The Chinese official media has gone on an overdrive promoting the ‘new age diplomacy’ of the new leadership, which came into position in March this year at the 12th National People’s Congress (NPC). With the Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily (May 23, online) emphasizing this point, it is clear that the Chinese leadership is telling the international community that China’s foreign policy will be conducted by the Government and not the Communist Party. But, as is well known, the Government in China is subservient to the Party and its Central Committee, and major foreign policy decisions are taken by the Party and executed by the Government.
The new Chinese Government led by President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang are certainly demonstrating a new approach. They are very comfortable with foreign interlocutors. They tend to break into English, at times. It may be recalled, a former Premier Zhu Rongji was subjected to re-education after he spoke in English during an informal address in Malaysia. The wives of the two leaders, who have achieved significant success in their respective careers, are being brought out of the traditional veil of party discipline. This is a signal that the Chinese leadership is moving towards global trends of leadership, social and diplomatic practice. Xi Jinping’s wife is an acclaimed folk singer and holds the rank of a Major General in the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Cultural Wing. Li Keqiang’s wife is an English language expert and has translated several books from English to Chinese.
The authentic Chinese Government news agency, the Xinhua (May 14) noted that “From Xi’s visit (to Russia and three African countries in late March_ to Li’s scheduled visits (to India, Pakistan, Switzerland and Germany), both are embodiment of China’s overall diplomatic strategy, with which the new Chinese leadership aims to show the outside world its commitment to peaceful development”: It went on to say Li’s visits would illustrate the idea of shared destiny and China’s belief in common development. Two People’s Daily articles (May 23) made significant observations in this context. One comment said that -2- “Over just two months (March to May), the Chinese diplomatic scene turns to be refreshing”. It also quoted the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (November 2012) , when Xi Jinping took over as the General Secretary of the Party for the next ten years as having signalled this change. The other article defined “new” diplomacy as any one country seeing the development of another country as an “opportunity” instead of a “threat” – in other words, certain countries like the US and its allies and new friends should not counter China’s development through containment and confrontation, but approach it as a mutually advantageous opportunity.
China’s diplomatic ‘revolution’, or rather ‘renaissance’, as the new leadership may like to call it, flagged by the two maiden visits of Xi and Li in their new positions were well planned to a certain end. Xi went to Russia on the first stop of his trip, followed by Tanzania, South Africa and the Republic of Congo. Li chose India as his first stop, and then went on to their “all weather” friend Pakistan and then to carefully chosen developed European countries, Switzerland and Germany.
To begin with, trust between Russia and China is not very high. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the super powers collapsed, much to the happiness of the Chinese. Russia was exploited by China both economically and technologically, especially military technology. In the 1990s, there were more than four thousand Russian high level military scientists and engineers working in China’s military industrial complex because they had no jobs in their country.
China, with the second largest economy in the world, is important to Moscow. At the same time, Russia’s conflict with the West, especially the USA, is of advantage to China. Primarily, there is an effort to use Moscow to counter the US pivot in Asia. Russia’s growing relations with Vietnam’s industry in the area of military transfers, need to be persuasively tempered. Improvement of Russia-Japan relations goes against Chinese strategic interests. Russia’s oil and gas resources can boost China’s energy life line. Russian President Vladimir Putin has kept relations with China not only active but growing in some sense. Differences are -3- not brought to the surface. But, the Chinese media highlight China-Russia relations much more than the Russian media does. Almost two decades now, Russia’s gas supply to China is yet to come to a binding agreement because of price.
Nevertheless, Russia is a big power. Its military technology is ahead of that of China’s by at least three decades. Copying Russian military equipment supplied to China, like the SU-27 aircraft, has not gone down well in Russia, and Russian technology transfers have been squeezed. Yet, the two countries have important common interest like keeping the US at bay. Unlike his predecessors, President Gorbachev and Yeltsin, Putin is sharply nationalistic and has an independent strategy and vision.
Yet, in this complex geo-political situation when China’s rapid rise and imposition of its views in some cases has shaken old global order, China and Russia have found selective areas of strategic cooperation. Xi Jinping has secured this despite other differences.
As China’s race towards great power status accelerated, development has to keep pace. To maintain its growth, especially industrial growth, China is in dire need of oil, natural gas and raw material. At the same time, it needs new markets abroad for its manufactured goods, and also create jobs for Chinese abroad. The African continent presents China with a fertile land for fulfilling China’s needs.
For the Chinese surge in Africa, the Western colonialists made the task easier. China is seen as a developing country, as a supporter or leader of the under-developed and developing world, and a counter to colonialist exploitation.
With a huge media propaganda, China set up a $ 100 billion Africa fund. It has become somewhat opaque now on how this fund is being utilized. But the manner in which Chinese entrepreneurs have been exploiting the Africans through bribes at the higher levels of politicians and bureaucrats, while riding roughshod over the workers, had become rampant. Recently, there have been -4- backlashes, and the Chinese government has taken note. Efforts are on to rectify the situation and reports in the Chinese media reflect this concern. Chinese companies working in Africa are being exhorted to spend on social welfare projects.
Xi Jinping’s Africa tour carried China’s new diplomacy. A series of Chinese visits is expected to different African countries, especially to oil and gas producing countries and those with sea-ports in the eastern seaboard. But China’s capture of African countries are about to face a strong challenge from the traditional Western stakeholders in Africa.
Nearer home to China, India has suddenly emerged as a focus of attention. Since late Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in 1988, India-China relations have been improving, though with hiccups. The most problematic issue between the two has been the unresolved border. High level exchanges between the two countries starting 1993 with Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s China visit resulted in a series of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) agreements which stabilized the border on the ground. Progress stalled, however, at this point.
The Chinese leadership led by President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, adopted a new strategy towards India. At the BRICS Summit in Durban in late April, President Xi suggested to Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh that China was keen on an Indian visit by Premier Li. Why this request was made by President Xi is an important question, because it was the turn of the Indian Prime Minister to visit China according to the bilateral high level exchange agreement.
The other question that remains unanswered by either side is why a Chinese military platoon decided to intrude into the Indian perceived area of the undemarcated border in the Western Sector on April 15, when the visit of Premier Li was being worked out for the third week of May. The PLA troops remained in their position for three weeks as Indian troops moved to counter them. No bullet was fired. The Chinese withdrew. Interestingly, the Chinese troops had no back- -5- up, suggesting they were not there for a military confrontation. Then, why did they intrude and provoke the Indians? Was it a simple move to establish claim on territory for the future? Was there a disagreement from the PLA with their political bosses on improving relations with India? Or, was this a well-considered position adopted by the top leadership to tell India (a) they had decided to accelerate the boundary negotiations, and (b) push through their proposed Border Management Agreement which reportedly aims to freeze India’s military infrastructure construction along the borders while China has completed theirs? Or, was there a signal that the border issue will have to be resolved under China’s conditions?
President Li Keqiang’s India visit was primarily intended to introduce India to the new style of Chinese diplomacy. It gave a recognition of India as an important country of Asia, hoping a generally perceived awestruck India to walk with China on its core issues – territorial dispute with Japan, claim on the South China Sea islands/territories, and China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea. India did not walk on the Chinese lines as Dr. Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan soon after showed. There was little or nothing India got from Li Keqiang‘s visit, and shied away on raising its own core interests which China has been stone walling – membership of an expanded UNSC permanent members, India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), or Chinese activities in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK).
In Pakistan after the India visit, Li Keqiang made it clear India’s concerns over Pakistan did not impress China. In fact, China’s foot prints in Pakistan were further expanded.
While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Japan, China signed a wide ranging strategic partnership agreements with Sri Lanka. Beijing’s involvement in Nepal’s internal politics also increased sharply. Basically, China’s strategic attitude towards India remains static. It is likely to get worse if the US plays on the China line. -6- The key to Asian stability would largely depend on how US-China relations proceed during the rest of the term of Barack Obama’s Presidency. There seems to be an important difference between Obama’s first and second terms. During his first term the US Secretary of State was Hillary Clinton. While saying China was America’s banker and it was difficult to fight with one’s banker, Clinton kept China in a certain strategic perspective. She emphatically rejected China’s efforts to convince the US on its sovereignty over the South China Sea among other things.
China enthusiastically welcomed John Kerry’s appointment as the new US Secretary of State replacing Hillary Clinton. Kerry is seen by Beijing as an advocate of American military disengagement, and more focused on Europe and the Middle East. In fact, Kerry is yet to make a major statement on US ‘Pivot’ (or reengagement) in Asia, a move that challenges China’s overlordship over the Asia-Pacific region.
It would be pertinent to review a few of China’s geopolitical positions in this context. Since around 2003 Chinese strategic analysts have been contemplating China’s influence, suzerainty and sovereignty from West Asia to Asia-Pacific region. This is known as the “two-line” perspective, that is, China’s over lordship from West Asia to the Asia Pacific region’s second island chain while USA would command the rest of the globe. A similar view was suggested unofficially by some senior Chinese PLA officers to US Pacific Command Chief Admiral John Keating. Keating revealed this during his visit to India in 2008.
China’s emphatic position of sovereignty over South China Sea islands partially claimed by other countries, sovereignty claims over South China Sea, and partial adherence to the UN Commission on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) when it suits China, are major challenges to this security and stability of the region, and to countries who historically used these maritime sea lanes.
The Xi Jinping – Barack Obama “shirt sleeve” summit (June 07-08) in California was more of a “know your enemy” meeting. No major outcome was expected, but some important issues were certainly flagged by both sides. -7- Xi Jinping’s US visit was preceded by one to Russia where Xi spoke of “major power” relationship. His US visit was conducted from the platform of “Great Power” relationship. The compound is very interesting. China has become a great power, but will prosecute its relations with major powers, rising powers and developing countries based on quality and mutual respect. It is trying to build a huge constituency as a backing while interfacing the US.
The two important points that emerged from the Xi-Obama summit was the Chinese position that the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (on which China and Japan have fallen out), was China’s “core” interest. Obama, on the other hand, warned Xi that the US would back Japan in case of a conflict over the Senkaku. Simultaneously, the US has pressed Japan not to escalate the conflict with China and not to provoke China and South Korea on historical issues. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to be listening to Obama, and has sent a special envoy to China on a low profile visit.
It is also clear, however, that Japan remains America’s original ‘Pivot”, and will not be let down. The US-Philippines military agreement has been strengthened, Singapore has been included in this configuration, and relations with other countries of the region including with Vietnam, are receiving more attention in Washington.
A military conflict in this region is in nobody’s interest. In such an eventuality, hidden or dormant strategic interests may have to come out in the open perforce, creating a volatile situation. China would certainly have realized it. The last war that the PLA fought was with Vietnam in 1979, which did nothing to the morale of the PLA. Today, China is a much stronger military power, but what kind of weapons can it use in a local conflict? In basic conventional warfare terms, the PLA is ill prepared. Beijing is already wooing Vietnam.
-8- From India’s point of view, the new Sino-US relations and its impact on South Asia and Indian Ocean is still unclear because nothing has been spoken yet within these parameters.
But the Indian government and the country’s strategic community cannot forget two things. In the aftermath of the Indian nuclear tests in May 1998, President Bill Clinton on his visit to China later that year offered China the ombudsmanship of South Asia. Initially, this was disclosed only to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency. Obama, during his visit to China in his first term in office offered the G-2 (Great Power-2) relationship to China, a well as overall managership of South Asia. On both occasions, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao as respective Presidents of China shied away from such responsibilities.
Under Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, China’s diplomacy is far more ambitious and assertive. Since 1998 and India-US nuclear deal, China has openly aired its concern over India-US military co-operation especially army/naval exercises, transfer over proposed US high technology to India, and support to the Indian navy to strengthen its capability in the Indian Ocean.
China apprehends that Indian naval security in the Andamans and Great Nicobar can seal the mouth of the Malacca strait. Indian naval exercises with countries of South East Asia are seen by China as suspicious. These are issues raised by China with the US at different levels. The US administration at the very top under Obama had described India as a lynchpin of USA’s Asia policy. This was under Obama-Hillary Clinton leadership. Will this continue under the Obama-Kerry leadership? This is the million dollar question hanging in the air.
-9- India also has to properly define its larger foreign policy. From Indian media reports it appears that the establishment at the top is still in the mode of not annoying China! A ridiculous thinking not only today but also in the past. The issue is not annoying China but establishing India’s self interest. Otherwise, India will be described as a “born loser”, and succumb to China’s new age diplomacy.
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)