China is world’s darling for the time being and for next few decades. Its pre planned growth is paying well. From economy to external affairs, from poverty eradication to people control, from cultural expression to communication network, the dragon nation is speeding up well. One cannot expect it to be the unchallenged superpower forever from now. But as of now China is succeeding in its plans.
Vikram Sood writes in The Deccan Chronicle on 25 August 2010
For decades China pretended to be modest and Deng Xiaoping’s successors followed him as they couched their ambitions in soft idioms. The “sons of heaven”, as the Chinese traditionally consider themselves, also consider those on their periphery as rebellious barbarians who had to be tamed or conquered. So the discourse was: “Tao guang yang hui” — variously translated, but which essentially means “hide brightness, nourish obscurity”. The exhortation was to keep a low profile when in an adverse situation and wait for a suitable opportunity to reverse fortunes. The other advice was “yield on small issues with the long term in mind”. All this has begun to change as China’s influence began to rise and the United States was perceived to be in decline. The US policy predicaments in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran and Western economic crises in contrast to China’s steady growth is probably the reason for this change in attitude. There is an exuberance and global self-confidence accompanied by a global outreach that was not visible earlier.
It is useful to go back to January 20, 2009 — the day Barack Obama was sworn in as US President. This was also the day that the Chinese released their White Paper on National Defence (2008). Perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not. The White Paper covers issues like Taiwan, Tibet, the defence budget, diplomatic outreach and gives some details about how China would use its nuclear force. It is important to refer to some portions of the paper which underline the new philosophy. The preface mentions that historic changes were taking place between contemporary China and the rest of the world, and the Chinese had become an important part of the international system. China, it said, “could not develop in isolation from the rest of the world, nor can the world enjoy prosperity and stability without China.” The intention was to portray China as a participatory nation with huge responsibilities and its own indispensability in the new global order.
China’s international behaviour has been a mix of defiance — such as at the Copenhagen climate summit, when it sent junior functionaries to discussions with heads of state, or its dealings on the Iran nuclear issue or the nuclear deal with Pakistan. China has been assertive with India on Arunachal Pradesh by blocking the ADB loan, has been provocative by issuing “plain paper” visas to Indians born in Jammu and Kashmir and routinely shrill about the Dalai Lama, while increased border violations have been noticed in Arunachal Pradesh — which Chinese commentators call “Southern Tibet”. Chinese activities in our neighbourhood, its plans to dam the Brahmaputra and extend the Tibet rail link into Nepal are other aspects of continuing Chinese assertiveness. The Chinese PLA had recently transported combat readiness material to PLA and Air Force units in Tibet by rail for the first time. This would further enhance the military transportation capacity, apart from the construction of more airports in Tibet.
While some American experts like Prof. David Shambaugh describe this Chinese attitude as a sign of defensive nationalism — assertive in form but reactive in essence, the fact is that since about the middle of 2009 the Chinese have talking more and more about their “core interests”. As D.S. Rajan, director of the Centre for China Studies, Chennai, points out, Chinese leader Dai Bingguo said in July 2009 that “the PRC’s first core interest is maintaining its fundamental system and state security, the second is state sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the third is the continued stable development of the economy and society”. Translated into specifics, it means protection of its interests in Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, the South China Sea and its strategic resources and sea trade routes.
China’s assertiveness about the South China Sea, its umbrage at US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s July 2010 remarks in Hanoi on creating an international mechanism to resolve this issue, has been particularly visible in the past few weeks. Dai Bingguo conveyed to Ms Clinton in May 2010 that China regarded its claims to the South China Sea as a core national interest. The Chinese have closely watched the growing US-Vietnamese ties, which includes an American offer of a civil nuclear deal to Vietnam on lines similar to the India deal. A triangular acrimony between the US, China and Vietnam has been growing for some time.
The Chinese carried out a live ammunition PLA Navy exercise in the South China Sea on July 26, followed by another exercise on August 3 along the Yellow Sea coast — the other area of contention. The Chinese conducted exercises there in April and June this year, and were now asserting that China opposed any foreign ships entering the sea or adjacent waters; they even vehemently opposed joint US-South Korean exercises there.
The message in these demarches to the US was in keeping with protecting China’s core interests in the adjacent seas and telling the US that the western Pacific was China’s sphere of interest and influence. It suggested a division of zones of influence between the Eastern and Western Pacific. The US and China have their own geostrategic rivalries to settle, and the Chinese may have assessed that their moment has come.
Yet China remains concerned with its intricate trade and financial links with the US, and also with the security of its trade and supply routes that transit the Malacca Straits. It has endeavoured to develop extensive land routes through Central Asia, but these are inadequate. It is a matter of time before China will make its presence more visible in the Indian Ocean. It has port facilities in Hambantota and Gwadar, and a presence in the Arabian Sea as it battles Somali pirates. China has expanded its contacts with Iran, more in competition with Russia than the US, it seeks mineral wealth in Afghanistan, its relations with Pakistan need no elucidation and it has developed strong ties with Burma. Thus while we may agonise over challenges across our land frontiers, we would be ignoring the new challenge in the Indian Ocean unless we plan countermeasures now.