China can’t win a military conflict with the US but it certainly can screw Trump in the region it bosses around.
A Chinese internal report has warned Beijing against a global backlash in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that could see the country getting into an armed confrontation with the US. What if the two giants get involved in a military tussle? The US certainly has an edge if it comes to military conflict. But China can outsmart it in its own backyard as a dominant regional power.
The widening diplomatic gap between the US and China over the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has started taking serious shape now.
\An internal report in China has warned Beijing that it is facing a growing hostility globally in the wake of the pandemic that could see it getting into an armed confrontation with the US, the Reuters has reported citing sources with knowledge. The Chinese report, which was presented in April by the Ministry of State Security to Beijing’s top leaders, including President Xi Jinping, said the anti-China sentiment that is prevailing globally now is the highest witnessed since the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989. This time, the situation promises to be grimmer since the casualties are more outside China than inside.
The US political leadership has accelerated its attack on China, claiming that the COVID-19 pandemic started from a lab in Wuhan. President Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been reiterating the accusation that China has done it, even if accidentally. Both have claimed that there is evidence that the pandemic originated from the lab though no such proof has surfaced. The Chinese understandably have used these inflammatory words uttered by top American leaders to hit back. Voices in China have accused both Trump and Pompeo of spreading lies to malign the Asian power. They have also claimed that it is nothing but a diversionary tactic employed by the White House to cover up its own failure in containing the outbreak at home.
There is a degree of truth in China’s claims. The Trump administration certainly failed to rise to the occasion when it needed to. The president and his like-minded officials fell back on the other plan, which is to bash China with which they signed a trade deal only in January. Experts believe even that was a move to divert the attention from Trump’s impeachment trial. But if ‘diversionary diplomacy’ is the only way forward for the Trump administration to prevail over challenges, then one can not really afford to forecast there will be no military confrontation between Washington and Beijing over the coronavirus blame game. After all, the mercurial president of America is bound for re-election in another six months’ time.
Trump’s ‘Wag the Dog’ moment
If the serious students of international politics recall, the Hollywood film of 1997 named ‘Wag the Dog’ in which an entire war theater was fabricated to help a scandal-hit president win his re-election offers abundant guidance to how the White House acts abroad when faced with a challenge at home. There are several instances in America’s political life that can be seen as real-life examples of the ‘Wag the Dog’ plot. If required the Trump-Pompeo duo can also act per the tested script with China being the latest target. With the re-election chances evaporating fast, the incumbent has nothing to lose anyhow.
Till America decided to erect its latest enemy in China, thanks to the coronavirus, it was Iran which was serving as Trump’s ‘Wag the Dog’ agent.
The US’ assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in January when Trump was battling the impeachment was not too difficult to analyze. Even the killing of Islamic State chief Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in Syria was a top administrative feat at a time when the president was fighting the impeachment. But top American military strategists will know very well that targeting any country in Africa (as Bill Clinton had done in the late 1990s amid the Monica Lewinsky scandal) or the Middle East (as did the Bush father-son duo) doesn’t make China as easy a target. First of all, Beijing is a nuclear power. Being a super-ambitious country it is, China may have less military hardware to beat the US in conflict but it certainly has a robust strategy. It can cause considerable loss to the US military, especially in its own backyard which is in East and South-East Asia.
Watch: US vs China Military muscle comparison 2020
While Beijing has built the region to its comfort over the past decades despite periodic tussles with its lesser neighbors, Trump’s US has alienated some of its key allies in the region like Japan and South Korea. Though it doesn’t mean the US’ umbrella association in the region has collapsed, there is no denying that two successive administrations in the White House failed to develop what former president Barack Obama visualized as a ‘Pivot to East Asia’ strategy to re-engage with Beijing in order to secure the US’ interests in the region. China has reduced the gap with the US briskly in the region and in case there is a war, it certainly has an edge over the US there. If China makes the US retreat from the region and territorially challenges Japan and Taiwan in a military conflict, then things will become more complicated for the Trump administration. Even a resurgent North Korea cannot be ruled out.
While China will strategize to make the US retreat from its neighborhood through naval deployment and other infrastructural advancements it has made in the region, it could face immense pressure internally. The growing friction over the pandemic is fast emerging as a battle over the Chinese Communist Party’s powerful grip on its system. Senior officials of the Trump presidency have started portraying the crisis as an example of the threat the party’s iron rules poses to its own people and the outer world. Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger on Monday, May 4, said in Mandarin that Beijing’s efforts to suppress its internal dissent are certainly going to backfire. Speaking online to a webinar at the University of Virginia to commemorate China’s May the Fourth Movement, he said, “When small acts of bravery are stamped out by governments, big acts of bravery follow.”
Trump Administration is portraying the crisis as an example of the threat the Chinese Communist Party’s iron rule poses to its own people and the outer world.
Raising the question of whether China today would benefit from a little less nationalism and little more populism, Pottinger himself said: “Democratic populism is less about left versus right than top versus bottom. It’s about reminding a few that they need the consent of many to govern. When a privileged few grow too remote and self-interested, populism is what pulls them back or pitches them overboard. To an expert, Pottinger’s speech was one of the most remarkable ones made by a member of the Trump administration. The hard-hitting words also clearly show the degree of seriousness of the situation.
China unlikely to find an ally in a global acceleration
Another factor that will go against China in case there is a military conflict with the US-led West is the lack of a strong ally. The global pandemic has made Beijing the one single villain for the entire world. Hence, it is unlikely that any other power will back China if there is a global uprising against the red regime. Countries like Japan and Australia have already been targeting China. A worldwide backlash could produce a serious impact on the Chinese economy, paralyzing its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. The US could boost India more in these circumstances as a counter-weight though Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden attendance at the Non-Aligned Movement Summit via teleconferencing could convey to both Washington and Beijing that New Delhi is not in favor of joining any camp in the new Cold War situation.
Instead of all-out military conflict, the US is expected to execute its policy of brinkmanship once again vis-a-vis China in this war of putting diplomatic pressure on the opponent until it breaks. But one obstacle on the way of that hardline policy is Trump’s personal admiration for his Chinese counterpart which might still act as a counterweight to the hawks in both Washington and Beijing. But the continuing deaths from the virus in the US might see the moderate influence wane too soon in the decision-making ranks and push both the economic giants towards a worse consequence. From this point onwards, it all depends on what strategy the two powers adopt, and with what degree of patience.