by Austin Bay
November 3, 2020
Perhaps in five years, an honest historian will publish an honest history assessing the positive diplomatic effects of President Donald Trump's administration's decision to challenge the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship's pervasive spying, economic trickery and utter disregard of international law.
The Trump administration has employed tough diplomatic and legal initiatives, and implemented economic and military policies that reduced the CCP's freedom of action. It rejected China's expansionist territorial claims.
I think the concrete U.S. response has had a powerful moral effect in Indo-Pacific nations that felt vulnerable and victimized by Beijing's one-on-one (bilateral) economic and military bullying. Big China versus a Small Neighbor was the CCP's preferred fight.
The Indian Navy's Malabar 2020 exercise, which began this week in the Indian Ocean, is a telling example of a major shift in India's public attitude toward China.
Sailors refer to India's "Malabar" fleet maneuvers as high-end maritime exercises. The first Malabar was held in 1992, when India invited the U.S. to participate in bilateral naval training.
India's diplomatic preparations and information campaign indicate Malabar 2020 is designed to send a message.
In October, the Indian Department of Defence made certain that everyone knew that, for the first time in 13 years, Australian warships would participate in a Malabar exercise -- along with India, Japan and the U.S. That announcement called attention to the Quad, shorthand for the Quadrilateral Security Dialog, which consists of India, Japan, Australia and the U.S.
In 2007, spurred by Japan, the four nations held an informal meeting. At that meeting, Japan argued that all four nations regarded China as a disruptive actor in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. Effectively confronting China required cooperation. India, anticipating economic deals with China, demurred. New Delhi didn't want to offend Beijing.
American shows of force-countering Chinese aggression in the South China Sea definitely predate the Trump administration -- thank goodness. China, however, tended to interpret these actions as Pentagon media performances that didn't demonstrate U.S. political will to resist China. During former President Barack Obama's administration, Chinese economic wheeling and dealing in the U.S. and Europe continued unabated.
In 2015, Chinese spies penetrated the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and acquired personal information on 20 million government employees, including military personnel. The Obama administration responded weakly.
So China continued to fight fishing-boat wars with Vietnam and the Philippines.
In the last decade, India's Himalayan territorial disputes with China have become more frequent and aggressive. Without doubt, those clashes profoundly shape Indian perception. So does China's steady acquisition of seaport facilities in the Indian Ocean. Pakistan's Gwadar Port looks a lot like a Chinese naval base.
However, the Trump administration's American domestic economic revival and its hard-nosed trade agreements with China demonstrated that the U.S. could and would counter China's economic hegemony. Washington used legal, financial and diplomatic instruments to penalize Chinese intellectual-property theft. It also targeted Chinese spying, which penalized lucrative Chinese companies like Huawei linked to espionage.
China's economy buys the weapons that enable territorial expansion and pays the bribes that empower its economic dominance.
The Trump administration is the first U.S. administration to actively and relentlessly confront China using lawyers, guns and money -- legal sanctions, military operations and economic policies.
American media missed the story, but savvy minds around the world noticed.
Which brings us back to Malabar 2020's message. Indian officials unflinchingly call it a "quadrilateral exercise" that demonstrates "high-levels of synergy and coordination" among Quad navies. Indian media report that exercise scenarios reflect the mutual goal of countering increased Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Indian government has scripted Malabar 2020 to send a definitive message: The Quad has become a functioning military coalition, with India as a committed member.
The CCP's leaders and Chinese admirals get the message.