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China’s Rethink: One Step Backward?

China recently conceded, at least to the outside world, that in the last two years it had overstepped the boundaries of international behavior and there was an urgent need to introspect. But the international community must also constantly review this Chinese position if this posture follows the old Chinese strategic adage of “two steps forward, one step backward”, a strategic wisdom Mao Zedong was so fond of. In the context of real politics, this ancient saying simply means go ahead and gain as much as possible against your perceived enemies (or competitor in the modern sense) but when confronted with serious repercussions, withdraw to a certain extent to ensure that a counter attack is avoided. Of the two steps taken forward, withdrawal of one step means that part of what has been gained through aggression (or aggressive behavior) is consolidated, and preparations be made for another “two steps forward” for a suitable time.

In a recent (first week of December, 2010) foreign policy article Chinese State Councillor (Cabinet Minister) for foreign affairs Dai Bingguo tried to assuage the international community, especially the USA, that China did not mean to replace the USA as the top power of the world, but instead was focused on its national development which was ranked 104 in the world in per capita terms notwithstanding the fact that its GDP stood second to the USA’s having surpassed Japan’s this year.

Although he tries to maintain a low profile, he is no regular Chinese foreign policy senior official, and will play a much greater role in the coming years. Even as a Vice Minister in the foreign ministry he outranked many of his superiors in this government in crucial communist party hierarchy. He was a full member of the Party’s Central Committee. He is now the main foreign policy interlocutor for China.

It is curious that the English translation of Dai Bingguo’s policy article published in the Chinese foreign ministry website was somewhat weird. The translation appears to have been done by a person whose ability to do the job is highly questionable. It was garbled, and sometimes wrong, for example, saying “Militarily, we engage in arms race”, when the meaning was just the opposite! What was the hurry?

In the typically effervescent Chinese policy statements some of the points made by Dai Bingguo are very important. Primarily, he tried to convey that there were no differences in the country’s hierarchy in foreign policy, saying “Comrade Hu Jintao is General Secretary of the Central Collective leadership”. This kind of statement about Hu Jintao has not been articulated for a long time, putting him first among equals. It was something like Deng Xiaoping’s position of primus inter pares negotiating with his heavy weight contemporaries. But Hu Jintao is not Deng Xiaoping. After Deng, the Chinese leadership officially was to work in consensus.

Next, Dai dismissed the perception that China wanted to “Overtake the USA as a myth”. Given the Chinese behavior in the region, especially on South China Sea, East China Sea and most importantly virtually condemning North Koreas sinking of a South Korean navy ship (March, 2010) and shelling of South Korean island of Yonepeyong in November this year, Dai’s statement was “one step backward”. This is an unprecedented come down by China, an apology to the United States. This is a very important development. China always protected its “face” under any condition, if necessary even through negotiations behind public attention. What is happening?

Apparently referring to Chinese demi-official commentaries from 2004 that the globe should be divided between China and the United States on a mutual understanding, Dai Bingguo conveyed China was not interested in a kind of “Monroe Doctrine” of dividing the globe between two powers. Enunciating on the controversy over China’s depiction of “core interests” which recently tried to include South China Sea and East China Sea, Dai clarified the core interests as follows, “(1) China’s state system, political system and political stability, that is, the leadership of the Communist Party, the socialist system, the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics; (2) China’s sovereignty and security, territorial integrity, national unity; (3) China’s economic and social sustainable development of basic security”. These interests, he emphasized, “cannot be violated and destroyed”. He reiterated Taiwan was China’s sovereign territory and force will be used as a last resort to unite Taiwan with China.

In this particular statement Dai Bingguo said a lot. He made it clear that China was alive to western efforts to demolish China’s political system, the one party rule that will be resisted with no compromise. Tibet and Xinjiang were firmly in China’s control as China’s sovereign territory and there was no going back to autonomy and negotiations that Deng Xiaoping once promised in 1982 – that anything other than full independence can be discussed. And, China was determined to develop and empower itself against all odds. He hoped the west will not try to contain China as that will be counterproductive.

Finally, Dai Bingguo’s statement that Deng Xiaoping’s direction on diplomacy “hide your brightness, bide your time” has not been discarded, tries to convey that even if there have been some aberrations in recent years, China’s basic policy to seek development in a peaceful atmosphere holds firm.

To have a better understanding of Deng Xiaoping’s advice one needs to revisit Dr. Michael Pillsbury’s very in depth book based on empirical research “China Debates the Future Security Environment”. Dr. Pillsbury discussed the subject in detail with eminent Chinese scholars and experts to reveal Deng’s advice and how it has been used by his successors.

Deng took the United States to be as dangerous as the Qin in the Warring States period, and after distilling ancient texts on strategy formed his famous 24-Character advise to deal with the US. The first four characters which are “tao guang yang hui” which, literally translated means “Hide brightness, nourish obscurity”. Its official interpretation by Beijing translates to “Bide our time and build up our capabilities”. Another part of this advice says “Yield on small issues with the long term in mind”. Another group of characters in Deng’s strategy “bu chu tou” means “don’t stick your head out”, or never be a leader. In his foreign policy treatise, Dai Bingguo also quotes Deng as follows “If China one day dominates the world, the world’s people should expose, oppose and overthrow it”. Dai clarified that the international community should monitor.

It may be recalled that in the context of Hong Kong’s reversion to China and “One country, two systems” policy, Deng had advised that this system should be followed for 50 years, even hundred years, and after that one does not know what will happen. In this context, Deng’s observation that “it does not matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice” is significant. He also introduced the ideology of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

Mao Zedong’s ideal from history was Emperor Qin Shi Wan Di, who buried scholars alive to become China’s most powerful emperor and hegemon. Deng Xiaoping was in favour of a strong China but desisted from disturbing the established world order while striving to become the number one power in the world. This, he assessed, was dangerous to China’s growth and power because others will sense a threat. Next, he discarded hard line Marxist-ideology as he saw the country could grow from partial capitalism to generate wealth and technology. The Marxist pie had shown it was shrinking and making China even weaker. Deng also saw China would take a long time to become a democracy – fifty years or one hundred years. In the meantime the Communist Party must rule, but Hong Kong should be a model to learn from.

Deng Xiaoping was a master strategist and astute visionary. He understood the world and international relations, having spent his formative years in France. His successors had very little understanding of how the international community works. Deng had a very long term vision and saw the difficult path ahead. Similar is the case of many Chinese scholars and experts whose views constitute inputs in foreign policy making in China. They also reflect internal thinking.

Unfortunately, Deng Xiaoping’s successors lack the experience of international environment. With China racing to a high level economic power, howsoever questionable that may be, and equally powerful military development compared to developing countries, the post-Deng generation felt that they were equipped to put their boot-prints in the neighbourhood and in Asia, to start with. A kind of Monroe Doctrine was seriously considered and, even, initiated. This could not last. Threats and intemperate language in official statements and commentaries, and muscle flexing by its military establishment, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) made the China threat theory more realistic, as Dai Bingguo admitted. China has lost heavily in trust with its neighbours.

China’s economic relations with its neighbours from Japan and South Korea to countries in South East Asia, which remain on a growing curve, does not tell the whole story. This is the method of working in the 21st century world. Economic inter dependence. But trust once lost is difficult to regain. China does not enjoy full trust with any of its neighbours except for Pakistan.

Dai Bingguo’s foreign policy treatise is being examined thread bare in all capitals of the world, especially in its neighbourhood and the USA.

In this year alone, China’s diplomacy showed the following serious mistakes. One was covering up for North Korea’s sinking of South Korea’s naval ship Cheonan in which 46 South Korean sailors lost their lives; refusing to hold North Korea responsible for shelling a South Korean island; over reacting to Japan on the Senkaku (Diaoyu) island face off and blocking rare earth mineral supply to Japan as a strategic threat; trying to claim the South China Sea as its “core interest”; Chinese foreign minister Jiachi berating the South Asian countries in Hanoi (July) that their economic development depended on China. These have damaged China’s image and intentions severely.

The worst scenario was China’s position on North Korea’s belligerence. This brinkmanship by Pyongyang threatens to plunge North East Asia into a dangerous conflict the reverberations of which cannot remain confined to that region alone.

What are really China’s compulsions with North Korea, a tiny dictatorial state almost blackmailing the huge and powerful China. Top Chinese intellectuals are now openly divided over Beijing’s North Korea policy. Zhu Feng, Deputy Director of the Centre for International and Strategic Studies, Peking University, called the North Korea policy as an “Obsolete ideology”, and that this policy had divided the political elite much more than any other foreign policy issue. Shi Yinhong, a well known foreign policy expert with Renmin University said that China’s “ambiguous policy” towards North Korea had annoyed the US and Japan, and the situation was leading towards a military confrontation.

Obsessed with great power status, China made another error threatening countries with unexplained “consequences” if they attended the Nobel Peace prize ceremony for dissident and jailed activist Liu Xiaobo. They forgot that the world was fast changing and not willing to indulge China’s threats and petulance.  China failed miserably in its efforts.

There appears to be new political churning in China especially on the issue of politics and ideology. Premier Wen Jiabao lit a match stick with his open support to greater democracy. Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize is being guardedly welcomed by Chinese intellectuals. Notwithstanding other components of the North Korean card, the longevity of the North Korean regime has become a major problem for the existence of the Chinese Communist Party. The North Koreans know that, and are using this to blackmail China. The Workers Party of Korea (WPK) as the North Korean Communist Party is known as, is the only real fraternal Communist Party for the CCP. On the shoulders of China, its demise can severely impact the rationale of the CCP as it stands today. If that were to happen, China could be shaken. The silent critics in China from peasants to workers would take to the streets. In comparison, the Tien an Men Square incident of 1989 will be a kindergarten play.

Dai Bingguo’s foreign policy exposition took all these issues into consideration. He made it clear that encirclement of China will be counterproductive, meaning such an encirclement would bring foreign interference to bring down China’s political system and the CCP. A People’s Daily article following Dai’s exposition stated this more clearly.

Dai Bingguo’s exposition does not inspire confidence about a peaceful China concentrating on its own development while co-operating for development for others. Far from it. It appears to say that China made a strategic mistake of overreaching prematurely. It has to resolve its problems. But eventually it will demonstrate its “capability”.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New

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