Shift in power levers

CHINA AND THE WORLD: While China retains ties with isolated countries like North Korea, its proposition is equally seductive for historical foes like

There has been an undeniable increase in the Chinese strategic capabilities while those of the other ‘superpowers’ — USA and Russia — have diminished. This shift in power levers has resulted in the new-found confidence, proactivity and assertion of the Chinese roadmap that has threatened the established global equations.

China was historically shy of voting in the UN on international issues, but recently it has modulated its response from jettisoning the move to designate Masood Azhar as a ‘global terrorist’ (even though his group Jaish-e-Mohammed is already a UN designated terrorist group). Beijing has expressed ‘limited support’ for US strikes against terror group Islamic State (IS) — nuancing its response to suit its own national narrative, pursuant to its fancied image as a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the international arena.
Flush with financials coughed up by its economic juggernaut, China blatantly practices ‘chequebook diplomacy’ and ‘infrastructure diplomacy’ to win over new friends. In a world fractured by the past mistakes, humiliation and perceptions — China emerges as the perfect antidote for various disgruntled regimes.

While it retains relationship with the isolated (or increasingly isolated) countries like North Korea or Pakistan, its proposition is equally seductive for historical foes like Philippines (with whom they have had a bitter territorial dispute that got escalated to the International Tribunal in Hague). Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has made a complete U-turn in its foreign policy by ditching the US, and unabashedly courting the Chinese, as a counterpoise.

Expectedly, all these ‘converts’ are rewarded with generous Chinese largesse in the form of ‘developmental aid’. Masked behind the nobility of the ‘developmental aid’ is the invisible benefit that invariably accrues back to the Chinese mainland — the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) or the tectonically transforming OBOR (One Belt, One Road) for the landlocked and energy-rich Central Asian countries.

This is an irresistible economic manna for the participating countries, as indeed to the Chinese, which ensures an uninterrupted supply chain, market for its wares and the critical reduction in dependence on the hostile West. But perhaps the most convenient aspect of cosying up to the Chinese is their deliberate lack of concern on the internal affairs and the governance style of the friendly regimes. It seldom criticises the means and methods of quelling internal dissent, human rights or other ‘preachy issues’ propagated by the Western powers.

The lure of an alternative benign power, which doles out the moolah to cash-starved nations without any ‘strings attached’, is a welcome alternative to the much-conditional ‘ifs and buts’, of the Western powers.

China is the veritable high church of cold realpolitik, it is behaviourally driven by what serves its interests best, without injecting the moral, democratic or ideological angularities in its bilateral relations. So, elegance in diplomacy is a complete non-consideration and China never hesitates from flexing its military muscle to protect its geostrategic ambitions.

On the contentious South China Sea issue, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi bluntly called for ‘elimination of interference’ by the US and merrily deployed the still ‘sub-Blue Water’ capability naval elements to intimidate the wary neighbourhood. It even went more brazen with the creation of artificial islands with offensive capabilities like landing airstrips for fighter planes and missile systems.

The Sino-USSR relationship offers an insight into the famed Chinese fleet-footedness that is based on tactical requirements and need-based approach, shorn of any emotionalities (‘Hindi-Cheeni-Bhai-Bhai’).

The Chinese relationship with the Soviets was borne of ideological convergence, economic dependence and fears of regime change (Mao feared a US invasion to re-establish Chiang Kai-shek). Expectedly, the Soviets lent aid and diplomatic support (USSR singularly supported China on Taiwan and jointly supported North Korea in the Korean War etc).

Soon the Chinese outlived their depen­dence on the Soviets and started to chart their independent course, the Soviets retaliated by supplying weapons to India in the Sino-India war of 1962 — but it climaxed in 1969 with the unprecedented border clashes, with both countries reconfiguring their nuclear missiles at each other, as opposed to the US. Since then, the ties have seen ups and do­wns, but essentially China has emerged from the shadows and is posited to fructify the neologism of the ‘Chinese Century’.

Global conflicts

Interestingly, the Chinese strategy of remaining ‘non-committal’ in most of the recent global conflicts like West Asia, Balkans, Somalia, Afghanis­tan, Libya etc, has ensured that while the coffers of the Western powers have bled profusely with the outreach (US spending on West Asian wars and Homeland Security is expected to reach $4.79 trillion in 2017), the Chinese have gingerly stepped aside, and conserved their energy and resour­ces towards strengthening themselves.

Today, it would be naïve to presume that the Chinese are not convinced of the antecedents of elements like Masood Azhar and their ilk, yet they play hardball with India to score a larger geopolitical goal of retaining its equations with its ‘all-weather-friend’ Pakistan. Clearly, the Chinese are aware of the dangers of pandering to Islamist hardliners, as it fights Islamic separatist groups like East Turkestan Islamic Movement in its restive Xinjiang province.

The Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang are routinely subjected to ruthless clampdowns, ban on protests and disallowance of religious rituals and observances. However, the Chinese realpolitik mandates the parallel thwarting of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist, as it ostensibly seeks ‘solid evidence’. The Chinese are adept at compartmentalising issues without a linear or consistent logic, as that could trip its own narrative, internally and externally.

The way to approach the Dragon is without the shenanigans of a holistic charm offensive. Instead, it should be a piece-meal discussion based on individual issues like the border issue, NSG entry, Arunachal or even Masood Azhar, without necessarily hoping for inter-linkages of common logics across all sore points.

China offers a simpler and modular opportunity of negotiating issues that can be addressed given hand of the cards on the specific issues, without attaching usual notions and romance of civilisational-connect, statesmanship or even joint-destiny.

(The writer is former Lt Governor of Anda-man & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)

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