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Can The Chinese Rise as a Superpower Lead to a Nuclear War?

No one can be certain about the future trajectory of any country’s soft power. But there is no doubt that influence through attraction will remain an important component of world politics.

8 mins read
Pannaros Boonserm works at a construction site of the China-Thailand railway in Nakhon Ratchasima province, Thailand, Feb. 23, 2023. (Xinhua/Wang Teng)

 ESTABLISHMENT OF QUAD

 According to Dr. Prabhakar Deshpande, an Indian analyst the origin of QUAD can be traced back to the evolution of Exercise Malabar and the 2004 Tsunami, when India conducted relief and rescue operations for itself and neighboring countries and was later joined by US, Japan, and Australia. Obviously feeling endangered, China issued formal diplomatic protests to the members of the Quad. Followed by this, Australia withdrew in 2008 from the forum, ostensibly, due to political pressure from the Chinese government, but in 2010, Australia again joined the Quad’s naval exercises & enhanced military cooperation between the US and Australia was resumed. Japanese PM Shinzo Abe , in 2012, emphasized the idea of Asia’s ‘Democratic Security Diamond’, comprising the US, Japan, India, and Australia. Following this, in 2017, the first official talks under the Quad took place in the Philippines. The motive behind the Quad is believed by Dr. Deshpande to keep the strategic sea routes in the Indo-Pacific, free of any military or political influence. It is basically seen as a strategic grouping, aimed at reducing the Chinese domination.

CORE OBJECTIVE OF QUAD

 The core objective of the Quad is, to secure a rules-based global order, freedom of navigation, and, a liberal trading system. The coalition also aims to offer, alternative debt financing for nations in the Indo-Pacific region. It is believed, that the forum strategically counters China’s economic and military rise. As a member of the Quad, in the event of a rise in the Chinese hostilities on its borders, India can take the support of the other Quad nations to counter it. In addition, India can even take the help of its naval front and conduct strategic explorations in the Indo-Pacific region. In March 2021, US President Joe Biden hosted the first-ever summit of the Quad leaders in a virtual format. The summit vowed to strive for an Indo-Pacific region, that is free, open, inclusive, and unconstrained by coercion.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN’S SUMMIT MEETING WITH QUAD LEADERS

 On September 24, 2021, US President Joe Biden hosted the first-ever in-person summit of the Quad leaders. The summit vowed to strive for an Indo-Pacific region that is free, open, inclusive, and unconstrained by coercion, sending an apparent message to China. At President Biden’s invitation, the Quad summit, attended by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his counterparts, Scott Morrison from Australia and Yoshihide Suga from Japan, announced initiatives to take on common challenges, amidst muscle flexing by an assertive China in the strategic region. Although the Quad does not exist simply to counter China or its influence, the aggressiveness, the coercive nature with which, China tries to press its claims, is discussed with the allies and partners of India, and inside the Quad. The Quad arrangement gives India an opportunity to work multilaterally on all kinds of initiatives that can help create, a free and open Indo-Pacific region. In November 2017, India, Japan, the US, and Australia gave shape to the long-pending proposal of setting up the Quad, to develop a new strategy to keep the critical sea routes in the resource-rich Indo-Pacific, free of any influence, amidst China’s growing military presence in the strategic region. In the recent past India, the US, and several other world powers have been talking about the need to ensure, a free, open, and thriving Indo-Pacific, in the backdrop of China’s rising military maneuvering in the resource-rich region. It is important to note here that, China claims nearly all of the disputed South China Sea, though Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam all claim parts of it. Beijing has also built artificial islands and military installations in the South China Sea. China also has territorial disputes with Japan in the East China Sea.

JOSEPH NYE’S VIEWS ON CHINA’S MUSCLE FLEXING

 Harvard luminary Joseph Nye J’ is hopeful that despite China’s muscle flexing ultimately China would refrain from using hard power despite its declaration from Mao Tse Tung to Xi-Jinping that Taiwan remains a renegade province and must be united with the motherland. Joseph Nye however believes that the cost of a military adventure in Taiwan would be self-defeating due to the complex politico-economic inter-relationship between China and the rest of the world. China is more likely to adopt Joseph Nye’s policy of soft and smart power. In Nye’s words paraphrased “ Soft power is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment. A country’s soft power rests on its resources of culture, values, and policies. A smart power strategy combines hard and soft power resources. Public diplomacy has a long history as a means of promoting a country’s soft power and was essential in winning the cold war. The current struggle against transnational terrorism is a struggle to win hearts and minds, and the current overreliance on hard power alone is not the path to success. A public diplomacy is an important tool in the arsenal of smart power, but smart public diplomacy requires an understanding of the roles of credibility, self-criticism, and civil society in generating soft power”. In an article in Project Syndicate in January last year titled Whatever Happened to Soft Power?

VIEWS OF JOSEPH NYE ON SOFT YEAR

Joseph Nye wrote “ Soft power is not the only or even the most important source of power, because its effects tend to be slow and indirect. But to ignore or neglect it is a serious strategic and analytic mistake. The Roman Empire’s power rested not only on its legions but also on the attraction of Roman culture and law. Similarly, as a Norwegian analyst once described it, the American presence in Western Europe after World War II was “an empire by invitation.” No barrage of artillery brought down the Berlin Wall; it was removed by hammers and bulldozers wielded by people who had been touched by Western soft power. Smart political leaders have long understood that values can create power. If I can get you to want what I want, I will not have to force you to do what you do not want to do. If a country represents values that others find attractive, it can economize on the use of sticks and carrots. A country’s soft power comes primarily from three sources: its culture; its political values, such as democracy and human rights (when it upholds them); and its policies (when they are seen as legitimate because they are framed with an awareness of others’ interests). A government can influence others through the example of how it behaves at home (such as by protecting a free press and the right to protest), in international institutions (consulting others and fostering multilateralism), and through its foreign policy (such as by promoting development and human rights)”.

CHINA’S SMART POWER PROBLEM

 Joseph Nye adds that China has a smart-power problem. After all, it is difficult to practice vaccine diplomacy and “wolf-warrior diplomacy” (aggressive, coercive browbeating of smaller countries) at the same time. True, international polls showed that the US also suffered a decline in soft power during Donald Trump’s presidency. But, fortunately, America is more than its government. Unlike hard-power assets (such as armed forces), many soft-power resources are separate from the government and are only partly responsive to its purposes. For example, Hollywood movies showcasing independent women or protesting minorities inspire others around the world. So, too, does the charitable work of US foundations and the freedom of inquiry at American universities. Firms, universities, foundations, churches, and protest movements develop soft power of their own. Sometimes their activities will reinforce official foreign-policy goals, and sometimes they will be at odds with them. Either way, these private sources of soft power are increasingly important in the age of social media. The January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol certainly damaged US soft power. But those who would mourn the death of American democracy prematurely should bear in mind that the 2020 election drew an unprecedented turnout despite the pandemic. The American people are still able to unseat a demagogue in a free and fair election. This is not to suggest that all is well with American democracy or its soft power. Trump eroded many democratic norms that now must be restored.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN THINKS CHINA SEEKS MONRO DOCTRINE EQUIVALENT IN ASIA

 Biden has made strengthening democracy at home and abroad a goal of his presidency, but the results remain to be seen. No one can be certain about the future trajectory of any country’s soft power. But there is no doubt that influence through attraction will remain an important component of world politics. A contrary view is held by John Mearsheimer of Cornel University. He thinks that China will seek the equivalent of a Monroe doctrine in Asia (ie. to be the unchallenged hegemon in its neighborhood). This will pose a security dilemma problem, likely leading to an Asian arms race. It will also motivate a ‘balancing coalition’ to resist Beijing’s dominance. The US, which will likely lead such a coalition, will respond with ‘containment’ efforts and other strategies, practiced in the Cold War. Unlike central Europe in the Cold War, Asia’s expansive geography (especially in the maritime domain) will create lower barriers to conflict. In a sprawling, largely oceanic theatre of operations, security actors may feel that conflicts can be ‘managed’. Perversely, because the perceived cost and threat of nuclear escalation is lower than in Cold War Europe, this will reduce trigger thresholds and heighten dangers. Even more perilous is the ‘unbalanced multi-polarity structure likely to arise in Asia where China clearly dominates several smaller — but still powerful — regional states.

MEARSHEIMER’S CONCERN ABOUT CHINESE HYPER-NATIONALISM

Mearsheimer is particularly concerned about the morphing of Chinese nationalism into hyper-nationalism since 1989. This is the displacement of the ‘victor mentality’ into ‘aggrieved victimhood’, dwelling on historical injustice. Hypernationalism has replaced ideology. It goes beyond patriotism and exceptionalism; it is hatred of ‘the Other’, something regrettably all too common in Asia. Chinese strategic philosophy values offensive realism as much as, or even more than, the US and USSR. China will seek the equivalent of a Monroe doctrine in Asia (ie. to be the unchallenged hegemon in its neighborhood). This will pose a security dilemma problem, likely leading to an Asian arms race. It will also motivate a ‘balancing coalition’ to resist Beijing’s dominance. The US, which will likely lead such a coalition, will respond with ‘containment’ efforts and other strategies such as ‘rollback’ and ‘bait & bleed’, well-practiced in the Cold War. We can therefore expect to see a mutual hardening of rhetoric and positions in the security competition. Unlike central Europe in the Cold War, Asia’s expansive geography (especially in the maritime domain) will create lower barriers to conflict. In a sprawling, largely oceanic theatre of operations, security actors may feel that conflicts can be ‘managed’. Perversely, because the perceived cost and threat of nuclear escalation is lower than in Cold War Europe, this will reduce trigger thresholds and heighten dangers. Even more perilous is the ‘unbalanced multi-polarity structure likely to arise in Asia where China clearly dominates several smaller — but still powerful — regional states. This is the worst possible architecture of all inter-state relations. Mearsheimer is particularly concerned about the morphing of Chinese nationalism into hyper-nationalism since 1989. This is the displacement of the ‘victor mentality’ into ‘aggrieved victimhood’, dwelling on historical injustice. Hypernationalism has replaced ideology. It goes beyond patriotism and exceptionalism; it is hatred of ‘the Other’, something regrettably all too common in Asia. Chinese strategic philosophy values offensive realism as much as, or even more than, the US and USSR.

MEARSHEIMER’S DOUBT OF CHINESE ACCEPTANCE OF A “RULE-BASED” WORLD

Mearsheimer is not very certain of the Chinese intention to accept a ‘rule-based” world where China does not get its preferred seat at the highest level. The risk is more likely because Xi-Jinping lacks the experience that Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference, Leonid Brezhnev, and his successors had in dealing with US Presidents during the Cold War. Besides confrontation with the US over Taiwan regarded by China as a renegade province that remains to be integrated with mainland China is always a possibility. China may be further emboldened by the “decline” of the US and the induction of multi-polarity in global politics. One hopes that given the complexity pervading the world today and the will of the people of the world for peace and tranquility, no country will be foolish enough to push the nuclear button ensuring the extinction of humanity.

Kazi Anwarul Masud

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a retired Bangladeshi diplomat. During his tenure, he worked in several countries as the ambassador of Bangladesh including Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Germany

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