By Bhaskar Roy
No outsider really knows what goes on behind those high walls of Zhongnanhai in Beijing where the top leadership live, work, discuss, plot and strategize. Analysis and assessments are done by following the official media, think tank reports, open interactions with Chinese officials and intellectuals (though very limited), and official statements which have to be carefully read to decipher the main message.
Whatever perception is drawn about China is from China’s words and actions, and in recent years the conclusion that is drawn is one of discomfort and concern about China’s intentions. Lack of transparency on China’s side, especially on strategic and military dimensions adds to the confusion, though the country is far more translucent today than in the Maoist decades. Even then, that is not enough. One issue on which China’s seaboard neighbours are unified is that the Chinese leaders are determined to re-live their ancient history when neighbours used to pay tributes to the Imperial court. And the greater wrong is that Beijing, drummed up with economic, military and diplomatic power, is in a tearing hurry to rule the region once more.
But what confounds the entire world is China’s play with ‘denial and deception’. Denial and deception strategies have been honed from ancient Chinese war strategy. But when this is applied in modern diplomatic, trade and other such engagements, it demolishes trust of China. In today’s world international relations are conducted with a high degree of transparency.
Some small examples. China purchased the Ukranian aircraft carrier, the Varyag, in 1998 on the assurance that it would be turned into a floating casino. Otherwise, they would not have got it. The Chinese navy had been trying to acquire the Varyag from 1992-93 when the vessel was fairly new. Finally, they purchased the vessel without engine, armaments and other fittings. On August 10, this year, the Varyag was put on trial cruise as a full fledged carrier. Even then, the official Chinese media continues to give out conflicting reports about its use. One side says that this not for military use, while another says it is the nucleus for the PLA Navy’s upcoming aircraft carrier fleet.
Most of China’s maritime neighbours, except Japan, can hardly compare to Beijing in military and economic strength, and are naturally worried. Obviously, therefore, no neighbour believes Chinese propaganda that their huge military modernization is only for self-defense. What that “self-defense” is, is never clarified in typical Chinese style of maintaining ambiguity.
Chinese President Hu Jintao’s strategic ideology of maintaining “harmonious” relationship with all countries, especially neighbours with which China has maritime and territorial disputes is losing its shine not only overseas but also inside China. Hu Jintao started with the theory of “Rise of China” in 2004, formulated by close adviser Zheng Bingxian. Following questions from neighbours what this exactly meant, Hu changed it to “Peaceful rise of China”. Events proved that both “peace” and “harmony” had to prevail under conditions laid down by Beijing. If not, the consequence would be “or else”. The Chinese position seems to be “under us, or against us”.
To put it briefly 2010 was the water shed year of China’s “arrogant” and “threatening” display of power in the region. The whole assertive behaviour was crafted from 2003 when Chinese strategists began to conceive a new “Monroe” doctrine to share the globe between China and the US. This concept was put to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Hanoi ASEAN meeting in July, 2010. Though rejected by Ms. Clinton, China resorted to aggressive moves with Japan and the ASEAN claimants to partial areas of the Spratley Islands and South China Sea.
The China initiated 2002 Declaration of Code of Conduct in the development of assets in the South China Sea (DOC), and the new guidelines in July this year for implementation of the DOC remain unworkable. The agreements do not move from China’s full sovereignty over the South China Sea and the Spratley Islands, and any adjustment must be under this condition.
A highly respected strategic analyst of Shanghai’s Fudan University, Prof. Sheng Dingli, pointed out in an article in July this year, several holes in China’s claims and subversion of the UN conference of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which China is a signatory.
Dr. Jian Junbao, a young assistant professor of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies (SISS) at Fudan University, and currently a visitor at the London School of Economics (LSE) questioned (August 17) in an article in Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd, Hong Kong, why “No other big power like the US, the European Union or even India is subject to so many unfriendly or hostile accusations from its neighbours”. He explained this succinctly, stating “Instead of flexing its military muscle in territorial disputes, China could encourage political, economic and cultural integration in East and South East Asia”. Dr. Jian also mentioned that part of the distrust of China went back to China’s military hegemony over these countries in ancient times. Prof. Sheng Dingli and Prof. Jian Junbao are not the only Chinese strategic experts in China that are looking at China’s foreign relations and strategic policies with a different eye. Assessing North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean frigate which claimed the lives of 47 South Korean sailors in 2010, and North Korea’s shelling of a South Korean island without provocation the same year, several Chinese strategic analysts propounded the view that blind support to North Korea was hurting China internationally. But China’s political and military leadership see the North Korean regime as a strategic card, relevant to China’s own Communist Party’s leadership. But the bottom line of the Chinese Communist party hardliners and the Chinese military establishment remains execution of military power. A section of very senior military leaders are openly charging some of China’s top political leaders of weakness. These expressions do not raise confidence among China’s neighbours who have territorial disputes with China.
After confronting the US including militarily, that is, suspending all military relations with the US late last year, Beijing has reverted to accommodate and even appease the US. Economic relations between China and the US and now the currency issue, are very important. But military relations are critical to its ambitions in the region. Return of the US to South East Asia, which also has a military component, has disturbed China’s hegemonic plan, in its neighbourhood. China’s military backed actions have changed the strategic calculus in the region. Japan’s strategic defence paper for 2011 published earlier this month (August, 2011) takes the hardest look even at China’s lack of military transparency, and threat. It was made clear that Japan may be no longer defensive if it’s immediate territorial interests and beyond in the region are threatened by China.
Australia, which has been pussy-footing with China in its economic interest, especially in iron ore and uranium exports is gearing to maritime security interests, and reaffirming its military alliance with the US. Unstated, this is a US-Japan-Australia security triangulation in the forming, in which the European Union has a solid interest in free economic and trade engagement.
There is a lack of trust between China and Russia. Moscow is uncomfortable with Beijing’s heavy handed behaviour. According to a Russian general, the deployment of the warship Mistral in its eastern region was not against Japan, but for a “million and more strong army”. Russia has other problems with China, too, which has held up it oil supply agreement with China for so long. China has given all signals to be the ombudsman of the East and South East Asia region. It is trying to make the US play ball, which is not a new endeavour.
Nobody should grudge China’s economic growth. That contributes to the region and the world. But if, as developments suggest it wants to clasp the region in its fist, there will be a huge problem. At the moment, it is still the USA, the strongest power in the world that can induce sanity in the region. If the US takes a narrow view and decides to share the region with China, a small Armageddon is waiting below the horizon. It is time the Beijing leaders made some deep introspection to discover why it is the most distrusted large power in the world.