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Chinese President's vision for the times

In late November, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) mouthpiece “Liaowang” or Outlook Weekly, revealed the latest global vision of Hu Jintao, President of China and Secretary General of the CCP. Mr. Hu, who is also the Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC), is set to retire from the party post at the 18th Party Congress of the CCP in 2012, and from the presidentship in 2013. Like all previous leaders of the CCP – Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin, fourth generation leader Hu Jintao must also leave his signature on history.

Leading party theoretician Zhang Xiaotong introduced Hu Jintao’s five-theory foreign policy strategy as “Hu Jintao’s Viewpoints About the Times”. It knits together five separate theories to form an integrated whole, which elevates China to a new level of world power who lays down rules for other powers to create a peaceful world with development at its core. The five theories are (a) “Profound changes” in the world (b) “Constructing a harmonious world”, (c) “Joint development” (d) “Shared responsibilities”, and (e) “Enthusiastic participation” in global affairs.

Hu Jintao does not claim authorship of all the five theories. Nor does he stick to the Maoist outlook of Marxism, though he takes recourse to Mao in internal matters at times. He is not a liberal. But in foreign policy, he realises that ideology is incongruous but ancient strategy, including Confucianism carries respect.

This is, perhaps, almost the first introduction of Hu Jintao’s five-theories of global co-existence, and must have come out under a consensus of the top level of the CCP – the Politburo and its Standing Committee. More clarity is expected from the Chinese media discussion on Hu’s exposition, but the beginning appears to be cautious.

Hu Jintao’s first major theoretical promulgation in 2004, “the rise of China”, had created consternation in Asia and around the world and gave more grist for the mill of the “China threat” theory. It was readjusted to read “Peaceful rise of China”, but the stigma did not go away. Hu Jintao’s latest signature exposition, Zhang says it is likely to be adopted in the CCP constitution at the 2012 Congress.

This must be seen in the context of the various strategic expositions under Hu between 2004 and the October celebrations of the 60th anniversary of communist party rule this year. When Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh met US President Barack Obama in Washington in November after Obama’s China visit, he described recent Chinese behaviour very succinctly as “very assertive”, and left it at that. He did not need to say more.

In Confucian philosophy, “harmony” begins with the family. The family concept extended to the kingdom, and then to the neighbouring kingdoms. It demands that disputes be resolved without acrimony or war. But in ‘confucious’ family concept, there is a head of the family who settles disputes, and he is the “benevolent dictator”. From all accounts, China proposes itself as that benevolent dictator. This aspect remains unstated in the “harmonious world” theory, first propounded by Hu Jintao’s predecessor President Jiang Zemin.

China’s approach towards India has hardly been harmonious. Even after discounting the past, India’s efforts at strategic development has been countered by China in recent years. An outstanding example is Beijing’s efforts to block the India-US peaceful nuclear deal, and absolving Pakistani based and supported anti-India terrorists like Lashkar and Jaish-e-Mohammad leaders from United Nations listing. The list of Chinese misdemeanours against India is long.

In Asian perspective “harmonious world” may also be viewed together with “joint development”. Both the theories or policy projections are apparently eloquently benign like let us walk and work together for the benefit of all/partners or participants. There is no indication that Beijing is willing to walk the talk.

A brief spectrum of China’s actual practice of harmony and joint development only reveals “denial and deception” with subterfuge and great patriarchism. China acolytes in the Indian government in 2003 went for a joint bidding with China over a Kazakstan oil exploration contract. While India won the bid, the Chinese worked with the tender controller, a Hong Kong based western entity to reopen the bid window for a fraction of time without notifying the Indian delegation, and outbid India.

A simmering problem is that of the South China Sea islands over which China claims sovereignty, but on which other countries of the region like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have competing claims. Although China suggests joint development of gas and mineral rich areas, it has unilaterally built military installations on some of the islands. It has also warned of blacklisting foreign oil and gas companies who explore in areas held by other claimants. The Chinese claims at certain points on the map encroach on the continental shelves of others. The Chinese are yet to put on the table a map with consistent claim lines.

Very important for China, and of much greater concern for the countries of the region and outside, is the strategic impact of the Chinese position. The Chinese effort is to control the international sea lanes and straits with its fast expanding navy, and project power into the Indian Ocean. China’s island claims also extend to East China Sea with Japan.

Plotting China’s claim on the map of Asia and the Asia Pacific region, and taking into account that territorial waters and Executive Economic Zones (EEZs) will extend from these islands, paints the picture of a giant country much larger than China’s borders that we see now.

The above is not an idle concept, but a working reality and does not conform to any of the five-theory foreign policy concept of Hu Jintao. Very disturbing, indeed.

In the case of “shared responsibilities” China, with a foreign exchange reserve of $2.3 trillion may be starting to loosen its purse strings. It has pledged billions of dollars for development in Africa and South East Asia. But critics point out that acts like the $100 billion China-Africa initiative is a means towards an end. The gains are political and economic in terms of acquiring natural resources. Problems are bound to come up, as is beginning to happen in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

China is very much involved in the global non-proliferation initiative but in a calculated manner. It has enacted several domestic laws in this connection. The question is how good they are. Reports indicate that some amount of high end nuclear proliferation to Pakistan is continuing.

On the other hand, it has moved to an extent on the Iran nuclear issue, but is unlikely to endorse sanctions. It has too much interest in Iran’s hydrocarbon reserves. On the North Korean nuclear talks, it has taken a step back to preserve its “lip-to-teeth” friendship with Pyongyang, but allowing the US to negotiate directly with North Korea.

We will have to test the Chinese position on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2010-11. China’s strategy in all these three issues overall is represented by its negative stand on the India-US nuclear deal, and it will take similar positions if Japan and South Korea took to the nuclear weapons path.

In enthusiastic participation in global affairs, China is stalling a real reform of the UN system, especially expansion of the permanent five-member UN Security Council. Beijing’s problem is how to keep two other Asian powers, Japan and India, out of a veto power status. This position negates all its pontification about the need to reform the UN. Status quo is to China’s advantage.

Nevertheless, Hu Jintao’s vision of the times cannot be taken lightly. The intention behind it is serious. One of the most important takers for this theory will be the USA. During his visit to China in October, President Obama invited a strong, prosperous and successful China to play a greater role in world affairs China is expected to be a responsible stakeholder in global affairs.

The critical word is “responsible”. The US needs China as it has too much at stake in China. Similarly, China also has very important stake in the USA which is the biggest importer of China’s products. China cannot afford to unload its more than $ 800 billion in US treasury bonds and other US security equity holdings. That would lead to further weakening of the US dollar and spinning both economies out of control.

It is evident, therefore, both the US and China are caught in a binary relationship of a peculiar kind. Both sides would have to make compromises. President Obama showed a greater inclination to compromise during his China visit, earning some hostile criticism from the American press. The question is if the Obama administration will concede real and strategic space in Asia.

Indian strategic perspective must take a larger view of China as it is not only bilateral but multilateral in the extended region. The inner circle of strategic attention should be the South Asian Association Regional Co-operation (SAARC) countries, in which a Pakistan-China axis is built in. This should be the core area, to be expanded to East West and Central Asia, historical friends of India. China holds influence in the second circle, but mostly though quiet coercion.

Avoiding a confrontation with China is desirable. But ceding ground is absolutely not.

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

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