Dalai Lama's Tawang visit: Unhinged rage against India betrays China's deep strategic insecurity

China's overreaction on Dalai Lama's Tawang visit is indicative of a strategic insecurity it still suffers from despite projecting itself as the great economic, continental and maritime hegemony on the cusp of replacing America as the next global superpower. The seeds of this insecurity lie in the fact that while as the world's second-largest economy it seeks to adopt the mantle of global leadership and fashions itself as the new champion of free trade, China has been unable to shake off its image as a hostile, outlier nation whose foreign policy is rooted in the dualism of bullying or patronage and economic policy is guided by blatant mercantilism.

 Dalai Lamas Tawang visit: Unhinged rage against India betrays Chinas deep strategic insecurity

Dalai Lama. Firstpost

Consider the two issues China grapples with due to this problem of perception. One, its repeated refusal to respect the World Trade Organisation architecture and frequent flouting of market rules that govern the global trading system has given rise to huge trade imbalance and resentment among its trading partners. US President Donald Trump made China's flouting of norms his core election plank and evidently profited from it. Trade imbalance is expected to corner a huge degree of attention as Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping sit across the table in Mar-a-Lago, Florida.

Second, and this has direct relevance to the recent fracas between India and China over Dalai Lama's visit, Beijing has shown a marked inability to develop friendly relationship with nations even as it seeks to rapidly translate its considerable economic prowess into hard military and political power.

China has never lent itself to international alliances, coalitions or treaty-based relationships, preferring instead to plough a lonely furrow guided by an ambition to restore its 'Middle Kingdom' glory. While seeking to do so, under President Xi Jinping, it has emerged as a revisionist power seeking to rewrite global order by blatant imperialism. Its propagation of a so-called Nine Dash Line in defiance of The Hague Tribunal ruling and aggressive reclamation programme over South China Sea littoral, for instance, point to the scant regard it has for international rules-based system.

There is obviously a commercial and strategic angle to China's misadventures in the South China Sea. Its neighbours such as Philippines fear that China will restrict navigation and secure for itself exclusive rights for oil exploration and fishing. The US feels that China is altering the topography because it seeks to shore up its naval, air and missile systems. However, these are incidental to a larger Chinese design of establishing its supremacy over south-east Asia.

As Malcolm Davis writes in The Strategist, "This dispute (over the South China Sea) is one aspect of a broader Chinese ambition towards rejuvenation under a China Dream and restoration to ‘middle kingdom’ status that would see its neighbours in Southeast Asia relegated to tributary powers. That new Chinese hegemony would challenge US strategic primacy in Asia. The crisis feeds into a Chinese narrative of a ‘Century of Humiliation’ promoted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to sustain its political legitimacy."

It is inevitable that China will exert its geopolitical influence over South Asia as it climbs up the ranks of global power. But the problem lies in the fact that its rise has been abrasive and impatient, not peaceful. Its penchant for flouting international laws have driven its neighbours into deep anxiety. For instance, it brashly dismissed the jurisdiction of the Hague Tribunal when the ruling over the South China Sea went against it and opened up maritime disputes against a host of nations including Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia and Taiwan, all of whom claim parts of the South China Sea.

Not only has it rejected the global rules-based order, it has been placing more faith in coercive and/or debt-trap diplomacy while negotiating with neighbours instead of taking a persuasive approach by highlighting and mitigating areas of mutual benefits and concerns. These strategies have predictably triggered a pushback from neighbours — including India. Based on individual threat perceptions, the nations have responded by promoting greater mutual economic ties and have struck (or attempted to strike) military-strategic rebalanced to counter Chinese adventurism.

Barack Obama's Asia Pivot may have been a non-starter but many of these nations, threatened by the scale and rapidity of China's ambition, have quietly been synergizing their areas of mutual interests. India, Japan and Australia, for instance, have seen the benefit of a greater strategic cooperation that will certainly be aimed at (but not limited to) counterbalancing China.

As Council for Foreign Relations fellow Alyssa Ayres recently noted on this subject, "As Japan and India look to further harmonise their respective strategic visions—witness the coming together last November of Modi’s “Act East” policy and Abe’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy”—Australia-India cooperation has also been expanding. Following the elevation of the relationship to a “strategic partnership” in 2009, bilateral maritime dialogues and exercises have followed, and a civil nuclear cooperation agreement has now entered into force. The two countries have also agreed to hold a “2+2” meeting with their defense and foreign secretaries."

This is where lies the germination of Chinese insecurity as it notes with increasing concern the coming together of nations against its imperialist designs. Its state-controlled media, which China uses to deliver messages it prefers not to through official channels, stopped just short of declaring war against India. "If New Delhi ruins the Sino-India ties and the two countries turn into open rivals, can India afford the consequence? With a GDP several times higher than that of India, military capabilities that can reach the Indian Ocean and having good relations with India's peripheral nations, coupled with the fact that India's turbulent northern state borders China, if China engages in a geopolitical game with India, will Beijing lose to New Delhi?"

No matter the level of real or perceived provocation, it doesn't behove a 'great power' to appear as unhinged in rage as China has been over an octogenarian spiritual leader's visit to meet his followers. China must grow up and show a greater degree of maturity that suits its status as the global superpower-in-waiting.

Updated Date: Apr 06, 2017 20:24:39 IST