US-China rivalry

For great powers it is not the humiliation that they suffer, which is important; but more important is their response

Dr Muhammad Ali Ehsan December 28, 2021
The writer is Dean Social Sciences at Garrison University Lahore and tweets @Dr M Ali Ehsan

The 19th and 20th century United States was established during an old order that valued geopolitics more than human rights. The Monroe doctrine of late 19th century, which declared and warned Europeans to stay out of the Western Hemisphere, was designed to allow the US to settle down in an important strategic space unchallenged and uncontested. I draw lots of similarities on how the US went through a settling down process before becoming a great power during the old order and how China is now undergoing a similar process to create geopolitical security in strategically important geopolitical spaces that surround it.

China doesn’t see the problems it faces through the prism of human rights; geopolitical security is more important. An example of this is the fact that there exists a different perception on how the US and China view the Xinxiang province and the ongoing separatist movement by Muslim Uighurs. Just a couple of days back, the US Senate has converted a bill on the ban of imports from the Xinxiang province into law by majority voting. The law is based on the US assumption that goods manufactured in Xinxiang are made through forced labour. Xinxiang, the largest province of China bordering eight countries, doesn’t worry China alone; the worries spill over to the neighbouring countries as well. Historically, it has been called Chinese Turkestan and even when Stalin contemplated initiating a socialist revolution there, his military intelligence advised against it on the pretext that the Muslim independence struggle could spill over to Kazakh and Kyrgyz, which were the Soviet Turkestan. Even today the fear of Islamic radicalism and extremism spreading is mutual in the bordering countries but China particularly doesn’t want Al-Qaeda or ISIS or any such networks to forge links with the Uighur Muslim separatists.

Interestingly, no great power wants to be humiliated. China’s century of humiliation came when it was not a great power but the US moments of humiliation have been many and have come when it sat on the throne of world leadership. For great powers it is not the humiliation that they suffer, which is important. But more important is their response. The two great humiliations that the US suffered in the 20th century was the Pearl Harbor attack and the 9/11 incident. What was the US response? After Pearl Harbor, the US ended up dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The response to 9/11 was global and the world paid a huge cost for the bleeding US nose. China attributes its century of great humiliation to the weakness of the Qing dynasty that allowed mass scale corruption and rebellion, and this explains why China takes a very strong position on handling Xinxiang the way it does because maintaining internal stability is a hard lesson that China has learnt from history — it is now a crucial part of its national security policy. The last war that China fought was in 1979 against Vietnam. So, while the US during its unipolar days has made almost the entire world a battleground, China has not participated in any of these conflicts reasoning that it was not a part of the creation of this US-led world order that gifted so many unending wars to the world. It is said that geopolitics is all about memory. Although the geographical component of geopolitics remains permanent, the political component keeps changing and evolving. How the geographical and the political component of geopolitics was affecting American lives in the 19th and 20th centuries and what the US did to stabilise itself during this period is important to understand because only then can one understand what China is doing to manage the insecurities it is facing.

A massive migration to California took place in 1848 that transformed the US landscape and its population. Popularly known as the California Gold Rush, it brought many people from all over Europe to the US under a popular rallying cry that said “go west young man”. Twelve years later, by 1860, California’s population had become almost 400,000 — an increase of 310%. For the past few decades, China’s road-railway networking and infrastructure building has brought modernity to northern and western China, and with that many Hans Chinese have migrated to these places like the Western hopefuls of the Gold Rush decade had done for search of better lives. They now constitute in inner Mongolia almost 80%, in Xinxiang about 40% and in Tibet about 15% of the native population.

The US had to stake its hold on the west and south-west of its vast landscape. This hold was essential because without the western coastline and its ports access to Pacific from its mainland was not possible. So, it executed the purchase of Louisiana from France in 1803 and doubled its size. The purchased land now represents the existing 15 US states. However, US land in the south-west was still in Mexican possession and that land came in the US fold when the American settlers revolted against the Mexican government, resulting in the 1846-48 Mexican-American war. The port of New Orleans enabled the US to exercise control on the Gulf of Mexico and today it is biggest port — the Port of Los Angeles stretches for more than 43 miles on the Western coast. All this interconnectivity between East and West America led to a reduction in the time of transportation of goods from east to west and in 1869 the inauguration of transcontinental railway enabled the US to cover the distance in one day from the East coast to the West coast.

The problem with China today is that it is also an Eastern hemisphere power but it is landlocked from the eastern side and does not have access to the strategically significant Indian Ocean. Since it doesn’t have its own coastline, it is the Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi and Myanmar ports that it plans to utilise as part of its BRI. Also, the timeframe in which China will be able to transport oil and gas through CPEC and its roads, railway lines and gas pipelines from Pakistan’s Gwadar port to western China and its Xinxiang province is similar to what the US managed to do during the period of its east and west connectivity through the transcontinental railway line almost 150 years ago.

China is a great land power. Much like the US of the past it wants all its bases covered. The Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific water bodies are strategically too important to China. The similarity in how the US secured its ports in the Atlantic and the Pacific coasts in the past and how China is doing the same in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the Western Pacific today is hard to miss. See more on the same topic in the next column.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 28th, 2021.

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