Steve Bannon’s arrest upon Chinese dissident Miles Kwok’s super yacht should have thrown the CCP leadership into spasms of rapture, given that Bannon is its most vocal policy critic and Miles Kwok sits atop their most wanted list. But, alas, there followed no national holiday or ticker-tape parade. These small things tell a big story.
Meanwhile, China’s big actions such as adding 50,000 troops this week to the LAC border with India are even more massive in its implications. Delhi will respond in kind, surely; in fact probably take even sterner action as PM Modi is keen to show off his iron handedness in dealing with China. Soft options - such as banning popular Chinese social media apps - are running out amid calls for more heavy-handed assertiveness. Pundits on both sides are openly pondering military scenarios.
Yet alongside China’s muscle flexing is a loudly vocal call by its state-sponsored policy institutes for reserve and reconciliation. These official mouthpieces of the CCP insist that China wants peace at all cost and ensures it will not be the one to break any fragile stalemate - concurrently pleading and warning India to stand down and maintain the status quo.
It’s this passive / aggressive dichotomy of talking diplomacy on one hand and deploying large-scale assets on the other that belies the underlying strategy driving China schizophrenia, viz. that by agitating border conflict in the North, military resources are being diverted away from maritime capabilities in the South.
The prize for China, you see, is not a few square miles in Ladakh, but rather unchallenged dominance over the shipping routes of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Let the import of that sink in while we turn our attention back to Bannon for a moment.
Bannon as a young Naval Officer in the Seventh Fleet was so affronted by the by the notion that US Warships patrolling the South China Seas were required by China to sail with their radar “down” (meaning not tracking sea traffic) that it fostered a long fomenting outrage which finally let loose when he took the wheel for steering policy in the Trump Presidency.
Since then he’s made it his priority numero uno to go after China with all the gusto he’s got.
Predictably, US / China relations have deteriorated to dangerous lows over South China Sea territoriality, with the US now openly stoking confrontation by bringing out its top-gear bombers and warships to patrol the region.
Beyond spurious territorial claims, there is lot at stake here. One third of the world’s shipping traffic flows through the South China Sea; which also contains 10% of world’s fisheries, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and some 11 billion barrels of oil. You can see why the Americans want a dog in this fight.
And yet the Indians are largely absent from this dialogue, which has drawn in everyone in between Taiwan and Thailand - some facilitating China’s expansion across the open seas but most resolutely against it.
And truly, if push comes to shove, would you want the world’s commerce superhighway in the hands of a communist authoritarian state; or a capitalist imperial one? Tough choice, I know, but Modi has made his bed with Trump and now we must all lie in it. The fact is America is dead set against letting this happen, and with good reason for once. Global trade will be held hostage.
Despite the high stakes, China has the distinct advantage. Democratic political cycles tend to engender short attention spans, catering to the baying distractions of the day instead of ivory tower daydreaming of distant futures. The CCP has no such handicap; no need to kiss babies and glad-handle the public. Unlike poor democracies which elect their doppelgängers, the elite minds of China formulate policy.
China’s fingering its foes is no mere folly to pass the time but a deliberate and precise plan. With the largest standing army in the world, and a gleaming new arsenal of military gear, China can afford to drain its opponents’ limited and deficient resources. It also serves to spread the Americans thin, forcing their engagement into everything from minority rights in Xinjiang, democracy in Hong Kong, and trade sanctions in Iran.
China is running its race exactly how it wants to, by feeding in pressure on one side while pricking the tube from the other. The military aside, China’s pact with Pakistan is literally draining the Himalayan glacier run-off away from the subcontinent and into the Tibetan plateau. But let’s not digress; that’s another story for another day.
For the moment it’s crucial we recognize that India is several moves behind in this chess game, and simply responding like bees from a stoned hive. Instead of working ourselves up into a jingoistic fervor - something of a specialty of ours - we must fight strategy with strategy. The maritime straits that flow through our waters is an open flank, vulnerable to attack.
The Chinese have already commandeered a beach head by seizing Sri Lanka’s newly built Hambantota seaport. Where is our response? While we agitate at Ladakh’s rooftop the Chinese have inched their way to our very doorstep. We still have a few moves left, let’s consider a plan to reconcile and regroup.