China’s objections to the joint Indo-US military exercises conducted just 100 km from the Sino-Indian border seem to have fallen upon deaf ears. On Thursday, a spokesperson of the Indian Foreign Ministry stated that the exercises have “nothing to do with the 1993 and 1996 agreements” in place with the People’s Republic of China. “Since these were raised by the Chinese side, let me emphasize that the Chinese side needs to reflect and think about its own breach of these agreements of 1993 and 1996.” The ’93 agreement centers on maintaining peace along the Line of Actual Control. This is the area where the 2020 border clashes between Indian and Chinese troops occurred, which led to multiple deaths on both sides. So it goes without saying that the appearance of US troops in Uttarakhand and conducting exercises with Indian forces served to rub Beijing the wrong way. Defense ties between the US and India have grown strong in recent years. China’s behavior and actions have helped push together the US and Indian desire to counter and contain the PRC.
The budding military rivalry between China and India is not restricted to the Himalayas. The two Asian giants are maneuvering for influence and control in and around the Indian Ocean region. Geopolitically, Beijing’s encroachment here is motivated at least partly by China’s determination to be regarded as the ascendant leader among Great Power equals. The ‘String of Pearls’ doctrine in the IO region was intended to encircle India. By investing in ports, infrastructure and defense exports to India’s immediate neighbors China has laid the foundation for future military bases and cooperation in the event of a large Sino-Indian war.
Xi Jinping’s unrepentant faith in continuing the zero-COVID national strategy is breeding public unrest throughout the People’s Republic of China. Demonstrations have broken out in at least eight mainland cities as well as Hong Kong since Friday. The government has eased some of the controls and policies in light of the demonstrations, but this is still clearly a carrot and stick situation. Right behind the easing of select controls comes the decision by at least twelve universities in Beijing and the Guangdong Province to send their students home and conduct final exams remotely. Dispersing students back to their hometowns cuts down on the prospect of further demonstrations, thus serving to help defuse the situation. The police presence in Beijing and other urban areas has been reinforced and made more visible.
China’s zero-COVID strategy was never intended to last forever. Yet between almost continuous COVID outbreaks and Xi’s stubborn refusal to bend, it seems like forever to millions of Chinese citizens. The deaths of 10 people in an apartment fire in the city of Urumqi on Thursday has been the catalyst for this round of anti-zero-COVID protests and demonstrations. Almost instinctively, many citizens questioned whether COVID restrictions contributed to the deaths. Urumqi had been under zero-COVID lockdown since August.
What happens next remains uncertain. If the unrest continues and grows, the central government will be forced to implement more censorship restrictions. This will serve as the precursor to a heavy-handed crackdown. On the other hand, if the unrest dies out by later this week most of China’s cities will return to a zero-COVID normalcy. One way or another, zero-COVID has to be overhauled or discarded entirely. The damage it causes to China and its economy increases with every passing day. The sooner Xi realizes this, the better. Unfortunately, it does not appear that China’s leader will come to the realization anytime soon.
Following the pre-G20 meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, as well as Xi’s apparent diplomatic outreach at the G20, China’s defense ministry is open to meeting with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at a gathering of ASEAN defense ministers in Cambodia set for Tuesday or Wednesday. An actual meeting between Austin and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe has not been officially scheduled, but it does seem likely the two defense chiefs will meet while in Cambodia. Austin and Wei have not met or communicated since China suspended dialogue with the US in August after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. On the surface this appears to be the latest indication that relations between the US and China are moving in a more positive direction now.
Whether this holds true remains to be seen, but it’s evident that Beijing wants to at least be viewed as seeking a more productive relationship with the US and nations in the Western Pacific. For the domestic audience it portrays an image of China being treated as an equal. This has the potential to provide much needed political dividends for Xi down the line as the future of COVID-19 restrictions remains fluid. On the international stage the image of a less assertive and belligerent China should give Xi a temporary buffer and allow him to either deal with the slew of domestic matters or set the stage for the next phase of maneuvers on the geopolitical chessboard. Or both, perhaps.
Sino-US relations continue to deteriorate and storm clouds continue to gather on the horizon on the Western Pacific. To the surprise of many, the US Navy is only now starting to accept the possibility of a new Pacific War breaking out in the near future. In the same manner of Rip Van winkle, the US Navy is emerging from its extended slumber and coming to terms with a changed world and evolving threats. The reasons for the slumber are numerous and spurred by non-similar root causes ranging from a two-decade long Global War on Terror, budgetary constraints, broken-down procurement, and ship building programs. Last but hardly least is the reckless complacency that the ensconced the Navy since the end of the Cold War.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is growing by leaps and bounds. China has put together a navy intended to not only spearhead an effort to reclaim Taiwan, but also to challenge the US Navy and American allies on seas east of the Second Island Chain. The modern-day PLAN is a blue water navy in nearly every respect, having become the greatest threat to American supremacy of the seas in decades.
As the US Navy moves to address its current deficiencies and face the threat posed by China’s navy, it needs to keep in mind the importance of sound training centered on fighting and winning a modern war at sea. Many officers and senior NCOs cut their teeth in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lessons and experiences drawn from these conflicts are inapplicable to fighting a modern-day war against a near-peer opponent. In short, the lost art of naval warfare will need to be relearned service wide.
Designing an effective doctrine to fight and win a war against China has proved to be difficult too. This is a military-wide problem with every service branch focusing on its own role in a future war, not looking at the big picture. AirSea Battle became the grand strategy in 2010, only to be replaced five years later by Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC), which is the same basic doctrine. However, since 2015 scant attention has been paid to overhauling and updating the doctrine to contend with the growing power and reach of the PLAN and PLAAF. With the Navy growing more concerned about the prospect of having to fight China at some point before 2025, doctrine development needs to become a major priority for leadership.
Joe Biden and Xi Jinping will hold a face-to-face meeting on Monday in Indonesia just before the opening of the G20 summit. This will be the first in-person meeting between the US and Chinese leaders since Biden took office in January 2021 and comes at a point where Sino-US tensions are on the rise due to several issues from the war in Ukraine to Taiwan. Members of the Biden administration have said the purpose of the mini summit will be to set expectations. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters today that Biden “will get to sit in the same room with Xi Jinping, be direct and straightforward with him as he always is and expect the same in return from Xi.”
It is worth mentioning that Biden tried the same approach with Vladimir Putin in Switzerland back in the summer of 2021 and it failed miserably. Hence the Russia-Ukraine war currently raging.
For this go-around, the stakes are higher for the United States. Xi has consolidated his hold on power and appears to be chomping at the bit to confront the US should Washington decide on a policy of containment to hold back an expansionist move on the part of Xi and China. Biden placed himself and the nation in a corner when he publicly affirmed that the US will defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. That comment, coupled with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan sent US-China relations plummeting and introduced an period of Chinese military exercises around the island-nation as well as a round of attempted coercive diplomacy by Beijing around the Western Pacific.