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Will Premier Wen Jiabao bring “Harmony”?

Chinese President and CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao and his think tank conceptualized the theory of “Harmonious Relationship”. Domestically, it was intended to bring about social stability. Externally, the objective was assure the world that China’s rise was peaceful and, thereby, taking the initiative and gaining superiority. Unfortunately, neither approach has worked. The reason may be in the difference between theory and practice. One, there is a lack of vision combined with rigidity. The other, a tearing hurry to become a real super power with right to change the established order to its advantage.

As India gears to host Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in the middle of this month (December 15-17), can we hope for a new Chinese approach which is friendly, cooperative, and leave the difficult boundary issue to the next generation to resolve? Or, can a formula be found between the two countries carrying their respective public opinion for an equitable solution to the border issue?  Realistically, China cannot hope to get Arunachal Pradesh which it never controlled.  Similarly, China’s occupation of India’s Aksai Chin is unlikely to change.

Following the signing of the Peace and Tranquility Treaty (P&T) on the borders in 1993, the Confidence Building Measures (CBM) treaty in 1996, and the modalities on resolving the border agreement in 2005, the India-China border has been generally peaceful. But matters have remained stuck there. One would daresay that matters on the boundary issue is likely to remain static till China is able to resolve its domestic and foreign relations challenges.

A brief review of China’s internal problems may afford a glimpse into how foreign policies are being influenced. Most important is the fact that in two years time, there will be a major change in the top leadership of the Communist Party. At least five Politburo Standing Committee members will step down including Hu Jintao  and Wen Jiabao at the 18th Party Congress in 2012.  Xi Jinping will take over from Hu as the General Secretary of the party, and then assume the presidency in 2013. Xi is also expected to replace Hu as the Chairman of the   powerful      Central Military Commission (CMC), though it is not certain if Hu will relinquish the CMC post in 2012 or hang on for some more time as predecessor Jiang Zemin did.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has emerged as a powerful interest section in Chinese politics. The Chairman is the only civilian in the CMC and, in the post Deng Xiaoping era the civilian head of the CMC had to pamper to the PLA’s demands to keep it on his side.  The PLA’s power, therefore, has significantly increased not only in its ability get substantial budget, but more importantly, its say in foreign policy especially territorial issues and in relations with neighbors.  For the first time in history it made separate aid donation for Pakistan’s flood relief efforts this year.

There are several factions in the party who are competing to put their protégies in the Politburo and its Standing Committee, and other important position. Hu Jintao leads the Communist Youth League (CYL) faction. The party’s decision to nominate Xi Jinping as the General Secretary was a defeat for Hu Jintao. His candidate Li Keqiang had to remain  satisfied with the post of premier to replace Wen Jiabao in 2013.

There is the new faction of Princelings, children and scions of former senior leaders. Xi Jinping is one of them. Another strong Princelings is Bo Yibo, who is almost certain to be elevated to Politburo Standing Committee. Wang Qishan is a third, and there are others. The Princelings, apparently are of the view that as the decedents of the founding fathers of the People’s Republic of China they are the rightful leaders of today.  This may be resented by those  who have risen by sheer hard work without the advantage of legacy, and create policy frictions.

Then there is the Shanghai faction led by former party General Secretary Jiang Zemin, who prioritize development of coastal areas to be followed by hinterland provinces. Of course, the party and the government launched the “Go west” campaign some years back to bring coastal area development to contribute to the hinterland, but there has been resistance. Foreign investors are now being told to invest in the backward areas.

The Chinese leaders have admitted that inequalities still remain sharp, threatening social backlash. The number of strikes on industrial dispute, wages and urban land take over have been officially recorded to be between 85 thousand to 90 thousand per year. The actual figure may be more.

The new labour law enacted in 2008 was expected to raise wages of workers. It has helped to an extent, but the main contributors are the foreign joint ventures. But rising wages are making Chinese goods more expensive impacting exports in the long run, and encouraging foreign investors to look for cheaper labour force countries.

The gigantic structures and neon lights in the coastal areas suitably  awe the foreign visitor. Yet, behind the sheen and glory are huge power shortages and difficult living conditions. Foreign exchange reserve of $2.4 trillion and still growing is highly impressive. But how does this help in creating an affluent population of 1.4 billion people? China’s economy was built on cheap labour and resultantly attracting foreign investment and boosting export.  That is coming under challenge.

There is a strong party-cadre-bureaucrat-banking sector – legislative  and building mafia, creating a huge bubble which may burst sooner or later. There is a huge triangular debt service in operation between the treasury–banks–and borrowers (State-owned industries and the capital construction sector) that is not talked about. The $586 billion injection of funds in 2009 to stabilize the economy went mainly to bail out the top five State-owned banks.  Corruption is endemic.

This, however, is not to paint a dooms-day scenario for China. Far from it China is now the second biggest economy in the world, though in per capita terms it slides down the scale. A huge country like China with a population of 1.4 billion who have started globalizing has a momentum to carry through adversities. At the same time, it is not the giant that can swallow all as perceived by some in India and neighbouring countries.

China is facing multifaced internal challenges including from minority issues, prodemocracy aspirations, and provinces and levels below striving for more independence from the centre.  A democracy can resolve such problems through the instrument of free elections.  For a one-party command governing system that system is not available. Internal issues get reflected externally.  China’s internal problems are very complex, and not small.

A recent foreign policy paper  in Liaowang (Outlook, Nov.8, 2010) recalled Deng’s advice. It said “Comrade Deng has repeatedly stressed during his last years, there were not many opportunities for China in the world. We must not forget history. The only option, therefore, was to resolutely persist in peaceful development, setting aside all obstructions arising from within or outside. There may be a number of unbalanced emotions but these should not cloud our vision. This was the only way our nation can grow up and stand towering like a giant among the international community”.

Deng Xiaoping had assessed the cause of the 1989 student demonstrations, and international reactions to the way China quelled the demonstrations. Beijing came under severe international sanctions, and its status reached rock bottom. In Deng’s calculations, China had a long way to go before it could achieve pre-eminent status among nations and withstand such reactions from outside.

Following Deng Xiaoping’s death in 1997, however, China’s strategic calculations started diverging rapidly from Deng’s line. This line was promoted mainly by the military strategic community, but with Hu Jintao’s support. Hu Jintao promoted “Rise of China” theory in 2004, which had to be diluted following international questioning. A new strategy was floated around the same time (West  Line – East Line theory) advocating that the region from West Asia to the Asia – Pacific region must be brought under China’s influence. Therefore, it was not surprising that a Chinese navy admiral proposed off the table to the US Pacific Command Chief a similar division of global influence between the two countries.

The most recent Chinese quest to get US approval for territorial hegemony took place at the bilateral strategic economic dialogue  between the two sides earlier this year. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the media in November in Australia that China’s top negotiator Dai Bingguo had told her China considered the South China Sea as its core interest,  but she rejected it outright. The Chinese media is covering up the US rejection saying that the ‘core interest’ was that of some academics only.

It is evident that the Chinese leadership remains of the opinion that without America’s acquiescence, covert or overt, their ambition to dominate in the periphery is unlikely to succeed.

But there are issues from which the Chinese leaders find difficult to withdraw easily to  create a tranquil neighborhood of trust and cooperation  because of domestic political reasons.   These include their claim on the Japanese held Senkaku (Diaoyu in China) island, reserving the right of military means to reunite Taiwan, sovereignty claims on the South China islands where military postures have been used, and, most probably, China’s claims on Indian territory.  These claims not only impact individual countries but groups and international interest.  Any major move away from these positions will have domestic political repercussions. But differences emerging within the Politburo and the Central Committee of the party on foreign policy, especially on almost blind support to North Korea’s brinkmanship, will hurt China if it hardens further.

The Liaowang commentary advised pushing forward “Sino-Indian relations towards a peaceful and prosperous strategic co-operative relationship”, one among several other similar positions with other countries and region. Some placating moves are being seen towards Vietnam, and further consolidation with Cambodia and Laos.

The Indian government must wait to see what message Premier Wen Jiabao brings with him. He is a messenger, having lost a lot of clout after his active promotion of democracy in China in recent months was hammered down by the party.   He will visit Pakistan as always on this tour to make it clear that China’s commitment to Pakistan in all sectors remains as strong as ever.

It would have been more appropriate if Vice President Xi Jinping, the putative successor to Hu Jintao, had  visited India instead of Wen Jiabao who is a lame duck premier. Xi Jinping visited Bangladesh earlier this year. That says something to China watchers.

The Indian government interlocators must have taken into cognizance Chinese foreign ministry’s  statement  in the  context of an Indian media report  that India

was positioning two Mountain Divisions of the Indian army in Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Mao Zhaoxu cautioned India to address Beijing’s “serious concerns” and not trigger a disturbance in the region “so as to facilitate the healthy development of China-India relations”. The Chinese media also questioned India’s intention when the Chinese premier was preparing to visit India. This suggests that either the Chinese authorities have not yet understood the Indian political system, or they were just  trying to create an issue. Strengthening the Indian borders in Arunachal Pradesh is nothing new and has been in the open since the decision was taken.

Senior Indian government interlocutors have forthrightly engaged their Chinese counterparts in recent months over China issuing stapled visas to Indians domiciled in Kashmir, the issue of Chinese soldiers in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK) which is Indian sovereign territory, and other Chinese actions infringing Indian security priorities.

Premier Wen Jiabao must be asked for a clear statement on Kashmir and POK, since there are indications that China may be taking a position that POK is Pakistan’s sovereign territory and Indian Kashmir is a disputed area. Another  is the indication that China and Pakistan are trying to make the Kashmir into a tripartite issue involving India, Pakistan and China because of China’s claim over a part of Kashmir.  These are not “small” issues as the Chinese fund tend to dismiss them.

Among the various issues that would come up during Premier Wen’s visit would be the neighboring countries. Among these, should be China’s position in Nepal. In the last two years Chinese officials have repeatedly said that China will safeguard Nepal’s security and territorial integrity. What does China mean by this and which country or countries  is China pointing to?

Late last month (November) visiting Chinese expert and adviser to the Chinese government, Wang Hongwei warned in Kathmandu that India was facilitating Tibetan activists to travel to Tibet through Nepal, and China could similarly act with India’s North East insurgents.

Professor Wang seems to have let the cat out of the bag inadvertently. Investigations in Bangladesh have clearly revealed that the ten truck loads of assault weapons, ammunitions and explosives, interdicted accidentally by a Bangladeshi police officer in Chittagong on April 01, 2004 night came from China, and were meant for the ULFA insurgents of Assam. ULFA’s military commander, Paresh Barua, is currently hiding in China with the help of a Chinese intelligence agency.

Naga insurgent leader Antony Shimray, who is currently in Indian police custody in New Delhi has confessed that he paid $800 thousand in advance to a Chinese company for arms for insurgency in North East India.   China has expended a lot of efforts from the late 1950s to break India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity especially the North East India.  This is no secret.  The Indian government and the strategic community believed in Deng Xiaoping’s declaration (1982) that the  Maoist policy of supporting independence movement was wrong, and will not be resorted to again.

While no worthwhile cooperation on terrorism  has come from China, New Delhi must continue with  it even if no results are forthcoming.  It   is  well  known   that China vetoed UN Security Council resolutions  to list Pakistani organizations, like the LET and Jamaat-ud-Dawa and their leaders to list them as terrorists.  Of course, they were keeping alive Pakistan sponsored terrorist strategy in an asymmetric warfare against India.  This also served China’s interest to sabotage India.

China, however, has a larger strategic interest Pakistani extreme Islamists.  The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Jamaat-e-Islam (JI) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in February 2009 in Beijing.  Two points in the MOU were signtficant – security and solidarity.  It meant (a) the JI will work with other Pakistani Islamic terrorist organizations to ensure that the Uighur Muslim nationalists in China do not get support from their Pakistani partners, (b) create Pakistani islamist structure to counter US influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  As India-US relations develop, India was to be included along with the US in  this frame work.

Will Premier Wen Jiabao bring answers to these issues where hard evidence stare in the face? China will go blue in the face denying all these. India cannot any longer brush these issues under the carpet. For too long, this has been done giving a perception that India is weak and could be walked over.

India and China, the two biggest countries of Asia, must develop trust. But ground realities suggest that at least a powerful section of China’s power elite are unwilling. The Liaowang commentary reflects the view of only one section.

Given China’s internal challenges, the succession struggles, and the militant public opinion that the Beijing leaders created over decades, no leadership group in China can afford to break the line. We will have to wait and see how long the Deng Xiaoping line will hold. The temptation to take a quantum jump as the leader of half the globe is too infectious and too tempting.

Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit is likely to be a non-event. It is a part of high level contacts between the two countries, and the drawing down of the curtains on 60th anniversary celebrations of establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. China may care to remember that India was one of the countries which recognized the People’s Republic of China at the earliest. Equally important, that India’s first Prime Minister Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, gave up the offer of the UN Security Council seat (Perm-5) in favour of China.

China must realize that it is fast losing trust with important countries – the US, Russia, Japan, South Korea and its South East Asian neighbors including Myanmar. This is the template it needs to work on.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New  Delhi.Email:grouchohart@yahoo.com)

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