Victorious warriors win first and then go to war. - Sun Tsu
China – on the back foot all year because of its coronavirus handling – played catch up to Sun Tsu last week when it sent a strong message to the world during the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) annual National People’s Congress (NPC) held in Beijing. It hiked China’s defense budget 6.6% to USD 179 billion and approved a national security law that bypasses local lawmakers to ban “treason, secession, sedition and subversion” in Hong Kong.
Other subtle hints were no less strong. Though 2 months late due to COVID-19, the NPC comes at a time when the rest of the world is struggling. The 5000 delegates sat next to each other, wearing masks. Top leaders of CPC, including President Xi Jinping, did not.
This lack of social distancing is not akin to the bravado promoted by President Donald Trump. The delegates gathered from across China were tested multiple times. It is a victory parade intended to tell the world that China beat the virus without needing a vaccine.
China’s growing confidence in its abilities has been visible all through May.
Aware that their Hong Kong decision will raise a stink, it pre-emptively sent nations an explanatory dossier. The one sent to India said: “upholding national security” in Hong Kong was “purely China’s internal affair and no foreign country may interfere in this matter”. Given India’s terrible track record in Kashmir, this was meant to checkmate.
Other lines in the communique camouflaged threat: “Hong Kong’s prosperity and long-term stability is in line with the common interests of the whole international community, including your country, as well as protection of your country’s legitimate interests in Hong Kong”.
China preceded these veiled threats with physical assaults as ‘incidents’ were reported in four different areas along India’s Line of Actual Control with China: at Pangong lake in Ladakh on May 5, at Naku La in Sikkim on May 9, and two places in Ladakh – Galwan valley and Demchok, leading to a build-up of troops by both sides.
Indian soldiers were injured, prompting India’s Army Chief, General Manoj Naravane to visit the Leh-based 14 Corps headquarters in Ladakh to assess the situation.
Such aggression puts India in a precarious spot as China has the world’s largest military and its defense budget is nearly three times that of India, increasing steadily in the last six years of President Xi’s rule. China - the world’s second-largest military spender - seems to be inching closer to the largest – USA, which spends over 4 times more than China.
China’s increased military spending puts extra pressure on India to raise its own defense budget, considering also that China became the world’s fifth-largest exporter of major arms between 2014-2018 supplying to 53 states. A bulk of it - 37% - went to Pakistan.
The other problem is a lack of transparency with almost every data coming from China. Defense analysts claim China spends more on its military than it announces. As per the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China’s military expenditure in 2019 was $261 billion, much higher than its stated $177.61 billion figures.
With global trust in China at its lowest since 1989’s Tiananmen square massacre and President Trump upping his anti-China rhetoric; the stage seems set for a US-China cold war.
Cold War 2.0 won’t be for ideological supremacy. Though Chinese propaganda harps on what it calls “socialist consultative democracy” – in practice China looks like an autocracy led by President Xi. And though China – since it joined the free market in 1978 - calls its economic model “socialist market economy” with state ownership of most enterprises, China and USA are fighting for dominance over global free markets and not their economic models.
Despite expanding its economic power across Asia by revitalising centuries-old trade routes and via its foray into Africa, China is still largely a local power that flexes its muscles against weak neighbours like India but exercises military restraint against USA. Despite Trump relinquishing US lead in global politics with theatrics like threats to pull WHO funding and China jumping in with $2 billion promise to fight coronavirus – USA continues to hold military bases worldwide. This does not mean US will emerge an inevitable victor if the cold war with China turns hot for China not only has 2 million troops, its military is almost entirely geared to defeat the US.
Thus a Sino-US cold war won’t be as hot as the Russo-US one. This is also because the economies of both countries are entwined. China makes a large part of its money through manufacturing for US companies which make a large part of their profits and retain their competitive edge because of low cost Chinese manufacturing.
Yet, no matter how hot or cold this war blows, India will find itself sandwiched. Throughout its almost similar duration of modern history beginning in the 1940s, India and China have quarreled for influence across Asia with China winning comprehensively. This does not mean India does not aspire to usurp China. The coronavirus pandemic has provided India a golden opportunity to do so.
Apple has said it is considering moving up to $40 billion worth of smartphone production over the next five years to India. Many other businesses are diversifying away from China to other Asian nations. If India lays out a red carpet, more US and European businesses could migrate - at least partially - to India.
During the Russo-US cold war, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru spearheaded the Non-Aligned Movement to stay away from both power blocks. Today India is aligned with the US. If Trump comes back to power next year, ideological similarities will make Indo-US ties stronger and Sino-Indian conflict, tenser.
China flexing its muscle when the world is on its knees is wanting to be victorious before going to war.
Does that mean China has a chance to win the cold war? Hardly. Notwithstanding its many true efficiencies and false propaganda, what China cannot wash its hands off, is its horrid human rights abuse of the Uighurs and its dictatorial designs on Hong Kong. Despite its promises, China’s “socialist consultative democracy” will find few takes globally for its lack of either consultation or democracy and because most millennials consider democracy – even a malfunctioning one – better than an efficient autocracy where even basic freedoms are curbed to serve a ruthless state.
China, hence, would do well to remember another Sun Tzu quote: the wise warrior avoids the battle.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)