Expansionism : India, China and the Asian Century

Europe is yesterday’s hegemony, America is today’s and Asia will be the future’s. It’s a notion that eludes pride and buoyancy, but to what extent? The idea of ‘expansionism’ ran through the bloodstream of all our forefathers, but with the turn of each century, each country let go of this idea, except China, who still seems to be practicing it. China is famously known for practicing the refined art of ‘Salami slicing’, a territory grabbing technique, which in simpler terms means encroaching upon small parts of enemy territory over a large period of time. This exercise has led to disputes between China and its neighbors. Key examples being the ‘East China Sea Dispute’, which caused anxiety to their neighbors, Philippines and Japan, and the ‘South China Sea Dispute’, involving claims of China over sovereign states like Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam. But this is just the essence of Chinese Imperialism, which dates back to 221 BC. 

As a concept, ‘expansionism’ is the method by which governments and states expand their territory, power, wealth or influence through economic growth, soft power or the military aggression of empire-building and colonialism.

Most of the nations exercise expansionism, through the practice of Neo-Colonialism, i.e. the use of economic, political, cultural, or other pressures to control or influence other countries, especially former colonies. It is the practice of using capitalism, globalization, cultural imperialism, and conditional aid to influence a developing country instead of the previous colonial methods of direct military control or indirect political control. 

Other than broadening its influence in its surrounding water bodies, China’s expansionist attitude can be seen by it offering loans to many countries between 2000-2015, the majority being spent on infrastructure and power generation, which ended with China acquiring foreign lands, and being accused of practicing ‘debt-trap diplomacy’. Debt trap diplomacy is basically when a powerful country aims to create leverage against a developing country by targeting these same countries with huge debts. China’s overseas development policy has been called debt-trap diplomacy because once indebted economies fail to service their loans, they are claimed to be pressured to support China’s geostrategic interests. For example, a 2006 loan to Tonga was for the purpose of rebuilding infrastructure. From 2013 to 2014, Tonga suffered a debt crisis when the Exim Bank of China did not let this go.The loans claimed 44 percent of Tonga’s GDP. China has been accused of imposing unfair trade and financial deals when poor countries are unable to resist Beijing’s money.  By using money, China has been gaining influence and power in the world today. Another example is Sri Lanka. They were forced to hand over control of the Hambantota port project to China, after it found itself under massive debt owed to Beijing. This allowed China control over a key port positioned at the foot of its rival India, and a strategic weapon along a key commercial and military waterway. Another case is Angola, who is paying off their multi-million dollar debt via crude oil, creating a problem for its own economy. But, how dominant is this doctrine today? Whether it’s in terms of economic development, updating their technological know-how, capturing more territory or being prepared with a more invincible military, expansionism or neo-colonialism prevails. Analysts are under the belief that expansionism is crucial to their ideology and aligns with their practice of communism. This has led to a shift in the current political power structure. 

In the current political scenario, there’s a noticeable shift of power from the West to the continent of Asia. 

Post the Cold War, the United States emerged as the superpower. But now there’s a gradual shift from an American ruled century to an Asian ruled century, with China playing the central role. China’s ambitious attitude has led to an era of Sino- centricism. China also formerly practiced Sinicization with countries like Taiwan and Tibet. Currently, China seems to be the leader in practicing expansionism. But why wouldn’t it be? This doctrine has proven to be the means through which development can be achieved. And since, all countries focus on achieving their goals and protecting the nation’s interest, anyone would practice this. Expansionism has led the US dollar in being the dominant currency used for trading; it’s led to China attracting more investors and increase in technical progress which enhanced their economic power by raising the productivity of its labor force. This has led to a financial interaction between the US and China, where the US has benefited from lower interest rates due to the Chinese purchase of US Government Securities and US consumers have benefited from low- priced Chinese made goods. China on the other hand has also benefited from ready access to large US consumer markets that permits Chinese exports to expand rapidly. More importantly, China has also benefited from the availability of know-how and advanced technology of US firms producing and operating in China.

From a global perspective, the USA and Russia are the two superpowers but when it comes to trading and ability to influence the paradigm of commerce, energy or communications- reference is made not only to the USA but also to China, Japan, Canada and certain countries of the EU. It’s not a secret that the world is gradually becoming asianised. It’s leading to the formation of a burgeoning multicultural system spanning linking all these economies via trade, communication, technology, finance and infrastructure. With China taking the lead with the Belt and Road Initiative (an initiative to link Asia, Africa and Europe via land and sea trades similar to the silk road 2000 years ago), we can see that slowly Asia is returning to the dominance it once enjoyed. By fostering its own economic and strategic hub, Iran and Indonesia are slowly emerging and in Vietnam and Saudi Arabia, privatisation has created a wave of growth. Asia is slowly reaching the stage of closing the disparity gap. It cites upcoming technologies including Fiber, 5G and AI as Asian strengths. For example, Huawei is the recognised global leader in 5G technology. In 2018, South Korea introduced the first 5G service in the world and Japan is the world leader in robotics. Japan and Korea have the most sophisticated and technologically advanced economies, with Japan having its own AI. They are doing a lot to diversify, and their supply chains are  bringing the manufacturing of certain technologies such as ships, mobile phones into secondary markets. Japan and Korea are not just innovators for their own economies but they are exporting these as well. Slowly, the European Union is signing trade deals with Japan, Singapore, Korea, potentially with others, potentially with ASEAN as a whole, if they get their act together.

The protection of today’s Asia is the result of past expansionism, and its progress is the outcome of determined development. Asia has room to be the next ruling continent. Moreover, Asia is known to have a cheap labor force. In the domain of economic power, the potential to produce diversified products on a mass scale at cheaper prices along with the availability of requisite technical logistics and manpower, make all the difference. These elements aid to mould the necessary conditions vital for sustainable economic growth. The export-led growth model, according to economists, is also seen as a positive function of aggregate output. It needs to be noted here that higher output, through its effect on the scale of production, lowers costs and increases productivity. This element has acquired special importance because technical progress allows for accelerating expansion in output by fostering economic productivity.(Zamir, 2019) China is the best example of that, as a result of which, it has become the global manufacturing hub of most products – whether it is apparels for brands – H&M, Forever 21, Uniqlo; or automobiles for Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Suzuki, Honda; or production of electronic devices for Apple and Samsung. It also needs to be remembered here that exports include both goods and services. Singapore, Thailand and India have become good examples of this. Identifying areas and sectors for investment, is normally done on the basis of future profitability expectations by entrepreneurs, and Asia seems profitable and rewarding to most investors. (Zamir,  2019) 

This reemergence of Asia is amongst the most important shifts that will occur in our lifetimes. It is estimated that Asian economies will be larger than the rest of the world combined. Expansionism has proven to be Asia’s friend rather than foe.

If this, however, is to be the Asian century, it will be built by Asians working closer together in their own continent. Nonetheless, its sustained growth cannot be promised. The leaders of China and its neighboring countries in the continent, will have to navigate many risks and challenges and also work out an agreement whereby they can co-exist peacefully and work amicably in order to preserve the future of Asia.

– Shania D’Souza (Guest Writer)

SYBA, St. Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Mumbai

Edited by: Dhwani Shah (Editor, Econ Declassified)

References :

2020 China–India skirmishes. (2021, January 22). Retrieved January 24, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_China%E2%80%93India_skirmishes

Chinese imperialism. (2021, January 15). Retrieved January 24, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_imperialism#East_China_Sea_Disputes

Huiyao, W. (2019, July 25). In 2020, Asian economies will become larger than the rest of the world combined – here’s how. Retrieved January 24, 2021, from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/07/the-dawn-of-the-asian-century/

Zamir, M. (2019, November 04). Interrelated matrix of economic power and security: The Asian Age Online, Bangladesh. Retrieved January 24, 2021, from https://dailyasianage.com/news/203780/interrelated-matrix-of-economic-power-and-security

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