Deng Xiao Ping who survived Maoist repression and became China’s Supreme Ruler from 1978 to 1997, set the stage for dumping Maoist communist dogma and releasing the creative energy of Chinese entrepreneurship. He rationalised discarding orthodox Communist ideology, proclaiming: “It does not matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it can kill mice”. Deng was the ‘Helmsman’ of China’s breathtaking economic growth which transformed if into the world’s economic powerhouse, within three decades.

Deng urged caution in the conduct of security policies. Shortly after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Deng advised his countrymen: “Observe calmly, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly, hide our capabilities and bide our time.” He had practical reasons for offering this advice.

Lessons for China

China was badly mauled during the Ussuri River clashes with the Soviet Union in 1969. Worse was the humiliation China suffered following Deng’s visit to Washington in 1978, where he was feted, wined and dined by President Jimmy Carter and the barons of American business. Shortly thereafter, he proclaimed: “Vietnam is a hooligan. We must teach it a lesson.” However, when China invaded Vietnam in 1979, it was taught a lesson.

There was a similar setback in 1986, when the Peoples’ Liberation Army occupied vacated Indian posts in Sumdorong Chu/Wangdung in Arunachal Pradesh. India responded by airlifting forces to the McMahon Line along the China-India border. Deng warned India in 1986 that it would be taught a “lesson” if it did not withdraw its forces, with American Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger acting as an intermediary. New Delhi, however, stood firm and a military stalemate followed. External Affairs Minister ND Tiwari visited Beijing in May 1987. He clarified that India was not interested in escalating tensions while holding out the possibility of a visit to China by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Meanwhile, Arunachal Pradesh became a State of the Indian Union in February 1987.

The visit took place in November 1988, with Deng personally welcoming the ‘young’ Indian Prime Minister and setting the stage for seeking a new relationship with India. Chinese troops, however, pulled back fully from Sumdorong Chu only in 1993.

Noticeable change

Much has changed in the last three decades in China. It is now an economic powerhouse with a GDP five times that of India and defence spending six times higher. It has impressive defence production facilities and armed forces with huge firepower. But this economic rise has also led to China discarding Deng’s prescription of: “Hide our capabilities and bide our time.”

China is now flexing its economic and military muscle across Asia, while also exercising its maritime power across the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. It is defining its maritime borders arbitrarily, drawing a “nine-dash line” to occupy and build military bases on several islands hundreds of miles from its shores, which are legally claimed by its neighbours. Its claims, many coercively enforced, have included unilaterally defining its maritime boundaries with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. Beijing has, however, been circumspect, in not biting off more than it can chew, in the case of Japan.

China has coerced a number of Asean countries not to support members like Vietnam and Indonesia which have demanded that Beijing should adhere to rulings of the UN Arbitration Tribunal on its maritime boundaries. This fear of Chinese power has torn apart Asean solidarity, with many members refusing to entertain any critical references to China at the recent ministerial conference in the Philippines. Not content with establishing its hegemony in Southeast Asia, China has also moved to contain and erode India’s influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. The ambivalence of the Trump administration towards containing Chinese power and its revocation of the Trans-Pacific (Economic) Partnership has raised serious doubts about American reliability as an economic and military partner in East and Southeast Asia. China has benefited immensely from this.

Pakistan is predictably the primary instrument for China’s policy of ‘containment’ of India. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor stretching from PoK to the port of Gwadar has been accompanied by a decision to enhance Pakistan’s maritime power, with the supply of eight frigates and eight submarines to Pakistan. China has outmanoeuvred the US, Japan and India by strengthening its political and economic influence in the economic and political policies of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar and is set to build the strategic port of Kyaukpyu there in the Bay of Bengal, while taking over Hambantota port in Sri Lanka.

Big miscalculation

Riding on hubris, China, gravely miscalculated what the response of India and Bhutan would be to its intrusion in Doklam. Beijing violated written agreements with Bhutan signed in 1988 and 1998, which pledged to “maintain status quo on the boundary as before March 1959”, and “refrain from taking unilateral action, or use of force, to change the status quo on the boundary”. It also violated the December 2012 “Common Understanding” reached by Special Representatives of India and China agreeing to maintain the status quo, pending a tripartite agreement on the location of the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction. China has now landed itself in a military and diplomatic quagmire. The Sikkim-Bhutan border is the worst location for China for a confrontation with India which has huge advantages in terms of terrain, logistics, firepower and numbers in this area. Any military misadventure could destroy the image of invincibility the Chinese have assiduously built by bullying weaker maritime neighbours.

China can possibly undertake intrusions in sections of its borders with India, where it enjoys logistical advantages. India has to be prepared for this. In the meantime, imaginative diplomacy is required to ensure China is given a face-saving way out from its present predicament.

A visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to China for the forthcoming BRICS summit would largely depend on his reading of Chinese intentions and flexibility. Much will, however, depend on how President Xi Jinping decides to deal with the domestic challenges he is likely to face during the forthcoming Communist Party Congress, scheduled for later this year.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

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