Gaurie Dwivedi’s book is a product of synchronicity. It was conceived when the virus from Wuhan was ravaging the world. But she could not have anticipated the unravelling of Afghanistan by the time it was released. It is the latter that adds the third dimension to make Blinkers Off an important work of these troubled times. If COVID-19 took the Blinkers off, as it were, from the way the world looked at China, Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban demolished many long-cultivated myths about the omnipotence of the United States in a post-Cold War era.
While the world was focused on the economic rise of China, Beijing carefully crafted and executed a 360° strategy to change the global order putting itself at the centre. The pandemic has laid bare the multi-layered influence China wields across the world from trade to military, cyberspace and new-age technology. The central thesis of Dwivedi’s book is that the imperialistic designs of China can only be thwarted through a multi-polar configuration going beyond military cooperation — to information, trade and, perhaps — as Covid has shown, biological warfare. Within this framework she explores what can be India’s role in meeting China’s challenge and protecting her own interests.
Gaurie artfully articulates how China used a combination of Confucius and Sun Tzu to, er, confuse the world in its pursuit of global dominance. The CCP used Confucian principles to stop democratic movements in the name of maintaining order. In tandem, it took leaves out of Sun Tzu’s book to start its two-decades-long waiting game to avenge its “century of humiliation”, she writes. As a part of its waiting game, it stuck to Den Xiaoping’s doctrine of 'hide your capacities and bide your time’ and focused on building its economic muscles.
Though copiously researched and tackled in-depth, the first two sections of the book may not cover much new ground for practitioners of geopolitical studies and professional China watchers. But, Gaurie’s achievement lies in putting together the blocks to show how the beast has become more diabolical and larger than the sum of its parts after the pandemic. It is also a timely and valuable primer for those who have so far viewed China as a rising economic and military power, but now waking up to its potential to change the world order faster and more radically than anyone had imagined.
Looking at the previous 20 years with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, it becomes clear how China moved its pieces on the global chessboard in a cold and calculative manner. The book traces how Beijing has been systematically spreading its tentacles across continents starting from changing the rules of engagement in the Indo-Pacific, tying up economically weaker countries literally under the ‘belt’ with BRI (the Belt and Road Initiative), expanding its footprint into Africa and gaining an unseemly hold over Europe through “cheque-book” diplomacy. China has got Europe into such a vice-like grip with its strategic investments that it is able to exploit the political fault lines between countries and also dictate Europe’s stand on humanitarian issues.
Sitting in India we are aware of how China has been building its web around our neighbourhood with a multipronged approach ranging from overt political interventions to economic diplomacy. What has been less visible to us is China’s foray into the Middle East. While some moves such as the development of Gwadar port in Baluchistan have engaged our attention, China’s more far-reaching penetration has been in Iran - the heart of Central Asia. These were stratagems aimed at altering existing power equations. It is also here that China and Russia have been seen to openly tango. The longer-term implications of this will manifest more clearly in the coming days as the situation in Afghanistan unfolds — with the Taliban already trying to woo the Chinese. It has enormous implications for India as it is dependent on this region for its energy needs.
With 2020 applying the brakes on the world, the book takes a sharp turn from here. In a few chapters, Dwivedi deftly pulls the mask off Xi’s China and outlines how the world realised that it can no longer be business as usual with the Middle Kingdom. The pandemic had exposed Xi’s facade of “a champion of globalization and free trade crusader”.
Subsequent actions of China in the peak of the pandemic on multiple fronts — on the one hand pushing the envelope with India in Galwan, aerial sabre rattling with Taiwan and needling Japan on its territorial waters and on the other arm twisting Australia on trade for merely suggesting an enquiry on the origins and spread of the coronavirus — made it clear to the world that China could no longer be trusted and the need to decouple from it. With that also came the realisation of how China has penetrated the UN and other international organisations like WTO and WHO. Doubts about collusion between Tedros Adhanom, Director-General of WHO, in delaying the announcement of COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan and subsequent response of WHO in determining the global response to the pandemic -- further reinforced these suspicions.
Having ceded ground and wearing blinkers for two decades -- the world has put itself on the backfoot for tackling China. With the Dragon baring its fangs, traditional methods of containing it will no longer work. Strategies have to be reworked and responses reinvented -- going beyond military and trade deterrents.
While the United States will have to be part of the solution, it may not be either the leading or a dependable player. For one, as Afghanistan has shown, its willingness to fight someone else’ war is diminishing. With China projected to be the world’s largest economy by 2028 the US’ economic clout will reduce. The risks of high body count will be a deterrent for Americans. So, alliances have to be re-booted in which India and Japan will have to assert themselves as equal partners in the Quad. Otherwise, as Dwivedi puts it succinctly, the world-map could be one of the casualties.
Impressive in its sweep, this is an ambitious work by Dwivedi. She emerges as a bold new voice outside the echo chambers that have so far dominated the discourse on India’s policy towards China and, indeed, its role in an emerging post-COVID multipolar world.
Pentagon Press LLP
The author is a writer, TV current affairs commentator and opinion columnist. He tweets @SandipGhose. Views are personal.