US-China: Moving Towards War or Cut-Throat Competition?
Air Vice Marshal (Retd) Rajesh Isser, AVSM,VM (G)

This paper explores the realm of the brewing competition between the US and China, which can easily escalate to military confrontation. India has been forced to make choices away from its long-held belief in hedging and non-alliance. Within the explored areas of competition i.e. high-tech, trade, geopolitics and military prowess, are pointers for India in where to invest and where to get off the dead horse. Xi and CCP may have indulged in some fatal miscalculation, especially in respect of the “will to contest” of India and the US.


Social Upheaval: The real battle of ideas is about loss of opportunities deeply felt by left-behind communities in societies across the ‘free’ world.1 China’s policies are aimed at this divide and have profound negative ramifications for these countries. Exacerbated and accelerated by Covid-19, it is driving populist and nationalist reactions at a time of agitated great power competition, threatening to unravel the framework acceptable to the world so far. Many fault lines of race, caste, religion, urban-rural divide, haves and have-nots, among others lay severely exposed. While digital acceleration of issues like work-from-home, e-commerce, e-government, distance-learning and broadband connectivity for all may be welcome changes, others are not e.g. poverty reduction has taken a body-blow.

US-China War? Some analysts like AA Latham consider China as a “faltering contender” leading to a likely war with the United States.2 They invoke the logic of an aspiring and a once-rising desperate power, with steam and time running out to decisively to reshape the global order. He quotes the example of Germany in 1914 to stall Russia’s rise before as too late (David Fromkin in Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?). Even Japan’s Pearl Harbour attack was about desperation and facing inevitability of a rising US.

Despite the fastest growing economy (world’s second-largest) which has created gross dependencies across the world, and a network of countries that China has poached on for their anti-US/western tilt, its growing military cannot yet safeguard its’ interests. The downsides facing China include, as per Latham “failed One-Belt initiative, botched COVID-related medical soft-power play, abrogation of the ‘one-country, two-systems’ modus Vivendi with Hong Kong, inconclusive border clashes with India, failure to sustain China’s economic momentum, policy-induced demographic time-bomb, and a growing sentiment that China is becoming less powerful and therefore less relevant player on the world stage.” Besides, led by the US and many like-minded and concerned nations, there are moves afoot that could derail China’s reach for dominance e.g. gated globalisation, counterbalancing, containment, economic ‘decoupling,’ social turmoil, ethnic unrest, and general upheaval supported by ‘outside.’

Jayadeva Ranade argues that Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are under pressure due to widespread domestic criticism and a threatening economic situation accentuated by US actions, and therefore the attempts to shore up Xi’s position in the CCP.3 Taking on the US prematurely is in essence a primary charge, and difficult to tide over in times to come as the powers coalesce to put China in its place.

Undoubtedly, Xi miscalculated the moves of Trump who unlike past US Presidents, who had turned a blind eye to some of Chinese misdemeanours, took him on with aplomb.4 Trump, with the Covid-19 debacle and coming elections on his hands, had no option but to confront China and make it a central issue. In the absence of an actual military confrontation, the geopolitical confrontation will be long drawn-out, bitter and with gloves off. While Trump’s supporters allege Biden to be weak on China, the Democrats plan to fire back with legislation that would put in place harsher trade enforcement measures and build up U.S. industrial capacity to challenge China.5

Survival of the Fittest?

The Digital Race: 5G technology is set to revolutionise life, economies and governance by increasing network speeds, enabling internet of things, connecting billions of devices online, and effect control through artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. China recognised the trend and opportunity more than a decade back, as far back as 2012. Building 5G networks requires extensive global coordination among governments, private companies, and regulatory bodies; and, it assiduously planned to take over control of the world trade and dominance through this model behind the facade of its champions e.g. Huawei and ZTE. It planned a leading global role in defining the regulatory environment, determining operating standards and investment rollout, and covert backdoor embedded framework.

Techno-nationalism is an ideological construct that connects a nation’s technological base and capacity for innovation to its self-image and economic wellbeing. In the new century, China aimed to create a firewall against entry of tech firms like Google, Twitter and Facebook, and instead establish ‘national champions’ (e.g. Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent).6 The focus now is on sunshine sectors and digital companies as it strives towards an innovator and incubator of high-technology rather than remain a manufacturing hub.

The Digital Silk Road (DSR), was publicly introduced by the Chinese government first it in a March 2015 white paper as the ‘Information Silk Road’. By 2018, BRI and DSR-related investments already stood at an estimated US$79 billion in digital infrastructure projects overseas, and were engaged in 80 telecom projects around the world. It supports establishing China as a technological superpower, boosting its international prestige, and reinforcing its economic strength and political and military capabilities. The promise to participating countries was exponential growth of economy and human capital bypassing the costly and restrictive western offers.

More ominously, authoritarian regimes across the world have been demonstrated digital technologies to perpetuate their rules by China. A very sophisticated and intricate surveillance system incorporating AI, facial and voice recognition, DNA profiling, among others allows an elaborate framework of monitoring, tracking, rewards and punishment to control societies in China. This has been extensively tested out on Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

All nations are quickly expanding data-collection capabilities, and protecting national security interests and economy, and adopting new enabling technologies. Collecting and accessing data on citizens, gaining permission to use data collected by corporate sector, and gathering intelligence on foreign governments, are becoming accepted norms across. Bypassing encryption by governments will weaken personal security and privacy. COVID-19 has enabled this trend which could have serious implications in future.

Some issues stand out starkly in the war over hi-tech. Firstly, as part of US grand strategy, containing China’s unbridled growth is an imperative. High-technology and a future digital economic plan could prove to be its Achilles Heel by denial. Second, a hyper-connected digital future is premised on ‘Trust’ and credibility of nations - which the mishandling of Covid-19 and other exposed nefarious designs in BRI have drained out of China. Third, despite a jump-start in 5G wherewithal, it is obvious that western companies will catch up within two years, with probably an upgraded 6G. Fourth, these monopolistic designs are not very different from what the US and the West has been doing over decades e.g. brain-drain of talent from the world. But Covid-19 and Chinese aggressions are poorly timed forcing countries to take sides. Lastly, with an active and coordinated protection and denial plan of western technology, the pace of Chinese innovation and patents would be seriously disrupted.

A more nuanced framework for multilateral cooperation, not limited to technology policy, may be emerging.7 The United States is trying to work with democratic allies to develop a new body to promote this structure that challenges China’s unbridled growth in niche technology. This includes defining international technology standards frameworks in 5G, where Chinese ‘national champions’ such as Huawei and ZTE have accrued unfair advantages.

Without a direct competitor to Huawei currently, the ‘others’ are placing their bets on Nokia, Ericsson, and Samsung, among others. But Huawei has a big lead such as revenues four times greater than Nokia’s or Ericsson’s (2019), owning more patents, and an experience of developing 4G networks with its equipment and services in about 170 countries. It is imperative for India to identify its key players in 5G (or 6G in 2-3 years) technology and infrastructure development. It needs to latch on global efforts of the emerging competitive landscape that would define supply chains, standards, regulation and investment decisions around the world. A key concern above everything for powerful countries would be addressing national security concerns.

The American plan is simple — in a short time Chinese telecoms giant, so popular due to lower costs, will run out of chips and options. US Department of Commerce has barred American firms from selling chips made in America, which are the lifeline of the high-end semiconductor industry, to Huawei. Another rule bans domestic and foreign firms from using American-built chip-making equipment to create custom-made processors for Huawei. In August 2020, a new rule prohibits anyone from selling any chips to Huawei, if these were produced with American technology, closing all loopholes. Most countries are seriously rethinking about putting all their eggs in the Chinese basket. China’s retaliation would affect supply chains of American giants such as Apple.

Economies at War: Post the Cold War, at a point it was believed that transnational challenges such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and climate change demanded international collaboration and institutions. Liberal democratic ideals even promised a dilution of sovereignty and cultures with interdependence and multilateralism. The spread of new technologies and weapon systems and the pursuit of asymmetric strategies e.g. hybrid wars by Russia and China have limited the U.S. military’s scope of operations. A world primarily based on time-tested competition and rivalry was back in vogue.

The essential struggle between China and the United States is for a centrality in reshaping global norms and regulations to better fit their geopolitical aims and interests. All talk about the two decoupling must take into account their complex and tightly integrated economies, including $650 billion in annual trade, reciprocal portfolio holdings and investments, and sourcing of materials and labour in supply chains.8 While a partial break in high-end technology is already happening, all business ties would take decades of concerted effort to decouple. Russia may side with China temporarily to have leverage over the west, but Chinese growth in the Arctic, Central Asia, Indian Ocean, among other issues is in conflict with Russian interests.

There is now a global push to use policy rather than to rely on market developments, to offset China’s advantage gained through nefarious means, including predatory economics, blackmail, bribes, and outright coercion.9 Its strategy of controlling markets rather than opening them, adopting a controlled exchange rate, providing unfair and unethical support to state-owned enterprises, and erecting regulatory barriers against non-Chinese companies, were just some of the manifestations.10

Uncoupling from China will be costly and difficult. In the short term, China’s position looks better, as it recovers first, and seemingly fastest. As per World Bank data, China in 2018 was the leading exporter of manufactured goods in the world with $2.3 trillion or 17.2 percent of global manufacturing exports, while Germany and United States were next but far behind at 9.9 percent and 7.3 percent respectively of the global total. While Germany has taken a call on supporting the Indo-Pacific strategy, how much Europe will commit to even a phased decoupling is anyone’s guess.

Russia, despite Covid-19 after-effects will rely on budget surplus, foreign reserves, and a large increase in its National Wealth Fund to remain financially stable in the short-term. However, its foreign policy adventures which are currently low-cost will be constrained. Adverse demographics, fall in oil and gas demands, and direct costs of covid-19 would constrain it severely in the long-term. Putin’s regime may even face political issues as living standards and support decline. A rapprochement with the west in light of underlying fears of unrestricted Chinese rise and historical enmity cannot be ruled out.

Economics is the foundation of geo-politics, and more so in the coming climate of hyper-competition in a post-Covid-19 world. There could be a focus on creating coalitions that could construct redundant supply chains, fund research in emerging technologies, promote fair and reciprocal trade, and cooperate on security issues. Effective economic intelligence and analysis would drive collaboration in R&D, and public- and private-sector research in AI, synthetic biology, and other emerging technology sectors.

According to Michael E. O’Hanlon, China’s mix of authoritarian capitalism and digital surveillance may prove to be more durable, in light of its size of economy, population, landmass and its comprehensive power, to establish “a modern-day analogue to the tribute system that placed China at the heart of East Asia from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century.”11 And therefore, the US should have a very clear and primary interest in preventing it or it could be excluded from (or seriously discriminated against in) a new, vast, still growing market. According to him, it is not so much about the ideology of liberal democracy as it is about sustained engagement and competition in world politics (geo-economics).

A key component of addressing the Chinese challenge without harming other developing and emerging nations would be World Trade Organisation (WTO) reform. It is a cornerstone of the multilateral rules-based global trading system since its inception in 1995, and it faces an existential crisis. The organization’s three main functions i.e. providing a negotiation forum to liberalise trade and establish new rules, monitoring trade policies, and resolving disputes between its 164 members, were being challenged by the west even before Covid-19. The international trade environment has drastically changed but rules have not kept pace. Modernizing the WTO will include a new set of rules incorporating digital trade and e-commerce, and deal more effectively with China’s bending of rules, and handling issues such as state-owned enterprises, industrial subsidies and ‘developing country’ definition.

The Chinese Response: In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Farrell and Newman argue that the Chinese economy is like a Siamese twin to the US’, making it difficult, if not impossible, to decouple.12 Their contention is that instead of a “wholesale decoupling, a targeted re-coupling effort aimed at embedding supply chains within sustainable frameworks that balance the need for efficiency against newly visible security risks” is a more viable way-ahead. It is also posited that cutting China out of the U.S. innovation system will likely prompt China to cut the United States out of its innovation system to the detriment of US’ interests. It is likely that influential groups in the US which have invested heavily in China will lobby for a ‘mother-of-all-deal’. The feeling one gets is this, if at all possible, is more likely with Biden than Trump.

Also, Xi Jinping is re-inventing state capitalism in anticipation of the turmoil. Just as Trump’s much-hyped tariff wars did not make much of a difference, the Chinese authoritarian model is quite resilient and adaptive. A new economic agenda is to target markets and innovation work in tight control of the CCP. ‘Xinomics’ includes tight control over the economic cycle and debt processes, a more efficient administrative state whose rules apply uniformly, and blurring the boundary between state and private firms. Instead of indiscriminate industrial policy, such as the “Made in China 2025” campaign launched in 2015, focus has shifted to supply-chain choke-points and self-sufficiency in key technologies such as semiconductors and batteries. China’s huge economy is sophisticated and deeply integrated, and a $14 trillion state-capitalist economy will take time and stamina to address.

New York Times reported that even in these depressed times; China's share of global exports reached a record in the second quarter, at nearly 20 percent. Continued strength in exports has helped China post monthly (goods) surpluses of around $60 billion in July and August. The figures tell their own story: China’s $1 trillion surplus in manufactures on one side, and the United States $1 trillion deficit on the other. Global goods trade imbalances even now is essentially dominated by China. Its resilience lies not only in the country’s low-cost, skilled labour and efficient infrastructure but also in a state-controlled banking system that has been offering small and large businesses extra loans to cope with the pandemic.13

According to analysts Huang and Smith, the general fears over trade decoupling and large-scale supply-chain restructuring are exaggerated. Big multinationals will remain in the Chinese manufacturing ecosystem.14 Despite Xi’s proclamation of a dual-circulation strategy emphasising domestic growth drivers while shifting away from export orientation, this trend was visible since long back. From a peak of 35 per cent in 2006 they fell to 17 per cent in 2019, mainly due to progressing from a low- to upper-middle income economy. It had implications on moving away from labour-intensive products to higher value activities, and rebalancing from investment to consumption and from manufacturing to services. Even then, its share of export growth is larger than any other economy. China will continue aiming for investment and productivity increases from technological innovation and deepening human capital, continuing with a strong external orientation.

Jones and Hameiri (2020) argue that the much-maligned Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a geopolitical strategy to ensnare countries in unsustainable Chinese debt is not evidential. They reaffirm that economic factors are primary drivers and developing-country governments and their associated political and economic interests determine the nature of BRI projects.15 For example, Sri Lanka and Malaysia perceived to be most victimised, faced debt problems mainly due to misconduct of local elites and Western-dominated financial markets. The negative reactions and pushback in both countries is lesser than is made out. However, China can expect civil society and political opposition groups in recipient countries focussing on demanding transparency and public participation around the design, feasibility, selection, pricing, tendering and management of megaprojects.

Chinese investments in supporting the coming world dominated by digitisation, renewable energy, and climate change related modifications, and battery technology would be some of the sectors that need to be watched before it dominates supply-chains and dependencies which could be crippling in crises such as a pandemic.

The Counter-Punch: But the macro-picture must not be lost sight of. America dominates in economic, technological, and financial prowess.16 For example, according to World Bank, the total output of the US economy in 2019 was US$21.4 trillion, much larger than China’s output of US$14.3 trillion (on per-capita basis - US$ 65,280 to US$ 10,261). Also, USA’s share of world GDP is virtually unchanged since 1980 (25.2 percent); as of December 31st, 2018, its share only dropped to 23.9 percent. Actually, China’s rise has been at the expense of other countries’ share of the global economy, rather than that of the US. Comparing the US and Chinese economies through purchasing power parity (PPP) lens only can be misleading since prices vary considerably within and externally.

According to a Myanmarese analyst, China faces steep challenges amid a struggling economy and increasing international hostility. He sees fundamental problems which have accumulated over the years: “excessive investment, low labour productivity, modest consumer spending and demographic changes do not always increase a country's growth potential: bridges and roads are literally being built ‘to nowhere’.” Besides, a huge amount of debt, both internally and externally (US$ 40 trillion), is about 300 per cent of its GDP and about 15 percent of total world debt. He quotes Chinese Premier Li Keqiang who on May 28, 2020, admitted that there are more than 600 million people in the country whose monthly income is not even 1,000 Yuan.

An emphasis on massive infrastructure investments by state-owned enterprises will push out private investments making it harder to transit from an investment-driven economy to a consumer-led one. In light of the coming Tech-Wars, inefficiency in innovation may turn out to be the biggest drag on Chinese dreams. The Global Innovation Index (2019) rates the US third worldwide and China 14th, but it’s a new world of technology curbs, denials and protection measures. There are other hidden issues e.g. despite producing the world’s largest patents, most of them are utility model patents or ‘minor inventions’ based on incremental improvements to existing products. But it does seem to have stolen a march in e-commerce, renewable energy and electric vehicles.

In May 2020, the US Dollar was being used in 45.78 percent of international payments alone, while the Renminbi in only 1.22 percent of cases. US Treasury Bills are still valued way over any Chinese instruments. Even in the fast-growing field of Fintech incorporating cashless payments and digital currencies, the US private sector stands in a good position to spearhead further development.

Geopolitical ‘Games’

Battleground West Asia: China and Russia are trying to find their space in the Middle East void being created by the US. But with the US experience of squandering huge assets, finances and goodwill in mind, they would not like to get trapped in similar quagmires. It is a tricky and unpredictable region with multiple crises and more unfolding e.g. post-Covid-19 recession, sliding oil prices, three ongoing civil wars in Yemen, Libya and Syria, social unrests, crisis in Lebanon, issues of millions of refugees and migrants, and resurgence terrorist groups.17 Beijing’s economic footprint (BRI) and energy trade could be compromised by sectarian and Iran-Arab divides. It will not be possible to keep a hands-off policy.

Russia has so far avoided deep involvement, but the state of affairs in Syria and Libya might suck in ill-affordable Russian resources. Russia’s calibrated risk-taking in Europe and West Asia has been to indicate red lines and improve its international stature at low costs. Carefully calculated weaker opposition to its moves, and a ‘hybrid’ approach with tools of low-cost and deniability has dissuaded the powerful to intervene except for some sanctions. Russia has seized opportunities and vacuums in Libya, Syria, Venezuela, among others more to exploit US gaps rather than go in for any long-term and costly involvement.18 Putin’s regime may view the Chinese neither as allies nor enemy, but definitely look at them with some degree of doubt not directly threatening the regime.

One could view the latest China-Iran deal (purportedly $400 billion in Chinese investments in infrastructure in lieu of discounted Iranian oil over the next 25 years) as driven by the geopolitical manoeuvring games or a manifestation of Asian economic integration. If true, then China will be able to break the sanction politics of the west, give a fillip to its BRI, ensure energy security, as well as dent American hegemony in West Asia. China’s Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE also need to be seen in this light. Pakistan would benefit not only because of strategic loss to India, but also as a boost to CPEC, Gwadar Port and trade connectivity with Central Asia.19

Europe is finally turning the corner. UK, France and many others were already onboard, and the ‘giant’ Germany’s Federal Foreign Office finally announced a set of Indo-Pacific policy guidelines formally adopt it as a strategy. It acknowledged that improved partnerships with other nations in the Indo-Pacific will undoubtedly help Germany handle many of the global challenges posed by an increasingly brash and ambitious China. There is a growing distemper towards China throughout Europe, because of multiple issues such as crackdown in Hong Kong, treatment of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang, and the increasing brashness and coercive methods by Chinese leaders.20

Indo-Pacific: Quad Blooms? Analysts feel that China’s behaviour has accelerated and contributed a degree of substance to the ‘Quad’ and even a ‘Quad-Plus’ that includes other like-minded states - with loose talk about an Indo-Pacific NATO. With complete bipartisan Congressional support, e.g. Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, a change in presidency would not affect the realisation that China’s dream is US’ nightmare. There are already rumblings of possible G10 (sans Russia) to “promote strategic cooperation on global political and security issues and advance the norms and values of a liberal international order.”21 While a Biden presidency will revert to some traditional US positions e.g. support for multilateralism, US alliances, international institutions, and the rule of law, the hard line against China would continue.

The Quad’s single defining characteristic is the democratic set-up of its constituent countries, but this also makes it vulnerable to political shifts and debates in these countries.22 Jyotsna argues that India’s cautious hedging over China had earned it a weakest-link branding in the Quad. But the current Indian political elite are ready for a radical shift in their mindset. Japan’s delinking of economic and security concerns when dealing with China is seen to be paradoxical, but security concerns and US pressures will be prime drivers. The US National Defence Strategy 2018 clearly identifies revisionist China as the greatest strategic threat to the US. It has therefore, adapted to the new normal of India-friendly language and ASEAN centrality.

Does the US or other intended participants want an ‘Asian NATO’? Is it imperative for US to move away from its current hub-and-spokes model of bilateral alliances in Asia toward a more multilateral, institutionalized network of the sort that exists in Europe?23 More plausible would be something in between - existing sets of bilateral relationships and a multilateral alliance that could specifically address assistance in military confrontation with China. This would serve as a clear deterrent to China’s unilateral aggression.

Taiwan is the key to the future in US-China competition. Reunification is a non-negotiable item with the Chinese, and its actions in Hong Kong reinforce this. Threatening scenarios are multiple including China launching devastating missile strikes against Taiwan on the first day of conflict, leaving Taipei a choice between surrendering and holding for US forces to arrive. Robert Kagan in the Washington Post makes out the case for how important it is for US to prevent a reunification.24 Any ambivalence in the One-China policy is gone. Kagan states that a failure to prevent Taiwan’s military defeat and absorption would send shock waves throughout the region. All regional players would rethink their relationship with the United States, with a China poised to dominate East Asia and the western Pacific as never before.

India at Crossroads? China has carried out a long-drawn plan over decades to ‘contain’ India within a South Asia box, aided in good measure by its all-weather ally Pakistan. Dr Subhash Kapila claims that China has effectively established a ‘colonial hold’ over Pakistan through a combination of subterfuge, BRI promises and bribes, and a promise of sorting out India.25 A similar outreach to all South Asian economically weak states is on display. India is now nipping this game plan with suitable counter-strategies.

In a new post-Galwan era of India-China engagement, both are acutely conscious that at stake are not just contested territorial issues, but the very framework of Asian strategic cooperation in an ‘Asian Century’. The swing-factor of India is critical, and Indian leadership is aware of it. India’s cancellation of its participation in the Kavkaz-2020 military exercise in Russia involving members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a decisive and timely message. In fact, BRICS, RIC and SCO may be rethought by India. Russia’s balancing of China with India may not unfold in the manner that Putin planned. On the other hand, India is dramatically trying to persuade Russia to accept the Indo-Pacific construct.26

Military Moves

PLA: How Capable? Is China's PLA more hype than real capabilities? Doubts arise from the orchestrated campaign to dominate neighbours and would-be opponents; spectacular parades through wide avenues of capital cities; and thousands of news articles boasting military prowess, which could be viewed suspiciously. China has the second-largest defence budget in the world, and has been re-equipping at a fast rate. But its actions in Ladakh against the Indian Army, use of ballistic missiles in the South China Sea, bullying of South China Sea claimant nations, acute verbal and military threats against Taiwan, and boat swarms at the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, belie a deeper insecurity. And undoubtedly, it would face serious difficulties in a two-front scenario with India and US in the South China Sea.

China can field well over 3 million armed personnel. It aims for a "World-class Military" by 2049. US experts predict the following capabilities by 2035: extend anti-access/area-denial envelope farther beyond the First Island Chain; enhance long-range strike capabilities, including hypersonic weapons; possess advanced undersea and amphibious war-fighting capacities; and significantly improve its capabilities in cyberspace and outer-space operations. This will ensure CCP's legitimacy and survival. Xi’s PLA reform program was introduced to reassert and strengthen his control directly. But Chinese military leaders themselves admit difficulties in areas such as combat leadership, war-fighting capability and party loyalty.

Future PLA Trajectory : The latest US Department of Defense Annual Report to its Congress, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020” is indicative of the long-term strategic vision that the CCP has pursued in dream of a Chinese rejuvenation. For example, its Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) program’s declaratory aim is to fuse all economic and social development strategies with its security strategies to build an integrated national strategic system and capabilities in support of China’s national rejuvenation goals. The six interrelated themes are unabashedly about an ecosystem that allows building Chinese military might by hook or by crook. China’s military strategy remains based on the concept of active-defence, and a roadmap exists for key military transformation with markers set in 2020, 2035 and end of 2049 by when its military would be world-class.

Strategic Support Force (SSF) is a theatre command-level organisation to centralise strategic space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare missions and capabilities. The SSF Network Systems Department is responsible for cyber-warfare, technical reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and psychological warfare. Its current emphasis is on anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities that currently exist till the First Island Chain, with expansion plans to reach farther into the Pacific Ocean. In addition to strike, air and missile defence, anti-surface and anti-submarine capabilities improvements, China is focusing on information, cyber, and space and counter-space operations.

In 2019, the PLA continued to expand its participation in bilateral and multilateral military exercises, normalise its presence overseas, and build closer ties to foreign militaries. More robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure is planned to allow the PLA to project and sustain military power at greater distances. Beyond its current base in Djibouti, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan.

Very importantly, China seeks to become a leader in key technologies with military potential, such as AI, autonomous systems, advanced computing, quantum information sciences, biotechnology, and advanced materials and manufacturing. These could be real disruptors against the established systems of the west. It has and is pursuing many vectors to acquire foreign technologies, with both licit and illicit means. The PRC’s efforts include a range of practices and methods to acquire sensitive and dual-use technologies and military-grade equipment to advance its military modernisation goals. It blatantly leverages foreign investments, commercial joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions, and state-sponsored industrial and technical espionage, and the manipulation of export controls for the illicit diversion of dual-use technologies to increase the level of technologies and expertise available to support military research, development, and acquisition.


China may have seriously erred in miscalculating in India’s resolve and America’s pushback. It premised its one-dimensional project of diminishing of India’s role, growth and status on weak political will. It mistook US corporate greed as a lack of gumption to engage China in Asia. A hard-line and tough authoritarian regime understands only a language of power, consequences, threat of great attrition, and importantly, a puncturing of its image bubble domestically. This was no better put than by Sardar Patel in 1950 when he read China accurately but to no avail with a ‘visionary’ Nehru.27

This paper explores the realm of the brewing competition between the US and China, which can easily escalate to military confrontation. India has been forced to make choices away from its long-held belief in hedging and non-alliance. Within the explored areas of competition i.e. High-tech, trade, geopolitics and military prowess, are pointers for India in where to invest and where to get off the dead horse.

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  27. Sardar Patel. (1950). China Doesn’t See us as Friends: Patel’s Letter to Nehru in 1950.

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