Let me begin this episode by crossing some pop-culture with high geostrategy!
At the turn of the century (and millennium) there was a movie called "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" that for the first time introduced a mass American audience to what could pass off as mainland Chinese culture beyond the Chinese restaurants that dotted the American landscape. Chinese to the extent that its entire cast was of Chinese origin, and the movie itself was in Mandarin with English-only subtitles. Yet, it became the highest grosser for Hollywood in its history for any foreign language film. Americans just lapped it up.
This was around the same time that China entered the World Trade Organization, in a final act of integration with the global economy. What's the correlation you might ask? For its WTO entry, China had tweaked over 2,000 national laws, and a whopping 2,00,000 plus local laws or regulations to make itself eligible for the membership! That was a national act of self-effacement, akin to hiding its dragon fire, or, crouching like a Tiger before it goes for the kill.
Cut to 2022. On Friday, July 29, in a phone call that lasted over two hours, Chinese president XI Jinping threatened American president Joe Biden with consequences if a US Congressional delegation led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi went to Taiwan, a territory claimed by China. "Those who play with fire, perish by it," Xi is quoted as telling Biden. This was on the back of a shrill commentary by the Chinese defence and foreign relations ministries, warning of actions in case Pelosi's plane made way towards Taiwan.
Experts close to the CCP suggested that the Pelosi flight could be escorted by PLA Air Force fighters as a mark of aggression, even as on the ground, the PLA rocket force could be conducting live fire drills. We don't know yet if the United States has finally blinked, surrendering to a new redline drawn by the red regime in Beijing, but the itinerary of the Pelosi delegation released Sunday by her office skipped mentioning Taiwan as one of its port of call, focusing on South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Malaysia as countries that would be visited.
One thing is clear, China is breathing down the US neck. And that's buttressed by numbers. In 2001, when China entered WTO, it was the eighth largest economy in the world, its GDP a mere USD 1 trillion against United States' 10 trillion-plus. Today, in real terms, the two nations are almost equal, while in Purchasing Power Parity, the Chinese GDP is 30 trillion against US' 25 trillion as per the IMF. It's not Xi threatening. As the Americans always told the world, it's the economy, stupid.
Back in 2000, when China acceded to the WTO, the Clinton administration showcased it as the ultimate victory of free trade, with American corporations salivating at one-fifth of the world market size in the Chinese population. China turned it on its head. In the most direct fusillade against China, then US president Donald Trump in his 2019 UNGA speech, listed how the dragon had manipulated the WTO regime to its advantage. I just quote him: “America had lost 4.2 million manufacturing jobs, shut over 60,000 factories, ran a trade deficit of 15 trillion dollars – equal to present-day China’s GDP – all because the Chinese gamed the global order.” Unquote.
No wonder then, that the dragon is breathing fire, and the tiger is no more crouching. From Ladakh to the Senkaku islands, from the South China Sea to even bullying tiny Bhutan in the Himalayas, China does not mind being the Gali Ka Gunda backed by its money muscle. The brazenness has reached such proportions that China does not mind appropriating even soft cultural symbols like dresses and national foods. Early this year, South Koreans got a rude shock when during the inauguration of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, a woman was shown parading in Korea's national dress. A ruling party MP and the culture minister of the country made their displeasure public, though stopping short of making it an official diplomatic spat.
Last week, China threatened Korea if it went ahead with the purchase of an American missile defence shield - the Theatre High Altitude Area Defence - known by its acronym the THAAD. In May, China carried out a first-ever joint air patrol with Russia - an alliance called the DragonBear - breaching the air identification zones over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea. This happened when leaders of Japan, Australia, India and the United States were holding QUAD Summit in Tokyo. And thrice in the past eight months, the Chinese PLA Air Force has carried out major intrusions into Taiwanese air space, using upwards of 100 weaponised fighter aircrafts. It is likely that Taiwan would be forcefully integrated with the Chinese mainland over the next couple of years with the world watching helplessly.
China is clearly then the world's problem number one in the geostrategic and geoeconomic space.
How then to tackle it? It is unlikely that there is going to be a short-term solution to this. India has shown to the world how to engage with the bully. Even as our defence forces looked the dragon in the eye in Ladakh, the Modi government has been calibrating an aggressive economic equivalent of guerrilla war on Chinese business interests. Last week, the United States Congress passed what is called the CHIPS Act which aims to boost domestic semiconductor industry with a USD 250 billion plus government support to make it compete with Chinese manufacturers. Both the conservative candidates in the United Kingdom prime ministerial race promise to be tough on China. Since the outbreak of Wuhan-born COVID-19, the world’s strategic and economic contours have visibly changed. QUAD, AUKUS, IPEF have taken a more concrete shape. Germany, which is not a player in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific, has a strategy paper on the Indo-Pacific. France is getting involved too. NATO for the first time has expanded its threat perception to make China its primary target, with Russia only a sidekick, despite the Ukraine war. Clearly, the world has to come together to remove Chinese choke points, both physical like in the South China Sea, and economic, like in the case of manufacturing supply chains.
Since I began this with a movie, let me end this with two. In 2015 there was a Chinese propaganda flick called the Wolf Warrior, which showed the travails of the protagonist, a Chinese special forces commando called Leng Feng, and his fight against a drug cartel within China. A sequel to the movie in 2017 showed Feng taking on an American villain named Big Daddy while saving his compatriots from a civil war in an African nation, this time as a mercenary having been thrown out of the Chinese Army, which punished him for transgressions beyond rules with solitary confinement and subsequent discharge. Post the two movies, the aggressive, unilateral, and coercive brand of Chinese diplomacy has come to be characterised as wolf warrior diplomacy. The solution was there in the movies. Isolation and ex-communication. Let China face that.