The rise of China as a commercial powerhouse coupled with relentless bolstering of its military prowess has manifested its expansionist design. In 1997, it retook sovereignty over Hong Kong, which had been leased to Britain, not to mention Macau from the Portuguese in 1999. And remained unswerving in its claim to Taiwan.
The coronavirus pandemic has, however, inconvenienced the Chinese government. There’s a significant perception among its people that there was both a goof-up and cover-up. This has impaired public respect for the regime of President X Jinping, which like its predecessors, is paranoid about protests a la Tiananmen Square in 1989. Its response has been to augment the drumbeat of nationalism, which has generally in the past proved to be a handy distraction.
On 28 May, China’s National People’s Congress - approved sweeping anti-sedition laws to be enacted in Hong Kong. This would, Britain feels, fundamentally jettison the letter and spirit of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which guarantees observance up to 2047 of a principle of ‘one country, two systems’, high degree of autonomy and freedom and maintenance of the social and economic systems and lifestyle in the territory as existed under the British. The treaty is registered with the United Nations and the United Kingdom believes it is legally binding and continues to remain in force. The United States, Canada and Australia endorse UK’s position.
Indeed, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has certified Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from the mainland. This means Washington can cancel the special treatment of Hong Kong, which has helped to catapult the island into a major financial hub and a gateway to foreign direct investment (FDI) into China. Such a move would trigger a departure of American multinationals who have their Asian headquarters there. The CCP will perhaps think twice before sealing such a fruitful inflow.
Hong Kong has been rocked by defiant street protests for the past year bordering on separatism. The threatened legislation would ban such revolt. It could also pave the way for mainland Chinese security forces to be deployed to crack down on the city in the manner they silence dissidents and political opponents in the bulk of the republic.
The pro-China Kuomintang party was soundly defeated in both presidential and parliamentary elections in Taiwan. Beijing’s bellicosity on the island is thus incorporated in its current offensive. General Li Zuocheng, chief of joint staff, menacingly stated: “If the possibility for peaceful reunification is lost, the (Chinese) people’s armed forces will, with the whole nation, including the people of Taiwan, take all necessary steps to resolutely smash any separatist plots or actions.”
China’s prickly posture was reflected in its foreign minister, Wang Yi, according to the Chinese ambassador in India, Sun Weidong, virtually warning external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, in a phone call on 24 March over describing covid19 as a Chinese virus. “Wang Yi said it’s not acceptable and detrimental to international cooperation to label the virus and stigmatise China, hope India oppose such narrow mindset,” he tweeted. He further claimed Jaishankar “agreed not to label the virus”.
Jaishankar’s post on Twitter on the subject made no direct reference to Wang’s apparent belligerence. Indeed, he reacted: “Global challenges require global cooperation.” It was diplomatic to ignore a wayward Wang; but this is not how his Bharatiya Janata Party thinks.
Following the Wang-Jaishankar exchange, Narendra Modi expressed to chief ministers of states that India should make a concerted effort to woo western and Japanese companies planning to pull out of China to relocate to India. Then, Nitin Gadkari, whose portfolios in the central cabinet have nothing to do with FDI, jumped into the fray by echoing Modi’s sentiments.
Last but not the least, Adish Aggarwala, who describes himself as president of an International Council of Jurists and chairman of the All India Bar Association, filed a petition with the United Nations Human Rights Council for reparation from China for “inflicting serious physical, psychological, economic and social harm on the world” by allegedly spreading covid19. The Chinese government would not have failed to notice on Twitter that he is wholly enamoured of Modi and his master’s voice.
It may be recalled that when Modi was entertaining Xi by swaying on a swing in Ahmedabad in 2014, Chinese troops were sitting pretty on Indian soil in Ladakh. This was Xi twisting Modi's arm for the latter’s veiled criticism of China on Japanese soil a week earlier. Consequently, while China’s present provocations on the Sino-Indian Line of Actual Control are part of an overall strategy to whip up nationalism within, the timing of the skirmishes suggests Xi is once again bullying Modi.
There is, though, mixed music in Chinese tactics towards India. The West and Japan are no longer enthusiastic about promoting China’s prosperity with indiscriminate imports and investments. So, to also jeopardise the $55-60 billion trade surplus with India at this uncertain juncture would be senseless.
For instance, Long Xingchun, president of Chengdu Institute of World Affairs, writing in the Global Times, one of the Chinese regime’s mouthpieces, predictably blamed India for illegal constructions in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh, which it asserted was Chinese territory; and indicated a continuing standoff may exceed the intensity of Doklam in 2017. It added: “The Indian government should keep a sober head to not to be used as cannon ash by the US.”
The columnist then interestingly underlined: “As an ancient civilisation, India is wise enough to avoid understanding China through biased US lens.” In short, the grievance seems to be about the Modi government ganging up with Washington against Beijing, in contrast to India’s previous independent outlook.
The paper reflected similar sentiments about Japan. Referring to the Japanese defence minister, Kono Taro, calling on countries to take a fresh look at China after covid19 is brought under control, it said: “Japan’s such negative stance toward China will overshadow the sound development of China-Japan relationship.”
In other words, in the case of India as well as Japan, China may be inclined towards normal ties, if they distance themselves from the US. At the same time, Modi and Jaishankar have missed taking advantage of China’s weak hand post-covid to extract concessions from it.
Where Europe is largely united, North America pre-Trump was likewise and there exists an African Union, Asian solidarity is not undesirable. Yet, abrasive, domineering behaviour is not the way to achieve it. The sooner China realises this, the better it will be for its foreign relations.
The People’s Republic of China was born in 1949 out of a vortex of violence. Therefore, unsurprisingly, its perspective became militaristic. Indeed, in spite of the internationalism espoused by communist ideology, China's world view is more nationalistic. It suffers from a sense of injustice that foreign powers had relieved it of territory. It, thus, harbours an ambition to assert.
While it won independence and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) defeated the western-backed Kuomintang nationalists (who retreated to and are still restricted to the island of Taiwan) in a civil war to establish control over mainland China, it was developmentally and economically in no condition to challenge industrialised powers. So, its first exhibition of expansionism – in 1950 - pertained to the soft target of Tibet.
Mao Zedong was China’s supreme leader for its first 27 years. His ‘Great Leap Forward’ was intended to improve farm and industrial output, but poor harvests caused famine and starvation. Millions died in the 1950s.
He thereafter, with his actress wife Jiang Qing installed as Minister of Culture, launched a ‘Cultural Revolution’ in 1966. Chinese citizens were forced to follow communist rules and carry a little ‘Red Book’ containing quotes from Mao. Those who retained non-communist possessions were punished. Those who resisted were banished, even exterminated by his ‘Red Guards’. It sunk the country into a state of chaos and financial fragility.
By the time Mao passed away in 1976, though, education had spread, people’s life spans had increased and the United States (US) administration of President Richard Nixon had reached out to rescue him from his economic woes, exploiting the then tense relationship between China and the Soviet Union.
Yet, the country had been militarily better prepared in 1962 to invade India. Since defence – stemming from historical experience – was its focus, it successfully tested an atom bomb in 1964, an inter-continental ballistic missile in 1966 and a hydrogen bomb in 1967. All, incidentally, derived from Soviet assistance in the 1950s.
A pragmatic Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Mao and was known as paramount leader, introduced reforms which converted China into a competitive manufacturer and exporter to the world, not to mention his emphasis on engineering, mathematics, science and technology.
(The author is a commentator based in London)