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The Quad: Part 5 – US – China Relationship; By Subramanyam Sridharan

Updated: Feb 2, 2023

Image Courtesy: Asia Society

Article 02/2022

Is the QUAD a Concert?

Even though the then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had, as far back as c. 2007, envisioned the QUAD as the instrument for “freedom and prosperity” in the Asia-Pacific region against China without mentioning it by name as such, and even though he had also later referred to the QUAD nations as the ‘democratic security diamond’ against coercion, it is no exaggeration to say that the root of the QUAD has been and will remain the USA. However, after the initial discussions and the joint maritime exercise among these nations in c. 2007, there was no further perceptible movement by the QUAD until c. 2017.

The US continues to maintain a 23% share in the global economic output for several decades now. It is really difficult for an advanced economy to retain its place like this. On the other hand, the developing economy of China which had just a 3% economic share at the time of c. 1979 when the US-China relationship thawed, has now raised it to 17%. The US is the sole superpower in the world today though China has developed enough to take the second spot. The American sheen began to dim for various reasons, including the Afghanistan War following the events of 9/11, the Iraq War, the financial crisis that followed the bankruptcy of the world’s biggest financial services firm, the Lehman Brothers in c. 2007 et al. Seizing this opportunity, China began to fill up spaces vacated by the US. It began to feel that its ideology and governance were superior to those of Western democracies. The sarcasm that China directed against these countries during the Covid pandemic of 2020-2021 is but a manifestation of such a belief.

American President Trump referred to China as the ‘strategic competitor’ of the US. His successor President Biden said, upon assuming power, that he would not let China become, ‘the leading, the wealthiest and the most powerful country on his watch’. The triple acts of the new Biden administration, namely, reference to the importance of the QUAD by the new National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan within the very first week of the inauguration of the new administration,  the virtual meeting of the four QUAD leaders within the next two months announcing important decisions through the first joint statement ever by the QUAD leaders, and the conduct of the in-person meeting of the QUAD leaders in the White House within the next six months, that is by September 2021, showed clearly that the importance and role of the US in the QUAD would not change even with changes in the administrations.

Ever since the American market was opened up for the Chinese products in 1979, the American companies had started investing heavily in China. The US allowed unhindered access to American universities for Chinese students making them the largest student community in the US. It strengthened immeasurably the Chinese diplomacy by enabling it to get membership in important world bodies (for example, the US asked China to bring a Resolution 1172 in the UNSC, condemning India’s Pokhran-II tests in c. 1998). Such actions by the US allowed China grow in stature tremendously on the world stage. As China realized that only the US could help it grow exponentially in this manner, it followed Realpolitik and temporarily gave up its overt anti-US stance. Such an about-turn did not in any way endanger its strategic autonomy.

China characterizes its international relations into five tiers. At the lowest tier is ‘Cooperative Partnership’ with the one just above it, the ‘Comprehensive Cooperative Partnership’. The next higher tier is ‘Strategic Partnership’ with the fourth being the ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’. The apex tier is the ‘Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership’. With the emerging QUAD developments in the back of its mind, China successfully wooed the ASEAN to elevate its partnership, central to the Indo-Pacific, to Tier Four, ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership for Peace, Security, Prosperity and Sustainable Development’ in June 2021. Beyond these five tiers, China has unique relationships with Pakistan and Russia. The China-Pakistan relationship is denoted uniquely as ‘All-weather Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership’ while with Russia it is called, ‘Priority Partnership’. Between 2013 and 2021, the Russian President Putin and the Chinese President Xi Jinping have met each other an unprecedented 25 times and call each other as ‘dear friends.’

Both the USA and China practice realism in their foreign policies, especially the US which has not hesitated to change its policies, friends, and enemies. In International Relationship Theory, this approach is called ‘Realpolitik’. Even though China may not act so swiftly, it is not far behind the USA in practice of this aspect of statecraft.

The hundred-year period of c. 1815 to 1914 CE is referred to as Pax Britannica for the stability it brought to the world order just like the earlier Pax Romana which lasted from 27 BCE to 180 CE. Xi Jinping now believes that the time has come for Pax Sinica. It is Xi Jinping’s intention to replace the existing Liberal International Order (LIO) based on the 17th century Treaty of Westphalia-defined Sovereignty, Democracy, Human Rights and International Laws, Codes and Conventions with his own idea of a ‘Community of Common Destiny’. Xi is yet to describe the contours of such a new order. At the same time, many believe that a concert of nations is needed now in the Indo-Pacific in the same way that such a concert established peace and stability in Europe after Napoleon (d. 1821). In the Indo-Pacific, which has become the focal point of the world today, besides the official QUAD, and now the AUKUS, the ‘QUAD Plus’ is also taking shape. Besides these, the 27-member European Union also officially announced its ‘strategic approach’ to the Indo-Pacific in September 2021. Some even refer to Pax Britannica as the ‘Concert of Europe’. In the ‘European Concert’, the then five major powers of the UK, France, Russia, Prussia and Austria were the members. Is the QUAD a similar ‘Concert of Asia’?

Cold War 1.0 and the Chinese Narrative

Even though the US and the Soviet Union allied together to defeat Hitler in World War II, the two not only fell apart at the end of the War but began to oppose each other due to differing ideologies. Even though this split did not lead to a full-fledged war, the two nations became leaders of two opposing blocs. The two competed against each other to gain superiority in such areas as Science and Technology, Military might, Politics, Space Science, Economics, Trade et al. This competition extended to such ‘soft-power’ fields as arts and literature. The American President, as far back as March 1947, listed the reasons for the Cold War as follows: “One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms. . . The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms.” This underlined the roots of the Cold War. This race lasted from c. 1949 until 1992. Even though it was described as the ‘ideological war’ between Capitalism and Communism, it must be treated more as the battle between Democracy and authoritarian Communism. The unsustainability of the latter led to the process of ‘Demokratizatsiya’ reform under President Gorbachev in the single party ruled Soviet Union. In the same vein and in the same period, it manifested in the Tiananmen Square incidents on June 4, 1989, in the single party ruled Communist China too, as student demands and protests. Deng Xiao Ping suppressed this with an iron hand. Hundreds of students were killed in the violent suppression of this revolt.

However, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) protected itself from further fallouts, unlike its mentor, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF). The most important lesson that the CCP learnt from the failure of the CPRF was that the CCP must accumulate all powers within itself and rule in a way that such radical thoughts as Democracy do not take roots among the people of China. The most important challenge that Gorbachev faced upon assuming power in c. 1985 was how to strengthen the economy. So, he introduced the economic restructuring process of ‘Perestroika’. The reform was attempted in the belief that the free and open market economy of the Western countries was a better model than the command economy of the Communist country and ‘Perestroika’ would raise USSR’s economy to Western levels. Since it also required an openness in governance in order to successfully implement ‘Perestroika’, he also introduced ‘Glasnost’ (transparency). Even though these reforms bestowed the Nobel Peace Prize upon him, the Soviet Union was beset only with more problems than before.

Since the CCP felt that the collapse and the disintegration of the USSR happened only because it introduced ideas contrary to Communism, it became imperative for China to introduce modern ideas without weakening the fundamental principles of Communism. It is with this understanding that Xi Jinping has infiltrated the CCP in everything, from military to economy. The reason why the Chinese Communist leaders make repeated references about how the CCP ‘defeated’ Japan, expelled it from China and saved China from the humiliation of foreign occupation, is to drive home the point to the Chinese citizens that there is nobody else who can provide stable and strong governance. At the same time, its claim that China won against the ‘Fascist forces’ in the Second World War is to emphasize the CCP’s historiography to the rest of the world that China has been a leading player in the establishment of a ‘New World Order’ (NWO). As we already saw in Part-I of this series, this is yet another instance of entwining the foreign and domestic policies into a hegemonic false narrative. After the March 20,2021 meeting between the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers, the position that these two countries took was that the existing world order under the US leadership has lost the confidence of the international community and they instead offered a better alternative model of global governance which, they said, only both of them could lead.

It is the combined wisdom of the Chinese Communist leaders that such actions do raise its prestige among the Chinese citizens. The main reason for such a thinking is the historical memory of the chaos that was prevalent in China in the period between c. 1912 and 1949. The Chinese military commander Gen. Yuan Shikai, who usurped power from the last Qing Emperor in c. 1912, enforced ‘Constitutional Monarchy’ in China. He thought that such an idea would help bridge the chasm for a nation that had been accustomed to 3000 years of Imperial governance and the extant demands of democracy. But it ended in failure. Later, Sun-Yat Sen established a Republic. After him, Kuomintang’s Gen. Chiang Kai-Shek took over power. The US helped the Chiang Kai-shek government. There was more chaos in China and ultimately the Communists seized power. Therefore, the CCP requires constant approval from people until today.

In the nascent years of the Cold War 1.0, China received support from the Soviet Union, its mentor. Later, in the 1960s, the relationship soured on issues such as ideology and border demarcation. China felt that instead of taking the Communist revolution to the heartland of capitalist countries, the USSR was compromising with them as it happened in the Cuban Crisis of 1962. China’s victory in its 1962 war with India enhanced China’s and Mao’s prestige, or at least that was what China felt. China broke off its relationship with the USSR and later attacked it in c. 1969. As the USSR loomed as its major threat, China jumped the Communist bandwagon and joined hands with its eternal enemy, the US with which it had accused the USSR of compromising, purely with the intention of eliminating the USSR as its threat. The Cold War 1.0 came to an end in 1991 when the USSR disintegrated. But a new Cold War, Cold War 2.0, is emerging in the world and that is between the US and China as the twin opposing poles.

The US-China Relationship (1950-2000)

Here we would see how the US-China relationship progressively deteriorated just as we had seen in Part-IV how the India-Australia relationship progressively improved.

In c. 1898, the US captured the strategic Hawaii islands situated in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean and then the Guam islands in South-western Pacific. Hawaii and Guam became important ‘coaling stations’ for the American ships which employed coal-fired boilers for their steam-powered paddle boats. As we had seen in Part-III, the American Naval Commander Mathew Perry had already forcibly opened the closed ports of Japan, closed for 250 years until then, for the logistics coordination of the American navy. Later, the US Navy defeated the Spanish in the Caribbean Sea and later took control of the Philippines too in Western Pacific c. 1898. During his world tour of c. 1881, the Hawaiian Emperor David Kalakaua had forewarned China of the emerging power of the USA and the threat it posed to Hawaii and the Pacific nations. However, the Chinese Emperor was indifferent. But now, the increasing proximity of an emerging but a far-away power created anxiety in the established Chinese Empire of 2500 years old. Soon enough, the US joined hands with the colonial powers and stepped into China itself. A moribund Qing Empire could not do much. The Chinese concluded that the Pacific Ocean was an important buffer, and that the US was a security threat. But today, the situation is upside down. The rapidly emerging China is directly challenging the established power of the USA.

Mao Ze-dong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China from the renowned Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949. Soon, North Korea intruded into South Korea upon the instigation of the USSR in June 1950. Red China not only vocally supported North Korea but sent its Army and Air Force there to fight along the North Vietnamese forces. The US also got involved in the Korean War as mandated by the UN. Later, during the 20-year long Vietnam War, the then US Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara said that one of the reasons for the involvement of the US in Vietnam was not only to prevent the Communist North Vietnam from occupying a democratic South Vietnam, but also to keep Red China under control. China considers Russia, Pakistan which is inimical to India, the uneasy relationship between Japan and South Korea, the incohesive and indecisive ASEAN, a North Korea which threatens the USA, Japan and South Korea, as its buffers in the same way it considers Depsang, Galwan and Pangong Tso areas as its buffer for its G-219 Highway in Ladakh. The help it extends to Pakistan militarily, diplomatically, and economically, the dissensions it causes in the ASEAN, the coercion it employs against small nations, its roguish actions in the South China Sea, and the various help it provides clandestinely to a heavily sanctioned North Korea are done with the sole intention of strengthening its buffer and enhancing its hegemony. North Korea is today estimated to possess sixty nuclear weapons. It also has missiles that can not only hit its immediate neighbours of Japan and South Korea but also a faraway USA (as we have seen in Part-III).

The US-China relationship which was at its lowest ebb as a result of the Korean War took two decades to thaw. In c. 1954, the US and Taiwan (RoC) had signed the ‘US-Sino Defense Mutual Defense Assistance Treaty’. During the ‘First Taiwan Crisis’ of 1954-55, the ‘Second Taiwan Crisis’ of c. 1958, and the ‘Third Taiwan Crisis’ of 1995-1996, the US displayed its overwhelming military might, presence and threats which forced China to retreat. The two countries agreed to re-establish their relationship in c. 1972 against a common enemy, the USSR. A formal alliance had existed until then between the US and Taiwan, which the US scrapped in c. 1979. It decided to reverse its policy of recognizing Taiwan as the real China and instead recognized Red China as ‘One China’. The US-Taiwan Defense Treaty was abrogated. But Taiwan’s security is ensured by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of c. 1979 and the ‘Six Assurances’ that the US President Ronald Reagan gave to Taiwan in c. 1982. The four American Laws on Taiwan enacted in the period between 2018 and 2021 recognize the above two as the foundations of the US assurance to Taiwan on its security. Both the US and China stated their position on Taiwan in the communiques that they signed in c. 1972, 1979 and then in 1982.  These are known as the ‘Three Communiques’. Republic of China, RoC (Taiwan) was expelled from the UN and China became a permanent member of the UNSC. It got inducted as a veto-wielding member of the Permanent Five (P-5). All these immense benefits accrued to China only at the instance of the USA, and yet, the US-China relationship is complicated. We will see in this part how the US-China relationship gradually worsened just as we saw in Part-IV how the India-Australia relationship evolved step-by-step.

After normalization of relationship with the US, China introduced economic reforms in c. 1978-1979. The blue-collar workers lost many privileges such as the permanency of their jobs. The Paramount Leader of China, Deng Xiao Ping, described the ideological inconsistencies that such reforms caused in a Communist China thus, ‘Black cat or white cat, if it can catch mice, it is a good cat’. China closed down several unprofitable state-owned enterprises (SOEs). There was restlessness in the society. But, as we have seen before, the practical nature of China’s approach gave it many benefits. As the American market capitalism ideas began to take roots in a China that had so far followed communism, the US-China relationship began to grow rapidly. The Chinese economy grew at a rapid pace as the US established its ‘supply chain’ in China for its industries. China later converted this to an ‘international supply chain’. A World Bank report claims that China’s average annual GDP rose by 10% each year in the period between c. 1978 and 2012. It fell to less than 8% only in the three-year period between c. 2012 and 2014. The US believed that China would eventually give up communism and become a normal democratic nation-state. However, the arrival of Xi Jinping on the scene in c. 2013 put paid to this hope.

The US-China relationship grew colder after the 1989 Tiananmen Square incidents. Simultaneously, the Afghan jihad, which the US had led and in which China had participated on the side of the US, had come to an end, and Afghanistan was moving towards peace. The Warsaw Pact countries of East Europe and the fifteen states that formed part of the Soviet Union from the Baltics through East Europe to Central Asia, began to be liberated from Soviet hands, the Berlin Wall came down, the Communist East Germany integrated with the Capitalist West Germany and laid the foundation for the collapse of Communism. The Soviet Union fragmented at a more rapid pace by the end of the twentieth century than the pace at which it grew by the end of the nineteenth century. The only mortal enemy that the US faced became considerably weakened. As the only ‘existential threat’ disappeared, the US need for China too considerably diminished. The US began to take up with China the issues that it had temporarily set aside, namely those of Tibet, human rights, Taiwan, and nuclear and missile proliferation. This was an unabashed display of Realpolitik by the US. The break-up of the USSR created ripples in China. The CPC feared that it could be next in the line. China woke up to the new reality of the US being its threat after the elimination of its only existential threat, namely the USSR. China began to strengthen its PLA. It looked closely at the American tactics in the 1991 Gulf War in West Asia and decided to strengthen the PLA on the outcome of its assessment. The ‘Operation Desert Storm’, as the Gulf War was called, showed the CPC leaders the huge gap between the American and the Chinese militaries. Due to these reasons, China was compelled to take in c. 1991, some long-term strategic decisions. China was facing insecurity because of the break-up of the Soviet Union and the enormous show of strength by the US in West Asia. The Chinese leadership, which had understood that at some future point of time it would have to face the might of the USA, began to sincerely engage in reducing the gap between itself and the US military. Once the Chinese Leadership takes a decision, it would spare no effort in achieving that goal. For example, the same Chinese Leadership that initially neglected the spread of the Wuhan Corona virus, later went to enormous lengths to bring it under complete control. The various ‘Color Revolutions’ in the FSU Republics after the termination of the Afghan jihad, such as the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Czechoslovakia (1989), ‘Rose Revolution’ in Georgia (c. 2003), ‘Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine (c. 2004), and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan (c. 2005) added to the insecurity of the CCP. Some thirty years after the ‘Desert Storm’, China now feels that it has attained parity with the US militarily. At the beginning of c. 2021, China was next only to the US in naval might and possessed the third largest air force in the world.

When Cold War 1.0 ended, Mainland China and Taiwan came to an agreement in November 1992 whereby both of them agreed to a ‘One China’ policy, but the two agreed to have their own convenient interpretation of what that meant. The basis for this agreement was the rapid worldwide economic liberalization and open markets, which the two countries felt would enable better trade and dialogue between them both. But, when the new President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen who has strong views of independence of Taiwan took power in c. 2016, China broke off the discussions with Taiwan. President Tsai returned to power in c. 2021 with an even bigger margin. The Taiwan-China relationship has been tense since c. 2016. China now believes that it could militarily capture Taiwan. The American Commander for the INDO-PACOM Command, Admiral Davidson said in March 2021 that China would have the capabilities by c. 2027 to militarily annex Taiwan. The US has not clearly spelt out its approach towards employing its military to defend Taiwan were it to be attacked by China. This is its deliberate ‘strategic ambiguity’. Therefore, China is somewhat hesitant in using military force to capture Taiwan, unsure of American reaction. In the Interim National Security and Strategic Guidance that the new Biden Administration released in March 2021, it made a rare reference to Taiwan thus: the U.S. would support Taiwan, a leading democracy and a critical economic and security partner, in line with longstanding American commitments.

Following this, both the US and Japan have started to reference and imply Taiwan as a country. President Biden, in a Townhall speech organized by the American news channel, CNN, on October 21, 2021, said, on being questioned whether the U.S. would defend Taiwan in the face of an attack by China, “Yes, we have a commitment”. Taiwan-controlled Kinmen and Matsu islands are located in the south and east of China, within the artillery range from China’s coastal batteries and situated far away from Taiwan. China can capture them easily. If it does so, it imposes a dilemma on Taiwan, USA and Japan. Would they go to war with China and risk doing so closer to the Chinese coast where China would have all the advantages, or would they employ non-military means of coercion on China? The latter could dent the already diminishing influence of the US among its allies and friends. Also, China could mistakenly assume that the US would not come to Taiwan’s help if it attacked it. The largest of the islands of the Spratly Archipelago is with Taiwan. It is also very difficult for Taiwan to retain its control over it. The Pratas island chain is also with Taiwan. Taiwan has also begun to strengthen its defenses on its own, without being dependent heavily on the US alone. It took, for example, a decision in September 2021 to spend in the next five years an additional USD 9 Billion for a newer type of missiles. This is an additional expenditure to the USD 17 Billion it already proposed to spend on its military in January 2021. These are long-range cruise missiles capable of hitting the hinterland of China. Taiwan is also building stealth frigates for its navy. It is expected that the first of the twelve submarines that Taiwan is building is likely join the navy by c. 2025. The US has come forward to supply the required equipment and also the heavy weight torpedoes for this submarine. The US has already supplied Taiwan with Harpoon Coastal Defense Systems.

In c. 1995, a China angered by the visa issued for the Taiwanese President to visit the USA, sent barrages of rockets across the Taiwan Straits, within the next three weeks. As we have seen in Part-III, this is the ‘Immediate Punishment’ mentality of Chinese imperialistic approach. But China had to beat a retreat after the US sent a big naval task force to the Taiwan Straits. This also impacted the US-China relationship. The US embassies in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi and the Tanzanian capital of Dar-es-Salam were bombed on August 7, 1998, by the terrorist group led by Osama bin Laden. In retaliation, the US hit the hiding spot of Osama bin Laden in the Sudan and his terrorist training camps in Afghanistan with long range cruise missiles. China opposed these attacks.

China opposed the US in the war between the Albanians and the Serbs of c. 1998 as well. An American bomb hit by mistake the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, flattened it and killed two Chinese officials of the embassy. This further worsened the US-China relationship. The American President Bill Clinton who visited China in c. 1998 gave it four guarantees. They were, the US would not support independence for Taiwan, the US would not accept ‘Two Chinas’, the US did not entertain the notion of ‘One China, One Taiwan’, and there was no place for Taiwan in international bodies. However, he also maintained that there was no change in the US position on Taiwan. This was the first visit to China by an American President after the 1989 Tiananmen Square events. There was a big opposition to this visit even within the USA. The dawn of the new millennia was therefore not a happy one for the relationship between the two countries.

The US-China Relationship (2000 – 2012)

The US changed tack in c. 2000 and began to describe China as a ‘strategic competitor’ contrary to how it has been viewing China as a ‘strategic partner’ up until then.  Yet, the US greatly helped China join the World Trade Organization (WTO). Even though this came about after a long 15-year period of negotiations, the US decided that China’s entry into WTO would help its commerce and trade. The US President Bill Clinton had said, “By joining the WTO, China is not simply agreeing to import more of our products, it is agreeing to import one of democracy’s most cherished values, economic freedom . . . the most significant opportunity that we have had to create positive change in China since the 1970s . . . commit China to play by the rules of the international trading system”. But, in the end, it did not happen that way. China had to make many changes to its laws in order to join the WTO. It had to upgrade its laws to international standards, respect intellectual property of others, allow private entrepreneurs to start industries (until then, everything was state owned), and reduce import tariffs. Above all, it changed over to market economy from the ideologies of Socialism and Communism. Yet, these changes were not always continuous or even permanent. Especially, when Xi Jinping assumed power, the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) began to assume significance once again. It has come as a shock that even a so-called private enterprise such as Huawei was dominated and controlled by the Chinese State. The Bill Clinton administration provided unfettered help to China. For example, in the period between c. 1992 and 1996, many space launchers of China either exploded upon launch or their payloads could not reach the desired orbit. When leading American aerospace companies provided help to China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), it overcame the issues and began to launch its space payloads successfully. China could transfer this knowledge to its ballistic missiles programme also. The Clinton Administration refused to sanction China even after it was proved that it had illegally proliferated to Pakistan nuclear weapon and nuclear technology. The Clinton Administration even agreed to supply China with more nuclear technology! The US looked at China only in commercial and mercantile terms. Many US allies, which included Germany, agreed with the paradigm, “change in China through trade”. The manufacturers of luxury motor cars of Germany overwhelmingly supported this idea. In the meanwhile, the US-China trade had reached USD 230 Billion by c. 2004. Currently, it is over USD 500 Billion. Mutual investments amount to another USD 80 Billion.

On April 1, 2001, a Chinese fighter plane collided deliberately with an American intelligence gathering plane outside Chinese airspace off the Hainan Island. This complicated the relationship even further. The US immediately agreed to transfer more military hardware to Taiwan. It was in this situation that Al Qaeda attacked the US on September 11, 2001.  Even as the world expected the military forces of the US, NATO and allies to attack Afghanistan, China warned the US not to do so without any convincing proof. When world capitals unfurled their respective flags at half-mast (except for a few nations) in memory of those who were killed in the attacks, China refused to do so. Yet, the two countries mutually needed each other. The US had to ensure that China would not block its proposal in the UNSC to attack Afghanistan. China decided to exploit this developing situation to unleash repression in the Xinjiang province in the north west where the Uyghurs have been fighting for independence. Therefore, China decided to support the UNSC Resolution of 1368 which authorized taking military actions against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda. As a quid-pro-quo, the US helped sanction the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) of the Uyghurs under the UNSC sanctions list 1267. Such give-and-take are the cornerstones of international relationship. International Relationships are not based purely on honest principles or the Indian idea of Dharma. In c. 2004, the American Administration banned ‘ETIM’ as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, FTO. However, as the relationship between the two nations dramatically deteriorated, the US government withdrew this notification in November 2020. It gave the excuse, “ETIM was removed from the list because, for more than a decade, there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist.” Indian leaders and policy makers must realize this.

The various ‘color revolutions’ that are believed to have been instigated by the US against Communism and Authoritarianism in several East European, and Central Asian countries that had come out of the clutches of the FSU, such as the ‘Velvet Revolution (Czechoslovakia, 1989), ‘Rose Revolution’ (Georgia, 2003), ‘Orange Revolution’ (Ukraine, 2004) and the ‘Tulip Revolution’ (Kyrgyzstan, 2005), created a sense of insecurity among the Chinese.

However, the extensive involvement of the US in Afghanistan after the 9/11 incidents became favorable to China. The US took its eyes off China as it got entangled in Afghanistan and later Iraq. China exploited this opportunity to strengthen its military, especially its rocket forces. If China possesses today over 1500 Short-range Ballistic Missiles, 90 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, 500 Medium-range Ballistic Missiles and 150 Intermediate-range Ballistic Missiles, the foundation was laid during this period. China also exploited the opposition faced by the US in many Muslim countries following the 9/11 incidents. In c. 2010, China overtook Japan as the second largest economic power. Economically, China is today one-third ahead, in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), of the USA. After he took the decision to leave Afghanistan, the US President Barack Obama decided to concentrate on Asia through his ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy. Under the new programme, the US concentrated 60% of his naval power in Asia, and further setup a naval base in Northern Australia with a 2500-strong US Marines force. China vigorously opposed these moves.

The US-China Relationship (2013 – 2018)

The speech that the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave at the Brookings Think Tank on September 20, 2013, after the new Chinese President Xi Jinping had assumed power early that year, clearly underlined how the foreign policy of China in the coming years would be framed with an anti-American focus and challenges to the US. He referred to the Thucydides Trap and recalled “According to some study of history, there have been about fifteen cases of rise of emerging powers. In eleven cases, confrontation and war broke out between the emerging and the established powers. However, we now live in a different world. China and the United States and in fact all countries in the world are part of a community of shared interests. Countries are increasingly interconnected. Neither of us will benefit from confrontation. War will get us nowhere. ‘No conflict or confrontation’ means that we need to follow the trend of globalization, reverse negative projections of China-U.S. relations, address strategic distrust and build confidence in the future of China-U.S. relations. The Asia-Pacific has been the home and root of the Chinese nation for thousands of years. Therefore, we hope the United States will also respect China’s interests and concerns.”

The above speech made clear five positions of China. The first was the equation that China drew for itself with the US. The second was the implication that if a war broke out between the US and China, its reasons would be understandable. The third was that in the Asia-Pacific geopolitical space, China had an equal stake as the US. More than that, by emphasizing the ‘thousands of years’ of Chinese stakes in Asia-Pacific, it even claimed a greater role for itself in this region than the US which, it implied, was less than a mere three hundred years old. Apart from the most important American military bases in Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, and Okinawa, the US provides security to Japan, Australia, and Korea through important treaties. It also provides security to many small island nations in Western Pacific known as the ‘Compact of Free Association’ (Micronesia, Marshal Islands, and Palau). The US has established its influence through these types of security arrangements. But China has started to undermine this power through its economic, military, and financial means. The fourth position that Wang Yi emphasized was that through repeated references to this region as ‘Asia-Pacific’, the old nomenclature, China rejected the new construct, ‘Indo-Pacific’. The fifth was the rejection of the existing ‘rules-based Liberal International Order’ in favor of ‘a community of shared interests’. As an extension of this clear enunciation, the CPC’s statement at the end of the Fifth Plenum of the 19th Party Congress that was held in October 2020, was telling. It referred to the “profound adjustment in the international balance of power”. What it implied was that China’s power was increasing while that of the US was diminishing.

In the period that we are discussing, China devised different approaches to different nations. It did not alter its international approach to exigent and changing situations. This was also a face of China’s practice of Realpolitik. It functioned on the basis that time was not yet ripe for it to give a riposte to the developing worldwide situations or to reshape its policies accordingly. During Deng Xiao Ping’s time, this policy was referred to as ‘Tao Guang Yang Hui’. An approximate translation of this would be, ‘Bide for the ripe time, accomplish your goals through patience’. Deng had politically changed China to modernity in many ways from Mao’s totalitarian rule. For example, he made sure that a President could not have more than two terms. He also introduced the idea of spotting an heir apparent for the President in his/her second term for a smooth transition. He distributed power rather than them remaining accumulated in the hands of the President. He introduced capitalist ideas. He strengthened relationship with neighbours and reduced tension at the border including settling border disputes. But Xi Jinping is taking China back to Mao’s days. The power is now concentrated in his hands and the term limit for Presidency has been done away with. He has not yet identified his successor. He has infiltrated the CPC in all organs of the state. He has fostered only enmity with all neighboring nations especially with the US, India, Japan, Australia and littorals in the South China Sea.

In the 1980s, the US accorded the ‘Most Favored Nation’ (MFN) status to China. In c. 2000, it upgraded the status to ‘Permanent Normal Trade Relationship, PNTR’. This led to eventually the US helping China join the WTO. China overtook the US in gross world trade by c. 2013. China is today the primary nation for imports for 35 countries and primary exporter for 25 countries of the world. It started the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, AIIB, in c. 2014 in direct competition with both the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, IBRD, and the Asian Development Bank, ADB. India is a founding member of this organization. Apart from commerce and trade, such organizations as the AIIB lend China considerable ‘hard power’.

The US-China Relationship (Since 2018)

As the renowned British historian and political scientist Prof. Rana Mitter says, “China is still having a hard time defining its economic and security vision as anything other than an increasingly authoritarian not-America.”  This closely parallels China’s closest ally, Pakistan’s vision of “everything which is not-Indian”.

Donald Trump who became the new President of the US in c. 2017 had campaigned with the ‘America First’ slogan in the hotly contested elections. As a part of that, he had promised his electorate that he would impose ‘punitive tariff’ over China once he assumed power. By c. 2016, the US-China trade was over 350B USD in favour of China. Trump met Xi Jinping in the US in April 2017. Though it did not produce any dramatic breakthroughs, both decided to hasten the discussions on their Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) which have been going on since c. 2008. In April 2018, the US Vice President Mike Pence strongly attacked China for many of its actions including economic practices, military aggression, violation of human rights etc. The US removed China from the bi-annual Naval Exercise of RIMPAC citing its behaviour being inconsistent with the import of the exercise. The ‘Confucius Institutes’ that were functioning in many American Universities were ordered shut down. America accused them of being under the control of the CPC. As a first step towards his threats of raising tariff on USD 450 Billion worth of imports from China, President Trump ordered in July 2018, a tariff raise of 25% on goods worth USD 35B from China. The US cited unfair trade practices by China as well as its stealing of American intellectual property as reasons for its action. China immediately retaliated in kind. The US went ahead in August 2018 to impose sanctions on several Chinese entities for helping the government in converting the South China Sea as a military base. It further imposed tariff raise on another USD 16 B worth of Chinese imports. The very next month, September 2018, it imposed a 10% raise in tariff for Chinese goods worth USD 200 B. It also banned the diplomats of the various Chinese consulates in the country from visiting American University Campuses or interacting with American academic personnel or conducting Chinese cultural functions. In December 2018, the Chief Financial Officer of Huawei and the daughter of its CEO, Ms Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Canada for having violated sanctions against Iran. It complicated the relationship between the two nations even more. As per the Chinese policy of ‘Immediate Punishment’, two Canadians who happened to be in China then were arrested.

Following further deterioration of the US-China relationship, the US raised the tariff on further Chinese goods in March 2019. The US raised the tariff by 25% for another USD 200 B worth of Chinese imports. Since the Chinese import of the American goods is comparatively much less, it could not retaliate in kind. On February 14, 2020 the two sides signed the ‘Economic and Trade Agreement Between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China: Phase One’. As per this, China agreed to import goods and services worth an additional USD 200 B before end of December 2021. But, by end of December 2021, China has been able to achieve only 65% of the target. According to the terms of the ‘Phase One Agreement’, China has agreed to stop stealing Intellectual Property from the US, end forced technology transfer from American companies, expand dramatically the import of  American agricultural produce, remove barriers to American financial services in China, end currency manipulation of Renminbi, rebalance the US-China trade relationship and effectively resolve trade disputes. The corona virus that spread from Wuhan created a havoc worldwide starting February 2020. President Trump attacked China for its laxity. He even called it as the ‘China Virus’. This further worsened the US-China relationship. China expelled three American journalists for having purportedly written an article, ‘China – the real sick man of Asia’. The US retaliated immediately by classifying the several Chinese media operating in the US as ‘Chinese consulates’ and ordered a decrease of their strength from 160 to 100. It even reduced their visa period to 90 days. In the midst of Corona, China took aggressive actions against many of her neighbours. In the six month period between February and July 2020, its Coast Guard ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat, the PLA intruded into India’s Ladakh and killed many soldiers, put on a show of strength in Indonesia’s Natuna Sea and in Vietnam’s waters, stopped Malaysia’s oil exploration in its own EEZ through threats, and conducted a huge maritime exercise near the Paracel islands. In the middle of April, a PLAN carrier battle group steamed past Japan’s Miyoko Straits. It started sending PLAAF planes in large numbers towards Taiwan since February 2019, a practice that continues until now. Following these events, the US sent its 4 B-1B Lancer supersonic strategic heavy bombers to its Guam base, as a warning, where they began exercising with allied forces. The Japanese PLAN and PLAAF conducted several exercises in the Yellow, East China and South China Seas. In an apparent rehearsal to capture the Pratas island belonging to Taiwan, China conducted a large-scale amphibious exercise near it in July. The US therefore sent two of its Carrier Battle Groups to the Taiwan Strait which angered China. It immediately retaliated by claiming that it has turned its ‘Carrier Killer’ missiles DF-21 and DF-26 on them. The situation became tense.

In the meanwhile, the US enacted the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act’, TAIPEI, in March. The scope of this Act was not only to raise the involvement of the US in Taiwan but also enable Taiwan’s involvement with other countries of the world and international organizations. The US Deputy National Security Adviser, Matt Pottinger, speaking in Mandarin on the occasion of the commemoration of the May Fourth Movement directly spoke to the Chinese urging them to spurn authoritarianism and opt for democracy. In May 2020, the US imposed sanctions on many Chinese officials who were involved in the mass imprisonment of Uygur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. On May 20, 2020 the US Senate unanimously approved a bill that demands any foreign company listing in US Stock Exchanges to declare that they were not under control of a foreign government. This immediately affected such big Chinese companies as Alibaba and Baidu. In June 2020, the US launched its ‘Pacific Deterrent Initiative’, about which we discuss later.

As the situation in Hong Kong worsened by the end of June, the US imposed restrictions on five top Chinese officials running Hong Kong. In the meanwhile, the US declared that those Chinese students in American Universities who were suspected of having contacts with the Chinese military would be expelled. Several students were later expelled. On June 30, 2020, China enacted the Hong Kong Security Law which prompted the US to cancel several concessions given to Hong Kong. It ordered the Chinese consulate in Houston to be shut down. China retaliated by shutting down the Chengdu consulate of the US. By end of July, the US had passed the ‘Taiwan Intrusion Prevention Act’ which authorized the US President to deploy American troops in Taiwan if such a situation arose. On September 9, 2020, while speaking at the 53rd ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked ASEAN to stand up to China. He said, “ . . . don’t just speak up but act.  . . . the Americans would be here in friendship to help you.” On September 15, the US announced sweeping travel advisory against China and Hong Kong. The very next day, the US announced a very big arms sale to the Taiwanese military.  In his speech in the UN General Assembly, by the end of September, the American President Trump attacked China. On October 6, while speaking in the QUAD Foreign Ministers’ meeting, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for collaboration against Chinese Communist Party’s “exploitation, corruption, and coercion” as witnessed, among other places, in “the Himalayas, the South China Sea, East China Sea, the Mekong and the Taiwan Straits.” By end of October, China banned several US entities that supplied military hardware to Taiwan. Following this, the US banned American enterprises from investing in Chinese entities that were involved with the PLA. Before he left Presidency, Pres. Trump imposed ban on several Chinese organizations. In his Davos speech on January 25, 2021, Pres. Xi Jinping warned the world leaders not to start another Cold War. The new Biden Administration banned several more Chinese companies in March 2021. In June, Biden added more companies to that list. On September 15, 2021, the US formed a new military alliance with the UK and Australia, called AUKUS.

The new Interim National Security Strategic Guidance that the new President of the US, Biden, released, said, “Democratic nations are also increasingly challenged from outside by antagonistic authoritarian powers. Anti-democratic forces use misinformation, disinformation, and weaponized corruption to exploit perceived weaknesses and sow division within and among free nations, erode existing Liberal International Order, and promote alternative models of authoritarian governance.” It was clear that it was referring to China (and Russia). That report further stated, “Both Beijing and Moscow have invested heavily in efforts meant to check U.S. strengths and prevent us from defending our interests and allies”. It referred to the US-China status as ‘strategic competition’. The report added, “When the Chinese government’s behavior directly threatens our interests and values, we will answer Beijing’s challenge. We will support Taiwan, a leading democracy and a critical economic and security partner, in line with longstanding American commitments”. The interim report also indicated China “is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.” These were not only extraordinary statements, but they also revealed the new Biden administration’s views of China completely reflected those of the previous Trump administration. In the first face-to-face meeting with the officials of the new Biden administration at Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18, 2021, Yang Jiechi, the Director, Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Office and Member, Politburo, bluntly told his US interlocutors, the US Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken and the National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan that the US does “not have the qualification . . . to speak to China from a position of strength.” Earlier, President Xi Jinping had told a party meeting in January 2021, “The world is undergoing profound changes unseen in a century, but time and momentum are on China’s side”. It must be construed that the term ‘Community of Common Destiny’ which President Xi Jinping frequently refers to in his talks, betrays the ‘Middle Kingdom’ ambitions of PRC.

The Importance of South China Sea to China

All the four underlying and immutable ‘core’ Chinese positions are to do with its sovereignty. It is clear from this therefore that China has not yet become a ‘State’, as we had seen in Part-III. These four are respectively Xinjiang, Tibet, South China Sea and Taiwan. The issue of the South China Sea did not figure in its ‘core’ narrative before but was added to later. Apart from the maritime wealth of the SCS which is essential for China, it needs SCS under its control for its security, its long-term strategy of making China as the sole superpower of the world, to conquer Taiwan, and to bring the nearby countries under its vassalage as it existed during the Imperial days.

We had seen in Part-II how China has occupied Tibet for its natural wealth. Similar natural wealth is available in the SCS (also increasingly known as Indo-China Sea, ICS). The 3.5 million Sq. Km. SCS is the nerve-center of China’s maritime trade. The SCS is equally important for the trade regimes of South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Apart from marine wealth, the SCS possesses seven billion barrels of confirmed oil, plus 900 trillion cubic feet of confirmed natural gas. The SCS is also the shortest route from the Indo-Pacific region to reach European markets, until the Northern Sea Routes become operational in about two decades. In US dollar value terms, the annual trade through the SCS is 5 trillion.

China has claimed ownership and aggressed into the islands, islets, reefs, and shoals that are located east-to-west in this sea, namely Paracel, Macclesfield Bank, Scarborough Shoal, and Spratly. China has reclaimed small reef which are made of rocks or coral and which just project above water or the shoals which are sandy formations just below the sea surface and converted them into military garrisons.

China has assimilated the prescient strategies of the famous American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. One of his books, written in c. 1890, “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783” is an essential read in many world navies. One of his theories is that any nation which aspires to dominate world trade must possess a powerful navy. When the US Civil War had just ended and the US was forming itself as a great nation at a time when Great Britain was the sole world power by dint of its extraordinary naval force, Mahan predicted the US would emerge as the successor to Britain as a naval power. His six reasons were: geographical position of the US, physical conformation, territorial extent, population, character of the people and that of the Government. Mahan’s predictions came true in the next few years. He also opined that capturing the Hawaii Islands in Western Pacific would be most necessary for the US to handle China much later.

China has demarcated its security boundaries in the south and the east as First Island and Second Island Chains. Its decision is to completely dominate the First Island Chain which starts in the north in Japan and ends in the west in Indonesia through the Philippines and Taiwan in the south.  The concept of the First Island Chain as a buffer is the same as China wants in India’s Ladakh too. The reason for this is that China believes that in a matter of two or three weeks of war, it could capture Taiwan with its amphibious forces. The Chinese amphibious forces have been practising these war games in c. 2020 and 2021.

It feels that if it needs to achieve its objective, it needs to ensure that the US Navy does not interfere in its ambitions. While the First Island Chain includes the East and South China Seas, the Second Island Chain starts in Japan and includes the Headquarters of the American Seventh Fleet, Yokosuka in Western Japan, threads through Guam which houses some of the largest US naval and air bases and terminates in Australia’s north-west. The bases in Guam not only host the most modern stealth bombers but also the mighty carrier task forces of the US Seventh Fleet. The strength of the US forces based in Japan rose to 54,000 by c. 2020 from 39,000 in c. 2016. In the same period, it has risen from 4,000 to 6,200 in Guam and 24,000 to 28,500 in South Korea.

However, it is the opinion of military strategists that it is not so easy for China to capture Taiwan through an amphibious attack. It is felt that though the PLA has a capacity to land 25,000 troops in Taiwan in the first wave, it may be insufficient. The buffers and barriers that Taiwan is erecting would not easily allow this attack. Since the landing ships would take a considerable amount of time to discharge a large military contingent, they could be subjected to retaliation by Taiwan which is constructing eight modern submarines. Veteran submariners think that in a noisy and shallow region such as the Taiwan Straits where there is a significant amount of ship-traffic, it would be very difficult for the Chinese Navy to detect the Taiwanese submarines and destroy them. It is felt that unless China conducts a massive amphibious attack, it would be impossible to capture Taiwan and China has no means to do so at present. The Chinese forces also lack modern warfare experience. Their tactical fighting capacity is unknown even though their strength is considerable. If the Chinese forces cannot quickly and completely overpower Taiwan, it would cause China a huge diplomatic setback and loss of face. It would lead to a split in leadership and the Presidency would become untenable.

China terms the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and the South China Sea as ‘Near Seas’ and the others such as the Pacific and the Indian Ocean as ‘Far Seas’. The rim of the ‘Near Seas’ is the First island Chain. At present the focus of the PLAN is to dominate the ‘Near Seas’. Simultaneously, it is also building naval assets for operations in the ‘Far Seas’. The PLAN has quite a distance to go for such a blue water naval capacity. Simultaneously, the PLAAF is building its H-20 stealth nuclear-capable strategic bomber to operate even beyond the Second Island Chain without aerial refueling.

China’s strategy has been to deny the US access to the ‘Near Seas’ which it considers as its fortress and not to allow unfettered access to the American forces in areas surrounding the ‘Near Seas’. This is referred to as Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) or Access Denial/Area Denial (A2/D2). In May 2015, China released a white paper on its military strategy. It introduced the term ‘active defence’ in that paper, an euphemism for A2/AD. Accordingly, the PLAN was tasked to defend not only offshore areas, but also protect the open seas. This is consid