Indo-Pacific Tensions – Is Conflict Inevitable?
The ‘Asia-Pacific’ region is now being recast as the ‘Indo-Pacific’ in US and other terminologies – in part to underline the perception that India’s role in Asia must be given space, but also that the Indian Ocean is increasingly becoming the stage for displays of military and naval muscle (as well as the Pacific). Yet there is no disguising the underlying truth: this is about the US and China, the established and the rising power.
China has done a fantastic job over the past three decades in projecting its strengths and camouflaging its weaknesses. Even as the international community has shifted its focus to economic (and planetary) sustainability, China has driven uncompromisingly for economic growth with two aims in mind: to keep its population satisfied, and to protect and project its political model through geoeconomic heft. Inevitably this has trodden on the sensitive feet of other powers.
Both the US and China can be judged to have made strategic mistakes as this process has unfolded. On the Chinese side, it is to have lost its attachment to strategic patience when time, peace and the erosion of a Western-dominated world were factors playing to its advantage. The assertiveness of ‘wolf-warrior’ diplomacy was domestic catnip, but frictional internationally: it provoked concerted reactions against China (the Quad, AUKUS, Japanese and South Korean rethinks about nuclear capability) which might have been avoided with a more subtle approach; and it appeared to suggest a loss of Chinese confidence in its underlying strengths. Understated power is more compelling than power shouted from the rooftops.
The United States, on the other hand, has seldom been good at strategic patience. As America eased into its (post-Cold War) unipolar moment, its tendency to international benevolence has descended into more fearful aggression / suppression. The neocons under George W Bush achieved the clearest example of this, and Donald Trump the least subtle. But even under the more rational, if rhetorically ineffective, President Biden, the temptation to turn China into an outright enemy is clouding American strategic thinking. Where is this going to end?
Let’s look at the issue of Taiwan, not least through the prism of the Russia-Ukraine experience. The two cases are different, because Russia had formally recognised Ukraine as an independent sovereign state. But both China and Russia seem to be encouraging each other in the ambition of restoring the territory of a neighbour to their historical ownership, by force. To achieve reunification through military means suggests a lack of confidence in their distinct attractiveness, and perhaps also their political legitimacy. But, in threatening aggression, both of them are, in harmony, challenging Western hegemony in the belief that time and global change are on their side.
China is steadily building up its military capacity to take Taiwan by force. That process aims at the same time to make China invulnerable to a concerted attack on its home territory by any combination of adversaries. Those two objectives form a central plank, it would seem, in Xi Jinping’s construction of his political legacy. But China does not want an all-out war: Ukraine is just the latest example of conflict ‘blow-back’, and it may be that China is less enthusiastic about Russian revanchism than it appears. But both Moscow and Beijing are playing up the rhetoric of war to win what they want without having to go the full distance. They have reason to believe, not least from the public debate in the US over support for Ukraine, that the West will fold in advance of a threatened Armageddon.
This is a dangerous moment, because big powers have so often gone to war with each other almost by accident. If Russia wins Ukraine, or a substantial part of it, and/or if China absorbs Taiwan as an integral part of the PRC, then the next East-West confrontation will occur at a higher and more direct level. 20th century history is a clear indicator of that. So, coordinated deterrence is critical.
Taiwan is more important in this respect because it is more digestible than Ukraine, is located further away from Western bases and is threatened by a more powerful aggressor. Even so, a direct attack on it is a huge risk for China. The situation is one which militates for a careful maintenance of the status quo (one China, two systems). This will require dialogue with China, and a mutual understanding of the need to avoid war and show respect for the other side’s legitimate interests. Washington is currently failing to implement that strategy, out of fear of an existential rival and an unwillingness to analyse the huge dangers of getting this wrong. China, in other words, needs to be deterred but not provoked.
India and the EU are watching this from the sidelines: India because it wants to maintain the benefits of ‘multi-alignment’; the EU because it does not want to be cut off from China’s market. Neither wants to be drawn into war, even though both are threatened. Both, however, if carefully handled, might contribute to deterrence – because effective deterrence must be accompanied by proactive diplomacy. Without reasoned discussion, we risk turning the situation into a game of chicken.
So we face these propositions:
- China (Russia) cannot be trusted;
- China (Russia) cannot be isolated;
- China (Russia) can be deterred, but only at considerable cost, including the compromises necessary for solid diplomacy to have any effect;
- Maintaining US-EU alignment on action will be difficult given conflicted dependencies and interests;
- There will be a real battle for influence with the ‘non-aligned’ countries, which will distort diplomatic consistency.
It makes no sense in the present juncture to provoke Russia with the prospect of bringing Ukraine into NATO; nor to provoke China by encouraging a push for Taiwanese independence. If the West persists on driving down either of these paths, then it would make wider war inevitable, and worsen relations with non-aligned nations. The burden of deterrence, on the other hand, could be shared given the global dividend (peace). It is time for allies to re-invest in their diplomatic capacity and build out that middle road together.
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