The China-U.S. relationship is at a moment of reckoning and so are the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. While there is no doubt that a new great power competition has broken out between the U.S and China, uncertainties abound regarding its character.
Is it akin to the Cold War of the last century between the U.S. and the Soviet Union? Will any of the geopolitical flashpoints across the Indo-Pacific, including the Taiwan Strait, lead to a kinetic exchange of fire between the U.S. and China? Will the exchange of threats and allegations amidst strategic signaling through power projection, particularly in the maritime belly of the Indo-Pacific, continue while the political leadership on both sides explore ways of de-escalating any inadvertent crisis or avoidable accidents?
Close on the heels of a phone call between U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping, U.S House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has, expectedly, triggered an avalanche of demarches from Beijing, and brought China-U.S. geopolitical tensions to a boil yet again.
What does it portend for other stakeholders in a “free, open, inclusive and rules based” Indo-Pacific, such as India?
A Tussle in the Indo-Pacific: The Emerging New World Order
The nearly two hours and 20 minute call between Biden and Xi Jinping was the fifth such call since the change of administration in Washington last year. The conversation apparently covered a lot of ground, but the one issue that has drawn much attention is Taiwan. Despite the Ukraine crisis that has upended the European security order and brought back Russia front and center in Washington’s threat calculus, the broader geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and China in the Indo-Pacific region remains the fulcrum on which the emerging new world order pivots.
Such phone calls, which have systemic implications, are not new to great power relations. Various hotlines were set up during the Cold War when the uncertainties of the Soviet-U.S. relationship could not be left to chance. The first hotline communication between the U.S. and China was activated during President Bill Clinton’s visit in 1998.
China’s assertive behavior across the maritime and continental expanse of the Indo-Pacific, and Washington reaching out to like-minded partners through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and other platforms, are re-writing the terms of amity and cooperation for the Indo-Pacific order.
Pelosi’s visit produced ripple effects through increased Chinese military actions across the Taiwan Strait that included sending 21 planes into Taiwan’s air defense zone, rolling tanks to the Fujian coast, deploying PLA vehicles to Pintang island, and threatening to conduct live fire military drills in areas that are considered the territorial waters of Taiwan.
The visit also reflects Washington’s impudence in choosing to ignore Xi’s remark that “whoever plays with fire will get burned.” Recently, amidst the heightened tensions on the Taiwan issue, the U.S. moved one of its aircraft carriers, the USS Ronald Reagan, and its strike group northeast toward Taiwan from Singapore.
In response to Pelosi’s visit, Beijing has reportedly halted engagement with the U.S. on a range of issues, including climate change and dialogue between the militaries of the two countries. Is Beijing warranted in its sharp rebuke of Pelosi’s visit? She is the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and as such occupies a significant position in the hierarchy of U.S. political leadership, but she is not a member of the executive branch, which primarily manages U.S. foreign policy. Although Washington maintains strategic ambiguity on Taiwan’s status, and even as reports point to a schism between the Biden White House and Pelosi over the short yet eventful visit, Beijing has its own interpretation of the strategic signals, and has ratcheted up pressure on the Taiwan Strait as a result.
Maintaining a military presence in the Asia-Pacific occupied prominence in the post-World War II security order that the U.S. spearheaded. Now, as that old order fades, a new order waits to emerge fully. At this juncture, uncertainties in strategic behaviors are inherent. The growing tensions also mirror the domestic churning and vulnerabilities of seemingly potent great powers. While the Biden administration will have to deal with new dynamics of policymaking because of the upcoming midterm congressional elections in the U.S., Beijing will be witnessing the 20th Party Congress this fall wherein Xi will aim to tighten his iron hold on the reins of power in China. As the China-U.S. power struggles grows over Taiwan and other geopolitical areas like the South China Sea, significant players in the Indo-Pacific, such as India, will have to think hard and quickly about their opportunities and vulnerabilities.
A Threat to Multipolar Indo-Pacific
Despite its strategic embrace with the U.S., India has always professed a desire to see a multipolar Indo-Pacific, dominated by no single power. However, Delhi’s power asymmetry vis-à-vis the U.S. and China creates an uneasy balance. The test for India’s multi-alignment strategy lies in maintaining its strategic autonomy in some kind of Goldilocks position between an open China-U.S. confrontation that pushes it to pick sides, and a China-U.S. bonhomie that would end up limiting India’s traction.
In crises like the one in Ukraine, which transpired in the distant Euro-Atlantic geopolitical theater, India managed to walk the diplomatic tightrope, maintaining its neutrality while continuing to engage with both Moscow and Washington. However, the U.S. will be more directly involved in case of a Taiwan flashpoint, as opposed to the war in Ukraine. Moreover, given the animosity over China’s territorial transgressions at the India-China border, Delhi’s options might be more limited in the case of a China-U.S. conflict in the Western Pacific.
How geopolitics plays out in real time has often confounded analysts and watchers, as it did with the end of the Cold War and demise of the Soviet Union. While the parleys shift shapes on the parameters and indicators of a Cold War 2.0 between the U.S. and China, what is transpiring on the ground might overwhelm all conjectures, and lead to the demise of a multipolar Indo-Pacific even before it takes shape. Furthermore, such a bipolar contest, unlike the Cold War, in which neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union was an adversary of India, will present a more complex geopolitical landscape. In such a scenario, one of the poles, China will not only be a proximate power but one that continues to harbor an unresolved border dispute with India and shows a growing penchant for aggression despite promises to maintain peace and tranquility. Therefore, such a scenario will acutely test the established and evolving diplomatic toolkits of stakeholders like India, which neither wants to be a treaty ally of the U.S. nor wants to confront China directly.
The question remains: Has Delhi thought through the dilemma of a multipolar Indo-Pacific that was never to be, and a mutated bipolar contest unlike the one witnessed during the Cold War era?