Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

China Flexes Its Muscles While America Sleeps

The U.S. seems to have lost interest in its hegemonic responsibilities, but China’s ambitions have only grown.
June 17, 2020
China Flexes Its Muscles While America Sleeps
(Hannah Yoest / Shutterstock)

This week, twenty Indian soldiers were killed and apparently dozens more were captured in a battle with Chinese forces—one that reportedly involved not a single shot being fired but saw the combatants go at it with “fists, rocks and wooden clubs, some possibly studded with nails or wrapped in barbed wire.” The conflict is over disputed territories in the Himalaya region. China and India are the two most populous countries in the world. The last time they went to war over these disputed borders, in 1962, neither country possessed nuclear arms. Now they both do. A war between the two countries could be catastrophic in terms of casualties.

It could also be catastrophic for the United States. Even if the United States were somehow not dragged into that war, China is still America’s largest trading partner and India is the ninth-largest. U.S. businesses have significant investments in both countries. The economic impact of a war could be ruinous, adding on to the global economic shock of 2020.

Then there’s Taiwan. In April, a Chinese aircraft carrier sailed into Taiwanese waters and near Japan. A few weeks ago, the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, left out the word “peaceful” when talking about unification with Taiwan—an unprecedented signal that set hairs on fire.

And don’t forget Hong Kong. China’s pseudo-parliament last month approved of a national security law that, if enacted, would legally end Hong Kong’s autonomy. A day earlier, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had announced that the United States no longer considers Hong Kong autonomous.

So why is China noticeably so much more aggressive all of a sudden?

One possibility: China was the first country hit by COVID-19, and it was the first major power seemingly to come out of the pandemic. A second wave of the pandemic may be about to begin in China. But in the meantime, Chinese strategists might have thought that the West’s distraction with the pandemic—and especially the dysfunction that the pandemic has helped to cause in the United States—creates a golden opportunity for China to flex its muscles.

Or Chinese leaders might be worried that their coverups and mishandling of the pandemic has hurt them with the Chinese people. As the Chinese Communist Party is moving more and more towards nationalism to re-establish its diminishing legitimacy, a military adventure or two, ones that could expand China’s territory, might rally the people ’round the flag and boost the leaders’ popularity the way that Putin’s annexation of Crimea did.

Meanwhile, the U.S. president has already shown his hand, and there’s no card he would play other than sanctions and tariffs. The U.S. nuclear arsenal is much greater than China’s, but, in the region, the conventional military balance strongly favors China. Surely, one cannot expect Donald Trump to risk a nuclear standoff with a strongman, like Xi Jinping, whom he respects—and perhaps envies—over somebody else’s country, especially amid multiple crises and during his re-election campaign.

But China must be put back in its place. Its control over Asia’s trade routes alone is too much of an economic hit to the United States, and that hit is nothing compared to China’s military threat and ambitions of territorial expansion, especially when U.S. deterrence is exposed as a bluff.

Returning to the China-India conflict: We have there a totalitarian nuclear-armed state, superior to India conventionally and in its nuclear arsenal, against a populist, nationalist, and semi-authoritarian government in India. What could go wrong?

Here is where the abdication by the United States of its hegemonic power and leadership matters. This is not entirely Donald Trump’s fault. The Obama administration paid lip service to Asia, but damaged U.S. credibility after it did not enforce its red line in Syria. The Bush administration, deeply involved in the Middle East after 9/11, also gave scant attention to Asia—and it, too, failed to enforce a red line, in that case against North Korea. These and other factors—including the sequestration-mandated military budget cuts and President Trump’s lack of interest in and care for foreign policy and U.S. leadership in military matters—left U.S. hegemony, and by extension the peaceful international order, exposed. The Trump administration’s incompetence, lack of planning, and malice toward  U.S. allies have made all these matters worse.

The future’s not looking good. Buy gold!

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.