China should face its own unsavory past

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — The new foreign-policy subtleness that China has displayed in recent years is a far cry from the coarse image its earlier Communist rulers presented, especially when they set out, in then-Premier Zhou Enlai’s words, to “teach India a lesson” in 1962, or when, to quote strongman Deng Xiaoping, they similarly sought to “teach a lesson to Vietnam” in 1979.

Old habits, however, die hard. One example of China’s new velvet glove slipping off came when it menacingly scripted anti-Japanese mob protests five months ago.

While pursuing a dynamic diplomacy to enhance its political influence and build soft power, China faces the challenge of containing the recrudescence of past-style crudity at a time when it is substituting ideology with increasingly fervent nationalism. A reminder of that challenge came recently when its Bombay-based consul general — throwing diplomatic norms to the wind — audaciously talked down to the Indian defense minister at a seminar and then received public support from his ambassador in New Delhi.

Beijing, far from recalling its consul general for conduct that no other respectable nation would have found acceptable in its representative, may have patted him on the back. The Chinese consul had little reason to be invited or be present at a meeting on the Indian private sector’s role in defense production. In any case, he was only an observer.

Furthermore, political matters are outside the domain of consular officials, who are neither full diplomats nor entitled to equivalent protection, covered as they are by a separate international convention. The 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and Optional Protocols limits their role to “the development of commercial, economic, cultural and scientific relations between the sending State and the receiving State.”

Indian Defense Minister Pranab Kumar Mukherjee, in his address to the Bombay seminar, fleetingly referred to two plain facts — “the Chinese invasion of 1962″ as a defining moment that set in motion India’s new thrust on defense production, and the still-festering border problem with China, which has resolved its land-frontier disputes “with all its neighbors except India and Bhutan.” The Chinese invasion and the continuing border dispute are routinely mentioned in the annual reports of the Indian Defense Ministry.

Diplomatic propriety dictated that, if the consul general found Mukherjee’s articulation of facts offensive, he should have written to his ambassador in New Delhi, who, in turn, could have sought instructions from Beijing on whether to approach the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. Instead, however, the consul general took his host nation’s defense minister head-on, castigating him at the seminar for using the term “invasion” and claiming “China did not invade India.” He then asked, “Are you saying that China is a difficult country to negotiate with on this [border] issue?” before replying himself: “Personally I think it is India that is not willing to negotiate.”

Despite the impudence, the defense minister offered a polite and reasoned response, although he could have pointed out that the consul had not been adequately schooled in diplomacy and ignored his intervention. Yet, the Chinese thundered to the media after the seminar that he will have to send “a report to the higher authorities in Beijing.”

As if to show the consul’s conduct was no aberration, the Chinese ambassador implicitly criticized the defense minister’s reference to 1962, telling the press in New Delhi, “If you talk too much of the past, it is out of fashion.” While professing to be “sorry to see misunderstandings among friends,” the ambassador went on to assert, “Whatever happened in the past is history and we want to put it back into history.”

What the incident reveals is the way China contradictorily deals in history vis-a-vis its neighbors to further its foreign-policy objectives.

While it wants India to forget 1962 or at least consign it to history, it misses no opportunity to hit Japan over the head with the history card. Its aim is not to extract more apologies from Tokyo for its World War II atrocities but to continually shame and tame Japan. In fact, visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao wantonly used Indian soil last April to demand that Japan “face up to history squarely,” setting the stage for China’s orchestrated anti-Japanese protests.

A third way China manipulates history is by reconstructing the past to prepare for the future. This was illustrated by the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s posting on its Web site last year of a revised historical claim that the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, founded in northern Korea, was Chinese. This was seen as an attempt to hedge China’s options vis-a-vis a potentially unified Korea.

Then there is China’s continued use of purported history to advance extravagant territorial or maritime claims.

While the Sino-Japanese rivalry has deep roots, dating back to the 16th century, the Chinese and Indian military frontiers met for the first time in history only in 1950 when China annexed (or, as its history books say, “liberated”) Tibet, a buffer nearly the size of western Europe. Within 12 years of becoming India’s neighbor, China invaded that country from two separate Himalayan flanks, with Mao cleverly timing his aggression with the dawn of the Cuban missile crisis.

Beijing has yet to grasp that a muscular approach is counterproductive. Had it not set out to “teach India a lesson,” that country probably would not have become a significant military and nuclear power that it is today. The invasion laid the foundation of India’s political rise.

Just a decade ago, Beijing was content to see Japan as pacifist, China-friendly and a main source of low-interest loans. Now, it is locked in a cold war with Tokyo, with the growing Chinese assertiveness and ambition spurring a politically resurgent Japan. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s landslide election victory, aided in part by China’s aggressive use of the history card and its poll-eve gunboat diplomacy, opens the way for constitutional revision and the emergence of Japan as a “normal” military power.

Less noticed is the way a myopic China is driving Japan and India closer. Tokyo is beginning to enthusiastically discover India as an investment destination and a potential strategic partner. Reversing an old pattern, it now provides more development loans to India than to China.

Bountiful Japanese investment inflows have triggered a foreign-funded bubble in Indian equities that has seen the benchmark index soar steeply in recent months, making it Asia’s best performer. Japanese institutional investors, psychologically rattled by China’s anti-Japan protests, have sought to hedge their risks by plowing more than $5 billion into the Indian stock markets.

Not only has new Japanese buying of Chinese stocks slowed, India has also emerged as Japan’s new investment pick. This is evident from the array of new India retail funds in Japan. In fact, the Nomura Asset Management Co. Ltd. in Tokyo had to close its India-dedicated fund just a day after its launch on June 22 because it collected more money than it could invest without artificially shooting up Indian stock prices.

For this, New Delhi could send a thank-you note to Beijing. It is this kind of continuing political shortsightedness that could spell doom for the communist hold over China.

Even the consul general’s impudence has counterproductively put the spotlight again on an invasion that Beijing wishes to put out of public discussion and about which it hides truth from its own people. The impertinence only draws attention to the fact that China remains unapologetic for its major stab-in-the-back that shattered India’s pacifism and hastened Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s death. China can never regain India as a friend until it faces up to history and makes amends for 1962.