La Chine et Nous Après la Covid
Pr. Steven Ekovich versus Pr. Emmanuel Lincot
Moderator : Gil Mihaely PhD
Recent events involving the People’s Republic of China and the United States, such as the imminent collapse of the Chinese company “Evergrande”, as well as the agreement between the United States and Australia concerning nuclear submarines, has led us to take an interest in the interactions of these two nations on the international scene and more particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. The aim of this debate was to understand how each of these great powers perceives themselves. To understand their objectives, national interests, but also how they perceive their relationship with their rival.
The United States and China, a rivalry with growing tensions in the Pacific.
The Sino-American rivalry, which involves two global powers, revolves around the Far East. Region where a large majority of the armed forces of these respective two countries are concentrated. The geography of this region is a constraining factor for the two protagonists. China seeks to break this geographical and diplomatic shackle that is the “First Island Chain”, a region comprising of the Japanese archipelago, Taiwan, the northern end of the Philippines and ending in Borneo and the Spratly Islands.
Professor Graham Allison defines this reality as a Thucydides trap. This refers to the Greek historian who judged the Peloponnesian War, a conflict between Sparta and Athens, as inevitable; the fear of the established power leading irreparably to conflict. This past situation is comparable to the situation that the United States, an established power, and China, a power continuing to gain in importance, are experiencing. Over the past five centuries, sixteen rising powers have challenged the status quo leading twelve times to war. These circumstances have only been resolved peacefully four times, although three of these iterations are among the most recent.
These tensions between the United States and China culminate in geopolitical hotspots like the South China Sea that the Celestial Empire seeks to transform into an inland sea. This leads to the formation of bottlenecks such as the straits of Malacca and Formosa, which both nations seek to control. The Diàoyú-Senkaku Islands represent another hot spot between China and Japan symbolizing tensions in the East China Sea. Taiwan, for its part, links these two areas of tension and is also a hot spot. On the other side of Chinese territory, the border with India comprising the Aksai Chin and the McMahon Line, demonstrates Chinese ambitions on this side of the country. China, in an effort to reverse the status quo, approaches these areas with a fait accompli and a “sausage” strategy. That is to say a strategy using both “soft” and “hard” power, using means such as economic and diplomatic coercion in order to make minor territorial advances without however allowing the opposition to establish a casus belli. The two nations, despite their bellicose postures, do not wish to wage a full-scale war. Indeed, due to modern weaponry and military doctrines, war would be very costly. The conflict is rather focused in these hot spots, with limited means and objectives. Even so, Alisson’s comments demonstrate that it is the presence of a third party that encourages the two opposing factions to engage in open conflict. This observation clearly shows that the situation may very well escape the control of these two major players. It could be through the actions of another protagonist like Taiwan, Japan or North Korea.
The recent agreements between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom (AUKUS) involving the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy have aroused the ire of several nations. These agreements made to the detriment of France (with whom a contract for submarines had previously been signed) created a new source of tension in the region.
China, a confirmed but weakened major player in a post-COVID world
The health crisis caused by the COVID19 epidemic has allowed China to show that it is playing an indispensable role in the face of this global challenge. Indeed, most of the material used to maintain sanitary measures such as masks or medical equipment are made from Chinese territory. Yet this post-Covid period seems to be difficult for the Middle Empire, which sees its economy weakening. Events such as the potential bankruptcy of the country’s second largest real estate developer, “Evergrande”, are symptomatic of this phenomenon. Additionally, major projects such as the formation of a China-Center Asia-Pakistan-Iran-Turkey axis and the construction of the “great sand wall”, seeking to bypass both the geographic and political barrier that has been established by the United States and its Pacific allies, prove to be costly and unprofitable. These various issues are drawing criticism of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who with his statements of support for Afghanistan after the US departure is taking an approach that is becoming less popular with his compatriots. Besides that, the Twentieth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is approaching, signifying a change in Chinese leadership or the announcement of a third term for Xi Jinping. This would be unprecedented in the recent history of the People’s Republic of China and would most certainly imply a lifelong extension of this mandate.
This economic and political turmoil is leading to the erosion of the apolitical nature of Chinese society. Apoliticism present since the events which took place in 1989, which marked a clear societal division. This division between the senior governmental officials of Chinese society, who are engaged in the country’s politics, and the people, who oversee business and commerce, is starting to disappear. A phenomenon that would weaken the hold of the Chinese dictatorship over its people.
Regarding military affairs, despite its impressive numbers, the People’s Liberation Army presents a mixed record in terms of results since the end of the Korean War (1950-1953), having enjoyed few successes against not very formidable adversaries (Sino-Indian war of 1962) or setbacks (Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979). In the event of conflict, the Chinese armed forces are unlikely to benefit assistance from its allies such as Pakistan and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. They are both unpredictable and have more limited military means. On the side of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (O.C.S), Russia seems to be a strategic partner with the means to achieve its ambitions but still maintains an unsteady relationship with its Chinese counterpart.
As a result, China takes an asymmetric approach both in the real and virtual world, which increases the risk of proliferation of low-intensity conflicts. This approach can be defined as the response of the weak to the strong, but China’s perpetual military growth suggests a possible paradigm shift.
Given the economic interdependencies that exist between nations, today’s world cannot be compared to the world of the Cold War. Open war between the great powers of the Pacific is a possibility of little benefit to all the nations of the world, whatever the outcome. However, this does not prevent a need for a less naive stance towards China by the countries of Western Europe. Indeed, China could attack other nations in the region despite this interdependence. The submarine affair demonstrates the phenomenon of “decoupling” taking place between economic and strategic issues in the region. For France, this failure allows it to avoid becoming part of a conflicting strategy that the Anglosphere seems to advocate and presents a new opportunity. This opportunity translates into the restructuring of the French approach in the Indo-Pacific, which does not on its own have the capacity to apply its security policy in the region. Support for Europe in the Indo-Pacific followed by investment in regions where less involvement is observed, such as Central Asia and Iran, would make it possible to compensate for this lack of resources. The objective is to rebalance the relations of the various European nations with China and to erase this candid approach which characterizes our relationship with this country.