When Xi Jinping took office in March 2013, he was “elected” President in a confirmation vote by the People’s Congress in Beijing; he received 2,952 votes in favour and one against. Replacing Hu Jintao, who retired after serving his two terms; tenure legislated to annul the possibility of the Mao-kind-of-excesses.
Most nations felt Xi’s “ascension” represented more continuity, persistence with tenure-based leadership, more liberal reforms and a closer draw into a globalised world. China’s declared goal was to achieve a “Harmonious Rise”. But there was a dream for Rejuvenation and of China’s Centrality. Much of the world dismissed this as rhetoric from the nationalistic fringe. But to Xi, his predecessors and the Party; Rejuvenation and Centrality were obsessions that had endured the mass carnage of the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution and of Tiananmen.
Opening China; the Concept of ‘Shi’
In this milieu, looking back to the unabridged opening of China to the world emerges as a strategic-blunder. Was it conceived as a tactical artifice to benefit from the Sino-Soviet rift and checkmate Kremlin’s expansionism or was it a deliberate strategy to bring China permanently into the Western-Bloc? It began in 1972 and was based on three ‘rosy’ assumptions (Chap XXIV, Kissinger, White House Years):
- Catastrophic failure of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution put China in a precarious political situation and ideologically ripe for change.
- Beijing needed the West’s support to break out of its isolation. Engagement was the precursor to co-operation and joining the anti-Soviet-Bloc.
- China had a deep seated desire to join in the prosperity of the West. Making it a stake-holder in the global order would set it on the path to liberal democracy.
The inability to understand Chinese strategists, their assessment of the existing balance of power and their application of Shi led to not just fuelling China’s dazzling growth but also promoting its grand strategy of “National Rejuvenation”. In classic terms ‘Shi’ comprised the use of deception to attain strategic advantage. It was Shi that triumphed.
The Shanghai Communiqué
The Shanghai Communiqué in theory promised rapid fruition of the three ‘rosy assumptions’. Of note was Beijing’s pledge “to abjure power politics, respect sovereignty of all regional states; and strive for peace, harmony and just competition”. Despite the West’s immediate gains of a modified Soviet outlook to the Cold-War; for Beijing, the calculus was on a grand-strategic plane. Three pronged in form, it was to deny Moscow and the West from geopolitically encircling China; to induct much needed technological, economic and military boost to bring about a seeming ‘Harmonious Rise’ and in time to challenge the lone super-power. Half a century later it is apparent which stratagem worked.
The Communiqué today lies in tatters as nations have recognised the reality of China; particularly so where sovereignty, security and acceptance of international laws/conventions is concerned. While Beijing’s predatory mercantilism brand of economics has violated the very idea of security. Four considerations key in international law to our understanding of a sovereign state are: possession of permanent population, single government rule, ability to form diplomatic relations with sovereign states and critically, territory that is clearly defined. With China it is territorial definition that is intractable and stymies normalisation of relations. From claims of the so called “Middle Kingdom,” to the scything sweep of the 9-dash line; territorial demands cut through established boundaries of 17 sovereign nations and carve-out vast maritime space encompassed by the 9-Dash Line (despite having been struck down by the International Court of Justice ).
As for Beijing’s pledges, they have long since been dumped. In this circumstance, it was never clear how the preyed-upon were expected to accept the Communiqué and the Chinese order of things.
The Pivot Rather than the Cog
In 1949, Mao ordered that the “Century of Humiliation” , be etched in peoples memory not just as a tombstone to past injustices, but as a promise for redemption. The 19th century had witnessed the dismantling of the Sino-centric order that had dominated much of the region. As a consequence of colonial avarice, China degenerated to a slave-economy. The roots of the Century of Humiliation have been traced back to defeat in the First Opium War (1839-1842). The conflict opened the flood gates for entry of other imperial powers and set in motion the common colonial pattern of the day.
Given the settings, it remains a geo-political inexplicability as to how Beijing in 1972 would not only be welcomed by “balance-of-power” enthusiasts, but also by a West that deluded itself that China would embrace an international system in which it would be another ‘Cog’ rather than the Pivot?
The Rude Awakening
The world expected a transformation of China from a repressive communist-state to a benign capitalistic one. However, half-century post the Shanghai Communiqué, we find a rich, expansionist and militaristic China in denial of established rules; led by an iron fisted autocrat in power for life, promoting predatory economic and revisionist policies. Add to all this is its proliferatory nuclear support to rogue states.China’s Grand Strategy, is keyed to the attainment of three objectives: preservation of dispensation; creating a sphere of control in which its territorial expansion and its writ remains unchallenged; and lastly, attainment and maintenance of a geopolitical order in which China is the primary influencer. However, China’s territorial ambitions and rapacious policies in pursuit of these objectives have given impetus to the alignment of nations to confront and contain it.
The kind of nation, its place in the global order and the type of military China will command by 2049 are neither pre-destined nor beyond the impact of changes. Clearly, for China the idea of a multi-polar world is just a strategic milestone on the road to “Rejuvenation”(metaphor for dominance in a unipolar world). How Beijing interacts with the international system in the intervening years will determine the realisation of its dream or otherwise.
In the absence of China adopting policies that promote co-operative engagement and a consensual approach to universal order; the formation of alliances and structures that regulate global order will be an inevitable consequence. The Quad and the AUKUS have already taken shape, both groupings bring major powers more closely into the Indo-Pacific; the former is a comprehensive model for the process of international engagement, while the latter is military in nature and is enabled by highly capable forces. The two together provide a strategic template in the Indo-Pacific for order.
-This story earlier appeared on www.thestrategicdialogues.com