A flurry of diplomatic activities in the past couple of weeks starting with the first summit meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue on March 12 mark a historic transition in the world order.
While the Western world has been the locus of international politics for the past five centuries, that is most certainly shifting toward the Asia-Pacific region.
Not only the US but the major European powers have indicated a new focus in their strategies on the Asia-Pacific. The latest to do so is the UK. Equally, Russia’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific that began with the estrangement with the West following the regime change in Ukraine in 2014, is acquiring a raison d’être in terms of its global strategies.
Suffice to say, the West is coming to the East, so to speak. Nothing of this sort happened during the Cold War.
This inflection point needs to be properly understood. Two vectors are in play here – the economic dynamism of the countries of the Asia-Pacific region that makes it a hugely important link in the global supply chain and potentially a driver of growth for the world economy, and, second, of course, China’s surge as a superpower with a strong likelihood that by the end of the decade, it will have emerged as the No 1 economic power, overtaking the US.
The two are interrelated. But the salience is that this isn’t going to be about hiding missiles in underground silos or moving them around mounted in trucks or rail cars to hoodwink the enemy.
As David Sanger, the veteran White House and national-security correspondent and senior writer for The New York Times, wrote last week while surveying the theatrical diplomacy at the US-China talks in Alaska, “the Cold War has not resumed – there is little of the nuclear menace of that era, and the current competition is over technology, cyber-conflict and influence operations.
“The superpower rivalries today bear little resemblance to the past.… [China’s] pathway to power is building new networks rather than disrupting old ones.… Their power arises not from their relatively small nuclear arsenal or their expanding stockpile of conventional weapons. Instead, it arises from their expanding economic might and how they use their government-subsidized technology to wire nations.…
“Ultimately, it will come from how they use those networks to make other nations dependent on Chinese technology.”
Sanger adds: “Which is why Jake Sullivan, [US President Joe] Biden’s national security adviser, warned in a series of writings in recent years that it could be a mistake to assume that China plans to prevail by directly taking on the United States military in the Pacific.”
But then, why are the Pentagon commanders doing all this beating of the war drum? The noted columnist and author Fareed Zakaria has a straightforward explanation. In a column in The Washington Post titled “The Pentagon is using China as an excuse for huge new budgets,” Zakaria wrote:
“The Pentagon operates in a realm apart from any other government agency. It spends money on a scale that is almost unimaginable – and the waste is, too. Every government agency is required to audit its accounts, but for decades, the Pentagon simply flouted this law.…
“Having spent two decades fighting wars in the Middle East without much success, the Pentagon will now revert to its favorite kind of conflict, a cold war with a nuclear power. It can raise endless amounts of money to ‘outpace’ China, even if nuclear deterrence makes it unlikely there will be an actual fighting war in Asia.”
Of course, militaries everywhere are the same. But statesmen ultimately have to find the money for the generals. And President Biden is acutely conscious of the staggering cost of an agenda to rebuild America.
The Covid-19 relief package cost US$1.9 trillion. Now he’s aspiring to push through Congress, no matter what it takes, a historic package to invest in infrastructure, education, workforce development – and for fighting climate change – which is estimated to cost another $3 trillion.
Clearly, a good preview of Biden’s thinking was available from the way he rewrote the script for the Quad, taking it to domains that dovetail into his program as a tool for competition with China – vaccine diplomacy and the tech revolution and the race to set new standards for the 21st century. Of course, there is always a rhetorical part to diplomacy, but do not miss the forest for the trees. (See my blog “Quad: Say It Like Modi.”)
It is a mind game. And the Quad members understand the rules of the game.
The Quad summit was followed by two meetings of the foreign and defense ministers of the US, Japan and South Korea in the 2+2 format in Tokyo (March 16-18) and Seoul (March 18); the three-day visit of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to New Delhi (beginning March 19); the first formal meeting of top US and Chinese officials at Anchorage (March 20-21); the China-Russia foreign ministers’ meeting in Guilin (March 22-23); and the South Korea-Russia foreign ministers’ meeting in Seoul (March 23-24).
Fresh from Anchorage, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Brussels on March 22-25 to participate in the NATO Foreign Ministerial with a purposive agenda.
The State Department readout said, “NATO leaders are actively considering the security implications of China’s aggressive and coercive behavior. Beijing is investing in infrastructure in Europe, while at the same time building up its military and expanding its footprint in cyberspace, [in] the Arctic, and in areas that directly affect trans-Atlantic security, including the Middle East and Africa.”
The point is, China is another “undercurrent of tension” now in the trans-Atlantic relationship. The New York Times reported from Brussels, “European allies are reluctant to be pushed into an American-led confrontation with China.… Blinken promised that ‘the United States won’t force our allies into an ‘us-or-them’ choice with China.”
Indeed, while proceeding to Brussels, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab could already foresee that China wasn’t actually the bee in the NATO bonnet but the Russian threat. Suffice to say, when the Charles de Gaulle, the flagship of the French Navy, or HMS Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s newest 65,000-ton aircraft carrier, appear in the Indian Ocean or sail through the Strait of Malacca, a sense of equanimity is needed.
The recent “Integrated Review of the UK’s Defence, Security, Development and Foreign Policy” published on March 16 comes as a badly needed reality check for Indian analysts. The document, which sets the tone, priorities and narrative of post-Brexit Global Britain, flags that London’s “Indo-Pacific tilt” isn’t going to be framed principally within a defense and security context, as “we will not match the security presence of our Pacific allies.”
The document says: “The substance of this ‘tilt’ will be expressed through an increasing involvement in regional trade via CPTPP, supporting action on climate change and the promotion of British values, the reinvigoration of our relationship with India, and our request for partner status at ASEAN. Our role in this region recognizes that others have already developed productive forums for engagement, and we do not need to reinvent the wheel.”
The document adds, “Our relationship with China will remain complicated, and aligned closely with the approach of Biden’s administration … the UK government will continue to pursue a fundamentally distinctive approach to China than our relationship to Russia provides.”
While Russia is characterized as simply a strategic rival and hostile state, China’s economic dominance and specific role in the international community – which the Review describes as a “systemic challenge” – requires a “different frame.”
Thus the Review sets out “a more robust diplomatic framework for challenging China’s human-rights record and its behavior as a global actor, but also acknowledges the need to keep open pathways for engagement on other areas – whether economically, on climate change, or higher education. This approach aligns us closely with the view of the Biden administration.”
Biden’s press conference on Thursday left nothing to the imagination on where his priorities lie – and, importantly, what he has been “hired for” by the American people, as he starkly phrased it.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.