First I want to declare upfront: I am no security analyst. But I do have some insight on China.
It was the September of 1995. China was hosting a United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. If all went well, it would put China on the road to host the Olympics. They plan far ahead. This was their first big UN event that would present to the world a different China. Different from the bad reputation they had acquired after Tiananmen Square. The Chinese needed to play up their strengths as an Asian giant, with its international exports and its hardworking people fresh out of poverty.
I was merely a cog in the wheel to run a daily newspaper for the Conference. It was called The Earth Times, and we had been at all UN conferences from the Earth Summit in Rio onwards to the UN Human Rights Conference in Vienna, to the UN Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.
I had been for a reconnaissance to Beijing and their Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Li Zhaoxing, a charming veteran of multilateral diplomacy, promised logistical support to print The Earth Times on the presses of one of their dailies. They welcomed us and we thought it would be a fruitful partnership. For sure, they needed us as much as we needed them — they wanted The Earth Times to be the flagship of the UN conference as we had been there as the newspaper of record since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.
We arrived in Beijing for the conference with a group of journalists who would be doing the stories and interviews and a production team for design, layout and printing. It seemed perfect till the night we were supposed to go to press. Suddenly we were told that the presses were busy and our paper would not be printed. The next morning at the conference our Chinese liaison person was not to be seen. Through Chinese whispers, literally, we got to hear a rumour that the foreign ministry had run foul with the home ministry who were denying permission for an American newspaper to be allowed to be published in Beijing even just for the UN Conference. We were persona non-grata!
At this point, as day two and three went by without The Earth Times, journalists from the New York Times, CNN and hundreds of others who were also at the conference started interviewing us as to why The Earth Times was not being published. Still hoping the Chinese would change their minds, we told them we were ready to publish and wanted to but they would have to ask our hosts the Chinese. Finally, the word got out on the front pages of several International newspapers that the Chinese were muzzling The Earth Times, even though the newspaper had been allowed at all the other UN conferences in Brazil, Egypt, Denmark and Vienna. China started to look bad.
The next day we were called to a meeting with our Chinese hosts and told we would be allowed to publish but had to sign a contract saying we would permit nothing critical against the Chinese government or Chinese policy to be printed in the newspaper. Nor would we be allowed to circulate the paper at the NGO Forum or hotels where the delegates were staying. Our publication would only be permitted at the Conference Centre. Relieved that something was better than nothing we agreed. Then, the US First Lady, Hilary Clinton, who was eagerly awaited at the conference arrived and her speech was fiery and critical of Chinese policy. She lambasted the government on the fact that “many women in nongovernmental organisations who wished to participate in the conference have not been able to attend — or have been prohibited from fully taking part.”
“Freedom means the right of people to assemble, organise and debate openly. It means respecting the views of those who may disagree with the views of their government. It means not taking citizens away from their loved ones and jailing them, mistreating them, or denying them their freedom or dignity because of the peaceful expression of their ideas and opinions,” she said, lambasting the Chinese government.
The Earth Times printed her speech in full, scathing though it was about Chinese government policy. The Earth Times was even smuggled by delegates to the NGO Forum. Everyone was reading it. We waited with bated breath to see what would happen to us. Nothing happened.
I was stunned. I had signed a contract that stated we would be shut down and penalised if we printed any criticism of the government yet we were allowed to publish for 17 straight days and that to on Chinese presses! They had tried to muzzle us but international opinion went against them and they backed down. The Earth Times was even smuggled by delegates to the NGO Forum and hotels. Everyone was reading us.
This was when I realised that China was a bully. It would try and get its way but if stood up to, it backed down.
Today, more than ever, China is being watched carefully by nations around the world. The huge trade surpluses with the US, may be a thing of the past. President Trump is adamant about this. India can be too. We can have a consortium of countries, that are disgusted with China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, to trade directly with us. We can announce our ability to do this. Our government has already taken steps to solidify our partnership with Australia, Japan, Vietnam just to name a few of the countries that trade with us. Chinese markets abroad will shrink and put pressure on its growth and jobs. This trend is just beginning.
Meanwhile we must use our standing as the World’s Largest Democracy and a country that has never invaded another, to show just what China has done to us in the past. The way they took over Aksai Chin and are now making inroads in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). Their blatant aggression is already causing problems with other nations. China is good at psychological warfare, and we must match it, but from a position of strength. North Korea is a bigger problem than China realises. The monster in its backyard can bite it. In One Belt One Road and The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, China has put in huge amounts that have yet to pay off. For all this, China needs goodwill and partnership not only with its neighbours but worldwide.It does not look good for China to start a war with Bhutan, a tiny country, and no matter how much they play up India’s aggressive posture on the Dolam Plateau, the international community is not stupid. They know that they ignore China’s games at their peril.
Standing up to China is the only thing India can do. We must not bow before naked aggression. Not today, not ever.
Freelance journalist Ashali Varma has authored the biography of her father late Lt. Gen. PS Bhagat—‘The Victoria Cross: A Love Story’. She was the executive publisher of The Earth Times, New York (1992- 98). She writes on various issues including human rights, population and sustainable development. This article earlier appeared in the Times of India of July 19, 2017 at http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/no-free-lunch/