As a rising power in Asia that is working towards the China Dream(s) (and all that those terms imply), China relies on geopolitical stability and beneficial trade relationships with its neighbours to enhance its economic strength and to transform its global image away from that of an authoritarian state to a benevolent enabler of development. However, China’s recent scuffles with its neighbours suggest that strategists in Beijing do not have foresight and may have in fact lost touch with civilisational values, all of which is ultimately undermining the Chinese people’s endeavours to achieve their ‘China Dream(s)’.
Over the past few years, Beijing has consistently ramped up tensions along the borders with Vietnam, Japan, Bhutan etc, and now, India. It has also stirred up regional level tensions in the South China Sea (SCS) and risked an international level conflict in the region such as by the construction of the artificial islands in the SCS five years ago and the creation of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone. With India, China triggered the 2017 Doklam military standoff and the recent clashes in Galwan in 2020. Even when the US military presence reduced in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic that originated in Wuhan, the Peoples Liberation Army Navy’s Liaoning aircraft carrier, escorted by five warships, sailed across the Miyako Strait to conduct a long-range exercise in an area closed to southern Taiwan in the South China Sea. Furthermore, the State Council of China approved the establishment of two administrative districts in the disputed Paracel and the Spratly Islands when the world’s attention was on dealing with the pandemic.
Beijing’s actions have thus demonstrated a pattern of deliberately keeping China’s borders and its immediate neighbourhood tense by disturbing stability and heckling its neighbours. Why Beijing believes such behaviour will engender positive relations with China is confounding.
In India’s case, in the early stages of the pandemic, New Delhi voluntarily offered assistance to Beijing to help address the situation in Wuhan. Many Indians use a wide range of Chinese products, ranging from apps and electronic products to daily use items such as exercise equipment etc. India also: has a trade deficit with China due to the overwhelming market in India for Chinese goods and services. Yet, without provocation, Beijing has felt compelled to flex its muscles against its neighbour. India sees sense in the win-win logic that China talks about, but Beijing’s bullish, domineering attitude towards its neighbours give cause for both the governments and the people in neighbouring countries to doubt Beijing’s intentions. It appears that Beijing’s arrogance and unnecessary belligerence and bullishness it displays towards its neighbours will be the main reason why China’s image will continue to suffer.
Driven by an irrational paranoia that India and the others are joining the US government’s Indo-Pacific project to encircle. China, Beijing seems to be acting impulsively to alienate its own neighbours and isolate itself on the world stage. In fact, Beijing seems to be willing to choke the China Dream to assuage its own paranoia, instead of working constructively with its neighbours to cooperate for a win-win outcome. Moreover, it appears that Beijing has forgotten that like China, many of its neighbours are sovereign countries (of which many are post-colonial ones) that have relations with other countries of the world.
Beijing argues that India has rejected it by refusing to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) but it does not seem to see that China is one of India’s largest trading partners; India has awarded several major construction contracts to Chinese companies; and several major Indian services used in daily life every day in India have Chinese investments. It is therefore worth asking as to whether Beijing is interested in countries partnering with Chinese enterprises in practise or if it is only interested in getting countries to sign papers saying they have joined BRI.
By letting its distrust and paranoia of the intentions of extra-regional countries like the US to influence how it behaves with its own neighbours, Beijing seems to be straying away from its own principles of practicing good neighbourly conduct. Moreover, Beijing has been using different standards while judging its own conduct and those of others. For example, as a rising power which has to deal with a’ problematic neighbour like Pakistan that supports cross-border terrorism, India is generally cautious of investments in critical sectors in its neighbourhood by Pakistan’s close allies like China. In this regard, instead of working with India to assuage its concerns and doubts, China has chosen to further alienate India by not holding Islamabad accountable for its part in spreading terrorism in the neighbourhood. In such circumstances, it is not logical to expect India to simply believe everything is alright. On the other hand, when Beijing feels cautious of activities taking place in its neighbourhood – such as Indo-Pacific – it feels justified in taking coercive actions such as military build-up in the South China Sea or by risking border clashes with its neighbours like India.
After the Galwan Valley border clashes, New Delhi banned some Chinese apps which are widely used in India. These apps make only a fraction of Chinese investments in the country, but it was through those apps that Indian leaders communicated with the Chinese leadership and people publicly and directly, thereby demonstrating willingness to be accountable, and to further people-to-people contact. Therefore, the decision to ban those apps is not one that occurred lightly and without reason. Beijing has also argued that India is following the US government’s lead and considering taking measures to ban Huawei and ZTE from investing in the telecom sector in the country. But Beijing seems to be unaware that Chinese smartphones and laptop companies already have a majority market share in India and that Huawei, ZTE etc are already very extensively present in the telecom infrastructure sector in the country. With regard to the 5G network, New Delhi is currently considering all permutations and combinations, given how, it is New Delhi’s responsibility to also ensure that domestic enterprises also get a fair opportunity to compete with major global brands – i.e. the same way Beijing is responsible for providing opportunities for Chinese enterprises in China.
However, instead of working with New Delhi to understand the Indian considerations, Beijing has begun a campaign of intimidation tactics by stirring up tensions along the border and issuing veiled threats of cutting economic links completely. Moreover, it has become commonplace for strategists and analysts in Beijing to accuse India of wanting to become a “US ally.” Logically, every country has to maintain friendly relations with other countries, or at least work towards that goal – this is a principle that Beijing too constantly repeats but does not seem to want to practice. The other side of the coin, which holds true for all is that, no self-respecting country or people would find bullying acceptable.
Like China, India too is an old civilisation and therefore practises values that have evolved over the ages. In accusing India of becoming a US ally (as if it were a bad thing), Beijing seems to have forgotten that India was among the founders of the Non-Alignment Movement during the Cold War, did not take sides between the US and Russia, and in fact engaged with both Russia and the US constructively during the Cold War. It did that even though at that time India was economically and militarily much weaker than both. Even in the case of Israel and Palestine, in time, India decided to open and maintain good relations with both.
So as such, New Delhi has been consistent in ensuring that it does not take sides, and instead focuses of developing friendly relations with both. This also demonstrates India’s ability to assert its sovereign choices and demonstrates that it does not enhance its relations with any country at the cost of its relations with another. Oddly however, Beijing, despite having the benefit of a long institutional memory due to a single party system, seems to have forgotten all this. In a blind rush to reach the top, the powers that be in Beijing seem to have forgotten their roots and values – i.e. you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
It will be a sign that good sense has prevailed when Beijing begins to treat its neighbours with the respect and dignity it expects for itself. The Chinese dream of national rejuvenation would not amount to much if Beijing pursues it at the cost of the values that give it meaning.