NEW DELHI — Rising economic and military power is emboldening Beijing to pursue a more muscular foreign policy. Having earlier preached the gospel of its “peaceful rise,” China is now beginning to take the gloves off, confident of the muscle it has acquired.
From provocatively seeking to assert its jurisdiction over islets claimed by Vietnam in the South China Sea to whipping up diplomatic spats with Germany, Canada and the United States over their hospitality to the Dalai Lama, Beijing has shown an increasing propensity to flex its muscles.
Other such recent instances include China’s demolition of a few unmanned Indian forward posts at the Tibet-Bhutan-Sikkim tri-junction, its large-scale war game in the South and East China Seas, its public showcasing of new military hardware like the Jin-class, nuclear-capable submarine, its strategic moves around India, and its last-minute cancellation of a long-planned Hong Kong visit by the U.S. carrier, Kitty Hawk. Beijing also refused to let two American minesweepers enter Hong Kong harbor for shelter during a Pacific storm.
Ever since it surprised the world by successfully carrying out an anti-satellite weapon test last January, China’s communist leadership has been less coy about projecting national power. The apparent aim to fashion a Beijing-oriented Asia. It seems unconcerned that its assertive stance has triggered anti-China demonstrators in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and spurred unease in other neighboring states.
It is against this background that the heads of government of Asia’s other two major powers — Japan and India — are paying official visits to China. While Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s tour begins Thursday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is scheduled to make a New Year visit two weeks later, as part of an agreement reached during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s November 2006 New Delhi visit “to hold regular summit-level meetings.”
Little progress, however, can be expected during these visits toward resolving the territorial or maritime disputes that divide Japan and China, and India and China. Yet, if the China-India-Japan strategic triangle is to become stable, a settlement of those disputes is necessary. A first step to a settlement of any dispute is clarity on a line of control or appreciation of the “no go” areas so that provocative or unfriendly actions can be eschewed.
The best way for China and Japan to explore for hydrocarbons in the East China Sea is through joint development of fields, given the intricate, difficult-to-resolve claims and legal ambiguities. But China’s gunboat diplomacy across the median line in the East China Sea and unilateral drilling moves have impeded such progress.
The world’s two most populous nations, China and India, have been scowling at each other across a 4,057-km disputed Indo-Tibetan frontier. Protracted negotiations over the past 26 years have failed to remove even the ambiguities plaguing this long line of control. Beijing, seeking to keep India under strategic pressure, has been loath to clearly define the front line.
Singh’s visit is to follow more than a year of assertive Chinese moves that have run counter to declared efforts to build a stable Sino-Indian relationship based on equilibrium and forward thinking.
Two things have happened. One, China has hardened its stance on territorial disputes with India. And two, as the Dalai Lama pointed out in a recent address in Rome, Beijing is taking an increasing harsh position on Tibet, pretending there is no Tibetan issue to resolve.
The Tibet issue is at the core of the India-China divide, and without Beijing beginning a process of reconciliation and healing in Tibet and coming to terms with history, there is little prospect of Sino-Indian differences being bridged.
Beijing itself highlights the centrality of the Tibet issue by laying claim to Indian territories on the basis of alleged Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links to them, not any professed Han connection.
With the Dalai Lama having publicly repudiated such claims, a discomfitted Beijing has sought to persuade the Tibetan government-in-exile to support China’s position that India’s northeastern Arunachal Pradesh state is part of traditional Tibet. The fact is that with China’s own claim to Tibet being historically dubious, its claims to Indian territories are doubly suspect, underlining its attempts at incremental annexation.
The uncompromising Chinese approach contrasts sharply with the forbearing positions of the Indian government and the Dalai Lama. New Delhi, for instance, has bent over backward to play down recent aggressive Chinese military moves along the ill-defined line of control.
The Dalai Lama, for his part, is beginning to face muted criticism from restive Tibetans for having secured nothing from Beijing two decades after changing the struggle for liberation from Chinese imperial conquest to a struggle for autonomy within the framework of the People’s Republic. As the Dalai Lama himself admitted in Rome, “Our right hand has always reached out to the Chinese government. That hand has remained “empty.’ “
Examples of China’s increasing hardline stance on India range from the Chinese ambassador’s Beijing-supported bellicose public statement on Arunachal Pradesh on the eve of Hu’s visit, to the Chinese foreign minister’s May 2007 message to his Indian counterpart that China no longer felt bound by a 2005 agreement that any border-related settlement should not disturb settled populations. Add to that the October admission by the chief of India’s Indo-Tibetan Border Police that there had been 141 Chinese military incursions in the preceding 12-month period alone.
Beijing’s strategy is to interminably drag out its separate negotiating processes with India and the Dalai Lama’s envoys in order to wheedle out more and more concessions.
In line with that, China’s negotiators have been in full foot-dragging mode, seeking to keep the discussions merely at the level of enunciating principles, positions and frameworks — something they have done splendidly in negotiations with India since 1981 and with the Dalai Lama’s envoys since 2002.
As several Chinese scholars have acknowledged, Beijing is not as keen as New Delhi to resolve the territorial disputes. Having got what it wanted either by military aggression or furtive encroachment, Beijing values its claims on additional Indian territories as vital leverage.
Similarly, not content with the Dalai Lama’s abandonment of the demand for independence, Beijing continues to publicly vilify him and portray his envoys’ visits for negotiations as personal trips. It has further tightened its vise on Tibet by ordering that all lama reincarnations must get its approval, renewing political repression, and encouraging the “Go West” Han-migration campaign.
It is not accidental that China’s hardline approach has followed its infrastructure advances on the Tibetan plateau, including the opening of a new railway, airfields and highways. The railway, by arming Beijing with a rapid military-deployment capability against India, is transforming the trans-Himalayan military equations.
How the China-Japan, China-India and Japan-India equations evolve in the coming years will have a critical bearing on Asian security. But through its growing assertiveness, China is already showing that its rise is dividing, not uniting, Asia.
Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.
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