Confidence, authoritativeness and clear warning signals echo from China’s published statements on the Maldives crisis. Keep off, it tells the UN. Any military intervention will be strongly resisted, it tells India. This is the new China rising to world leadership at a speed that is both remarkable and worrying.
Usually China does this quietly with no grandstanding. This was seen recently with deep-sea spying equipment in the Pacific Ocean. Powerful acoustic sensors were planted in two strategic spots, one in the deepest point on earth at 10,916 metres below sea level.
Both spots are near Guam, the largest American military base in Asia. With a listening range of more than 1,000 km, the sensors can track submarine movements and intercept underwater signals. A US strategic expert underplayed it by saying that such things were standard practice. But he admitted: “China has become a great power and is acting like one.”
Two months ago, China revealed a new intercontinental missile system that was to be deployed in the first half of this year. Able to carry up to 10 warheads that can be manoeuvred separately and with a range of up to 15,000 km, “the missile can hit every corner of the earth” according to a Chinese military expert. “All targets in the continental United States”, clarified an Australian strategic expert. China is also into building its third aircraft carrier with a new aircraft launching technology.
What deserves special attention is that China is developing its soft-power superiority with the same diligence it bestows on its military prowess. In 2013, it launched its ambitious One Belt One Road project. The visionary zeal that prompted it was seen again in 2016 when the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was launched, reducing the importance of the US-influenced World Bank and the status of the US dollar as an international currency.
Add to this the success it has registered on the business front. Alibaba is now a household name around the world, and not because of the forty thieves. Xiaomi’s 2017 growth was higher than that of Apple, Samsung and Huawei combined. Oppo (as new as 2004) and Vivo (2009) are shaking up the leadership ranks in the mobile world. As many as 19 Chinese phone manufacturing companies dominate India, unmindful of Jio.
America loves to talk of China being a copycat economy. Donald Trump has launched an investigation into Chinese “theft” of US intellectual property. In 2013, there were reports that China had successfully hacked 24 major weapons systems in the US. There may be truth in all these. But the ultimate truth is Success. And China is Success.
The political-business success China has already scored is prompting it to look into brave new frontiers of science. The Beijing government is putting more money into the Artificial Intelligence industry than any other government. By 2030, it wants an AI industry worth $150 billion. Intelligent video and smart cameras are being developed without the privacy concerns of democratic countries. The development of electric car technology is moving at a hurried pace. Beijing is also moving to end American leadership in the computer chip industry. As much as $22 billion is already pledged to develop advanced memory chips.
President Xi Jinping’s timeline for China’s superpower status is 2049. He seems well on his way despite China’s notorious weaknesses—pollution, the internal contradiction between a free market economy and communist controls, political tensions in border provinces, even overpopulation. It is the government’s no-nonsense approach to social control that keeps the problems under the lid. What worries the outside world is the brusqueness with which Beijing enforces its will over the weak.
South China Sea is the most disturbing example of this. China used its military force to get control of islands off the Vietnamese and Philippine coasts. Some shoals in the sea have been developed into military bases. The International Court’s ruling against Chinese claims has been ignored. American warships testing freedom-of-navigation routes have been warned against entering “Chinese waters”. Indian vessels en route to Vietnam’s ports have been cautioned.
Where’s India in all this? Delhi did make a show of friendship to Asean countries on Republic Day. But these are countries unnerved by Chinese assertiveness. Delhi’s alliance with the US and Japan has come unstuck with the US virtually giving up on Asia and Japan turning into an active negotiating partner with Beijing. India, in fact, looks blissfully out of the picture. Perhaps it will get back into it after achieving its priority objective of getting Hindi recognised in the UN.