistan. As America moves to a policy of disengagement in the region, China seems ready to move in. This should not have been abnormal considering its regional status, but given today’s bipolar world doesn’t bode well for the future of South Asia.