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The Growing US-China Power Struggle And Its Implications For Pakistan

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This is the second part of the article. Read the first part here. 

The Qing dynasty which succeeded the Ming dynasty in 1644, further brought the empire into the isolation. They even destroyed and burnt the 700 by 30 miles trade zone on the southern coast and threw China in deep isolation for the centuries to come.

During the first half of the 19th century, the Qing Dynasty had to face the Western European imperial powers. China had to face military defeat, civil war, economic control by the European powers, and its land occupations by European powers and modern Japan. In 1830, when Qing decided to ban the selling of opium by the British merchants, the Brits responded by the decisive military action in 1839. This war was remembered as the First Opium War.

To restore peace to Qing, Brits forced them to sign the Treaty of Nanjing which gave control to Briton over Hong Kong and complete immunity to British citizens from the local laws.

In 1856, French and Brits joined in the Second Opium was and destroyed and burned the Summer Palace in Beijing. In 1894, the Japanese annexed Manchuria, Taiwan, and Korea. In 1899, the rebels of Chinese uprising attacked foreign enclaves and demanded the revival of Qing authority, which became almost powerless like the Mughals in India before 1857 colonization of India by the British empire.

As a response, the eight-nation alliance of imperial powers invaded China and engaged in a – according to James L. Hevia – “carnival of loot”.

The defeated and exhausted Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1912, leaving the country in total disarray and chaos. The powerful warlords divided the country as per their will. Japan took this opportunity and invaded and occupied a large part of China in the most brutal campaign in which close to 20 million Chinese were wiped out. Even to this day, the Memorial Hall Museum in Nanjing reminds the horrors of the massacre by the imperial Japanese Army in and around the then-capital of China, Nanjing. The students in Chinese High Schools learn to feel the guilt and abashment of this “era of 100-year humiliation”.

China’s One-Belt-One-Road program and its aggressive stance inside the South and East China sea is seen by some as a policy of expansion of Chinese influence and a way to assert control over – far from its maritime boundaries – it’s west and east. The aggressive plan to build a so-called Economic Corridor, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and building a huge port with the maximum cargo handling capability as high as the Dubai port is seen by the west and by the critiques of CPEC in Pakistan, as China’s attempt to create a “West Coast” for itself. They say it will not only reduce its maritime route but also remove its dependence on the 1.5 knots wide Strait of Malacca.

In the east, the territorial disputes over the handful of islands of the East and the South China Sea have already strained relations between China and countries that have the coasts in the South China Sea (Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei) in recent years. The South China Sea region is the area that is the home to a wealth of natural resources, fisheries, trade routes, and military bases.

The Ministry of Geological Resources and Mining of the People’s Republic of China estimates that the South China Sea contains 126 billion barrels of crude oil (compared to Kuwait which has some 93 billion barrels of crude oil reserves), although other sources claim that the reserves of oil in the South China Sea may be about 7.9 billion barrels. All of this is at stake in the increasingly frequent diplomatic — and sometimes low-intensity military — impasse among the countries of the region. Although the United States does not openly support any party in the region, it has significant political, security, and economic interests over the issue of freedom of navigation in China’s 200 miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), in which, the US thinks it has a right to operate its military vessels.

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The tension between the US and China is shaping not only due to the Chinese insecurity about its territorial and maritime limits but it is also due to the anxiety in Washington about China’s growing military power and its regional ambitions. China also piling up the sand onto the underwater ledges in the South China Sea and creating small artificial islands. This action is causing strain in relations with other countries in the region.

Pakistan considers the CPEC as a “game-changer” because the country will be its beneficiary in the future. However, India sees it as a future threat. Although India is questioning the route because it is passing through the Gilgit-Baltistan region, which India considers a disputed land, its main concern is China’s presence in the Arabian Sea which is used by India as a pathway to transport its oil from the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hurmuz. This will significantly curtail India’s vision to have complete control over the Arabian Sea and diminish its ability to impose the naval blockade against Pakistan.

The Modi administration in India, whose main goals are to take over Kashmir – which they already did – and revive the so-called Hindu dominance in the country is an opportunity for the West to exploit. Pakistan stayed in this role for a long time and during that time Pakistan was also run by ambitious Generals. India – to tackle its economic problems and its brutal military actions in Kashmir – needs help from the Western powers, while the West needs an organized regional power to stand against China.

However, it is very unlikely that India would start playing the same role as Pakistan played during the cold war and the war on terrorism. India still enjoys strong secular voices – which are now silent because of its growing Hindutva control of the society – but they can be unleashed if Modi loses grip on power due to the economic problems or successive misadventures on China-India borders. After the recent skirmish in Galwan Valley and the lukewarm reaction from the world – especially from the US, which is eyeing for India’s help against China — the Indian establishment has realized that they cannot have a cakewalk against China, even with the support of the West. However, if Democrats are in power, the ground realities may change.

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The growing Chinese influence, not only around its territory but far out to the Indian Ocean, Middle-East, and Sub-Saharan Africa may be a challenge and a matter of concern, especially for the West, but the world must learn to live in the era of the multi-polar world. However, the growth of China would not diminish the importance of the United States at the world stage. The US will still be leading the world and even China would not want to damage its relations with the US. In the coming decades, we would witness growing and more assertive China. The world witnessed aggressive diplomacy by the Chinese after the COVID-19 pandemic. The issue of the South China Sea may be intensified more and incidents like 2001 when the US surveillance aircraft had to crash land in Chinese territory which it had air collision with Chinese Air Force plane near Hainan Island which was trying to force the US plane away from allegedly Chinese air space, and another incident of 2013 in the South China Sea, in which the US guided-missile cruiser, USS Cowpens captain had to decide to turn back or go for the collision course and create a war-like situation between the US and China after a PLA Navy’s ship blocked its way.

The new realities in the region will have a strong influence on Pakistan. Pakistan doesn’t want to go against the US while it cannot annoy China by assisting the US in any action which can be against the Chinese interest. Pakistan has to play moderate diplomacy and look for opportunities to assure its position in the region. The country has to deal with its economic issues.

Pakistan is now losing the race in diplomacy as its reliance on big powers has further increased. Within the country, mafias are making huge money while eroding the nationalistic feelings from the people who are suffering due to price hikes, gas, petrol, and electric load shedding, and now high rates of COVID-19 infections. Pakistan needs free and fair elections, and the establishment should allow those in power who are elected by the people.

If Pakistan has internal political stability, its economy would grow, mafias would be discouraged and people will have health, food and clean water at their tables and affordable prices to have purchasing power, Pakistan will be in a better position to keep itself as neutral as possible.

Two hundred years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Let China sleep; when she wakes she will shake the world.” The question remains, is China once again expanding its influence by creating another maritime empire that would be spanning to vast oceans and reopening the Silk Route to widen its impact on the world by land?

Only the time would tell if a giant is waking up after nearly 600 years of dormancy. The world has to accept the beginning of a multi-polar era or we have to witness other long wars that will deliver victory to nobody.

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Naya Daur