One of the rather unexplained and fascinating questions of history is about the Chinese explorer Admiral Zheng He. His naval expeditions in the early fifteenth century were engineering and technological marvels that were far ahead of any contemporary naval force. They projected Chinese power not just in the East Asian region but as far as West Asia and Africa. Owing to these expeditions, the Yongle Emperor, under whose reign Zheng He rose, was successful in expanding the Chinese influence in much of the then known world and received tributes from a large number of rulers apart from directly expanding his territory.
But the party for China ended rather quickly, almost as soon as it started. China’s expeditionary forces started going out in 1405 CE. The last major voyage was in 1424 (a minor one was again undertaken in 1433). Within a span of just two decades, a China which was then ahead of any other country in the world in exerting influence in the region in its vicinity and beyond, suddenly closed shop and became inward. That set-in process a motion of isolationism, decline and humiliation of China which would be reversed only six centuries later.
What would have happened had Zheng He not stopped, or had not been forced to stop, his voyages? Did China stretch itself too thin or too-early-too-wide, and therefore could not sustain? We may never know the answers to these fascinating questions. However, what we do know is that there was a flash of ‘would be Chinese era’ six centuries ago, almost exactly to the date, before it all ended and the world history took a completely different turn.
Banning Chinese tech
More recently, a series of events have taken place which are again putting China in the spotlight. Sweden has become the latest country, in an ever-expanding list, to ban Huawei and ZTE from the 5G auctions slated for next month. Australia, the United States and the UK had already moved on this front by banning these two Chinese companies. France’s new policy will have practically the same result, of making Huawei and ZTE unwelcome in the country.
Chinese technology companies and their services are getting banned across the globe. After India took the lead in banning almost 60 popular Chinese apps, many other countries followed suit, most notably the United States. India then further added the list by adding more than 100 other apps to the list of banned Chinese apps.
The conduct of China after Hong Kong protests has resulted in extreme backlash from the United States and Britain. What the French President Macron had famously described as the “end of European naivete” towards China manifested itself rather starkly a few weeks ago when Germany, China’s oldest and largest partner in Europe, released a new foreign policy document for the Indo-Pacific. The timing of this document is significant as Germany is the current President of the European Union. More significantly, the new German posture for the region calls for an order “based on rules and international cooperation, not on the law of the strong”. Many analysts have interpreted this to be directly aimed against China.
The 'Quad' takes shape
And just a few days ago, Australia returned to the Malabar Naval exercise after 13 years. The exercise is an annual feature featuring India, the United States and Japan. Other countries have participated on and off. Australia last did so in 2007 but then did not return until this year. There was both hesitation and drift in the India-Australia relations, even as China and Australia strengthened their political and economic ties in the intervening period.
The visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Australia in 2014, during the premiership of Tony Abbott, was a significant event that started the process of reconfiguring geopolitics of this region. Modi’s was the first Prime Ministerial visit of Australia by an Indian premier in 28 years. Since then, the India-Australia ties have deepened, especially under the current Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. This ‘revival’, as it were, is a significant success of Prime Minister Modi’s foreign policy.
The return of Australia to the ‘Quad Naval exercise”, which will be held this year in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, is also significant because it adds another dimension to the league of democracies who are asserting themselves.
India’s own bilateral response to China has undergone a sea change under Prime Minister Modi. Earlier, China had become used to a rather unchallenged assertive posture on the boundaries. This changed dramatically in 2017 when India deployed a large number of forces against Chinese designs in Doklam. Surprised, and caught off-guard by the decisive Indian action, China had to ultimately save face and back off.
'The China question'
A new military standoff, which started earlier this year along the northern boundaries between India and China, is still continuing. However, during this face-off, China has had to face a situation which it had not experienced in a long time. Having gotten used to, against its other neighbours, in brazening its way to territorial and maritime expansionism without challenge, the strong Indian response has flummoxed China. It has been outmatched both in on-the-ground tactical maneuvers as well as in the global communications management. As China learnt in Galwan valley, the Indian resolve was not just rhetorical but operational with any and every means available.
So, the ‘China question’ is this. The era of free global run of Chinese technology companies is over. China is no longer looked upon by the major countries of the world as merely an economic opportunity but is increasingly being seen as a strategic challenger. The United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany — the Big Four Western Powers — have all either reversed or are in the course of recalibrating their earlier accommodative posture towards China.
The strategic alliances and postures in the Indo-Pacific region, which were earlier marked by hesitations or even thought to be unnecessary, are now a stark reality. The ‘Quad’, long only a theoretical construct, is taking physical shape right in front of our eyes. And finally, China has met a country in its vicinity, India, which is willing to stand up against its belligerence. How will China respond to these global developments is an interesting question of our times. Indeed, how will the world respond to a changing China is going to be an equally fascinating question. The next few months and years are going to be worth watching.