By MR Josse
KATHMANDU: Though much attention is focused on India-Pakistan relations and SAARC, it will not be wasted effort to spare some time and thought to aspects of China’s recent geopolitical and policy moves. In one way or another, they will have a singular bearing on the strategic environment of South Asia, particularly in the troubled, turbulent Indo-Pakistan theatre.
However, before plunging directly into that task, it may be useful to begin at the beginning. Let us start by briefly reviewing the much-acclaimed precepts on statecraft of Deng Xiaoping, who ended the business of exporting revolution – as it thrived during Mao’s heyday – and initiated the reform process in 1978 that laid the foundation of what the world today uniformly refers to the ‘rise’ of a puissant China – a China that has emerged as the second Super Power, mighty not only in military terms but also in economic metrics, as well as in global diplomatic reach and influence.
To recall, in 1980, Deng, the diminutive but widely venerated Chinese savant, outlined what the basic parameters of China’s foreign and security policy should be. As he put it succinctly: China should observe the world, deal calmly with foreign affairs, maintain a low profile, and never claim leadership.
Before proceeding any further, allow me to draw your attention to this meaningful excerpt from Singapore diplomat-cum-scholar Kishore Mahubani’s acclaimed book, ‘The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power To The East’ :
“Having failed in the great power game in the nineteenth and in the first half of the twentieth century, as well as having wasted the first eight decades of the twentieth century in its efforts to modernize, China was not expected to emerge as the most astute and effective geopolitical player of the twenty-first century. But it has.”
Returning to Deng and his perceptive, far-reaching injunctions on state policy, it is abundantly clear that while Deng’s basic tenets still remain at the centre of China’s foreign/security policy – either as guidelines for action or excuses for inaction – they have been appropriately and understandably modified, against the backdrop of the sea changes that have occurred in the international relations arena since the Deng era.
According to many China scholars, some features of Deng’s precepts are either under intense debate or in a flux. They include: a swing from the doctrine of strict non-interference, in the affairs of other states, to that of creative involvement; a movement away from bilateral to multi-lateral diplomacy; a shift away from reactive to proactive diplomacy; and a pivot from strict non-alliances to semi-alliances.
Henry Kissinger, grand strategic thinker, American statesman and historian, puts his finger squarely on key dimensions of China’s ‘peaceful rise’ and ‘harmonious world’ theories in his celebrated tome, ‘On China’, thus: “The ‘peaceful rise’ and ‘harmonious world’ theories evoked the principles of the classical era that secured China’s greatness: gradualist, harmonizing with trends and eschewing open conflict; organized as much around moral claims to a harmonious world order as physical or territorial domination…”
That Deng’s footprints on China’s foreign/security policies or, indeed, her ‘weltanschauung’ are fading, or less visible today, is exemplified in President Xi Jinping’s more assertive international posture, seemingly in violation of Deng’s dicta on keeping a low profile and never claiming leadership.
Not to be forgotten is that Deng’s shrewd, visionary advice on statecraft was meant to serve China as she gradually rose from the ranks of an underdeveloped or second-tier power into a Great Power; it was never meant to be valid for eternity! Basically, as I understand its thrust, it was devised as a serviceable or rule of thumb formula to buy time – and peace – so that the humungous human and material resources of China could be harnessed most efficaciously while that inevitable transformation took shape.
Xi’s drive against corruption; his accent on the ‘Chinese dream’ – redolent of what Kissinger calls “the classical era of China’s greatness”; his single-minded push to make China the hub of a grand and imaginative global connectivity schema; and, not to forget, China’s modernization of its military forces have been noted by all – friends and foes alike.
While all this has doubtless ruffled not a few feathers, far and near, it is difficult to question why either China should forget the bitter lessons of what she terms ‘a century of national humiliation’ at the hands of rapacious foreign powers or why she should not attempt to defend what she rightly believes is hers, based on long historical and other claims.
At this point, it may be germane to note that while Western leaders and their media constantly blow up China’s construction of physical infrastructure on some claimed South China Sea land features, one hardly hears the same fuss about similar action, if possibly on a smaller scale, by Taiwan or Vietnam.
Incidentally, listening in to a CNN talk the other night on China’s military under Xi, I was struck by the fact that China’s current efforts to transform its gargantuan army into a ‘lean’ fighting machine is matched by the stress on her air-force and navy, not to mention on cyber warfare in an information-suffused age. This clearly suggests that, according to China’s current threat perceptions, future wars are mainly anticipated over the skies and waters – not land – and that in such engagements cyber and information warfare will play a dominant role.
While this clearly does not suggest that if threats appear in Tibet or Xinjiang Beijing will not be prepared; only that present indications would seem to suggest that she is most concerned about Japan and the United States and their allies. This does not however indicate that she does not value her strategic assets in disputed, troubled Kashmir, nor in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor terminating at Gwadar port in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, currently in India’s cross-hairs.
Monitoring China’s policy moves in the future should thus be most rewarding.
Reflections on China’s geopolitical/policy moves
By MR Josse