The end of the Cold War heralded the emergence of numerous fast developing economies in Asia, South America, Africa, China and Russia, strengthening the expectation of the establishment of a multipolar world by the middle of the 21st Century.
The phenomenal strength and speed of the rise of China has fundamentally altered the rules of interstate engagement not only for the developing world but also for the developed and politically established powers including the U.S. and Europe. With its strong and sustained economic power which gives it the requisite strength to pursue its geopolitical and geostrategic agenda, China’s political outreach has increased manifold.
Simultaneously dawdling growth and mounting domestic pressures has sapped the ability of developed economies to maintain their authority on the global platform. The absence of determined action on serious matters and lack of consensus among the multilateral institutions has also resulted in developing countries increasingly challenging the legitimacy, relevance and efficacy of these multilateral organizations. They face accusations of reflecting an outdated post-Second World War balance of global power, while others are so large, ideologically diverse or financially constrained that decision-making and implementation is hard to achieve.
Demographic and economic changes, such as growing middle classes in most emerging-market countries, ageing populations in developed countries and fast expanding populations across much of North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, are transforming societal expectations and shaping national political priorities.
With growing scale and assertiveness, large emerging-market countries are, therefore, eager to play an increasingly significant role in both the economic and political orientation of the emerging world order. All this has led to a global leadership vacuum fueling geopolitical instability and exacerbating global governance challenges, resulting in undesirable consequences for the long-term development of systemically important sectors such as energy, financial services and healthcare.
While China is set to overtake the U.S. as the largest economy in the coming years, Brazil and India among BRICS nations have suffered due to COVID-19, particularly India where the inability and inefficiency of the Modi government has seriously questioned the economic and political stability of India, delaying – if not diminishing – its chances of emerging as one of the pillars of a multipolar world in the near future.
In this state of uncertainty and geopolitical flux, the U.S. Strategic Competition Act 2021 has been passed that includes measures not only to address the economic competition with China, but also humanitarian and democratic values, such as imposing sanctions over the treatment of the minority Muslim Uighurs and supporting democracy in Hong Kong. The bill seeks to counter the expanding global influence of the People’s Republic of China by formalizing the policy objective of the United States to “sustain its global leadership role” and declaring that the Chinese government is leveraging its political, diplomatic, economic, military, technological, and ideological power to compete with the United States on a global stage.
This is a bipartisan bill passed with a huge majority as there is one issue on which there is virtual unanimity of views and consensus amongst all stakeholders in the United States, whether they belong to the Executive Branch or the Legislative Branch or even the media and the think tanks, that is on coming up with new ideas and proposals to counter what has come to be popularly known as ‘the policy of containing China’.
Virtually all Americans are convinced that China represents the only potential threat to U.S.’ global dominance. This is deeply worrying for all Americans ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and emergence of the United States as the world's sole superpower. It is U.S.’ political system and the economic framework that has been held up as the panacea for all the ills afflicting the globe. The senate’s bill represents the views of both the political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, that China needs to be contained and its global influence countered through a range of political and business protective measures that include a whole lot of activities that USA believes can inhibit, reduce, retard and slowdown China’s growing influence.
Whether it be the activities of the state-owned enterprises in China or China’s Huawei 5G equipment or its high tech industry, the United States believes that even with a large budgetary allocation of roughly 100 billion dollars, the United States may not be able to match the speed and scale of China’s IT budget of nearly 378 billion dollars and what that can achieve. This bill can, therefore, be seen as an attempt to plug that gap until the time the United States can play catch-up.
The Strategic Competition Act contains provisions focused more on containing and weakening China than on improving the competitiveness of the United States. Within this act are measures that connect America’s action on both the business and political issues. What is surprising, however, is not really the measures recommended but the manner in which it has been framed, which is highly combative and represents an inherent hostility of the legislators towards China. Therefore, instead of improving bilateral relations it could assure a decoupling of the relationship.
This bill accuses China of promoting its governance model and attempting to weaken other models of governance by undermining democratic institutions, subverting financial institutions, coercing businesses to accommodate the policies of the PRC and using disinformation to disguise the nature of its actions.
I would also like to mention here that there is nothing new about this bill. In fact, the United States has been trying to create a ring of protective ties with China's neighbors in order to create a kind of a curtain around China primarily through its close allies such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and India. In the pursuit of this goal, the U.S. is also counting on India which is where this trend is a cause of major concern for Pakistan.
It would be recalled that only a week before the U.S. presidential elections Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper had rushed to New Delhi to sign with their Indian counterparts an agreement to share high end military technology, classified satellite data, and other critical information relating to missiles and drones. This agreement known as Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) was the latest in a series of U.S.-India agreements designed to counter China's influence in the Indo-Pacific region. This understanding was only the latest edition to the steady growth of U.S.-India strategic cooperation which commenced in 1995 with the signing of the agreed minutes or defense relations between the USA and India.
This was followed by the signing of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in 2000 and then the New Framework for the U.S.-India Defence Relationship in 2005. Next was the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement also in 2005, followed by the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 and then the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018. These aggregates in my view confirm that the U.S. is determined to build India and to enhance its offensive capability so as to convince her to join the U.S. in containing China in what it perceives is the inevitable confrontation with her. The U.S. is oblivious to the fact that this policy has the potential to upset the strategic balance between Pakistan and India, while enhancing India's capacity to browbeat its others smaller neighbors.
In the past, the U.S. government was open to interacting with China, but this particular bill assumes that the Chinese Communist Party represents a repressive regime. What it really does not state but implies is that over time China's economic and potential political power across the globe makes it inevitable that China's political system will be seen by other countries of the world as an attractive alternative and therefore, it is classified or characterized as a malign influence.
Some commentators in America are of the view that the Strategic Competition Act 2021 makes it clear that the Senate and increasingly other elements of the United States administration see China as an adversary with which there can be no negotiations but only a state of competition and confrontation. It also makes it clear that while it does not promote military solutions to China-U.S. conflict it does promote U.S.’ cooperation with allies as well as reinforcement of U.S.’ capacities and capabilities to counter China.
The Strategic Competition Act 2021 also pledges hundreds of millions of dollars for media-focused initiatives against China, including USD300 million annually to spread news (likely negative) about the Belt and Road Initiative; to run anti-Chinese influence programs; to train journalists to counter Beijing; and to expand the Chinese-language operation of U.S. media arm Radio Free Asia. The envisages creating staff positions in the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to investigate and possibly sanction individuals’ businesses, civic groups, educational institutions and governments in foreign countries that have economic, social, cultural or family ties to China.
All this will only sharpen rivalry between the USA and China; a stalemate in bilateral relations with global consequences. Pakistan will also come under pressure especially as we are close partners with China but also due to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Financial Action Task Force (FATF) are two immediate levers against us, along with Afghanistan that is also being used to coerce us. In order to safeguard our critical national interests including CPEC, both China and Pakistan need to coordinate to have a media strategy to counter such propaganda.
The Strategic Competition Act 2021 defines China’s participation in international infrastructure projects as a threat to the United States. This will force our allies and partners to choose between the United States and China for infrastructure development on national security grounds and will encourage unwelcome and potentially illegal U.S. intervention in the domestic politics of foreign nations.
Navigating through a fractured and potentially volatile geopolitical environment, further complicated by the openly confrontational posture of the USA towards China, will require foresight, flexibility and fresh thinking for countries, companies and multilateral organizations alike. In the face of potential surprises and reversals, the agile and the adaptable are most likely to thrive.
In this scenario, crucial geopolitical variables that will likely influence global development over the next few decades include the ability of main emerging markets to successfully deliver on substantial economic growth and the willingness of leading powers to cooperate economically and on global governance issues. Failing this, the sustainability of a much awaited transition to a multipolar world may never become a reality.
The writer has served as an Ambassador to China, the European Union, Belgium, Luxembourg and Ireland. She has also authored and edited several books including Magnificent Pakistan, Pakistan-China All Weather Friendship, and Lost Cities of Indus.
E-mail: [email protected]
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