Watch the Dragon’s Move

Despite a new COVID-19 variant and a restrictive attitude from USA and western countries, plummeting global trade and increasing inflation in a failing economy, why is China determined to be hostile in its geo-political relations?

By Sankar Ray
  • China is also pushing ahead with bolstering its infrastructure in border areas and has passed a new border law
  • The Chinese government on Dec 30 issued new “standardised” names for 15 places in Arunachal Pradesh, to be used on Chinese map
  • Today, President Xi is facing mounting scrutiny for the dreadful Zero-COVID policy, and growing authoritarianism
  • The present regime rid 500 million Chinese living in ‘chill penury’ which was unthinkable during the Mao years

THE recent altercation between the Indian Army and the PLA of China at Yangtse in Arunachal Pradesh and in 2020 the sanguinary clash at the Galwan Valley have highlighted the lingering boundary dispute as well as the complex Line of Actual Control (LAC). Today, however, with the Chinese firmly in occupation of Aksai Chin and India firm in guarding its territorial integrity in Arunachal Pradesh, the immediate issue has moved on to transgressions along the LAC. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has said, “India will not agree to any attempt to change the Line of Actual Control (LAC) unilaterally by China as he underlined that New Delhi’s relations with Beijing are “not normal” and there would be no compromise on core issues. Jaishankar said India has challenges on its borders, which intensified during the COVID period.

Indian and Chinese troops clashed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh on December 9 and the face-off resulted in “minor injuries to a few personnel from both sides”, according to the Indian Army. It is the first major clash between the Indian and Chinese armies since the fierce face-off in the Galwan Valley in June 2020 that marked the most serious military conflict between the two sides in decades. The ties between the two countries froze since then with India making it clear that peace and tranquillity at the border is the sine qua non for the overall development of bilateral ties.

China is also pushing ahead with bolstering its infrastructure in border areas and has passed a new border law that came into effect on January 1. The law calls on government agencies in China to take steps to “safeguard sovereignty”. Beijing has also accelerated plans to build civilian “frontier” villages, including in disputed areas, while the Chinese government on December 30 issued new “standardised” names for 15 places in Arunachal Pradesh, to be used on Chinese maps, ahead of the law coming into effect.

NEW SINOLOGICAL TRENDS

Within five years after coming to power and rechristening the country as the People’s Republic of China, the Red Flag-bearing brass of the ruling Communist Party of China with Comrade Mao Zedong introduced in 1954 a map in Chinese textbooks ‘neatly illustrated the geographic scope of China’s lost tributary system’.

In the late 1950s, Mao Zedong adopted an aggressive stance towards India as a means of consolidating his leadership in the face of internal challenges and avoiding censure of disastrous political and economic policies

This particular map—showing China’s territorial losses at the hands of Western and Japanese imperialists during the century between the Opium war in 1839 and China’s ‘Liberation’ in 1949 and selected for classroom use by PRC educational authorities—was intended to create a sense of bitterness, wounded pride, and thereby popular support for the PRC’s efforts to wipe out the ‘humiliation’ of the past. Four years before that the new rulers sent the Peoples’ Liberation Army to annex Tibet which for centuries together had been a sovereign and autonomous state.

Things have changed between the 27 years of personal hegemony of Mao over the doings-on in the Middle Kingdom, ended 1976, and 44 years in post-Mao China. To put things in an etymological style, China–I deliberately refrain from using the acronym ‘PRC’- has embarked on ‘Invisible Imperialism’ whose essence is economic imperialism. We were accustomed to defining neo-colonialism as ‘Invisible Imperialism’ in the post-World War II years until the emergence of a unipolar global order after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the end of 1991.

Financially, the strategic digits of La Chinoise are many. To illustrate the point, consider the long-term lease-in of the Gwadar Port of Pakistan, one of China’s friendliest countries.

Within six months of unveiling the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a bilateral initiative to build transportation and other infrastructure along the length of Pakistan, connecting the country’s Arabian Sea coast with the Himalayan border, the Chinese Overseas Ports Holding Company Ltd, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, officially took control of the strategically important port at Gwadar in Balochistan. The Chinese firm signed a 40-year lease for over 2,000 acres of land in Gwadar.

Inside Pakistan, many independent analysts did smell a rat, fearing that it might turn out to be a Chinese naval base or a colonial entity in due course. Financial Times of London carried a report ‘Pakistan rethinks its role in Xi’s Belt and Road plan’ in September 2018 after Imran Khan Niazi had taken over as the Prime Minister. The new government might renegotiate with China on the multibillion-dollar megaproject, a part of Beijing’s global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it wrote.

The FT article quoted Abdul Razak Dawood, a cabinet-level adviser to Khan, “The previous government did a bad job negotiating with China on CPEC. Chinese companies received tax breaks, many breaks and have an undue advantage in Pakistan.” But the bang ended in a hamper as Dawood backtracked. Or take the 99-year Hambantota Port lease agreement of Sri Lanka with China. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had agreed during his visit in April in 2017 to swap equity in Chinese infrastructure projects launched by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his home district. Colombo had inked a $1.1 billion deal in July 1917 to sell a 70 per cent stake in the Hambantota port to China. Sri Lanka received $300 million as the initial payment under the 99-year lease agreement. Central trade unions there termed it as ‘a sell-out’. There were five loans (excluding loans obtained for a bunkering facility project) obtained from 2007 to 2014 to construct the port. Some of the loans were borrowed at interest rates as high as 6 per cent.

STRATEGIC AFFAIRS

Brigadier (retd.) Gurmeet Kanwal is former director Center for Land Warfare Studies, India and an adjunct fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at the US think tank, Center for Strategic and International Studies, viewed in the two port agreements, signed by China as its grand strategy. “Gwadar is an important foothold that is part of its String of Pearls strategy for the Indo-Pacific. Other ‘pearls’ in South Asia include Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu port and Hambantota in Sri Lanka. Maldives has also negotiated an agreement with China for the long-term lease of a port. Chinese maritime strategy draws heavily from Mahan’s theory of sea dominance ( Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660–1783, published in 1890). Mahan’s hypothesis is, whoever controls the Indian Ocean will dominate the whole of Asia”.

He points out at the expansion spree of the PLA Navy that aims at hegemony in the Indo-Pacific. If Gwadar port is converted into a naval base in the future, the PLA Navy will be assured of a permanent presence in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. India, left with no option other than a two-front war will have to contend with a formidable maritime force. India’s energy supplies from the Gulf and maritime trade will eventually become highly vulnerable.

The former Indian army officer’s concern is genuine. China has dislodged India from Iran’s strategic Chabahar rail project, connecting the Chabahar port with Afghanistan as the former is all set to sign a $400-billion long term financial assistance deal with Iran which is reeling under a severe liquidity crisis. Tehran is in dire need of funds for its high security projects, including telecommunications, rail and road to annul the ill-effect of the US-led trade sanction. China, it has to be admitted, is a gutsy take on the USA. China will reap an advantage to enhance its diplomatic presence in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Within five years after coming to power and rechristening the country as the People’s Republic of China, the Red Flag-bearing brass of the ruling Communist Party of China with Comrade Mao Zedong introduced in 1954 a map in Chinese textbooks ‘neatly illustrated the geographic scope of China’s lost tributary system’

Beijing is very unlikely to take any risk that will affect the steady Chinese financial infiltration into the Indian economy, more so when the Modi government is inwardly keen to promote bilateral economic dealings with China – an inclination that had its roots during the 14-year tenure of Narendra Modi as the Chief Minister of Gujarat.

CAST A SHADOW

“China has more neighbours, and thus boundary treaties with more countries, than any other state, a situation that is rich with opportunities for conflict as well as mutually beneficial exchange.” Geography has positioned China’s neighbours at the ‘front line’ of Beijing’s rising power” [Beijing’s Power and China’s Borders: Twenty Neighbours in Asia (ed Bruce A. Elleman, Stephen Kotkin, and Clive Schofield)] – a collection of papers, published in 2013.

It scanned the rise of ‘Middle Kingdom’ through a prism of its interactions with its immediate. In contrast to China’s 14 sovereign neighbours, India has eleven. But China’s economy is substantially larger than that of Russia, India, or Brazil, and Beijing’s impact on its neighbours, rather on the world, is significantly greater.

If Gwadar port is converted into a naval base in the future, the PLA Navy will be assured of a permanent presence in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. India, left with no option other than a two-front war will have to contend with a formidable maritime force. India’s energy supplies from the Gulf and maritime trade will eventually become highly vulnerable

However, there is gradual erosion in China’s ‘ideologically based foreign policy, coupled with its economic reforms.’ Its engagement with its neighbours ‘in diplomatic, social, cultural and, critically, economic terms has strengthened significantly over recent decades. Meanwhile, its neighbours have frequently sought to take advantage of its economic rise for their own ends. These increasingly important ties have led to ever more complex and significant cross-border interactions. While these ties necessarily represent a two-way street, the huge asymmetries of scale involved giving China leverage over its many small neighbours. China’s economic growth coupled with rising military spending have amplified the underlying asymmetry and arguably made it increasingly difficult for China’s neighbours not to accommodate its wishes’.

Ashley J Tellis, Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a perceptive discourse in 2019, ‘Pursuing Global Reach: China’s Not So Long March toward Preeminence’, looked at four decades after Deng Xiaoping had launched his epochal reforms in 1978 at the third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party – a phenomenal feat that Mao could dream about without deviation from, the nationalist frame. “China has transformed itself from a predominantly agricultural economy into a manufacturing powerhouse, whose southern provinces were once described by The Economist as ‘the contemporary equivalent of 19th century Manchester—a workshop of the world’.

The present regime rid 500 million Chinese living in ‘chill penury’ which was unthinkable during the Mao years. Today, China is a major global financier, especially for infrastructure. The world’s biggest saver and the repository of the largest foreign currency reserves’, Tellis wrote. Beijing keeps exporting more capital (albeit mainly to overseas Chinese firms) than it imports. The China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China provide funds to developing countries more than the World Bank does.

Gone is the so-called revolutionary past. But China’s internal vulnerabilities have always cast a shadow on bilateral relations with India. Whether under Mao Zedong or Xi Jinping, Tibet has remained a source of insecurity for China. In the late 1950s, Mao Zedong adopted an aggressive stance towards India as a means of consolidating his leadership in the face of internal challenges and avoiding censure of disastrous political and economic policies.

Today, President Xi is facing mounting scrutiny for the dreadful Zero-COVID policy, and growing authoritarianism. The tendency to create external diversions is a common thread. Due to its falling economic growth rate in the wake of Covid-induced disruptions and the emergence of a hardline leadership under Xi Jinping is a sign that Beijing feels that it has to fall back on its old-fashioned tactics of using force enabled by the one-party rule of the communists to set things in order. As far as our neighbourhood is concerned, we may be looking at a ‘post-Indian South Asia’ in the not-so-distant future, tucked away in the Chinese sphere of influence, though not entirely inimical to Indian interests.
To conclude, let me put it once again, China has ceased to be a ‘peoples’ republic’ in sync with its grooming into an imperialist state of a new strain. China today is one of the most unequal societies. The so-called communist elite in Beijing is wholly oppressive, both internally and externally.

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India is compelled to learn that China is unlikely to be a reliable neighbour

Sankar Ray

Sankar Ray is a senior journalist who has worked in various news and current affairs magazine, has spawned scores of good journalists and has in-depth knowledge of global issues, especially Left politics in India and abroad.

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