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Mainstream, VOL LX No 3, New Delhi, January 8, 2022

Taking on Imperialist, Bullying China | M R Narayan Swamy

Friday 7 January 2022, by M R Narayan Swamy

BOOK REVIEW

Blinkers Off: How Will the World Counter China

by Gaurie Dwivedi

Pentagon Press
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9390095417
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9390095414
Pages: 239
Price: Rs 795

Gaurie Dwivedi, an economist by training and a journalist by profession, has undoubtedly written one of the most important books on today’s China, a China which inspires less awe but more fear, a China which is trying to dominate the world hook or by crook, a China which bullies others much the way old-time imperialist powers did. Even if this much is becoming more and more known about the Middle Kingdom, Dwived’s book stands out as it offers a path for the rest of the world to take on China collectively.

In other worlds, China has today become too powerful to be challenged by any one country, particularly the US, which was the sole superpower following the Soviet Union’s collapse but whose influence and appeal is now clearly waning.

In contrast, China is a superpower in a hurry. It wants to fundamentally revise the world order, on both land and sea, to serve its authoritarian goals and hegemonic ambitions. It is also in a hurry to alter the global governance landscape by getting sweeping powers to formulate rules and standards on vital issues like health, IPR, cyber security and food security. Beijing is also in a hurry to get hold of as much natural resources as possible even if it means that many Third World countries – it once championed their cause – fall into debt trap.

Dwivedi points out that China is much bigger than what the erstwhile Soviet Union ever was. It is expected to eclipse America as the world’s largest economy by 2028 – ahead of earlier predictions. After biding its time for long, the dragon has become the largest trading partner for 16 Asian countries, achieving in the process a stranglehold. Simultaneously, Xi Jinping has created superior air and naval power to intimidate neighbours, who find it difficult to resist Beijing. This is also a message that the US can no more protect its allies.

Ironically, it were romantic American assumptions that guided China to where it is today. The US and much of the West thought, naively, that economic prosperity would usher in political and social reforms in China. It never happened. Indeed, American FDI and rapid technology transfer dramatically helped China to become an economic powerhouse.

After allowing China to successfully subvert the rules-based world order for almost three decades, the world is now in a precarious phase. The author complains that India’s passive approach also aided China’s rise – from Sri Lanka to The Maldives and from Seychelles to Mauritius, eroding New Delhi’s appeal as a preferred partner. India erred in assessing China’s economic influence which were stepping stone to its regional hegemonic ambitions.

Slowly, China’s ballooning rise culminated into visible losses for American manufacturing. He may have been a maverick but Donald Trump was the first US President since the 1970s to take up cudgels against Beijing. By then, however, China had used and abused the WTO, dented local manufacturing of large economies like India and Japan and caused an estimated 3.4 million job losses in America. In a 40-year period, from 1980 to 2020, China’s GDP rose 30 times! It became Asia’s largest economy in 2010 and the world’s second largest military spender the next year.
India failed to heed to multiple warning signs to address its inadequate security apparatus. In 2019, India’s submarine tally stood at 16, compared to China’s 74. Taiwan, which has 2 percent of India’s population, owns almost as many surface warships as India! “If one has to define Chinese defence policy in two worlds – it would be Taiwan and by extension the SCS (South China Sea); and India.”

China has pursued an aggressive policy along its land border with New Delhi. Islamabad’s growing indebtedness is an added advantage; it translates into higher leverage. Over time, Chinese policy, like Pakistan’s, has begun viewing terrorist groups as strategic assets, not global threats. Beijing has developed a network of key ports for control over a vast maritime region that was traditionally considered India’s backyard. China’s policies in the Middle East and deepening its presence in Central Asia aim to undercut Indian interests and also challenge American power.

China’s role, the author says, is of a modern-day colonizer chasing not just raw materials but infrastructure and intangible political clout. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects were designed, funded and executed largely to further Chinese companies, with very little business going to other firms. China used BRI to create unequal partnerships with resource-rich nations for access to vital linkages and physical infrastructure. The asymmetry has already caused widespread discontent and unrest in several countries, particularly in Africa.

But it will be wrong to assume that only Third World countries are China’s targets. Beijing’s influence in Europe has also grown exponentially in less than two decades. Chinese companies have gained ownership of at least four airports, six ports and a dozen professional soccer clubs in Europe. It now controls the Italian power grid, the British gas network and electricity grids in Greece and Portugal. Beijing wants to neo-colonize smaller and weaker economies of Europe.

Unfortunately for China, the Covid-19 pandemic – which incidentally originated in Wuhan, notwithstanding Beijing’s denials – derailed its efforts to topple the existing global order. America’s reluctance to help weaker and smaller nations in the biggest public health emergency helped China. But a large part of medical supplies China sent to other countries were actually export contracts. There was more bad news for Beijing.
From India to the Netherlands to Spain, Chinese medical equipment was rejected for failing to meet basic guidelines. Slovakia and Czech Republic followed suit. In the process, India, Australia, Taiwan and Japan faced economic and military repercussions for trying to put China on the mat. The pandemic exposed the vulnerability of Beijing’s large export-dependent economy. Post Covid-19, waves of protectionism that swept major economies demanded reduced dependence on China. There were loud calls to reduce or even shun trade ties with Beijing.

Dwivedi says that while wishing away China is neither possible nor desirable, its imperialistic efforts must be defeated. The book argues for a multi-polar solidarity to counter China economically, politically and military. What is needed is not just a nimble-footed response but a collective action plan. India and Japan, along with America, will play a vital role in checking Chinese propensity to change the status quo. But, first, India must make amends to its neglect and apathy which allowed it to loosen its presence in the Indian Ocean Region. For that, New Delhi will need a multi-pronged strategy.

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