Will the US or China influence the Asian narrative in the coming years is a question that vexes geopolitical analysts and academic researchers in the continent that houses the world’s two most populous countries. With a more commercial grouping like I2U2, this is a question which concerns Israel as well, given its close security and trade links with India and strong relations with China. Above all, a US/China conflict makes Israel choose sides between its strongest ally, the United States and China, an important trade partners.
The narrative has picked up pace in the post-Covid period as despite the US-led Western offensive against China on the matter of the origin of the Covid virus did not really evolve into an isolationalist prescription for China as expected. Rather, the period since August last year when Nancy Pelosi, then US House Speaker visited Taipei as the West’s most formidable challenge to the Xi Jinping leadership witnessed Beijing come out of its Covid-induced shell to launch a counter offensive in the form of projecting its soft influence through an expanding BRI in Asia and Africa.
China has since created an optic of pan-Asian acceptability much to the consternation of the United States. Beijing received several heads of state and government including German Olof Scholz. If that dented the armour of Europe and therefore of its backer, the United States, Xi’s strategy of inserting himself in every bilateral or multilateral dispute situations on the continent created the impression of China becoming the go-to country. It sought to bring the Saudis and Iranians together, made friends with several West Asian countries, and tried to play the big host to groups of countries in Central Asia, the ASEAN region and the Far-East.
With Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu seeking to extend the Abraham accords and formalise relations with Saudi Arabia, the China brokered Saudi/Iranian rapprochement puts automatic obstacles in his path. On one end Saudi Prince Mohamed bin Salman may not risk the newly found peace with Iran, which allows him to extract himself from an expensive and never ending war in Yemen, for official relations with Israel. On another end Iran and its proxies have now moved closer to China and China considers Israel a strategic partner for technology. This reduces the risk of an all out Israel-Iran confrontation. For China, the expansion of its Belt-Road-Initiative (BRI) to the Saudi port of Jizan reinforces its string of pearls of ports, adding a strategic chokepoint to the Indian ocean. While this promises to increase the stalemate and guarantee security, it puts the Israel-Arab rapprochement back by years if not decades, also the with re-entry of Syria and Assad into the Arab league after a 12 year suspension.
Simultaneously, its BRI began to make inroads into the Horn of Africa and other regions where China has interests both military and natural resource-wise. Through friend Pakistan, it made friendly overtures to the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is now promoting the Shanghai Cooperation Organization not just as a Eurasian body on global security and other affairs, but as a meeting point hosted by China for dispute redressal.
The Russian invasion of the West-backed Ukraine once again pitted China against the United States, sharpening the divisions between the two countries. China expects the Americans to somehow understand that two Asian bosses – Russia and China – can steer the international narrative towards them and away from the United States.
On the other hand, the US is on the defensive on the Ukraine front with its sanctions against Russia failing completely, to the extent that even close friend India is seriously importing discounted Russian oil – that despite a hot-headed China making avoidable noises at the Sino-Indian border. It has had to redraw its calculations about its, and Opec’s, oil production targets as it grapples with the problem of keeping Europe gas-lit. Having exited Afghanistan and other West Asian theatres in recent years, it finds itself without a locus standii to even boss over Pakistan on the Taliban or terror front. Its influence, if at all, in real terms, in Asia, is limited to the Indo-Pacific and that, too, because of the presence of its mighty Pacific Fleet and the latter’s arm, the Seventh Fleet, in the theatre that encompasses the South China Sea region including Taiwan as well. The Quad and AUKUS groups that the Americans lead are the true and only trumpeters of the US in that region.
It is in this context that China feels confident of writing up a narrative that Asia is for Asians. As if that is enough to keep the United States away, leaving it free to assume an avuncular charge. This narrative bases its premise on the supposition that a war over Taiwan may prove disastrous to Asia, not to distant Europe or the US.
Media reports place the issue in a geographical and demographic context: The total population of the 53 countries that make up the U.N.’s Asia and the Pacific Group comes to about 4.5 billion. By contrast, the total population of the 27 countries that make up the European Union comes to around 446 million, less than 10% as much.
The visits of European leaders to Beijing otherwise meetings with the top Chinese leadership come handy here. For instance, as media reports say, European leaders have been much more outspoken about the island. European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen recently commented, “We stand strongly against any unilateral change in the status quo, in particular by the use of force.” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock meanwhile declared, “A military escalation in the Taiwan Strait … would be a horror scenario for the entire world.”
French President Emmanuel Macron tried to play a de Gaulle and sought to grab the baton of rhetoric. But in doing so, he went overboard, probably over his head too. He ended up saying: “The question we need to answer as Europeans is … is it in our interest to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan? No. The worst thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the US agenda and a Chinese overreaction.”
He realised his outspokenness only after other Western leaders and the Western media hung him out to dry. In fact, Macron came the closest to calling the American bluff on Taiwan, but lacked the moral courage. Still, his comments were enough to boost China’s confidence and continue to back its Asia-for-Asians narrative.
Xi Jinping knows most Asian countries do not comment on Taiwan because, internally – that is in Asian space – they know the complexities involved. The East-West status quo has survived many ups and downs since Kissinger’s times. Once somebody rocks it, it’s all over. It is only a wild guess what can happen in case of a conventional conflict with any one side taking a decisive stand over Taiwan’s future.
Now, the Europeans also know the same thing. Only, their dependence on American altruism makes them make noises over Taiwan that are sufficient to keep the political hearth warm without inflaming it. It would be an interesting exercise, even if it is of academic interest, to know which European or Asian leader said what when Pelosi dared China as she landed in Taipei.
The question that the China-backed narrative is forcing the West to ask if by raising the voice for Taiwan’s independence, is the West putting the people of the island nation in danger. Now Europe knows a bitter fact that after all the gung-ho war cries by the West, it is Ukraine that is facing the Russian brunt.
Strangely enough, the West’s continued dependence on Chinese trade puts paid to its moral stand on not only Taiwan’s independence but China’s pathetic human rights record against its minorities.
Unless the West comes up with its own, and practical, narrative on Asia, the words from a report of Time last October ring true: “In brief, there is agreement that China is a major challenge, but not on how far to go in confronting it. Indeed, there is a rising strain in American politics that advocates seeking to avoid confronting Beijing in Asia while focusing on reducing our economic dependence on China through reshoring and industrial policy.”
The narrative is finally about space for America’s security and with US’s own security and influence in the Middle East and Asia, is a question of Israel’s security and well-being.