Monday, 2 October, 2023

Ukraine: The War for Asia (concluding part)

MJ Akbar


 As Xi Jinping left Kremlin on the night of Tuesday 21 March 2023 after a two-day State visit he told Putin: “Change is coming that hasn’t happened in 100 years and we are driving this change together.” The two smiled, clasped hands.

“I agree,” replied Putin.

Xi’s last words before he stepped into the limousine were: “Please take care, dear friend.”

One aspect of change might have suggested itself to President Putin. Xi Jinping was at the wheel, while he manned the frontlines.

The Chinese leader implied more than he said. He might have described the relationship with Russia as a “limitless” partnership but both knew that the 20th century was finally over.  America and Russia looked exhausted. The superpowers of the 20th century had become the Nervous Powers of the 21st.

America made a crucial mistake during its triumphant mood in the 1990s. Spurred by spurious academic cheerleaders it began to   believe that because Russia had diminished, America had risen. This misconception was corrected in Afghanistan and Iraq, where America misplaced its nerve.  President Barack Obama spent eight becalmed years in the White House, hypnotized by the price of conflict. Donald Trump’s vocal belligerence stopped short of action. It was Trump who invited the Taliban back, through talks in Qatar. America still has estimated 800-plus bases in more than 70 countries, at an annual cost of around $200bn, but its boots seem frozen in the mind. [Russia, Britain, France and China together have less than 40].

American strategic mobility seems to have been transferred from Pentagon’s tank commanders to Washington’s think-tank commanders. Condoleezza Rice, George Bush’s Secretary of State, was an advocate of the Creative Chaos Theory, an ornate phrase meaning that a new polity could rise only on the ashes of the system it had replaced. Change required total destruction and the resultant chaos.  Someone else’s eggs had to be broken to make an American omelette. George Bush dreamt of a big omelette. At the G8 summit in 2004, he spoke of a “Greater Middle East” that included Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan living cosily in the happy fold of Pax Americana. What the “old” Middle East learnt from Iraq and the Arab spring was that Washington could not be trusted as principal guarantor of stability.

This set, albeit initially in slow motion, the stage for the “dragon butterfly effect”. The wings of this species flutter to the timbre of Chinese music. When Xi Jinping spoke of change of a kind that has not happened in a hundred years he could have had China’s diplomatic coup in West Asia. For the first time since the end of World War 1 in 1918, a western power was not the primary arbiter of events in the Arab world.

On March 10 this year Saudi Arabia, Iran and China issued a joint statement restoring relations between Riyadh and Tehran. The venue for the historic handshake was Beijing, not Camp David in America. President Xi Jinping and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud left America blindsided. The implicit message was that Washington had kept the two apart at serious cost to the neighbourhood.

This pirouette might never have happened if America’s Democrats had not alienated and even humiliated the Saudi heir for reasons of domestic politics. When history recovers from media sound bites, Biden will have to answer the question he currently evades: What price is America paying for his treatment of Mohammed bin Salman?

Riyadh has not suddenly turned pro-Beijing or anti-American. Bin Salman is establishing, for the first time in many centuries, strategic autonomy, weaving it out of dependence. His conference on Ukraine in August, in which China was present but Russia excluded, was one more example.

China is less concerned with cause and more with effect. Its current focus is on an axis from Beijing to Riyadh, while a second curves from the Gulf to include the principal regional military powers including Iran and Syria. Syria, Iran and Russia are linked by complementary interests. On 19 March UAE’s ruler   Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan received Syrian President Bashar Assad in Abu Dhabi with full state honours. On the same day Riyadh invited Iran’s President Raisi to Saudi. These are still early days, but this could be the beginning of a radical shift away from the bitter confrontation that has trapped the region since 1979.

High on the agenda is a desire to rewrite the rules of the energy market, find alternatives to the dollar, and establish partnerships in renewable energy, digital economy, artificial intelligence, cyber security and the industrial internet. China has even proposed a plan for Palestine, which may be a quest too far. Political graveyards are full of reputations clutching a peace plan for Palestine.

The Saudi initiative on Palestine could lead to better results, not least because it seeks incremental steps rather than solutions. Riyadh has made any revaluation of relations with Israel contingent upon Israeli concessions in Palestine. The broader framework is bilateral and regional. In June the Saudi ambassador to America Princess Reema bint al Saud said that her country wanted a thriving Red Sea economy with a prosperous Palestine and a prosperous Israel as part of her leader’s Vision 2030. 

Aggressive language is a measure of China’s current confidence. On 5 July this year ‘wolf warrior’ Wang Yi, the now revived Foreign Minister and father of wolf-warrior diplomacy, told Japan and South Korea to foster “strategic autonomy” and “revitalise Asia” as a counterpoint to the West. Speaking at a trilateral forum in Qingdao, he said: “No matter how blonde you dye your hair, how sharp you shape your nose, you can never become a European or America, you can never become a Westerner…We must know where our roots lie…”. He told the two American allies to free themselves from “coercion of bullying and hegemony”.

He has given no such lectures to Delhi. At least, not yet.


A straight line is the shortest distance between two glasses of gin.

That is how Europeans drew the maps of their colonies in Africa and much of Asia, turning the natural geography of human habitation into one-dimensional lines. This legacy has segued with national ambitions of post-colonial states to create contested spaces that simmer with tension.

China’s priority for reunification is Taiwan, annexed by the Qings in 1683 and occupied by Japan in 1895. In 1949 it became home to the Chiang Kai-shek regime, which claimed to be the real China. Xi Jinping has linked his credibility and future to reunification by 2027. If he cannot deliver in his third term, a fourth becomes difficult. If he does, he will lead China through the 2030s.

One characteristic of superpower rivalry was the division of the world into ‘obedience’ clusters.  NATO and Warsaw Pact countries were the most obvious instances of quasi-colonization wrapped in economic benevolence. Two confident powers, India and China, stayed out of any “obedience” zone. China has been unwilling or unable to admit that India has an independent mind. Beijing is still in thrall of Mao Zedong’s dictum that India was a “running dog” of western imperialism. In Xi Jinping’s calculations, India’s participation in Quad is confirmation of the Mao canard.

China therefore has consistently viewed India as an obstacle to its rise. Mao Zedong was irritated by Jawaharlal Nehru’s patrician patronage rather than grateful. Nehru, more idealistic than realistic, told BBC in 1953 that he saw “absolutely no danger from China”, adding “I don’t think China has any desire to expand”. He was woken up in 1962.

China attacked across the Himalaya to punch India down into a lower division. As often happens, it had the opposite effect. The defeat of 1962 set India free from the Nehru peace jinx.  India tripled its defence budget in 1963 and set a course for rearmament that has made it into one of the world’s premier military powers.

Pakistan was the first country to discover the muscle of a different India when in 1965 it tried to seize Kashmir through war and instead lost Kashmir forever. Since then, Pakistan has descended into a jelly state, neither able to stay stable nor disintegrate, quivering on the rim of helplessness. China can do little to help a hapless ally.

For Xi Jinping, the Quad is a direct threat to China’s plans for Taiwan, and hence it is time for the military containment of India. He has, in effect, three years left. His game of matchsticks and sulphur needs reinforcement by military heft. 

A week after securing a third term, Xi Jinping pledged to turn China’s standing army of two million into a “Great Wall of Steel”.  They had to be fit to fight on high roads, rough waves and perilous stormy seas.  The high roads are the Himalayas, the rough waves and perilous seas lie in the Indo-Pacific. China has therefore invested heavily in light tanks for mountain roads; sophisticated submarines; an amphibious assault arsenal; cyber-and-space capability; and a ballistic missile force.

Will Xi Jinping invade Taiwan and risk war on the Third Front of Asia? Only the Chinese leader can provide a firm answer, and he is not in the habit of giving interviews. Moreover, invasion would be akin to an assault on his own country, killing fellow Chinese citizens and destroying Chinese industrial infrastructure.

There is an option outside the conventional box that would tempt him: raise the levels of confrontation in stages till the threat is palpable, and America is forced to send its navy or seem impotent. He then orders a blockade, not as the first act of a Chinese invasion but ostensibly to prevent an “American invasion” of Chinese territory. If Taiwan is Chinese then ipso facto American troops and warships in Taiwan constitute an American invasion. That is as good a cassus belli as he is likely to find.

Xi Jinping would then wait for media to ratchet up the dread factor, while ensuring that Taiwan’s supply chains are cut, particularly of semi-conductors. Simultaneously, his diplomats would remind the world that it has already accepted the single-China option, which is why Beijing is in the Security Council. All that the United Nations could do was appeal for a peaceful resolution.  In November 2022, British defence secretary Ben Wallace told the House of Lords: “It is in China’s plan to reunify Taiwan to mainland China…it is not a secret. Britain wants a peaceful process towards that”.  A blockade would meet the “peace” requirement since China would not fire the first shot. It would be ready to return fire.

Would Washington risk a full-scale war by breaking the blockade? These are the known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, to use Donald Rumsfeld’s appropriate terminology. What we do know is that a Chinese climb down would lead to a contagious meltdown on a scale last seen in 1990.

Compromise would be the intelligent way out. Xi Jinping would be ready to accept a Hong Kong solution. His purpose would have been met.  The red flag would fly over Taiwan. 

With Beijing getting fulsome support from Russia, its old and new friends, and indeed all those who have argued on behalf of the territorial integrity of a nation state, the odds on Taiwan becoming a second Hong Kong are higher than a Chinese meltdown or total war. America would be damaged in the process, but a relieved world would quickly get on with other business.

Lenin noted that there were decades when nothing happened, and weeks when decades happened. Ukraine has pushed us into the Lenin cycle. The decades are beginning to unfold.

As rising powers claim the attention of the 21st century, India and China will become leaders of different models of progress. India’s transition into an economic giant through the uncertainties of liberal democracy is an attractive alternative to authoritarian arguments locked in the assumption that political stability is essential for equitable economic growth. In the various struggles across a fraught globe for independence, inheritance, territorial integrity and a high place in the emerging world order, the future of freedom is also at stake.


The writer is a famous Indian  journalist and author 

MJ Akbar