Two decades ago, there was ‘The Clash of Civilizations’, American political scientist Samuel P Huntington’s big thesis about the next global conflict arising out of a difference in cultures, rather than political ideology or economic vision. “Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations… The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future,” his famous essay in Foreign Affairs read. Huntington’s hypothesis was oft-repeated when the United States initiated unilateral wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, wars that have delivered few results apart from furthering the conflict in West Asia.
In his latest book The Costliest Pearl: China’s Struggle for India’s Ocean, journalist Bertil Lintner borrows another such hypothesis – the Thucydides’ Trap – to argue that China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean will put it on a collision course with several powers in the region, not least India, which, he says, has always considered the Ocean its own ‘lake’. The Thucydides’ Trap, put forth by Harvard political scientist Graham Allison, posits that “when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling one, the most likely outcome is war.” According to Allison, this has been true in 12 out of 16 such instances in the last 500 years.
While this neat formulation lends credence to the threat of an armed conflict, as strategic contests between China and countries such as the US and India intensifies, it also betrays a temptation to connect the dots after the fact. Despite China’s global ambitions (which are, to be fair, no longer a secret) and the US pushback via tariff wars and a crackdown on Chinese companies and state media, conventional warfare between the two will not be to either’s advantage and is not likely. “China is not the Soviet Union. For one thing, Soviet ideology was inherently opposed to any long-term coexistence with the United States… The CCP [Communist Party of China] does not share such beliefs. It is nationalist rather than internationalist in outlook”, wrote historian Odd Arne Westad to the question, ‘Are Washington and Beijing fighting a New Cold War?’ He added, “The party sees Washington as an obstacle to its goals of preserving its own rule and gaining regional dominance, but it does not believe that the United States or its system of government has to be defeated in order to achieve these aims.”
‘The Costliest Pearl’ does little to convince the sceptic why Djibouti cannot have a Chinese naval base when it already hosts troops from the US, Japan, France, Italy, Germany and Spain.
At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis has animated hawks on both sides even as both countries have faltered in their quest for global leadership. Although China has aggressively fought back against accusations of mishandling and underreporting the COVID-19 pandemic in its early stages, the faults in its ‘medical diplomacy’ are showing, vis-à-vis Taiwan and the World Health Organization. Across the Atlantic, the US also finds itself in hot water with the administration’s weak and slow response to the disease, even as the clamour to reopen the economy at the expense of lives seems to be gathering currency with the White House. The Trump administration has also been accused of ‘modern piracy’ because of its questionable acquisition of medical supplies, and has threatened allies like India with ‘retaliation’ if pharmaceuticals are not supplied.
Over the years, the US establishment’s view of China has been marred by its assumption that trade and globalisation naturally lead nation states towards the Washington-led liberal order. As the 2017 US National Security Strategy puts it: “for decades, U.S. policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post-war international order would liberalize China.” However, this doctrine ignores the fact that the end of ideology – rather than history – in global affairs has given nation states more room to manoeuvre in the complex terrain of a multipolar world. This is exactly the point that Lintner does not recognise: that historical antecedents may tell a different story, but in a world where the US wants to pull out of multilateral institutions of its own making, countries will inevitably hedge their bets and seek to maximise their gains, no matter which global power – or ideological force – stands on the other side of the door.
Lintner’s previous book, China’s India War, was intended as a corrective to the narrative pursued by journalist Neville Maxwell, whose authoritative India’s China War pinned the 1962 Sino-Indian War on New Delhi’s crude expansionism through Nehru’s Forward Policy. Lintner instead argued that China’s own ‘Forward Policy’ – the occupation of Tibet, the highway through the disputed territory of Aksai Chin, and the repression of Tibetans – were “much more aggressive and assertive” than India’s.
The Costliest Pearl continues in a similar vein, axiomatically taking India’s strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean as a given, but offering little on the foreign-policy missteps that allowed China a foothold in the region. The book elaborates on Chinese bilateral advances – economic and military – in countries and territories in the Indian Ocean to build a case for Chinese gains in the region, and suggests that it “is far more likely that something would go fundamentally wrong in the Indian Ocean” than anywhere else. However, Lintner doesn’t give a complete picture of that impending conflict, as he neither examines in detail the responses by governments threatened by China’s rise, nor unpacks the domestic complexities surely present within countries that received Chinese aid.
Beyond rhetoric, it has little to say about why smaller economies should not choose China’s ‘gift of development’ of their own volition, just as they once chose American, British, French or Indian aid.
Instead, a broad picture is painted, with histories of Indian Ocean countries neatly trimmed up into a generalisation – “All the island states have long histories of political instability and exploitation by colonialists, pirates, mercenaries, fraudsters and tricksters, and, more recently in the case of the Maldives, threats posed by Islamic extremists” – that leads the reader into a forewarned conclusion about China capitalising on such ‘easy preys’.
The Costliest Pearl’s chronological accounts of the countries in the Indian Ocean – oriented to demonstrate that China’s rise is a threat to the status quo in the region – may serve as a balm to analysts who already adhere to Lintner’s view. But it does little to convince the sceptic why Djibouti cannot have a Chinese naval base when it already hosts troops from the US, Japan, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, and, in the future, from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In fact, Lintner himself argues in his chapter on the Maldives – and as China found out in Sri Lanka, Nepal and South East Asia – “China’s policymakers have failed to understand the volatile and often unpredictable nature” of domestic politics and local actors.
Lintner is at his best while describing the “troubled history” between Myanmar and China. But the omission of a chapter on Sri Lanka – while the Australian islands of Coco (Keeling) and Christmas, and the French overseas territories of Reunion and Kerguelen, receive equal billing – is glaring. While the now-infamous Hambantota port and Sri Lanka’s debt crisis is noted in the book’s introduction, one would have preferred an insight into Colombo’s decision-making processes as much as those of the Maldives and Myanmar. This is not just because these countries are relatively more important in the geopolitical pecking order than the aforementioned territories (at least in the Southasian worldview), but also because one gets a better picture of the Sino-Indian strategic tussle through them.
While Lintner focuses on the strain placed on India’s influence in the region with China’s assertive rise, he does not elaborate on New Delhi’s interactions with Beijing beyond matters of security. New Delhi does recognise China’s growing presence has eroded its regional hegemony, but it continues to engage with Beijing through bilateral forums – such as the recent ‘informal’ dialogues between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping – or through multilateral ones – such as through BRICS – despite India’s opposition to BRI. India’s approval of Huawei for 5G trials as well as a new law mandating government clearance for FDI from countries with whom it shares a land border – read China – further illustrate the complicated nature of its interactions with China.
Nepal provides a good example of China not having it as easy as Lintner or sections of the Indian and Western press make it out to be.
The Costliest Pearl emphasises the history of Western colonialism in the Indian Ocean, and how some modern-day developments find their roots in the colonial past. It is a text security experts will particularly prefer; the dry prose focuses on nations or militaries and leaves little room for the stories of people, with history being viewed from the vantage of grand strategy that slots countries in either Western or Chinese camp. The Costliest Pearl wants the reader to believe in the looming danger a rising China poses. But beyond rhetoric, it has little to say about why smaller economies should not choose China’s ‘gift of development’ of their own volition, just as they once chose American, British, French or Indian aid.
The key argument Lintner makes, that China’s rise in the Indian Ocean challenges India’s primacy as the dominant naval power in this part of the world, and equally affects Western governments with security interests in the region, has been made before. Known as the ‘string of pearls’ strategy, coined by the US defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton in a 2004 report, it describes a series of strategic relationships running from southern China to West Asia that is said to encircle India. Lintner is right in arguing that China’s primary motivations in including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the Myanmar Corridor and the Maritime Silk Route as part of the BRI is to secure its energy interests and protect its commercial sea lanes. But his conclusion – “It is [China’s] strategic goals, not trade routes per se, that worry other countries in the Indian Ocean region” – is based on the assumption that trade goals and geostrategic goals are discrete, which they are not, as demonstrated by the ongoing US-China trade war.
Similarly, there is little evidence to suggest China consciously pursues ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ as a foreign-policy tool; there is, however, adequate evidence to suggest that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) negotiations and Chinese infrastructure projects have often been opaque, with contracts being awarded to China-backed companies without transparency in the bidding process. The Chinese government has also not been averse to working outside democratic systems, and made its displeasure clear when its narrative has been contradicted or when it has failed to understand local nuances.
At the same time, however, criticism from within BRI countries like Malaysia and Pakistan has led to a slowdown in the pace of the BRI globally. Countries have become more wary of low-cost loans from China, and there is also a new understanding that projects under the BRI are not grants but are executed through loans. China itself has backed down on its lending spree, with President Xi Jinping saying BRI projects need to be ‘sustainable’, ‘transparent’ and ‘risk-resistant’. In fact, the number of overseas investment loans over USD 1 billion that China has made dropped from 46 in 2016 and 28 in 2018, to only two commitments in the first half of 2019.
A Himalayan example
Nepal provides a good example of China not having it as easy as Lintner or sections of the Indian and Western press make it out to be. After a flurry of excitement about the Kerung-Kathmandu railway, which would link Tibet to the Nepali capital, there has been little progress on any of the nine projects that have been listed under BRI, although a few other infrastructure projects – particularly two new airports that are not listed under BRI – are progressing. After the handover of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, there was much conversation about ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ within Kathmandu’s media.
China’s backing, however, has allowed Nepali politicians to disregard its international human-rights commitments.
Further, the China-US strategic contest is playing out in public view in Nepal, with officials from both countries hurling ripostes at each other over comments on the BRI. Then there is the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact, supposed to counter BRI’s largesse with a USD 500 million American grant. The MCC, however, has raised new questions about whether ratifying it makes Nepal part of the Indo-Pacific strategic alliance. And finally, there is India, whose blunder of a blockade in 2015 made Kathmandu turn to the north; India is now quietly accelerating bilateral infrastructure projects under its aegis, as it has done in parts of Southasia, to recover lost ground.
While there are visible markers of China’s expanding influence across countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, actors in democratic societies will challenge ideas and projects they deem inimical to their interests. There are also obvious push backs both from rival powers and local political players. In Nepal, for instance, Beijing’s frustrations have been visible, with the ambassador saying the much-hyped transborder railway link will not be built ‘overnight’.
Further, the Chinese embassy’s overreaching statement in castigating The Kathmandu Post daily has alienated a section of the intelligentsia that had otherwise been remarkably silent about Beijing and its activities in the country. And although Chinese engagements in Nepal – particularly in the security establishment – have increased since 2008, Kathmandu’s motivation to look north is primarily a lesson learnt from the 2015 blockade to reduce Nepal’s economic dependence on India. In essence, Nepal’s turn towards China is as much a reaction to India’s micromanagement of Nepal’s domestic affairs during the transition years as it is a desire to accelerate economic growth through infrastructure development.
The most visible markers of China’s influence on a country like Nepal is on its institutions, and the slow erosion of civil rights through legislation. Whether that is China’s doing or a result of Nepali politicians’ bent towards authoritarianism cannot be immediately determined. China’s backing, however, has allowed Nepali politicians to disregard its international human-rights commitments, best seen in the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty and the Border Management Treaty signed during Xi Jinping’s visit (an extradition treaty was nipped in the bud). Both are focused on securing China’s security interests (read: clamping down on Tibetans in exile). The recent extradition of 122 Chinese nationals who were committing cybercrimes in China based out of Nepal has also raised several questions on the transparency and workings of such security agreements.
Lintner’s focus on building a narrative that suits the “grand anti-Chinese alliance” is a familiar one in Southasia. It evades the pressures that India’s regional hegemony puts on domestic political actors in neighbouring countries, and how its security-minded foreign policy has sidelined a nuanced people-to-people approach. Instead, Lintner relies on a popular but simplistic anti-China worldview that ignores the longstanding inequities of global politics. China is upsetting the apple cart, true, but perhaps a longer history of bilateral relations is needed to explain why Beijing has made new inroads into Southasia – and the Indian Ocean region – so quickly. For regardless of the ripples created by Beijing’s geopolitical advances, political elites in developing countries will continue to be swayed by the promises of China-financed growth. The Chinese government’s rhetoric of respecting the sovereignty of countries holds a lesson, too, especially with the sensitivities attached to foreign influence on domestic politics in countries in the global south. And finally, an increasingly unilateralist US foreign outlook that has weakened institutions like the United Nations – most recently demonstrated by the US administration’s decision to cut funding for the World Health Organization amid the COVID-19 crisis – offers little resistance against China.
What this tells us is that if there is to be a challenge to China’s rise, it can only come from an alternative roadmap to the developing world’s ambitions, a vision that counters China’s way of doing business while delivering similar results. “Competing with China cannot be done on the cheap,” Westad argued. He is absolutely correct.