The article originally appeared on India Today.
This time, it was the turn of China’s defence ministry to warn India. Its defence ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said China would go to any extent to protect its sovereignty and India’s should have ‘no illusion about China’s military strength’. It added to the long list of warnings and threats made by China’s foreign ministry, its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its official media that began unfolding a month ago with Chinese transgression of the disputed Bhutanese tri-junction near Doklam in the Sikkim Sector.
The Chinese action on border is a sudden change in its stand when we see it in the context of India-China border negotiations as recent as April 2016 when both countries held the 19th Round of negotiations emphasizing on maintaining peace and tranquillity.
But when we see these developments in a wide perspective of Xi Jinping’s global ambitions, it seems well timed. Xi Jinping after emerging as an undisputed supreme leader of China, ruthlessly crushing any rival voice in the name of anti-corruption purge that has swept China, has declared himself a ‘Core Leader’ like Mao Zedong.
And as his China imprint is almost finished, he has turned his gauge take it outside China. And from his acts in last few years, it is quite clear that he seems in a hurry and he is exploiting both, China’s military might and its economic prowess to push the agenda of his power projection.
BORDER HOSTILITY WITH INDIA – SUDDEN CHANGE IN TONE AND RHETORIC
In May 2014, China had congratulated Modi on his victory. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in India in June 2014 and Chinese President Xi Jiping in September 2014. Indian Army Chief Bikram Singh visited China in July 2014 while Modi met Jinping for the first time in the same month on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in Brazil. The meeting between them lasted for 80 minutes and Jinping remarked about the meeting, “When India and China meet, the world watches us.”
In February 2015, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited China. Xi Jinping then had this to say, “I have full confidence on the future of China and India relations and I believe that good progress will be achieved in the growth of bilateral relations this year.”
In March 2015, India and China held 18th Round border talks in Delhi. India was represented by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. China had sent its State Councillor and Special Representative Yang Jiechi. The Ministry of External Affairs release on the talks says, “The talks were marked by cordiality and candour and were held in a constructive and forward looking atmosphere.”
From the language of the MEA release, it is quite clear that India and China were on the same platform to settle the border issue, “The Special Representatives expressed satisfaction on the progress made in the negotiations and emphasized commitment to the three-step process to seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable resolution of the border question at an early date.”
In April 2016, India and China held 19th Round of border talks in Beijing between Ajit Doval and Yang Jiechi. While Doval didn’t share details of the meeting, he did say that the talks were held in a good atmosphere. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson echoed, “The two sides enhanced mutual trust and expanded consensus through this meeting which is of great significance in promoting settlement of the boundary question, maintaining peace and tranquillity of the border areas and securing sound and stable development of bilateral relations.”
In the light of these developments, just a year after, this sudden change in the stand of China is surprising and tells us about the hegemonic designs of China. China is behaving like a power-blinded imperialist regime hell-bent on its territorial expansion, something that it has been known historically – be in Tibet or Aksai Chin or South China Sea or Taiwan.
China is known for territorial expansionism and autocratic rule but its increasing economic prowess has added another dimension to its clout – the economic imperialism. It is now financially big enough to first pump its money in small, poor nations and then acquire controlling stakes in organizations as the nations fail to repay, be it the poor or financially weaker nations of Asia or Africa.
ONE BELT ONE ROAD (OBOR): India’s neighbourhood countries that China is eyeing are Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Myanmar. Having a strong Chinese presence in these countries would give China strategic advantage over India. So, China, in the name of building economic corridors linking Asia, Africa and Europe, is offering these countries huge loans for infrastructural projects at higher interest rates and when these economically poor countries are not able to repay the loans, China goes on to acquire controlling stakes in them, as high as 85 per cent.
THE AFRICAN BLUEPRINT: There has been consensus among experts that China, that has ramped its ties with African nations significantly in the last 15 years, has used Africa as ‘testing ground’ for its global ambitions. African countries are rich in oil and minerals and some one million Chinese entrepreneurs have settled there. “Africa has been a workshop of ideas that now have a much bigger scale and strategic significance,” writes a Financial Times commentary quoting Howard French, journalist, Columbia University professor and author of “China’s Second Continent: How A Million Migrants Are Building A New Empire in Africa “.
China-Africa trade rose to $220 billion in 2014 from mere $10 billion in 2000 according to Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is investing $60 billion to develop infrastructure in different African countries but there are valid questions on this humongous rise, “Many are suspicious of what they see as a neocolonial land grab, in which companies acting as proxies for the Chinese state extract minerals in return for infrastructure and finance that will saddle governments with large debts. There have been legitimate complaints about Chinese companies employing few locals, mistreating those it has and paying scant regard to the environment,” the Financial Times commentary further writes.
Though there are African experts like Horace Campbell, a Syracuse University professor and renowned international scholar, who question this stand, calling them western afterthoughts on increasing Chinese footprints in Africa, going by China’s history and its recent acts of imposing itself on some South Asian countries where it invested heavily, we have reasons to think otherwise.
GLOBAL LEADERSHIP OR HEGEMONIC PROJECTIONS?
China has been more than eager to represent itself as the new world leader that is going to replace America. Reportedly, China is eyeing to replace America in the proposed 12-member trading bloc of Pacific-rim counties, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) after US President Donald Trump withdrew US from the treaty in January this year. The other members of the proposed trading bloc are Japan, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, New Zealand, Mexico, Chile and Peru and after American withdrawal they have warmed up for a Chinese prospect.
Then China, the largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world according to the Global Carbon Project, portrayed itself as an environment crusader after Donald Trump withdrew the US from the global climate agreement in June, i.e., Paris Climate Accord of 2015, to reduce the emission level of the greenhouse gases to check global warming. Rejecting the Paris Accord was one the main campaign themes of Trump in the US presidential election, something that would have appealed Jinping’s designs to pitch in on a global stage. So, in May, before Trump had even officially announced his decision, Jinping declared that he would ‘protect the Paris climate deal’, pledged his commitment to the pact after the formal US withdrawal and China held a meeting of energy ministers to find ways to push clean energy.
OVERSEAS NAVAL BASES: Earlier this month, China sent its troops to Djibouti, its first overseas military base. China has entered into an agreement with Djibouti which allows it to station its 10,000 troops in the country till 2026, much higher than 4000 US soldiers stationed at Camp Lemonnier, also in Djibouti, America’s largest permanent base in Africa. And experts say its second overseas naval base is going to come up in India’s backyard, at Pakistan’s Gwadar Port in the Arabian Sea.
This is quite contrary to the earlier Chinese stand when it didn’t want to have overseas military presence. “China has previously been very reluctant even to contemplate a serious overseas military presence,”, the India Today magazine writes quoting Andrew Small, author of The China Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics.
Clearly, Xi Jinping, the only second Core Leader of China after Mao Zedong, wants to go beyond Mao. Mao had an absolute power grip over a China that was not in the global mainstream and was not a military and economic superpower. Jinping’s China is both now. It is an economic powerhouse and a global manufacturing hub with a military might that is probably next only to US and Russia. Something that has, probably, given Xi Jinping wings to fly far and wide. Under Mao, China was inward looking and protectionist. Under Jinping, China is trying to become the leader of the world, but probably with a more protectionist streak of its national interests that are no longer limited to China.