New Delhi: It is astonishing how cleverly and effortlessly China slips into the role of a balancing power when it suits its geopolitical interests. The balance of power as a geopolitical strategy can conceivably no longer be practised in the pure form that it was in the nineteenth century when Great Britain was its doughtiest exemplar. The world moved on or rather regressed to total war in the early 20th century with the First World War thus defeating the capacity of a balancing power to limit war before it exhausted the combatant parties and permanently damaged civilizations and political economies. Further, the terminal stage of the Second World War inaugurated atomic terror and the nuclear age. Nuclear weapons themselves assumed, in two parts, the role of deterrents and balancers. Great Britain was also a sea power in its heydays keeping in check a host of predominantly land powers. Europe was the centre of action and especially Western and Central Europe. The United States was a whole ocean away and growing in isolation while Russia to the east was the perennial enemy at the gates. Much of that situation no longer obtains. In its purest form, the balance of power ended with the nineteenth century.

And yet China occasionally has dabbled with balancing since; and like everything else with China, it comes with special Chinese characteristics. China was perhaps the earliest balancing power of the Cold War. That role could have belonged to Germany had it been united and not gotten so disembowelled politically by the guilt of Nazism, the Holocaust and so on and not grown so fearful of global leadership. It lost its fertility to produce a genius like Otto von Bismarck. But China, rising from the proverbial ashes of the civil war, proved a fast and astute learner in the balancing business, and began to practise its art no sooner than Mao Zedong had beaten Chiang Kai Sheik. Although Mao knew China’s fraternal relations with Soviet Russia had a short and uneasy life, he kept the illusion going because he couldn’t trust the United States immediately after its support to the Kuomintang. Following the Korean War, the distrust deepened, but that didn’t prevent China from assuming strategic neutrality in the Vietnam War. All the while, China was plotting a turn in ties when the United States would need China to balance off the Soviet Union. What followed is well-known. With the exception of Ronald Reagan, every US president since Richard Nixon made close ties with China and its economic growth and prosperity key goals of American foreign policy. Rather late in the day, Donald Trump wants to reverse fifty years of Chinese parasitic growth on US wealth, technology, goodwill and naivety. No sooner than Trump applied the tariff squeeze on China than China has made common cause with Russia against America. The new Chinese defence minister is in Moscow and openly speaks of a Russian-Chinese military alliance against unipolarity, a thinly veiled reference to US hegemony. It is not that Russia cannot see through Chinese opportunism. But the fact of the matter is that Russia needs all the assistance it can get in its expanding differences with the West, and Chinese support is more than welcome. You cannot get better at balancing in the nuclear age and in a post-Cold War world than China.

How does China manage this? It has to do with superabundant national confidence and an almost suicidal capacity for risks. Democracies cannot pull this off, and even among totalitarian states and autocracies, it constitutes a singular feat. As soon as Josip Broz Tito revolted against Joseph Stalin, it was predicted that Titoism would infect Mao’s China. But Mao suffered Russian pressure stoically till he had the Americans where he wanted. Half-measures were anathema to Chairman Mao. With the scales now tipped against China, it is time for a strategic course correction again. Great Britain’s naval power ensured that the island nation was never greatly threatened when it played the role of balancer. It is extraordinary that both Modern-day military adventurers, Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler, baulked from invading Britain. China is not an island state but has the nineteenth century chutzpah of one. It had that confidence when it had nearly nothing save revolutionary fervour in 1949. Now it has most everything and still acts as though it has nothing to lose. China is fast proving to be untouchable. It should worry the world.