Clash of the Titans: The Indo-Pacific Conflict China

Geo-politics is a dangerous game. To readers and observers, it is an exhilarating show of big, titan countries facing off for hegemony. Yet, in a world where nuclear capability determines the outcome, one miscalculation may transform the world into a flashpoint. Whether it be the story of Athens and Sparta fighting to the end, the cold between of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States of America (US), or the economic war between the US and China; history is replete with the wars of great powers, all vying to establish supremacy over international order.

With the end of the Cold War in 1991, the world was introduced to a unipolar international system. Academics and strategists hailed this as a new era of peace, free from balance of power politics, and a united “New World Order” under a single global hegemon; the United States of America (US), with liberal and free market capitalist principles acting as the guiding gospel. Yet, in less than two decades of this unipolar era, a new competitor has entered the fray: China. Not only does this new competitor offer an alternate alliance, but a completely new concept of world order. Much like the cold war, it is the antithesis of its rival. The cold war battle of communism vs capitalism is now replaced with the Beijing Consensus vs the Washington Consensus. There is talk of “China model”, “Belt and Road Initiative”, and “string of pearls”. A conflict is brewing, and nowhere better, is the stage set for it, than in the Indo-Pacific.

The cold war battle of communism vs capitalism is now replaced with the Beijing Consensus vs the Washington Consensus.

Integrated ocean spaces in Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean region collectively form the “Indo-Pacific region”. The region is home to perhaps all the power houses of the world, including China, Russia, Japan, Oceania and South Asia. The Indian Ocean region neighbours Asia in its north, Africa to its West, and Indo-China to its East.  With 20 economies of the world having an accumulated GDP of $67 trillion, and five main trade routes (the Lombok, Ombai-Wetar, Makassar Straits, Straits of Malacca and South China Sea), the region is not only an economic hub, but also a strategic nerve of the world. Any miscalculation may trigger a global economic recession, turn the region into a nuclear flashpoint or both. Clearly, thus, mastery of this region is the strategic pathway for supremacy for both China and the US.

A conflict is brewing, and nowhere better, is the stage set for it, than in the Indo-Pacific.

China is a rising superpower, and it needs to gain spheres of influence in order to project power. The Indo-Pacific region, due to its proximity to China and immense importance, could be its ticket to hegemony. There has long been talk of the “Malacca dilemma” for China, whereby the Strait of Malacca becomes the bottleneck for China, being the trade route for 85% of its oil imports. Traditionally, the US and its allies have maintained dominance over the Pacific by not only navigating the high seas to project power, but also offering trade concessions to East Asia countries and even supporting them through military deals and guarantees. By allying nations that control key straits in the region, the US maintained deterrence against Chinese ambitions. This has often been termed as the US’ “pivot to Asia”.

China is a rising superpower, and it needs to gain spheres of influence in order to project power. The Indo-Pacific region, due to its proximity to China and immense importance, could be its ticket to hegemony.

However, since 2013, China’s response under President Xi Jinping has been a departure from the earlier “bide your time and hide your capabilities” doctrine. Xi announced the “Belt and Road Initiative” and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative, which is hailed as his “signature foreign policy measure”. With the construction of 80,000 km of rail and road links, and the accompanied construction and development of sea ports along its “string of pearls”, China seeks to embark on a massive economic integration project that is likely to see it surpass the US in terms of trade and economic production. This project will allow China to circumvent the Malacca dilemma, and reduce freight costs and time dramatically, making it an economic giant difficult to contain.

Since 2013, China’s response under President Xi Jinping has been a departure from the earlier “bide your time and hide your capabilities” doctrine.

As the US loses its competitive edge, there is no doubt that it will retaliate heavily. One way in which we have witnessed this is its economic attack on China; by imposing quotas and tariffs on Chinese goods and preventing US companies from using tech equipment manufactured by Chinese companies – a US-China trade war has been launched since January 2018. On geopolitical scale, not only do US ships sail close to supposed Chinese Exclusive Economic Zones on multiple occasions to reject the zones, but the US continues to deploy its most efficient and capable aircraft carriers and vessels, in an attempt to counter China’s military adventurism in the South China Sea. Understandably, Chinese vessels then react by tailing American vessels to project its own power. This cat-and-mouse game may seem insignificant, but in the context of geo-politics, it is a serious cause of concern.

Looking at all of these events in the grand scheme of geo-politics, it is clear that a war is brewing. What form or nature such a war takes is difficult to conclude, but its certainty cannot be doubted. It is the story of a rising Athens (China) challenging an established Sparta (the US) in the famously debated “Thucydides trap”. It is a Clash of the Titans, with other smaller states such as those in South and East Asia as spectators, but ones that acquiesce in it.

Talha Ali Khawaja

Talha Ali Khawaja

has graduated in LLB (Honours) from BPP University

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