1 March 2021 11:56 AM

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Lt General BHOPINDER SINGH | 5 JULY, 2020

Is the Dragon Running Out of Tricks?

China invariably dangles the bigger carrot


The textural transformation from Deng Xiaoping’s 韜光養晦 – tao guang yang hui, to hide brightness or nourish obscurity – to Xi Jingping’s decidedly more assertive Four Confidences (in the chosen path, political system, guiding theories, and culture) has been astonishingly fast. Were popular films a mirror reflecting social urgencies, the cheesy blockbuster Warrior Wolf, which has Chinese special operations agents taking on the enemies, would confirm that jingoistic confidence.

Today this process has pinnacled into the diplomatic realm, as a Wolf Warrior Diplomacy which is unashamedly expansionist, combative, and possessed of hegemonic instincts.

This new form of statecraft has made China proactive, as opposed to reactive.

Xi Jinping’s urge to a “fighting spirit” explains this hawkish expansionism as necessary to fulfil the neologism of the “Chinese Century”. It has led China to unleash an unprecedented outreach through ensnaring projects like the Belt and Road Initiative, the Pearl String ports, and the tactical seizing of opportunities in the Pacific Island nations, in Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and wherever else domestic politics and financial desperation afforded an irresistible opening for Chinese “largesse”.

Its ostensibly “no strings attached” approach to making investments has roped in pariahed states like North Korea and Pakistan. But the Chinese approach is also undecipherable and asymmetric, as it advances an expansionist agenda by hook or crook, using coercion, intimidation, internal meddling and limited militaristic belligerence. It can charm, buy out, encircle, entrap in debt, and play the most unapologetic forms of realpolitik to further its cause.

The “derecognition” of Taiwan’s independence is a classic example of Chinese diplomacy, where it recently weaned away two countries, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati (apparently the deal entailed giving a few used commercial planes). This squeezed the number of countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan to only 15 – China had earlier “convinced” El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso, Panama, and Sao Tome and Principe.

Certain missteps, perceived interferences and “political preferences” in its neighbouring countries have cost India its relative bonhomie with Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and even Bangladesh. This time, the Chinese military-industrial complex latched onto the bilateral rupture to offer succour and replacement for the “Big Brother” in Delhi. While India’s bilateral relations in the SAARC region have undergone crests and troughs that were usually resolved bilaterally, the narrative has now changed, and China invariably dangles the bigger carrot.

The swiftness and incredulity of Chinese diplomacy were seen in its “management” of its maritime dispute with the Philippines. Manila had taken Beijing to the International Court of Justice, and won – yet, unbelievably, Manila almost immediately ran into the willing arms of the Chinese, who agreed to “support” the financially strapped Philippines with a slew of investments.

Irony died a thousand deaths, as soon after, the Philippines ranted against the United States, its historical ally ever since it gained independence from it, asking it to vacate the military base in Subic Bay. So despite the Hague verdict against China, Manila reneged on the United States instead!

But has the Dragon bitten off more than it can chew? Today the world seeks answers and looks askance at China for its Covid chicanery, as the staggering human and economic costs mount – and the uninterrupted Chinese military belligerence even in these times, militates even more.

It is not just the patent Chinese deceit at Galwan, earlier they had sunk a Vietnamese fishing trawler in the Paracel Islands, claiming it falsely to be in Chinese waters. Upping that ante, the People’s Republic claimed 80 islands, reefs, shoals and ridges in the restive South China Seas, for the first time since 1983, to the horror of neighbouring littoral states – this when the world was reeling under the Covid crisis.

Australia joined the chorus, accusing China of spreading misinformation that “contributes to a climate of fear and division” – just last week the Australian PM complained of “malicious cyberwarfare” by “state actors”, the finger unmistakably pointed at China.

While the “ways” of the Chinese state are well known, sheer desperation and a lack of alternatives forces many nations to willingly or unwillingly succumb to the Dragon.

In 2016, Pakistan’s Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Planning and Development warned of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor becoming “another East India Company” – today Pakistan is a completely beholden state, and the otherwise voluble Imran Khan is not allowed to talk about the Uighur Muslims incarcerated by China.

Sri Lanka too realised the cost of accepting Chinese “investments” as it ultimately had to cede control of its Hambantota port for a lease of 99 years to China.

But the most significant U–turn against the Chinese was performed by the Philippines again, as they suspended plans to cancel the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US government, after earlier spewing venom at it and cosying up unbelievably to Beijing. The Philippines government attributes this change of heart to “political and other developments in the region”, a phrase which barely conceals its fear of Chinese machinations.

Closer home, relations between India and Nepal hit rock-bottom with the cartographic counter-claims, which Delhi claimed Kathmandu was doing at the behest of China. Serendipitously, three opposition MPs of the Nepali Congress have embarrassed the government by filing a petition seeking the eviction of Nepalese land by the Chinese! The government remains tightlipped but the discomfort of falling for Chinese tricks is obvious.

The old guard in China must wonder if the metamorphosis of Deng Xiaoping’s China into the Warrior Wolf Diplomacy of Xi Jingping, which has triggered an overreach at any cost, was too much too soon. Beyond Pakistan and North Korea, neither of which has a viable alternative, the Chinese have not been able to sustain or secure their “expansionism”. And ironically, Donald Trump’s unpredictable and protectionist agenda may have contributed to their appeal.

Yet today as the world stares at the inevitable and punishing price of Covid, the Chinese state has still not let go of its expansionist impulse, and there is renewed pushback even from its ‘beneficiaries’. Is the Dragon running out of tricks?

Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry

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