From the shadows of plague, famine and rebellion, the son of a family of small tenant-farmers—once a monk, then a wandering beggar, then an insurgent commander—rose to claim the Mandate of Heaven and establish the greatest empire of his times. Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming dynasty, radically reformed the bureaucracy, abolished slavery, and modernised agriculture. The Embroidered Uniform Guard, his secret police, ruthlessly enforced a new social order, designed to rebuild a society levelled by generations of war.
In 1373, his northern borders secure and his empire enriched by networks of trade that stretched across Asia and beyond, Emperor Zhu contemplated where the limits of his power ought lie.
“The countries of the southern barbarians are separated from us by mountains and seas”, Zhu wrote. “If they were so unrealistic as to disturb our peace, it would be unfortunate for them. If they gave us no trouble and we moved troops to fight them unnecessarily, it would be unfortunate for us”.
The first meeting between China and the United States after President Joe Biden’s election—characterised by an hour of tetchy, made-for-television exchanges between the two countries’ diplomats—illustrates the autism of the world’s two Great Powers. In Beijing, region-wide concerns about China’s behaviours is dismissed; the aggression cast as rightful wrath against states colluding with the United States. In turn, President Biden is determined to reestablish the United States’ status as the world’s preeminent power—even if it means kneecapping China.
For both countries, the boundaries of their power—the issue Emperor Zhu thoughtfully considered six and a half centuries ago—remains unresolved. Biden will remain in power until 2024; President Xi Jinping, China’s ruler, until at least 2023, and likely for a decade after. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy will evolve in the shadow of their implacable opposition.
To some in India, this will seem like excellent news. India, conventional wisdom holds, stands to benefit from a Washington that is committed to rolling back Chinese power. The conventional wisdom, though, is wrong.
Ever since the still-unresolved crisis along the Line of Actual Control began in Ladakh last summer, Prime Minister Modi has sought refuge for India inside the Quad, the emerging alliance with Australia, Japan and the United States. At once, though, the Prime Minister has sought to avert conflict, looking beyond territorial disagreements, like the status of the Depsang plateau, in pursuit of deescalation.
The Prime Minister, unlike leaders of India’s chairborne brigades, has understood that the confrontation imposes crippling, asymmetric costs on the country. Fighting wars, moreover, involves rolling the dice; from the times of Thucydides, strategists have known there’s no telling where they’ll fall.
A strategy centred around the Quad comes with significant risks. First, few East Asian states are eager for the region to be mired in Great Power contestation. Ever since the China-Vietnam of 1979, the region has avoided large-scale conflict. The peace has, in no small part, been the outcome growing Chinese prosperity and integration into the global capitalist system, in turn the rest of its entente with the United States. East and South-East Asian states have seen their economies boom; none sees profit in rupturing the delicate geopolitical fabric of the region.
In practical terms, this means much of Asia—democratic or otherwise—will avoid commitment to one side or the other.
The second risk is this: the ability of the United States to project power in the Indian Ocean suffers from serious credibility issues. The US already has five treaty allies to defend in East Asia and the Pacific, which it backs up with a network of military bases around the region and some 80,000 troops. To extend that network into the Indian Ocean will require a massive expansion of bases, troops, and finances.
Last year, the United States navy made public a 30-year plan to expand its fleet from 287 ships to 355 in 2034 and then sustain that level until 2049. The plan though, involves a budget of $25 billion each year just to build new warships—twice the level it has historically received. No one knows if the Biden administration will be willing to bring that kind of cash to the table. No one can say, either, if an American public, increasingly cynical of foreign wars, will back Biden if he does.
Third, and perhaps most important the naval foundations of the Quad will do little to address India’s real security challenge, which is along the Himalayas. Although advocates of the Quad believe the threat from China can be countered by force-projection in the seas, this strategy has dangers. Key among them is the prospect that China might punish perceived encirclement with pressure along the Line of Actual Control.
In his 1373 edicts, Emperor Zhu held out wise counsel to his heirs. “I am concerned that future generations might abuse China’s wealth and power and covet the military glories of the moment to send armies into the field without reason and cause loss of life. May they be sharply reminded that this is forbidden”. Zhu’s heirs, though, chose not to listen. Led by the great Grand Admiral Zheng He, China’s fleet launched seven expeditions between 1405 and 1433, to project power across what we now call the Indo-Pacific.
Zheng’s forces, in an exercise of what the scholar Geoff Wade has called “maritime proto-colonialism”, punished rulers who declined to acknowledge the Chinese emperor as the son of heaven, like Ceylon’s Vira Alagakkonara, and suppressed pirate fleet.
In the decades that followed, Chinese power mediated conflicts across the region—influencing political events, the work of scholar Tansen Sen shows, as far as Kozhikode and Kochi.
In 1420, the eastern Bengal ruler Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah complained of incessant raids against his territories from adjoining Jaunpur. The Ming despatched the eunuch Hou Xian, deputy to Zheng He, to both courts, with “imperial orders of instruction for them so that they would cultivate good relations with their neighbour, and would each protect their own territory”.
Yet, this yielded no meaningful gains. Admiral Zheng’s fleet visited ports where Chinese traders and trade-networks were already well-established; no naval missions were needed to protect them. The Chinese had no means—nor need—to establish colonies or bases across the Indian Ocean. Under Emperor Zhu Gaochi, the great missions Zheng led were wound down.
To leaders in both Washington and Beijing, the lesson ought be apparent: the projection of power, though seductive, often serves no clear ends. Asia—and both Great Powers—prospered through coexistence; no party’s interests are enhanced by geopolitical confrontation.
Nation-states, though, don’t always make rational decisions. Beijing, fearful about the United States’ intentions, has sought to intimidate the states along its peripheries ahead of what it believes is an inevitable Great Power showdown. The US, unable to free itself of the idea of global power as a zero-sum game, sees expanding its Asian alliance system as a tool to hold back China’s growing power.
Chinese fears and American hubris, thus, have colluded to generate a geopolitical collision neither side can win. Like most Asian powers, India’s best interests lie in remaining on the sidelines as this struggle unfolds.