India and Asia have good reasons to follow very closely the current debate in Germany, and more broadly Europe, on how to deal with China. The China choices made in Germany and Europe will have profound consequences for Asia’s own trajectory as well as the global order in both the military and economic domains. But making those choices is not proving to be easy in Germany, Europe, Asia or elsewhere. This is unsurprising given the economic salience of China and its growing global influence. Yet the way in which the world deals with China is beginning to change in front of our eyes. One important factor in that change has been the transformation of US policy towards China over the last decade. In Asia, Japan has contributed in significant ways to the global rethink on China. Few countries can avoid the consequences of that change.
This article is in three parts. In the first, we have a quick review of China’s rise and the disenchantment with it. The second part reviews the divisions within the Western response to the new challenges presented by China. In the third section, we look at India’s changing approach to China and review the possibilities for cooperation between India and Germany in reshaping Asian security and reordering the relations between Europe and Asia.
China’s rise since the late 1970s has been one of the most consequential developments of modern international history. China’s transformation into the world’s second largest economy has seen the greatest improvement of lives for the largest number of people in the shortest period in world history. Beijing’s economic rise had also begun to lift the prosperity of its Asian neighbourhood that is now deeply integrated with China’s economy. The last four decades have also seen the emergence of China as the world’s most important trading nation and as a powerful magnet for global commerce and investment. By spending only a small portion of its GDP on defence, China has transformed the PLA–once a revolutionary force of the peasants–into an impressive military machine. China’s new manufacturing prowess–as the world’s most important factory–has also meant that Beijing can produce all kinds of weapons at a breath-taking pace. Although questions of quality remain, there is no denying the impact of China’s military modernisation on the regional and global balance of power. Along with industrial and military power has come growing Chinese scientific competence; Beijing is well on its way to lead in the development of the most advanced technologies that are poised to reshape the global economy. Economic and technological power have also given China growing weight in global and regional institutions as well as diplomatic clout around the world. China’s soft power–its attractiveness to other nations in the Global South–has definitively grown and the idea that Beijing can offer a historic alternative to the ‘Western model’ has gained considerable traction.
In celebrating China’s extraordinary achievements, it is easy to forget the Western contribution to Beijing’s rise on the global stage. In the 1970s and 1980s, geopolitical considerations of countering the Soviet Union played a key role in Western outreach to China. This changed in the 1990s, and the attractiveness of the Chinese market saw the US and Europe pour massive investments into China, share technologies, and integrate Beijing into the World Trade Organisation. This played a critical role in accelerating China’s economic transformation.
Underlying this support was the Western assumption that China’s rise would be benign and that it would become a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the global order led by the US and Europe. These assumptions turned out to be profoundly mistaken. The West ignored the fact that China had aspirations to become a great power in its own right, restructure the regional order to establish what Beijing sees as its natural primacy in Asia, and restructure the global order to suit its own interests and values. It has taken a while for the world to come to terms with China’s transition from a rising power deferential to the West– under Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao–to one that is ready to challenge the Western order, values, and institutions under Xi Jinping. The new external orientation was driven in part by the profound internal changes in China under Xi who has changed established rules to establish personal dominance over the party-state, stifled dissent, and restructured the relationship between the state and the market. While the sources of Xi’s overreach at home and abroad continue to be debated, there is no question that Beijing’s assertiveness triggered many consequences.
As China began to flex its economic and military muscle in the region and beyond, the reaction against it was inevitable and unfolded slowly but surely in the 2010s. Although the major moves came from the United States in reshaping the discourse on China, it was Japan that laid the intellectual foundation for a strategy to counter potential Chinese hegemony over Asia. From the late mid-2000s to the mid-2010s, Japan’s leaders, especially Shinzo Abe, articulated several new ideas that have gained significant traction. These include a ‘rules-based order in Asia”, the ‘Indo-Pacific geography’, and the ‘Quadrilateral forum’ or the Quad. Underlying these ideas was a clear recognition in Tokyo of the threat posed by China to the region and the need for concrete action. The US, initially hesitant, followed through in 2017 by embracing these three ideas. Trump’s new approach to the region was reinforced by the Biden team, which adopted a more methodical pursuit of an Indo-Pacific strategy. It involved strengthening the US’s forward military presence in Asia, revitalising alliances, building new partnerships, reducing economic exposure to China, rebuilding national capabilities to cope with Beijing’s rise, and challenging Beijing’s efforts, in partnership with Moscow, to develop an alternative order based on a different set of political values.
Many tensions have come to the fore in implementing this response to the new challenges presented by China. At least five of them stand out. One is the tension between the geopolitical and the economic. While China’s expansionism demands muscular geopolitical responses, the deep economic interdependence developed over the last few decades imposes major constraints. Given the scale of the economic interpenetration of the US and Europe with China, it is impossible to ‘decouple’ China from the world economy for the foreseeable future. There are strong constituencies in the West that lose significantly from any reorientation of commercial relations with China, and they have the capacity to influence state policies towards Beijing. Second is the tension between the unfolding political and economic competition with China on the one hand and the need to cooperate with Beijing on global issues such as climate change and arms control. The West emphasises the importance of doing both, but China has refused to accept the Western cherry picking on the bilateral agenda. Third, is the tension between competing political values and the imperative of peaceful coexistence. In framing the principal global contradiction as the conflict between ‘democracies’ and ‘autocracies’ the US has limited its room to manage this contradiction. Although Europe has been far more idealistic on the values question and it does indeed confront Russian military challenge to its core values, there is considerable hesitation in taking a black and white perspective on China. The imperative of coexistence with the Soviet Union had in fact dominated the settlement of the post-War order in Europe and guided the views of many social democratic parties at the height of the Cold War. European calls for a variant of that in managing relations with China are therefore not surprising. Fourth, there is considerable disagreement within the West –across the Atlantic and within Europe– on how to sustain alliance cohesion while dealing with China. While the US seeks more intensive coordination on China, sections of European leadership have talked about ‘strategic autonomy’ from the US in dealing with China. While the idea that Europe is becoming a ‘vassal’ of the United States generates much resentment, not everyone is eager to break with Washington on the China question. Finally, there are growing differences within the West on the nature of the relationship between European security institutions like NATO and the Asian or Indo-Pacific theatre. While sections of the West and Asia support a more productive NATO engagement with Asia, there are others who insist that NATO must stick to the trans-Atlantic theatre and not venture into Asia. Many of these faultlines are reflected in the China debates in Germany and more broadly across Europe within the political class, and between industry, the strategic establishment, and the civil society groups. China’s own strategy involves exploiting these differences within the West.
India has little difficulty understanding the problems faced by Germany and Europe in arriving at a sustainable consensus on China policy. For Delhi has struggled for decades to come up with a reasonable China policy. For 76 years, India viewed China through the prism of anti-colonial solidarity and the ideal of Asian unity while ignoring Beijing’s great power ambitions and regional primacy. Despite the persistent problems presented by China, India has often used ideological arguments about the importance of maintaining strategic autonomy (from the US) and the dangers of a new Cold War to avoid taking hard assessments on what Beijing is seeking and where it might be headed. It is only in the last few years that Delhi has woken up to the challenges presented by the rise and assertion of Beijing. It took a series of four military crises in 2013, 2014, 2017, and 2020 in the disputed frontier along the high Himalayas to persuade Delhi to take a less sentimental view of Beijing’s policies. There is also a growing recognition in Delhi that strong cooperation with the US and its European and Asian allies is critical for the construction of a stable Asian order.
The current vigorous new German debate on China, therefore, is good news for Delhi. The bad news, however, is that the debate is likely to remain inconclusive in the near term. India, however, can live with that. For decades now, India has watched warily at the ‘China-first’ Asian policies in Berlin and other European capitals. Even a limited movement away from the long-standing benign view of China in Germany and Europe is welcome for India. Delhi can’t expect that Berlin will sacrifice its large commercial interests in the near term. But India will certainly be interested in seeing how the German debate on “de-risking” as opposed “de-coupling” will unfold in in the years ahead. The idea of German economic diversification is of special interest to India as Delhi seeks to draw Western capital into the Indian economy. For its part, Delhi needs to do its bit to reinforce the ‘China plus one’ strategies by making the Indian market more attractive to Europe.
On the security front, Germany and Europe are unlikely to become central to the balance of power in Asia. Delhi can understand that Germany’s priority will be on Europe and that it is unlikely to commit a large amount of military force to stabilise Asia. From Delhi’s perspective, the United States remains the key to Asian security. But it believes that Germany and Europe can help countries like India to develop national defence capabilities and effective deterrence against China through the transfer of advanced military equipment and technology. Delhi would like to see Germany ease the multiple restrictions on its technology and arms transfer policies.
Third, on the political side, it would be utterly ironic if India finds that the European debates on ‘strategic autonomy’ become a vehicle to construct policies that avoid addressing the China challenge. After all, Delhi often cites the principle of ‘strategic autonomy’ to avoid the condemnation of reprehensive Russian policies, including its bloody war against Ukraine. What Delhi and Europe need is to take an integrated view of the Eurasian and Indo-Pacific theatres. This in turn needs substantive dialogue between the two sides on the growing links between European and Asian security, including the ‘alliance without limits’ between Russia and China. Germany as a Central European power is well placed to engage with India on these issues. Delhi, in the past, rejected a role for European colonial powers in the East. It now sees European contribution to Asian security as vital.
Finally, Germany and Europe can also mount political and diplomatic pressure against Beijing on a range of regional issues and thereby lend some weight to the rebalancing of Asia. These include the non-use of force to change borders as a critical principle of any rules-based order and the promotion of sensible rules for the management of global commons like the maritime, cyber, and space domains. Although it is easy to criticise Europe’s claims to be a ‘normative superpower’ amidst the current return to hard geopolitics, its voice can play a critical role in challenging the Chinese narrative that seeks to dress up its ambitions for regional dominance in the rhetoric about common good and collective security.
Note: This article has been written before the publication of Germany’s China Strategy
Prof C. Raja Mohan is a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute and a visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.
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