US secretary of state Mike Pompeo recently said that the number of American troops in Europe was being reduced so that they could be deployed to counter the threat from China. Pompeo gave this answer in response to a question on the American troop reduction in Germany, as he emphasised the Chinese threat to India and Southeast Asia. This isn’t surprising since the US and China today are locked in a veritable power struggle. True, there are many layers to this. Former US national security adviser John Bolton in his recent tell-all book has claimed that US President Donald Trump was begging Chinese President Xi Jinping to increase agricultural purchases from the US to improve his re-election prospects.
Nonetheless, while Trump might be transactional and selfish, the American establishment takes a long view of these things. In fact, America’s pivot towards Asia had already begun under Barack Obama. The Trans-Pacific Partnership was actually a smart way to counter China economically. So, the US establishment has been planning to counter China’s rise for some years now. Actually, Washington’s initial impulse was not to counter China, but to balance China. I had interviewed former US ambassador to India, Frank G Wisner, in 2016 and he had confirmed to me then that the plan was to create a balance vis-à-vis China. But things started to change after Trump came to power in the US. Since he isn’t a multilateralism man, he junked initiatives like the TPP. But his basic metric of reducing America’s trade deficits and keeping jobs in the US inevitably put him at loggerheads with China.
Meanwhile, in China Xi started flexing his muscle, undertaking massive restructuring of the Chinese Communist Party and other important state organs. His sweeping anti-corruption drive targeting both tigers and flies was not only a huge assault on graft – which indeed had become widespread in China – but also purged those who were seen to be at odds with the Xi regime’s policies or governance philosophy. Actually, the anti-corruption purge was more about saving the Communist Party rather than saving China that Xi acolytes have been proclaiming. The latter cleverly couched the real objectives of the anti-corruption drive in a narrative about saving China from the fate suffered by the erstwhile Soviet Union. However, the rising corruption and inequality in China was actually undermining the moral authority of the Chinese Communist Party. And it is precisely to restore the absolute moral authority of the party to rule and quash any discussions about alternatives that Xi undertook his anti-graft purge.
But this also means that China is going back to a more centralising political paradigm than what we had witnessed in the last decade where China was seen to be liberalising and many had opined that China would in a few decades become more like Hong Kong. But the reverse has happened today with Hong Kong losing its freedoms and looking increasingly like the mainland. But such a centralised, rigid and aggressive China is neither good for the world nor welcome for Chinese society.
So there is definitely a need to balance China. But there are two parts to this – military and economic. Trump seems to be keen on the former – especially because of how this will play well with his re-election campaign – but not with the latter. For, countering China economically has to be done multilaterally. This is why the TPP was such a great initiative. We need countries to come together, set rules and high standards of trade, and put a premium on liberal values. It cannot be transactional alone as Trump wants. Values such as respect for rule of law, equitable cooperation, fairness, respect for intellectual property and promotion of a liberal order ought to take precedence over trade deficits and total volumes of trade. Only then can we form a large coalition of countries to counter China economically and induce change in its behaviour. For, it is only when China feels the heat economically will internal pressure on Xi grow, demanding change. On the other hand, simply pursuing military countermeasures will allow Xi to push the narrative that China is under attack and therefore must be more assertive and stand up to foreign powers. That isn’t helpful as no one wants all-out conflict.
Therefore, only a smart mix of military and economic measures has the best chance of changing China’s behaviour. But is Trump capable of carrying out such a strategy? I doubt it.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.