The international community took note of China exercising veto over the UN Security Council resolution on Syria recently, which called on President Bashar Al-Assad to step down. The veto came in the face of incessant killing of protestors by the Syrian security forces, something which not only disturbed western sensibilities but also outraged the Arab world. This raised the question whether China feels it has arrived on its own, playing by its own rules and challenging existing global rules. Some Chinese commentaries on the subject suggest this indeed is the case.
These commentaries allege that China has decided to stand up to the west ganging up for regime change in smaller countries, which may gather enough momentum to sabotage China’s own socialist system.
The Chinese authorities are abundantly clear that the US is cobbling together a chain of countries which include Japan, India, Australia and now the Philippines to encircle and contain China. They perceive that the US has been encouraging India to provoke issues with China. This means that India, otherwise, would not be strong enough or bold enough to challenge China. Examples include India’s position on the Brahmaputra water issue, the border issue, forays into South East Asia which China considers its backyard, and other such developments, which they see as challenging China.
There is a political tussle within China on projecting its power and profile. Many actors feel that the time has come to gradually discard late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s 1991-92 strategy of maintaining a low profile while building strength. Concurrently, there is the old Chinese military strategy of striking at the weakest link in an adversarial chain while buying peace and stable relations with the strongest of them.
The above strategy is clearly reflected China in confronting weak neighbours on the one hand, and building relations with the US on the other. During his recent visit to the US, Vice President Xi Jinping was rather circumspect in countering sharp talks from President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Xi is slated to take over the Party leadership in October this year and as President in March next year. Obama is likely to win the US presidential elections at the end of the year. Xi would not like to start his leadership of China for ten years on the wrong footing with the US.
Another development needs consideration. While the Communist Party remains in full control of internal and foreign policies, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has made serious inroads into foreign policy. The PLA has at least four important foreign policy think tanks which the party and the government cannot ignore. Retrieval of territories claimed by China is a major responsibility of the PLA.
Currently, India sits in the centre of these Chinese strategic planning. Beijing has cautioned and warned India on several issues and views India’s “Look East” policy as trying to encroach on China’s sphere of influence and create, as they say, ‘trouble’ for China. It was therefore not surprising, that pressure on India would be intensified by Beijing.
An article titled “China, India should strengthen mutual trust”, carried by the Liberation Daily (Jeifang Ribao) of February 14, republished the same day in the People’s Daily Online (English) appears to corroborate what is discussed above. The importance of the article lies in the media that carried it. Liberation Daily is published under the Shanghai Party Committee. The People’s Daily is the Party’s mouthpiece which gives out the views of the Party. The English version is meant for quick dissemination abroad. Even otherwise, the Liberation daily is known to signal important developments that are to come.
The article made the following points. First, it was made very clear that although the 15 meetings at Special Representative (SR) level led to some positive results, “some contradictions and issues that still exist between China and India are still severely disturbing the normal development of the China-India relations”.
The first point listed was the China-India border issue, and India was made the main culprit. It blamed some Indians who still insist that border dispute should be based on the Mc Mahon Line left by British colonialists; the dispute only concerns the 90 thousand sq kms in the eastern sector, and not the 30 thousand sq kms in the western sector, claiming that this territory historically belonged to China.
Further, India’s multi-party system was blamed for their different views on the boundary issue, emphasising the superiority of the Chinese system. It was also conveyed that India cannot expect any territorial concessions from China, something China did while resolving border disputes with other countries. India was also charged with not accepting the China proposed principle of “mutual understanding and mutual accommodation” on resolving the border issue.
The commentary, which appears to be an official statement but keeps the window of deniability open, appears to be turning the parameters of the talks on its head. The western sector was always on the discussion table. China has no hard historical evidence to suggest the 30 thousand sq kms, known as Aksai Chin belonged to China. In the eastern sector (90 thousand sq kms) there is a Chinese claim no doubt, but simply claiming territory does not make it theirs.
China is actually trying to get out of the 2005 agreement on the parameters of negotiation where both sides accepted that no settled population will be exchanged. Beijing is trying to come out of this because their claim on Tawang gets nullified.
Since India agreed, in deference to Chinese sensibilities, not to mention “Mc Mahon Line’ by name, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) was agreed to be approximately along this line. Hence, why raise these issues unless there is some other plan boiling in Beijing? Both sides have a very good idea where the LAC lies.
The commentary also brings in trade issues. It said that the Nathu La land port (Sikkim-Tibet) had great opportunities but did not work out because “someone” in India thought it will threaten India’s security. That “someone” may be Indian security agencies. But the fact is that this port did not yield the promise it had held out. India was also accused of trade protectionism including on export of iron ore to China and anti-dumping measures.
Interestingly, the People’s Daily added the Tibet issue, insinuating India’s stated position on it differed from actions on the ground. It was alleged that New Delhi’s ambiguous position towards the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans encourage them to provoke Tibetan disturbances inside China. The rest of the article was banal including trying to deny Sino-Pak cooperation to curb India, an issue on which evidence abounds in tons! A litany of charges against India has been laid by China’s official media. It may be too early to say if it is a threat to be acted upon soon, but the line is certainly hard and the perception is that India may have to be taught a lesson again.
At the same time, a military punitive action is not expected. If China does so, it would prove to be the world’s largest liar, hiding evil intentions behind masks of “harmony” and “peace”. But these are non-combative ways. This can be expected. The measure of China’s assertiveness would clearly reflect their policy towards India.
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi.Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)