By MR Josse
KATHMANDU: When there has been an abrupt, externally-driven change of government here due to alarms set off by China’s perceived lengthening shadow south of the Himalayas, let us chew some intellectual cud on China’s fast expanding, global sway.
Let me initiate this exposition by referring to the proposed rail-link between China/Tibet and Nepal, as embedded in agreements reached during former Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s March visit to China.
Though the consequential proposal is now in serious doubt, a salient feature was that it would constitute an integral component of the Belt and Road initiative projected by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Incidentally, China’s exponentially growing politico-diplomatic heft was most recently displayed at the ASEAN foreign ministers’ summit in Vientiane where – to quote AFP – “Southeast Asian nations…ducked direct criticism of Beijing over its claims to the South China Sea, in a diluted statement produced after days of disagreement that gives the superpower a diplomatic victory.”
Specifically, ASEAN avoided mention of a ruling by a UN-backed tribunal in early July that rejected China’s territorial claims. “Instead, Asean gathered in the Laotian capital Vientiane for the first time since the ruling, called for ‘self-restraint’ from all parties in the strategic waterway in a soft statement that edged away from a showdown with regional powerhouse, China.”
While the outcome of the ASEAN foreign ministers’ conclave in Laos deeply disappointed many Asia-Pacific countries, it also underlined that the Association was slowly but slowly sliding into irrelevance. Indeed, it was not only unable to forge a united stance against China on the South China Sea dispute but even failed to provide moral support to member states involved in that row.
Recent official US statements having a bearing on the South China Sea spat also merit attention. Notably, soon after the UN-backed tribunal’s ruling against China, US Vice-President Joe Biden, speaking in Sydney, declared that China must abide by the same rules as everyone else, with respect to the waters of the South China Sea.
Yet, US Secretary of State John Kerry – who, along his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, was present as a ‘dialogue partner’ at the Vientiane conference – declared days later in Manila in a milder tone that Washington wanted to avoid “confrontation” in the South China Sea, suggesting that Beijing and Manila engage in “confidence-building measures”.
Days earlier in Beijing, visiting US national security advisor Susan Rice, in a meeting with Fan Changlong, a vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, also spoke of the virtues of confidence-building measures – this time between China and the United States.
Though it is tempting to speculate whether the US’s less-than-hard stance vis-à-vis China, as just indicated, is related to the turbulence of the US presidential election season and the fact that the Obama administration is on its last legs, it may be recalled that China believes that the Philippines initiated the relevant arbitration initiative at the instigation of the United States.
Against that backcloth, I wish to quote Liu Xiaoming, Chinese Ambassador to the United Kingdom, who affirms in an article on the South China Sea dispute (Beijing Review, July 7, 2016), thus: “The reality in the South China Sea is not that China is bullying smaller neighbors, but that China is being bullied by smaller neighbors” – a formulation that will be perceived here as novel, if not startling.
Before proceeding any further, it must be mentioned that China has not only proposed bilateral negotiations with concerned claimants but continues to draw attention to the dangers of extra-regional countries, as Liu puts it, “pitching one country against another or increasing forward military deployment in this region.”
Let us now take up a key aspect of the theme of China’s rise with the assistance of America’s stellar statesman-historian, Henry Kissinger. In his opus, ‘On China’, for instance, Kissinger provides valuable insights into the background of the now-familiar ‘China’s Rise’ refrain.
As explained, it was birthed after “a government-endorsed analysis that the first twenty years of the twenty-first century represented a distinct ‘strategic opportunity period’ for China” and should, therefore, be seized upon. One is informed it was shaped in a series of special lectures and study sessions convened between 2003 and 2006.
This sweeping intellectual exercise focused on the following: “the rise and fall of great powers in history: the means of their rise; the causes of their frequent wars; and whether, and how, modern great powers might rise without recourse to military conflict with the dominant actors of the international system.”
Subsequently, these lectures were elaborated into ‘The Rise of Great Powers’, a 12-part film series aired on Chinese national television in 2006 and watched by hundreds of millions of viewers.
Zheng Bijian, an influential Chinese policy figure, in a 2005 ‘Foreign Affairs’ article explained that China sought a “new international political and economic order,” but it was one that “could be achieved through incremental reforms and democratization of international relations.”
Zheng also wrote that China would “not follow the path of Germany leading up to World War I or those of Germany and Japan leading up to World War II, when the countries violently plundered resources and pursued hegemony. Neither will China follow the path of the great powers vying for global domination during the Cold War.”
It may be recalled that the 2008 Beijing Olympics sought to underline this message: “We have arrived. We are a fact of life, no longer to be ignored or trifled with but prepared to contribute our civilization to the world.”
Notably, President Hu Jintao, in a 2005 speech to the UN General Assembly, emphasised that China’s rise would be peaceful and moreover that “China’s development, instead of hurting or threatening anyone, can only serve peace, stability, and common prosperity in the world.”
Hence, there is no reason for Nepal not to take China’s solemn commitments about her ‘rise’ to heart; or to shy away from deepening Sino-Nepalese relations – at others’ behest.