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Why India must be wary of the Chinese dragon

By D S Rajan
February 18, 2016 11:19 IST
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There are signs of China's external behaviour becoming more aggressive in the coming years.
If that happens, strategic implications for neighbours having territorial disputes with China can become deeper and imperatives can rise, says D S Rajan.

China continues to be aggressive on territorial issues like the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea with airport facilities and building a base in Djibouti, located in the Horn of Africa.

This approach seems to be at variance with Chinese President Xi Jinping's declared stand to treat 'development and security interests in a balanced way.'

Being noticed at such a time are opinions of influential Chinese scholars in favour of their country's more assertiveness, which raise eyebrows internationally.

They include the need for China to establish bases in countries considered by it as allies.

India cannot miss the obvious strategic meaning of the view that Pakistan is 'the only one real ally' of China.

Yan Xuetong, a prominent scholar in the People's Republic of China, occupying the position of director of the Institute of International Relations at the Beijing-based Tsinghua University -- an institution termed by the country's State media as 'China's MIT', in his recent book, The Transition of World Power: Political Leadership and Strategic Competition, has called for China's adoption of a more assertive foreign policy.

In the book, the scholar has also described Pakistan as China's 'only one real ally.'

An interview with Yan on the book has appeared in the international press.

Yan Xuetong's views cannot be taken as reflecting the thinking of either the Chinese Communist Party or the government. However, the fact that China's State media have come out with favourable comments on the book may suggest that Yan enjoys some official patronage.

The scholar is a strong supporter of Xi's 'new' foreign policy outlook; he had admitted that 'it is seemingly more assertive, but in reality is more conducive to peace.'

He also supports Xi in matters of freedom of speech in China by saying that the system of 'remonstrating' to the authorities -- as practiced during the imperial rule in China -- is more efficient way of correcting strategic mistakes than freedom of speech.

Looking at such a background, one is tempted to feel that what Yan said in the interview is not merely the viewpoint of a scholar, but also has indirect backing of the authorities.

Most striking is Yan's opinion that China should adopt a more assertive foreign policy.

He considers that the country's South China Sea policy is not overly assertive as it is only intended to safeguard China's own interests and contrasts this with its previous policies which in his view were not forceful enough.

Yan argues that only the Philippines and Vietnam have major disputes with China in the South China Sea, whereas Singapore and Thailand -- two long-time allies of the United States in the region -- have become much closer to China in recent years.

The Tsinghua scholar further says that 'China should build military alliances as the US does' and describes the country's 'non-alliance' principle as 'unfortunate'.

According to him, 'the principle adopted by the PRC in 1982 was right as it served the country's interests well for two decades when China was a very weak power. Since then China has become the world's second-largest power, and the non-alliance principle no longer serves its interests. The major obstacle to China abandoning its non-alliance principle is years of propaganda criticising alliances as part of a Cold War mentality.'

On how China should build alliances, Yan observes that 'it is impossible to change the nature of China's relations with other countries with just economic assistance or loans. China's One Belt and One Road initiative for economic development across Eurasia cannot fundamentally change the nature of relations.'

'China should limit its economic assistance, including outright aid and loans, to 1 per cent of its annual foreign reserves, which amounted to about $35 billion in 2015. The current amount has been way too high given China's capabilities. China should scale back this economic assistance and switch to military aid. Military aid should be given to friendly countries to improve strategic cooperation and secure political support.'

'But China should be very cautious about participating in military conflicts in the Middle East. China should learn a lesson from Russia's military involvement in Syria. The more allies China makes the more balanced and stable its relationship with the US will be.'

'The more China shies away from alliances, the greater the chance that Washington will contain China, therefore resulting in an unstable relationship.'

As Yan sees, for its own interests, China should consider having military bases in countries it considers as allies, but it is too early to say where such bases can be, since China now has only one real ally -- Pakistan.

The scholar points out that 'North Korea is not an ally of China despite the alliance treaty signed between the two countries in 1961, adding that in 2013, China publicly denied that it had an alliance with North Korea and declared that the two simply had normal relations. If North Korea is not entitled to nuclear weapons, then China and the US should guarantee North Korea its security in return for denuclearisation.'

Yan's opinions need analysis in the context of evolution of China's security-oriented diplomacy which began in 2009.

To recapitulate the events, China recalibrated the strategic focus in its diplomacy to 'core interests' in 2009, with the proviso that the country will make no compromises on core interests and protect them even by military means.

Identifying China's 'core interests,' Dai Bingguo, who played a major role in the country's foreign policy making, said in end July 2009 that 'the PRC's first core interest is maintaining its fundamental system and State security, second is State sovereignty and territorial integrity and the third is the continued stable development of the economy and society.'

In specific terms, Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and South China Sea Islands as well as strategic resources and trade routes were listed under the 'core interest' category. 

The rationale given by China for the recalibration was that 'China is going global and its international influence is becoming more visible and assertive and the international environment and domestic conditions are changing.'

Xi Jinping reiterated the rationale in his speech delivered at the Chinese Communist Party Politburo Study session convened on January 28, 2013 that 'China will never pursue its development at the cost of sacrificing interests of other countries... We will never give up our legitimate rights and will never sacrifice our national core interests. No country should presume that we will engage in trade involving our core interests or that we will swallow the 'bitter fruit' of harming our sovereignty, security or development interests.'

The subsequent 18th CCP Congress document echoed the same spirit.

It proclaimed that China's 'banner is to forge a win-win international cooperation'; at the same time it laid emphasis on making 'no compromises' on issues concerning 'national sovereignty and security of core interests'.

Most significant has been the document's clarification that 'the two aspects are pillars of Chinese diplomacy and do not conflict with each other' (People's Daily, November 16, 2013).

The Chinese foreign minister explained his country's new foreign policy direction on March 8, 2014 by saying that the PRC 'will play the international role of a responsible, big country.'

This signalled a firm shift in the direction so far existed of the PRC's external course -- 'hiding one's capacities and biding one's time' (veteran leader Deng Xiaoping's famous 24-character maxim of tao guang yang hui).

Notable in the recent period has been the central point in Xi Jinping's major speech at the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs in November 2014. He underscored the 'importance of holding high the banner of peace, development and win-win cooperation, pursuing China's overall domestic and international interests and its development and security priorities in a balanced way, focusing on the overriding goal of peaceful development and national renewal, upholding China's sovereignty, security and development interests, fostering a more enabling international environment for peaceful development and maintaining and sustaining the important period of strategic opportunity for China's development.'

'These efforts will ensure the realization of the "two centenary goals" (doubling the 2010 GDP and per capita income of urban and rural residents and finishing the building of a society of initial prosperity in all respects when the CCP celebrates its centenary in 2020 and turning China into a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious when the PRC marks its centenary in 2050) and the Chinese dream of the great renewal of the Chinese nation.'

Against the background given above, it can be assessed that Yan's themes of China's adoption of a more assertive foreign policy, scaling back of economic aid and switching to military aid, building military alliances and establishment of overseas bases in countries of allies, are suggestive of China's external behaviour becoming more aggressive in the coming years.

If that happens, strategic implications for neighbours having territorial disputes with China can become deeper and imperatives can rise for the former to counteract; the result can be a further increase in regional tensions.

In the interest of regional peace and prosperity, all stake holders should sit together and arrive at an understanding on preventing emergence of such situation.

D S Rajan is a Distinguished Fellow, The Chennai Centre for China Studies.

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