China’s tactical retreat too little, too late; From India to US, global hardening of posture evident, Xi Jinping may pay for overreach

Under Xi Jinping, China now shows a greater amount of risk-taking ability and goes against the grain of its established foreign policy principles.

Sreemoy Talukdar July 17, 2020 16:15:49 IST
China’s tactical retreat too little, too late; From India to US, global hardening of posture evident, Xi Jinping may pay for overreach

Last week we witnessed what seemed like a tactical retreat from China. During a video conference Wednesday on Sino-US relations co-organised by a Chinese and an American think tank, China’s vice foreign minister Le Yucheng extended an olive branch towards the US, calling for dialogue and cooperation, warned against economic decoupling, cited past history of close engagement and urged both nations to “accommodate each other’s core interests and concerns.”

A day later, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, at another video conference, read from the same script. Setting aside the familiar ‘wolf warrior’ rhetoric, a conciliatory Wang repeated the call for a dialogue “putting all issues on table”. He admitted that bilateral relation is “facing the most severe challenge since establishment of diplomatic ties”, urged the US to set aside its “paranoia” and “suspicion” about China and sort issues of cooperation and competition into separate boxes so that overall ties remain stable.

Coordinated messaging from China’s top two diplomats in the space of a day isn’t a coincidence, rather an attempt to pare down the temperature and stop the ball rolling towards an all-out confrontation. It is obvious that China is worried about the trajectory of Sino-US relationship. Beijing wants to lessen the degree of hostility and increase engagement with Washington.

Wang and Le’s speeches are also a deviation from ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ -- the increasingly brusque and bellicose style adopted by Chinese diplomats while dealing with what they perceive to be ‘unwarranted’ criticisms of China in a post-pandemic world.

The angle of deviation becomes apparent when we consider that China has not been defensive about either its assertive and recidivist foreign policy, territorial aggrandisement or full-throated pushback against growing criticism.

Take, for example, this recent essay carried by its state-controlled media on ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’: “The days when China can be put in a submissive position are long gone. China’s rising status in the world requires it to safeguard its national interests in an unequivocal way. After all, what’s behind China’s perceived ‘Wolf Warrior’ style diplomacy is the changing strengths of China and the West… As Western diplomats fall into disgrace, they are getting a taste of China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy.”

The impression that emerges is of a China that has convinced itself that its transition to a great power is now complete, it is increasingly impatient with the Deng Xiaoping policy of ‘biding its time’ and feels that it has arrived and must seize the moment as the global hegemon is in irreversible decline. So pervasive has been this impression that sober voices within China’s strategic circles are worried about Beijing’s vaulting ambition ruining its plan.

While professor Xiang Lanxin has put this ‘wolf warrior’ culture down to “Chinese translators from foreign language institutions handling foreign affairs” who are convinced of the “superiority of China model” and have no acumen in long-term strategic thinking, professor Shi Yinhong of Renmin University of China believes the effort to project China as the world leader is being “done too hastily, too soon and too loudly”.

In this context, the sudden change in China’s tone and effort to reduce the fraught tensions between the two sides, therefore, appear stark. But it is not just the US with whom China has attempted a rapprochement. In the same week, China’s ambassador to India Sun Weidong on Friday uploaded a 17-minute video claiming that China and India are “partners, not rivals, and pose no threat to each other.”

In his long speech, Sun attempted to hit the right notes in restoring bilateral relationship after the Galwan clash where 20 Indian soldiers were killed in action along with an unspecified number of Chinese casualties marking the first combat fatalities between the two sides in 45 years. He called the Galwan incident “a situation both countries will not like to see”, claimed that China has “all along advocated that peace is of paramount importance” and insisted that it was “neither a warlike state nor an assertive country”.

There were calls for pursuing “win-win cooperation instead of zero sum game”, references to the informal summit between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping, invoking of the 2000-year-old “friendly exchanges”, urging India to meet China “halfway”, defending China’s actions at Galwan and also a veiled threat against “strategic miscalculation”.

The overall address, however, barely hid an urgency that normalcy in bilateral ties must be restored at once, mutual trust should be soon rebuilt and both nations should get back to business because fighting with each other will only “hurt those close to us and gladden the foes” — a hat tip to the US who, China believes, stand to gain the most from a Sino-Indian conflict.

Chinese ambassador’s “outreach towards India” is unconvincing. It is little else apart from a justification of Chinese aggression in Ladakh and a bit of dishonest and insincere semantical jugglery. For instance, Sun correctly assumes that both countries share “long-term strategic interests” but puts the onus of “disrupting the bilateral relationship” and mutual “suspicion and friction” on India. Sun even manages to blame Indians for the dip in ties, for making “false assumptions about China’s intentions, exaggerating conflicts and provoking confrontations.”

“I have noticed some emerging opinions in recent days which repudiate the essence of China-India friendship due to the border-related incidents, make false assumptions about China’s intentions, exaggerate conflicts and provoke confrontations, and regard a close neighbor over thousands of years as “enemies” and “strategic threats”. It is not the fact. It is harmful indeed and not helpful,” reads his address.

Perhaps it was the Indian Army and not the PLA, that crossed over to the Chinese side of the LAC at several points in Ladakh, started raising constructions and triggered the conflict? No one can blame the Chinese Communist Party for lacking an effort to build a post-truth narrative.

Sun needs to be reminded that it is China that has repeatedly broken India’s trust by raiding its sovereign territory, flouted all norms, agreements and principles of peaceful coexistence several times through its predation, territorial aggrandizement and salami-slicing tactics, and caused the current crisis by going back on its words and killing Indian soldiers. For China to now preach the very values that it trampled on is amusing. But we need not press a point that’s obvious.

The larger issue is China’s ham-handed attempt at reconciliation. While the disengagement process is underway at the LAC — recent reports suggest that China is dragging its feet on pulling back from Pangong Tso and Depsang plains despite recent military commander-level talks that went on for 15 hours — Sun’s address to India betrays a sense of urgency that bilateral ties must not be allowed to go more astray than it already has.

Should we see this as China’s reasonable approach prompted by a pang of conscience, or a genuine attempt at a rapprochement? Hardly. The answer to Sun’s outreach lies in trade. India runs a massive trade deficit with China, and the souring of relations puts a question mark against continuing with that trade relationship amid a total collapse of trust.

As Gautam Bambawale, former Indian ambassador to China, recently observed, “India will have to take measures to indicate that if there is no peace on the border, the rest of the relationship with China will also be negatively impacted. A reassessment and recalibration of India’s China policy are required to make India’s messaging crystal clear.”

No one is talking about an economic decoupling, but it is well within India’s ability to inflict considerable pain on China (while accepting some self-harm) and deter Beijing’s attempts at gaining global technological leadership. As has been previously argued by this commentator, New Delhi’s decision to ban 59 Chinese apps including the wildly popular TikTok on grounds of national security is a serious setback for China and it may interminably damage the ability of Chinese startups to dominate the tech landscape by denying access to the largest overseas market.

India’s move may be even more damaging for China in terms of setting a precedent, and the buzz of Australia or the US following India’s footsteps in banning the popular video-sharing app is growing louder. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has already given such signals and latest report indicate 25 US Congressional leaders have urged President Donald Trump to “take decisive action to protect the American people’s privacy and safety” by banning TikTok that has been accused of data theft and acting as a CCP surveillance tool.

“Banishment from India, which has more than 500 million smartphone users, hobbles China’s effort to compete with US firms like Facebook, Google and Amazon for ‘the next billion users,’ people turning to the internet for the first time to shop, search for information or make digital payments,” observes AEI fellow Sadanand Dhume in Wall Street Journal.

Nor is the impact restricted only to apps. State-owned telecom firms BSNL and MTNL have been asked not to use Huawei or ZTE equipment in its infrastructure. The government is apparently leaning on private players to follow suit, and it seems increasingly likely that Huawei may be kept away from India’s 5G rollout — a market that the Chinese tech giant desperately needs to access after suffering reverses in the West.

The fact that India’s telecom giant Jio claims to have developed an indigenous, cost-effective “complete 5G solution from scratch that can be field deployed next year” queers the pitch further for Huawei.

Chinese interest in keeping bilateral trade untroubled from geopolitical squabbles is intense, and the reason is evident. In 1999-2000, India’s bilateral trade deficit with China stood at $743.85 million. In just about two decades, that gap has widened to $48.66 billion. The trade stood at $53.56 billion in 2018-19 and $63 billion in 2017-18. Conducting business with India has been profitable for China.

One of the reasons India tolerated and even encouraged growing trade and commerce with China despite an uneven field and China’s unfair practices is geopolitical.

Despite China’s recalcitrant behaviour on market access to Indian firms — a tactic that China successfully applies globally — New Delhi believed that deepening of trade ties would de-incentivize Chinese territorial aggrandisement and allow India the chance to access Chinese investment and help its own market to mature. The Galwan inflection point has underlined to the Indian establishment the futility of hope masquerading as policy.

While this may explain Chinese outreach towards India, what lies behind Beijing’s tactical retreat and lowering of rhetoric vis-à-vis the US? China’s role in mishandling the coronavirus outbreak and suppressing data leading to the spread of the global pandemic has already prompted a global backlash. Beijing made it worse through its ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy and weaponisation of medical aid and supplies. Consequently, a majority of the public in western democracies view China as a malign force.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">It seems China has pissed off the Western public. <a href="https://t.co/NbLHA6M618">pic.twitter.com/NbLHA6M618</a></p>&mdash; Nate Jeris (@NateJeris) <a href="https://twitter.com/NateJeris/status/1279784257792045058?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">July 5, 2020</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

China is not just pissing off the western public. Beijing’s post-pandemic aggression — raising tension in the South China Sea by harassing littoral nations, violating India’s sovereignty through unilateral action, murdering 20 Indian soldiers during another border flare-up, bullying Australia through economic coercion for Canberra’s probe demand into origin of the Wuhan virus and finally, taking away Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status through a draconian law whose jurisdiction covers practically the entire planet — is reshaping attitudes in Asia and toughening American policy approach towards Beijing across the political spectrum.

A series of high-ranking officials in the Donald Trump administration has, in recent past, identified China as America’s biggest military, ideological and geopolitical threat that seeks to supplant the US as the global superpower while making the global ground fertile for the decline of democracy and rise of authoritarianism.

Worth noting that this is not a new American approach. In October 2018, US vice president Mike Pence was outlining the dangers that China poses to the US. However, even as Pence had warned on Beijing “employing a whole-of-government approach to advance its influence and benefit its interests” on American soil and using this power “in more proactive and coercive ways”, Pence still talked about a vision of “future built on the best parts of our past, when America and China reached out to one another in a spirit of openness and friendship…”

Washington seems to have abandoned that cautious approach. Let’s look at a few recent speeches. On 24 June, US National Security Advisor Robert C O’Brien delivered a lecture on Chinese Communist Party’s Ideology and Global Ambitions where he acknowledged that the US has all along been wrong on China.

As China grew richer and stronger, we believed, the Chinese Communist Party would liberalize to meet the rising democratic aspirations of its people. This was a bold, quintessentially American idea, born of our innate optimism and by the experience of our triumph over Soviet Communism. Unfortunately, it turned out to be very naïve. We could not have been more wrong—and this miscalculation is the greatest failure of American foreign policy since the 1930s.”

On 7 July, FBI director delivered an address at a Washington DC-based think tank. In it, Wray identified Chinese counterintelligence and economic espionage as the “greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property… economic vitality… and national security.” Wray echoed Pence’s remarks in declaring that CCP “believes it is in a generational fight to surpass our country in economic and technological leadership” and “China is engaged in a whole-of-state effort to become the world’s only superpower by any means necessary.”

A few days later on 13 July the US hardened its position on South China Sea and for the first time called “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea… completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.” Notably, as Gregory B. Poling of Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative has explained in his essay, this is not a new American approach but certainly a more clear-eyed one that sets the stage for a “ long-term effort to impose cost on China and rally support for U.S. partners.”

Right on cue, David R Stilwell, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs reiterated US South China Policy and called Chinese state-owned enterprises in South China Sea the “modern-day equivalents of the East India Company” — the British agent of colonialism in early-18th to mid-19th century.

And on Thursday, US Attorney General William Barr accused China of being “engaged in an economic blitzkrieg—an aggressive, orchestrated, whole-of-government (indeed, whole-of-society) campaign to seize the commanding heights of the global economy and to surpass the United States as the world’s preeminent superpower” and accused American businesses and polity of naivete. “American companies must understand the stakes. The Chinese Communist Party thinks in terms of decades and centuries, while we tend to focus on the next quarterly earnings report.”

This hardening of attitude in the US — that many have speculated to have been sparked by China’s malicious actions in Hong Kong — has been accompanied by greater US activism. The Trump administration has not only outlawed Huawei, but it is also pressurising its NATO allies and other Western democracies of doing the same and showing an eagerness to form a coalition of sorts.

The US NSA is touring Europe along with his deputy, China expert Matthew Pottinger and meeting “counterparts from France, UK, Germany and Italy to address a range of national security challenges including China, 5G, Russia, Afghanistan, Middle East/North Africa and COVID response and recovery,” while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is going to the UK and Denmark, where, among other issues, China will be high on agenda.

American effort at galvanising a broad anti-China coalition worries China. Beijing has, at various times, denounced America’s ‘Cold War mentality’. In recent comments, as has been mentioned, China’s vice foreign minister has warned the US that “to build a bloc against China and force other countries to take sides will not win hearts and minds.”

It is a quaint argument, given the fact that Beijing is responsible for hardening of global attitude towards it. Under Xi Jinping, China now shows a greater amount of risk-taking ability and goes against the grain of its established foreign policy principles. Chinese diplomats have covered the distance from a culture of persuasion and compromise to naked arrogance quicker than it took the time for China to rise.

As Kurt M Campbell and Mira Rapp-Hoope write in Foreign Affairs, “In the past, the CCP generally sought to maintain a relatively stable security environment, occasionally seizing opportunities to advance the country’s aims without provoking undue international backlash and carefully recalibrating whenever it overreached.”

This has been replaced with a reckless abandon and bullying behaviour from diplomats that arises from a belief that China’s composite national power is now requisite for a fundamental rethink in foreign policy, one that accurately reflects its might.

This change has been captured eloquently by the former foreign secretary and an old China hand Vijay Gokhale, who writes, “a new generation of diplomats, with knowledge of the English language and a careerist mindset, has started to whittle away at the anchors laid down by Zhou and Deng. Arrogance has replaced humility. Persuasion is quickly abandoned in favour of the stick when countries take actions contrary to Chinese wishes.”

However, the recent tactical retreat goes to show that China is still not confident enough to go into an all-out confrontation with Washington and reckons that managing the relationship is a better idea that raising the temperature. One of the reasons behind this thinking is obvious. China’s rapid rise is linked intrinsically with globalisation — the merits of which it successfully harnessed to register aggressive growth for decades — and it feels that the time is still not ripe for a total disruption of that plan.

Accordingly, we find Chinese foreign minister stressing that “China never intends to challenge or replace the US, or have a full confrontation with the US. What we care most about is to improve the livelihood of our people” and the foreign ministry spokesperson calling the US the “most developed country with the greatest strength and the only superpower in the world.”

This is a tightrope walk and a tactical retreat from China but it is unconvincing because, in the same presser where Hua Chunying sought to flatter the US, she used naked threats against the UK to warn it that London will face grave consequences for acting against Huawei. Beijing is finding it difficult to balance its strategic imperatives with unrestrained might, but it would do well to take lessons from the great Greek historian Polybius.

As Pell Center fellow Iskander Rehman reminds us quoting from Polybius’ Histories, “Throughout the Histories, Polybius reminds his Roman readership — sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly — that primacy can only endure if it appears more benevolent, just, and conducive to prosperity than the system or lack of system that preceded it.”

China isn’t there yet but it is acting as if it has, and it may a steep price for this miscalculation.

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