Xi cannot hope to turn his Dream into a reality without an honestly ‘benign and peaceful’ engagement with other nations, mindful of their sensitivities.
China’s White Papers on National Defence traditionally start by referring to the country’s “benign and peaceful rise”. The refrain is also repeated by Chinese diplomats at all international interactions. But the actions of the country tell another story. While this words-actions mismatch has long been observed, most nations chose to ignore it, lulled by their economic interests. They saw greater prudence in hedging, and hoping for the best.
That luxury now seems to be lost owing to a blatant display of Chinese belligerence across theatres—in South China Sea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, South-East Asia, India, to name a few. The fact that China is behaving thus even as nations are grappling with an unprecedented health emergency caused by Covid-19, which too originated in China, has revealed the country in a new light. With nations already under socio-economic-medical stress, China’s territorial heckling is forcing them to shed their hesitation to call out/counter its behaviour.
India’s perspective on China, for example, appears to have changed profoundly after the violent incident on 15 June 2020 when 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives while resisting Chinese brutality at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). For New Delhi, this became the proverbial last straw to decide to reorient its China strategy. While the exact contours of this will take shape in coming months and years, a hardening of position seems inevitable.
Similar changes in stance are visible in other countries too for varied reasons. Besides resistance being evoked by China’s stomping on others’ territorial toes, yet another factor re-casting its image is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Seven years since its launch, recipient nations are getting disillusioned by the “win-win” narrative that China peddled to sell the projects. They have discovered that all terms of engagement tilt substantially in favour of China—contracts flow to Chinese companies; Chinese labour gets employment; terms of loans and conditionalities favour Chinese financial institutions; host nation is drained of its natural resources; and its market is flooded with Chinese exports. So, while the BRI serves as an investment initiative for China, it provides questionable development benefits for the recipient populace at large.
China’s BRI was premised on the logic of globalisation. But the pandemic has exacerbated fears of dependence on China-based supply chains. Hence, nations are beginning to look inward or look for alternatives. In India, for instance, the Prime Minister’s call for self-reliance resonated across the nation. It acquired further appeal as China’s actions in Ladakh galvanised Indians to shun Chinese goods as coming from the “enemy”. However big or small the economic consequences of this, it nevertheless signifies for China a loss of goodwill of and opportunity in a billion plus people just across the border. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may want to shield its people from sensing their country’s loss of image owing to its role in the pandemic and its brash diplomatic, information, military and economic (DIME) actions, but this will not be easy given global media’s reach today.
Soon after assuming Presidency, Xi Jinping gave his country the “China Dream”. It rested on four pillars: “Strong China (economically, politically, diplomatically, scientifically, militarily); Civilized China (equity and fairness, rich culture, high morals); Harmonious China (amity among social classes); Beautiful China (healthy environment, low pollution).” The idea was to rejuvenate the nation and ignite a collective aspiration for a moderately prosperous nation by 2020 and a fully developed one by 2049.
Today’s China, however, does not appear anywhere near the associated adjective-benchmarks it set for itself. Engaged in politico-military face-offs with India, United States, Japan and many small South-East Asian nations, all of whom have pushed back, the image of Strong China has suffered. The actions have revealed a lack of strategic thinking that undercuts the traditional belief that China is a “deep thinking” country with a Civilized sense of statecraft. Also, the country looks far from Harmonious given its rancorous engagements with citizens in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Xi Jinping could articulate the China Dream because he inherited strong fundamentals. Three decades of consistent growth had lifted 700 million citizens out of poverty. Meanwhile, intelligent actions and “benign” postures had rehabilitated China into the global order. Xi used this perch smartly to distil traditional Chinese thought into a policy of national rejuvenation. Sustained economic growth and unquestioned CCP legitimacy are critical for achieving the Dream. However, both planks seem under stress. Meanwhile, his aggressive and abrasive actions across the DIME spectrum have rubbed many countries the wrong way and he may end up squandering the gains of his forerunners.
International opinion about China is causing a realignment of interests and emergence of a sense of solidarity, especially amongst middle powers that harbour misgivings about Beijing’s rise. These engagements may crystallise into loose partnerships or hard military alliances. Much of how they evolve will depend on China’s behaviour. And, the form they take would have implications for the China Dream.
Xi cannot hope to turn his Dream into a reality without an honestly “benign and peaceful” engagement with other nations, mindful of their sensitivities. Merely sleep-talking platitudes will not suffice. China’s recent actions have been a wake-up call for many nations. It may be time for Xi too to wake up to the emerging reality that will impact the fate of his Dream.
Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.