The driver of Chinese strategy at this stage of its development lies in the yawning gap between its geo-economic power and geo-political capability. China has, without doubt, become an economic superpower. However, it is as yet far from becoming a geo-political super-power. Indeed, China may never acquire the geo-political influence and reach that Great Britain enjoyed in the 19th century and the United States of America did in the 20th, even though it may have already surpassed the geo-economic clout the two major powers enjoyed in the heyday of their empires. China’s “empire” does not as yet extend beyond its own claimed borders and those of its two principle allies — North Korea and Pakistan.
Most strategic analysts make the mistake of imagining that China has already been able to convert its geo-economic power, as the world’s largest trading nation with huge investible dollar surpluses, into military might and geo-political clout. This would be a simplistic understanding of how economic power gets translated into political power. The yawning gap that stares China in its face is its limited geo-political reach, despite the so-called Eurasian alliance with Russia. More to the point, China’s military capability is still limited. As the annual defence publication, Military Balance, published by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, shows, the US still spends more on defence then the combined defence spending of the next 10 powers, including Russia, China, Germany, France, UK, Japan, Saudi Arabia, India, South Korea and Brazil. S o how has China responded to this gap between economic might and political power? By buying influence. The Belt-Road Initiative is the latest spending programme aimed at buying friendships. It comes in the wake of the creation of financial institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the promotion of bilateral economic assistance programmes with neighbours and other developing economies. There is nothing new about this. All economically well-off nations have used what has been dubbed cheque-book diplomacy and China does so too. Apart from funding government-to-government lending, China has also been able to create global companies and global brands that have contributed to Chinese soft power. There is no denying the fact that China has been able to convert its economic might into commercial and technological capability. In short, China has emerged as a trading and a knowledge power.
However, precisely because China has not yet converted this geo-economic power into military capability and geo-political clout, it has used its economic and financial muscle to win friends and influence people. More importantly, China has used its geo-economic hard and soft power to launch a well-funded global psywar aimed at projecting its viewpoint across the world and influencing the responses to it. It has been able to use even the Western media to its advantage by successfully propagating certain views. For example, in the 1990s, when China was busy seeking and securing investment and know-how from Japan, it never made an issue of the treatment of Chinese women by Japanese soldiers in the first half of the 20th century. Once China no longer needed Japanese investment it began demanding Japan’s apology for past sins. Many have come to believe that China has a legitimate grievance against Japan, forgetting the fact that this grievance was never aired when China was Japan’s largest bilateral aid and investment recipient.
Strategic analysts around the world often like to quote Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu who famously said, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” This is precisely what China has been trying to do across the Asia-Pacific region and it will seek to do in the Indian Ocean region as well, at least in part because it has the economic capability to “subdue” but not yet the military might or geopolitical clout to fight and win. In the Doklam stand-off, China has tried to deploy its media to create a war psychosis, seeking to draw world attention to it and exert psychological pressure on India. The entire Doklam episode, including the behaviour of some Chinese diplomats in Delhi, has till now followed a textbook psywar strategy. So far it has yielded few results for China, thanks to India’s wise and calm response till now.
India is no Philippines. In the Philippines, China managed to declare victory by convincing President Rodrigo Duterte that friendship with China is a better bet than friendship with the United States. China subdued Philippines without fighting. China is now trying to exert similar pressure on other neighbouring countries. Two years after the passing away of its founder-leader, Singapore has become a new target for China’s psywar. China enjoys both economic and political influence in the island but the republic has inherited a proud tradition of independent thinking from its iconic founder Lee Kuan Yew. After making a lot of noise about building the Kra canal through Thailand aimed at ending Singapore’s strategic advantage in the Malacca Straits, China is now tom-toming the idea of a railway link through Malaysia with a similar end in mind. These are all mind games aimed at getting Singapore to kow-tow like Duterte did.
As part of a wider strategy of weakening Asean unity, picking off one small neighbour after another, China is twisting many arms in Southeast Asia not by using military force but by threatening to deploy economic weapons if its economic incentives fail to secure the intended response. China’s dogged pursuit of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement should also be viewed in this context.
Finally, North Korea. Here China is running with the hares and hunting with the hounds with the aim of underscoring its strategic relevance to Asia-Pacific security. Here, China’s behaviour is no different from that of the US in the past. Make oneself relevant to the security of a region by first making the region insecure. But the real point is that much of that insecurity is in the minds of the people. Unlike in Asia to India’s West, where people are actually dying due to conflict, in the Asia to India’s East the battles are as yet being staged in peoples’ minds. China’s armed forces may not engage India’s at Doklam but they will continue with their mind games aimed to get India, as indeed all its neighbours, to kow-tow, like Duterte did.