For China, exclusivity applies everywhere it chooses to go
Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping in Beijing, December 1988 (Photo: Getty Images)
ONE-UPMANSHIP IS AS much a game for individuals as countries. So, when Mao Zedong received Nikita Khrushchev, who could not swim, in his swimming pool, the Russian knew at once “it was Mao’s way of putting himself in an advantageous position”. Khrushchev played along for a while, wearing water wings to splash beside Mao while interpreters ran up and down the sides of the pool. Then, having “got sick of it”, he crawled out to sit on the edge dangling his legs in the water. “Now I was on top and he was swimming below,” Khrushchev mused, delighted at outwitting the leader of zhongguo, the ‘Middle Kingdom’ or ‘Central Country’, as China called itself.
The fabled Asian Century with India and China lording it over the vast Indo-Pacific region in benevolent harmony seems even more remote today than in 1988 when Deng Xiaoping warned Rajiv Gandhi that it was neither inevitable nor foreordained. Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, a former army brigadier-general, claimed in a recent article in Foreign Affairs that Asia had prospered only ‘because Pax Americana, which has held since the end of World War II, provided a favourable strategic context’. The US is now at the mercy of an erratic Donald Trump. Far from being abashed by the scourge from Wuhan, China is belligerently feeling its oats. Asia faces a period of dire uncertainty as China asserts maritime or territorial claims against more than a dozen Central and Southeast Asian countries in its determination to regain the centrality of the zhongguo concept.
Prime Minister Lee laments that ‘Chinese leaders today no longer cite Deng’s maxim about hiding one’s strength and biding one’s time’. That was China’s guiding philosophy while it modernised agriculture, industry, and science and technology, instead of developing military muscle. But Xi Jinping has no need for subtlety. His China sees itself as a continental and maritime power. It has been modernising its army and navy so that a world-class fighting force can secure and sustain what it sees as its rightful place in international affairs. Others, too, have noted that China’s political leadership is bursting with self-confidence. It is prepared to take far more foreign policy risks than before. China’s maritime disputes with almost every East and Southeast Asian power have taken on a much higher strategic salience since the 2000s.
The fabled Asian century with India and China lording it over the vast Indo-Pacific region in benevolent harmony seems even more remote today than in 1988 when Deng Xiaoping warned Rajiv Gandhi that it was neither inevitable nor foreordained
The military advantage India claims in the latest turn of events in Ladakh must have seemed especially galling, leaving Xi Jinping somewhat in the position of the red-faced Mao after being nimbly upstaged by the seemingly clod-hopping Khrushchev. Or so, the Indian media concluded from the unofficial press conferences, private briefings for the favoured few and whispered confidences that pass for communication under an undemocratically secretive regime. Given the logistics of the inaccessible scene of action, the utter opaqueness of whatever is taking place there, and the way Parliament has been gagged, one cannot blame excitable but fact-starved television channels too much for letting imagination run wild as they concoct robustly patriotic tales out of thin air. Infotainment seems more and more entertainment and less and less information.
Ironically, Narendra Modi’s silence is matched by the Chinese ambassador’s loquacity. In his eagerness to disseminate information (or misinformation), Sun Weidong even answers questions nobody has asked. Not that much reliance can be placed on anything the Chinese claim in respect of other countries. Just two instances—one public and one personal—out of a long saga of misrepresentations and self-contradictions prove the point.
Asked by my late colleague, George Verghese, about “Chinese claims in regard to Bhutan”, a sanctimonious Zhou Enlai replied in his famous New Delhi press conference of April 30th, 1960: “I am sorry to disappoint you. We have no claim with regard to Bhutan, nor do we have any dispute with it… China has no boundary dispute with Sikkim and Bhutan… .” It was an assertion of China unconditionally accepting its borders with Bhutan and Sikkim in their totality without quibbling.
Yet, 24 rounds of Sino-Bhutanese talks since 1984 have not broken the stalemate, with the Bhutanese refusing to let the Chinese grab ever-increasing chunks of their territory in the east. Bhutan is said to have already lost its two northern humps. The dispute threatened to erupt in worse violence in 2017 when India’s armed forces and the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) confronted each other from June June 16th to August 28th for possession of the 89-sq-km Doklam plateau.
China’s contortions over Sikkim are equally revealing. Despite Zhou’s protestations on the China-Sikkim border and despite later assurances that China recognises the lost kingdom as an Indian state, Beijing laid claim in 2008 to the ‘Finger Area’, a 2.1-sq-km tract in northern Sikkim protruding like a finger over the Sora Funnel valley.
The personal example refers to Taiwan whose stand on Tibet or the border with India indicates that ideology alone separates the two Chinas. For Beijing, Taiwan is of course a renegade province. I recall a dinner at the Chinese consulate-general in Kolkata where my son Deep happened to mention Taiwan. “Taiwan Province,” the Consul-General interjected swiftly and smoothly without looking up from his soup.
The Taiwanese graciously invited me once to visit their island as their guest. I think I was then editor-in-residence at the East-West Centre in Honololu. I know that I took it for granted I was going alone. Gradually, news trickled through that there might be others. However, we were individuals, not a group. So, I was taken aback to find on landing at Taipei airport a banner welcoming me as a member of the ‘first delegation’ from the Republic of India to the ‘Republic of China on Taiwan’.
Others arrived. There was Katyayani Shankar Bajpai, the retired diplomat who died the other day, whom the Taiwanese had elevated to ‘Minister’ and described as ‘Leader of the Delegation’. Also from New Delhi were the civil servant, Lovraj Kumar, and economist Isher Judge Ahluwalia. Dilip Basu, historian, joined us from Santa Cruz, California. If there were others, their names have escaped me. It was the misrepresentation I cannot forget.
It may not have surprised me if I had delved in 200-year-old Anglo-Chinese history. When Lord Macartney, a former governor of Madras, reached China in 1793 to establish reciprocal embassies in Beijing and London and trading posts along the Chinese coast, their Qing dynasty hosts hung banners on their yachts proclaiming ‘The English Ambassador bringing tribute to the Emperor of China’.
To end my Taiwan story, I stayed on a day or two after the others left. During that time I mentioned to the Taiwanese official who had organised the event that not only were we not a delegation but that he had bestowed on Bajpai a ministerial rank he did not enjoy. “Not unintentionally!” was the giggling response. All’s fair in love and war, they say. Perhaps also in diplomacy. The Chinese make a habit of it.
No wonder Lee Kuan Yew, the present Singapore prime minister’s father, once wondered in his monthly column in Forbes magazine why China’s ‘peaceful rise’ was viewed with scepticism if not downright hostility whereas the world took a benign view of India’s growth. One answer could be that China loves the world a shade too much. Any Chinese leader can adapt England’s King Henry V who declared himself a “friend of France” after defeating the French army at Agincourt. His rationale: “I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it; I will have it all mine.”
Asked by my late colleague, George Verghese, about ‘Chinese claims in regard to Bhutan’, a sanctimonious Zhou Enlai replied in his famous New Delhi press conference of April 30th, 1960: ‘I am sorry to disappoint you. We have no claim with regard to Bhutan, nor do we have any dispute with it.’ Yet, 24 rounds of Sino-Bhutanese talks since 1984 have not broken the stalemate
India is not the solitary target of this possessive passion. In fact, Russia is one of the few countries to have resolved its territorial disputes with China by surrendering large tracts of territory on the Argun, Amur, and Ussuri rivers and several islands. Pakistan went one better. It bought China’s gratitude (‘irreplaceable, all-weather friendship’) with a slice of Indian Kashmir. No doubt Beijing hopes that Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Laos, Nepal, Bhutan and even protégé North Korea, with which China shares a 1,416-km-long border, will buy peace with comparable concessions.
Singapore is nearly 80 per cent ethnic Chinese. It signed a maritime collaboration agreement with China in June 2019. A respected Singaporean diplomat Tommy Koh Thong Bee was the architect of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China hasn’t actually withdrawn from UNCLOS but its so-called nine-dash line cordons off the major part of the South China Sea as its private property. This assertiveness and China’s stormy relationship with the US raise profound questions about Asia’s future and the shape of the emerging international order. Living at the intersection of the interests of various major powers, Southeast Asia—which China calls Nanyang or the ‘Southern Sea’—is desperately anxious to avoid being caught in the middle or forced into invidious choices. Disputing China’s position in the South China Sea, Prime Minister Lee argues that the American military presence ‘remains vital to the Asia-Pacific region’.
When Lord Macartney, a former governor of Madras, reached China in 1793 to establish reciprocal embassies in Beijing and London and trading posts along the Chinese coast, their Qing Dynasty hosts hung banners on their yachts proclaiming ‘the English ambassador bringing tribute to the emperor of China’
In one form or another, China has always looked on Nanyang as its backyard. Hordes of exuberant ethnic Chinese youths flocked from all over the region to fight for Mao’s revolution. The virtually wholly Chinese Communist Party of Indonesia was the world’s largest non-ruling communist party before the 1965 massacres. Malaya’s Emergency (1948-1960) was another communist insurgency as was the Second Malayan Emergency from 1968 to 1989. Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam were all victims of Chinese radical intervention until Deng visited Singapore in November 1978 to mobilise a united front against Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia. To quote Lee Kuan Yew: “And that’s when I said, ‘If you want that you’ve got to stop all this [subversive activities]. You are the trouble maker, not the Russians!’ So they stopped and they wanted to woo us to support the anti-Vietnamese resistance in Cambodia, which we did.”
Instead of trying to wreck Southeast Asian societies from within, China then began foraging in the past to invoke historical precedents, tributary ties, Buddhist links, discoveries and engineering and reclamation feats to clothe brute force with a semblance of respectability. An early instance of Mao’s ‘history’ was his reference in October 1962 to Timur’s sacking of Delhi in 1398 as a Sino-Indian ‘half war’ because Mongolia and China were then part of the same political entity. Mao seems to have taken the absurd parallel seriously enough to remind his generals to be ‘restrained and principled’ and not bloodthirsty like Timur. Since Babur (1483-1530) was Timur’s great-great-great-grandson, it’s a wonder Mao did not seize on the link to claim sovereignty over India.
The suggestion of careful long-term planning feeding on tailored ancient history cannot be ignored. We know from Kunwar Natwar Singh that Deng told Rajiv that “China would for the next 50 to 60 years concentrate on all-round economic development”. She “would fulfil her obligations towards humanity and the Asian continent” only after becoming “developed”. Only 32 years have elapsed since that historic conversation. But Deng’s successor’s exchanges with Trump and Chinese bellicosity in India indicate that China has moved far enough ahead economically and militarily to try and realise its manifold destiny. When China rejected its first mentor in Moscow, the Sinologist CP FitzGerald, mused, “There cannot be two suns in one sky.” That exclusivity applies to other skies as well in which the Chinese sun chooses to shine.