China’s altruism has egregious designs

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China’s altruism has egregious designs

Sunday, 28 June 2020 | Swapan Dasgupta

In India's neighbourhood we have witnessed China's determined bid to draw Nepal into its sphere of influence. There has also been an attempt to bring Bangladesh closer to China by dangling hugely attractive trade lollipops. In both cases, the targeting of India is apparent... Maybe the next time we hear of the Chinese Consulate in Kolkata bankrolling Dragon Dance troupes in West Bengal and organising junkets for MLAs, we may realise that Beijing’s philanthropy isn’t exactly purposeless. China’s biggest attribute is its long-term vision

There is a strong belief in India that China’s territorial incursions in Ladakh are specifically aimed at showing India its subordinate place in a unipolar Asia. It is also suggested, not least by some China-watchers in our country, that just as the 1962 conflict aimed at puncturing Jawaharlal Nehru’s pretensions of being a symbol of post-colonial Asian resurgence, this summer’s tensions along the Line of Actual Control is calculated to tell Narendra Modi that he has to pay a price for being ‘difficult’ on issues such as the Belt and Road scheme and India’s membership of RCEP.

Decision-making in China being largely opaque, it is difficult to ascertain what has prompted the People’s Liberation Army to test India’s resolve along the LAC. The timing, it would seem, is crucial. At one level, there is a certain new belligerence in China over the persisting suspicion that the spread of the deadly coronavirus from Wuhan isn’t something that, while unfortunate, just happened. Beijing has become extra-sensitive to the description of Covid-19 as the “Wuhan virus”, an expression initially popularised by President Donald Trump but which has since acquired a momentum of its own.

In recent weeks, China has become increasingly belligerent in its actions. The crackdown in Hong Kong was perhaps only to be expected by those who had no illusions of China’s misgivings of open societies. However, Beijing’s heavy-handedness has served to rekindle the Sinophobia that was in a state of relative hibernation.

Even countries such as the United Kingdom which was enthusiastic in its genuflection towards China has seen domestic pressure force of a review of the permission given to Huawei to develop the 5G network. When Australia, which has witnessed a rising tide of Sinophobia after a long honeymoon that resulted in China becoming the country’s largest trading partner, endorsed the idea of an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, Beijing’s response was crudely aggressive. China’s ambassador in Canberra threatened Australia with retaliatory measures that included stopping Chinese tourists and students coming to the country and pulling out Chinese companies. In a state-sponsored publication it was asserted that “Australia is always there, making trouble. It is a bit like chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes. Sometimes who have to find a stone to rub it off.”

The pandemic has seen the orchestrated bid to revive memories of a “century of humiliation” that China suffered until 1949 and assertions in the Global Times — the English-language newspaper of the Communist Party aimed at a foreign readership — that “The days when China can be put in a submissive position are long gone.” Some China watchers attribute this anti-foreigner mood to internal difficulties: “Xi (Jinping)… seems to have concluded that it’s better to pick patriotic fights abroad than to start tinkering with the system at home, giving his compatriots a few freedoms to compensate for stagnating wages and lost opportunities.”

To what extent such an assessment is accurate isn’t clear. However, in India’s neighbourhood we have witnessed China’s determined bid to draw Nepal into its sphere of influence. There has also been an attempt to bring Bangladesh closer to China by dangling hugely attractive trade lollipops. In both cases, the targeting of India is apparent.

Perhaps this is the appropriate for India to remind itself of China’s use of historical grievances and memory could be used to determine the future of bilateral relations. In his book Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian rivalry in the 20th century (2001), the American academic John W. Garver has explained the territorial ambitions of the Middle Kingdom: “In the modern Chinese nationalist view…, China’s traditional tributary system encompassed wide portions of Inner Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia… A map produced in Chinese textbooks in 1954 neatly illustrated the geographic scope of China’s lost tributary system. This particular map … was intended to create a sense of bitterness, wounded pride, and thereby popular support for the PRC’s efforts to wipe out “humiliation” of the past. According to the map, China’s traditional sphere of influence included both Inner and Outer Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, parts of Central Asia, the entire Himalayan-Karakoram region including Hunza and Gilgit in Northern Kashmir, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim in the central Himalyan region, the small kingdoms of what later became India’s northeastern states, Burma, Bengal, Vietnam, Thailand, and Sulu Island.”

The map may appear a work of fantasy in today’s context. However, it is prudent to be aware of the historical imagination of the adversary and its innate belief that the rise of China in the 21st century is unstoppable. These fantasies may explain the basis of China’s present hegemonism — not least the conviction that it is the obligation of the tributaries to genuflect before the Middle Kingdom and acknowledge its overlordship.

Maybe the next time we hear of the Chinese Consulate in Kolkata bankrolling Dragon Dance troupes in West Bengal and organising junkets for MLAs, we may realise that Beijing’s philanthropy isn’t exactly purposeless. China’s biggest attribute is its long-term vision.

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