Choosing sides: On intensifying rivalry between U.S. and China

As the U.S. and China intensify their rivalry, other countries are faced with hard choices

June 14, 2022 12:10 am | Updated 12:10 am IST

By speaking out last week on the situation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), two top American officials have sent a clear message that Washington views the on-going India-China border tensions as part of the broader geopolitical contest underway in the region. On a visit to New Delhi, General Charles A. Flynn, Commander of the U.S. Army Pacific, described the level of Chinese activity in Eastern Ladakh as “eye-opening” and questioned its intentions. Then, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the region’s most high-profile security event, U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd J. Austin said Beijing was continuing to “harden its position” along the border. He drew a connection between China’s fishing activities in the East China Sea, the placing of advanced weaponry on man-made islands in the South China Sea, and its LAC actions as part of a “coercive and aggressive approach” to territorial claims. He underlined that the Biden administration saw the Indo-Pacific as its “priority theatre of operations” and at the “heart of American grand strategy”. The LAC comment predictably led to China’s Foreign Ministry accusing the U.S. of “adding fuel to the fire”.

June 15, 2022, will mark the second anniversary of the violent Galwan Valley clash, which also marked the lowest point in bilateral relations in many decades. Leaving aside the curious detail that American officials have recently had more to say publicly than their Indian counterparts about the as-yet-unresolved crisis, there appears to be little prospect of an imminent resolution after two years and 15 rounds of talks. At the Shangri-La Dialogue, to which New Delhi puzzlingly did not send high-level political representation, the Chinese Defence Minister, Gen. Wei Fenghe, alleged it was India that “sent people to the Chinese side of the territory”. He did add that both sides were working on maintaining good relations, but with India and China continuing to fortify forward areas, a full de-escalation remains increasingly unlikely. By highlighting the border, the U.S. appears to be making its case to the region that its allies and partners need to band together to restrain China’s behaviour. New Delhi, for its part, will likely face ever greater expectations to take a stand on China’s actions, beyond the bilateral domain. India, so far, is the only one among the four Quad countries to refrain from taking public positions on issues such as Taiwan and Hong Kong. Beijing, meanwhile, is pointing to the U.S. and the Quad as destabilising forces, viewing the Quad as a nascent “Asian NATO”, a label that its members reject. New Delhi might like to say it has already chosen its side in this geopolitical tussle — that is, its own. But the reality is that countries are likely to face increasingly hard choices as they navigate an intensifying rivalry between the world’s two biggest powers.

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