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China wants the world to 'tremblingly obey' it

Venky Vembu | Updated on July 16, 2020 Published on July 15, 2020

Lock, stock and barrel: India’s ‘addiction’ to Chinese supply chains — even for Ganesh idols — is at cross purposes with its efforts to neutralise that country’s imperialist moves ‘   -  PTI/ SHAILENDRA BHOJAK

There is an umbilical connection between China’s business policies and exertion of military and diplomatic strength

* China is pursuing a puzzling brazenness in the conduct of its international relations that suggests it wants the world to “tremblingly obey” its neo-imperial edicts

* In ancient times, China (aka ‘The Middle Kingdom’) thought of itself as being the centre of the world, and in acknowledgement of its superiority, it historically sought ‘tribute’ from its ‘vassal states’

Late in the 18th century, when British traders, operating under the banner of the East India Company, were looking to gain a foothold in China in order to sell their merchandise, they did what ‘crony capitalists’ down the ages have always done. They prevailed upon their sovereign — King George III — to send an official envoy to the Chinese imperial court to secure concessions from Emperor Qianlong. In 1792, that envoy, Lord George Macartney, arrived in Peking, presented himself before the emperor, and handed over a letter from the king. After some initial hardball negotiations about whether the envoy would have to ‘kowtow’ to Qianlong, the meeting itself seemed to go smoothly, and concluded with a banquet. But the British mission failed: Emperor Qianlong rejected all requests for trade concessions — but more than the substance, it was the forceful manner of the rejection that was striking.

In a letter to the British king, the emperor claimed that “our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders”. There was, he added acidly, “therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce”. Qianlong further cautioned the king against any attempt by the merchants to land their merchandise on Chinese shores on pain of “instant expulsion”. “Do not say that you were not warned,” the emperor thundered, and signed off with the imperial flourish reserved for his subjects — a commandment to “tremblingly obey”.

More than two centuries later, the world is experiencing a sense of déjà vu “all over again”. China’s piling up of trade surpluses with countries around the world continues, even during the months that the Covid-19 virus wrecked economies everywhere. And as manifested in a string of events from the East China Sea through the South China Sea to the Himalayan frontier of Ladakh — and even further afield (with Australia, the UK, and Canada) — China is pursuing a puzzling brazenness in the conduct of its international relations that suggests it wants the world to “tremblingly obey” its neo-imperial edicts.

China’s accumulation of trade surpluses and the muscular exertion of its military and diplomatic strength are not entirely unconnected. That understanding, however, runs contrary to what conventional wisdom suggests. Variations of peacenik trade theories have propounded that there is a strong pacifist instinct among countries whose economies are well-integrated — because they are both “developed, capitalist” nations or because they are commercially (and karmically) linked by supply chains or, somewhat more facetiously, because they both have McDonald’s outlets (the so-called ‘Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention’ as articulated — tongue firmly in cheek — by columnist Thomas Friedman).

More fundamentally, economist Adam Smith had laid the foundation for free trade in his magisterial work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. The tome was published 16 years before Emperor Qianlong despatched Macartney with borderline contempt. Smith wrote: “It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy... If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it off them with some part of the produce of our own industry employed in a way in which we have some advantage.”

In other words, if India cannot manufacture, say, advanced pharmaceutical ingredients — or even plastic chairs or Ganesh idols — as cost-efficiently as China can, it should import them without any qualms. Intuitively, that economic argument sounds ‘rational’, and in many ways it inarguably arguably is.

In the real world, however, these ‘rational’ decisions can, over the long term, have ruinous consequences. India’s current predicament with China, where it is so ‘addicted’ to Chinese supply chains that it is now being called upon to “tremblingly obey” the ‘imperial edicts’ emanating from Beijing, is symptomatic of this. Countries further afield, too, are being asked to ‘kowtow’ to the modern-day Chinese emperor.

An insight into just such a scenario was offered back in 2009, when Martin Jacques, former editor of Marxism Today, wrote the book When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World. Jacques argues that China’s rise will challenge the ‘western-centric’ view of the world, of civilisations and even of what constitutes ‘modernity’. China, he reasons, is not a nation-state, but a civilisation-state, and it will draw on its civilisational strengths — among other things, a belief in a hierarchical world and on racial (Han) supremacy — to reshape the world in its image.

In ancient times, China (aka ‘The Middle Kingdom’) thought of itself as being the centre of the world, and in acknowledgement of its superiority, it historically sought ‘tribute’ from its ‘vassal states’, which when paid with the customary markers of ritual genuflection, brought in return the promise of military support and patronage. Jacques reasoned that “when China rules the world”, it would establish just such a template for its relations with other countries. In other words, the world should prepare to ‘tremblingly obey’ China. Failure to comply comes at a high price: Just ask the soldiers of the Bihar Regiment posted on the Ladakh frontier.

 

Venky Vembu is Associate Editor, BusinessLine;

Email: venky.vembu@thehindu.co.in

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Published on July 15, 2020
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