AMONG the first things senior military commanders are taught is never to fight on two fronts.
Hitler and his Nazis learned this the hard way by attacking the Soviet Union while the German army was engaged in the West. Although the USSR lost over 25 million lives, the effort bled the Germans white, and led to their defeat.
In Germany’s case, it was Nazi ideology and Hitler’s hubris that drove the Panzers towards Moscow. Today, it is largely Trump’s mantra of ‘Make America Great Again’, combined with a right-wing belief in American supremacy, that has pushed the country into a pointless feud with China.
This is not to imply that a shooting war is around the corner, or that China is entirely blameless in this conflict. But basically, as the ban on Huawei demonstrates, the Americans are terrified of losing their technological edge. So to hold China back while they catch up, they are using their diplomatic clout to force compliant countries like the UK to fall into line.
If Trump is re-elected, US-China tensions can be expected to rise.
China, for its part, has refused to kowtow before American pressure, and has thus far mostly matched American sanctions in the trade war. But its actions to claim sovereignty over parts of the South China Sea has caused alarm across the region, and lost it friends like Vietnam, Myanmar and the Philippines. South Korea and Japan are now reviewing their defence postures against what they see as a resurgent China.
On the remote, mountainous Indo-Chinese border, the recent clashes show a willingness on both sides to use whatever it takes to keep the bits of that useless land they already have. Fortunately, good sense has prevailed in Beijing where the leadership seems to have realised that it had opened too many fronts, and the one with India could be moved to the back burner without losing much face.
When the opening up of the Chinese economy began under Deng Xiaoping, the new post-Mao leadership realised that despite Mao’s rhetoric, the economic and military imbalance between China and America was too great for an open confrontation. Their long-term strategy was therefore to achieve economic strength that would lead to acquiring modern military capability.
Until Xi Jinping’s elevation to the presidency, China’s immediate ambitions were relatively modest, focusing on the economy, cutting-edge technology, modern armaments and training. But increasingly, its naval and aerial patrols began challenging US ships and planes that approached its coast.
Now, following Trump’s election, and his sabre-rattling over trade, Xi has stood his ground and exchanged duty hike for duty hike. However, China’s brutal treatment of the Uighur Muslims and its crackdown on Hong Kong protesters is helping America forge an anti-China front. The emergence of Covid-19 in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and Beijing’s mishandling of the early information about the disease, didn’t help varnish China’s image either.
President Xi’s visionary Belt and Road Initiative has been suffering from delays and charges of extortionate rates on loans, as well as allegedly corrupt practices by local and Chinese investors. All these factors have combined to transform China into the bad guy; luckily for Xi, Trump’s behaviour has moved the focus of some of this acrimony to Washington.
But while there have been protests and editorials in the West against the inhumane incarceration of up to a million Uighurs in Xinjiang province, the Muslim world has been shamefully silent. Had this happened to a group of Muslims in the West, you can bet there would be violent protests every day. But by staying out of the internal affairs of usually harsh Muslim regimes, and selling them arms with no questions asked about human rights violations, China has earned a get-out-of-jail card from most of them.
If Trump gets re-elected, we can expect tensions to escalate with the real possibility of the ongoing cold war turning into an armed conflict. Four more years of Trump are too awful to contemplate. And even if Biden gets into the White House, don’t expect a U-turn: both countries are carrying too much baggage at this point to back off.
I often ask English critics of the curtailment of freedom in Hong Kong how much democracy was permitted in the colony when Britain was ruling it in the last century. The fact is that far worse human rights violations have happened in ex-British colonies in the recent past without drawing the kind of protests we are seeing against the Chinese treatment of violent Hong Kong demonstrators.
There’s a general feeling in much of Europe and America that China’s rise is upsetting the ‘natural order of things’. In fact, these were the words used by an English politician who was castigated for racism recently. However, said or unsaid, this is the sentiment in even liberal circles who seem to feel that somehow, the white races have a God-given right to call the shots. So China’s rise is generally welcomed by non-white countries.
Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2020