By Rajesh Kumar Sinha
In the midst of Corona mayhem created the world over, infecting more than 55 million, claiming 1.3 million lives including 2.46 lakhs in the US and destroying the global economy, one country that has continued to attract attention, albeit for all the wrong reasons, is China. When the world is fighting a long and what most believe, a long battle against the Chinese-origin Covid-19 virus and is deeply perturbed about its impact, China has suddenly turned belligerent.
In the diplomatic domain hitting out against the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, Brazil and the like to muscle-flexing military maneuvers in South China Sea, Indo-Pacific region, on the borders against India and unusually strident and militaristic information warfare being carried out by China has raised a number of pertinent questions.
Has China started feeling so confident that it can enforce a new world order as per its whims and fancies. If it has become so assured that Russia, the only country that is still counted as a superpower, militarily, against the US has paved the way for it to sit on the table as an equal with the US while the rest of the world merely has to follow its dictates. In the backdrop of the Corona crisis, certainly the second biggest Chinese contribution to the world after paper, deliberately or otherwise only needs to be deciphered, the Chinese state and diplomatic community has become even more aggressive and behaving as if nothing has happened. And herein lies the big challenge for the global community, including the new US President-designate Joe Biden to lead the world in dealing with an ever growing and aggressive China.
Dubbed by some as “wolf-warrior diplomacy”, based on a 2015 Chinese film that has induced sharp feelings of nationalism and patriotism among Chinese, its actions in recent times, particularly during the ongoing Corona crisis, has suggested a complete overhauling of Chinese foreign policy. A country that till recently used to take pride in proclaiming itself a major developing country, its guiding principles seems to have changed drastically. The fighting spirit, enunciated by Xi Jinping has taken over, one and all, in the entire administration. Barring a few like North Korea, Turkey and Pakistan and maintaining a workable, delicate, no-war, no peace relationship with Russia, China seems to be at war with the major part of the world.
A number of incidents, mostly glossed over by the global media in the thick of Corona, are suggestive of an increasingly desperate range of Chinese actions. Sinking of a Vietnamese trawler near the Paracel Islands to the naming of 80 islands, reefs, seamounts, ridges and shoals in the South China Sea and threatening all small neighbours in the region to sending warships and conducting aggressive naval manoeuvres close to Taiwan and doing some aggressive, secretive works inside Antarctica under the garb of research, is indicative of a bellicose, expansionary design by China.
With India, it continues to play a double game. Para lanced with all the friendly overtures on the diplomatic turf, on the borders PLA continues with aggressive and often intimidating patrolling and transgressing into new Indian regions for a short while trying to unsettle Indian Army and remain unpredictable.
When top politicians from Brazil, Japan and Australia made some unpalatable remarks against China in the context of Corona virus, its diplomats got into the wolf diplomacy straightaway. The Chinese action on calls for independent probe into the genesis of Corona virus has been unusually vitriolic. And Australia became the victim for becoming the first country to formally demand action on it as unprecedented tariffs on significant Australian imports were imposed.
Threatening British government over its proposed actions against Huawei in the country, Australia against its exports to China, Canada over its proposal to give political asylum to people from Hong Kong, reminding south east Asian countries that they are small (implying they cannot withstand Chinese political, military pressures and hence give in to Chinese territorial expansionism) and India, mostly through Global Times (one wonders how many people read it outside China) of teaching a lesson worse than 1962 are some of the examples that really must have perturbed all the proponents of contemporary diplomacy.
A pattern can be discerned from the Chinese actions and reactions since the outbreak of Corona. It started with coercing a submissive and pliable WHO to become a partner in crime by hoodwinking the global community till this Chinese Virus penetrated every nook and corner of the world. Once the clamour from the global community got louder, specially from the US, efforts were there to shift the blame on the lone superpower itself as was evident in 12th March tweet by Zhao Lijian.
Then came the help and support offer, with China declaring that it will help countries affected by the virus, in the form of medical supplies, equipment. However, it took care of using its propaganda machinery to describe many supplies, as donation. Conveniently omitting the information that the largest share of such supplies were commercial, unhygienic and of inferior quality that could not stand the quality scrutiny of even countries like Pakistan. And obviously, the inherent Chinese state culture forgot to mention in the high profile foreign office briefings that a good number of such supplies were rejected and returned by the countries, including India.
As part of its Sun Zhu-inspired information warfare, it was followed up with a crude display of all is well in China. Big light shows and conducted tours of doctors and nurses, showing that Wuhan is, and China is, free from the virus and that this is the country that could control the virus, so swiftly and efficiently while the world continues to feel helpless at the onslaught of Corona. Of course, all that was part of its hyped propaganda machinery as information regarding actual impact of this home-grown Chinese virus on Wuhan and other parts of China, keeps coming out in bits and pieces which is contrary to what the Chinese would like the world to believe.
Another strategic reason could well be that at this time of unprecedented global crisis when the majority of countries are overwhelmed with the Corona attack and not willing to deal with China militarily, extending its territorial claims on scores of islands in South China Sea, Taiwan and sections of Indian northern borders may well fulfil its military objectives and further cement Jinping’s position inside the CPC and China.
With the actual goings-on inside the recent CPC meeting in Beijing remaining secret, all this muscular chest-thumping could well be one way of Xi Jinping faction trying to maintain its unbridled clout and power in the party. The plenum of CPC in the last week of October has further strengthened his hands. Universities in China have started teaching Xi Jinping’s thoughts as a part of studies in international relations. Though there have been reports of ex-President Ziang Zemin faction trying to cut down the ruling junta powers to an extent and pin the blame for mishandling of Corona on it yet it seems that Xi has at least till 2022 (when the next CPC meets) has further consolidated his power over the party, PLA and the Chinese state.
However, it is really interesting to note how badly Chinese wolf-warrior diplomacy has failed. UK, Germany, France and other European powers are gradually becoming united in facing the Chinese political and economic threat. The declining level of Chinese FDI even before the advent of Corona, is suggestive of it. The warnings by the NATO Secretary General too, has been indicative of growing apprehensions of the Chinese intent.
In south east Asia, it has pushed Japan into greater militarisation. Vietnam, Philippines and Taiwan are increasingly modernising their militaries. India has further moved towards enhancing strategic relations with the US. A Quad of India, US, Australia and Japan with further inclusion of Vietnam, Mongolia and others is being contemplated as a future Asian NATO. Taiwan is further solidifying its defences and latest missiles and fighter jets from the US there will surely make life difficult for the PLA are making their way.
When it comes to push, it is also willing to retract. Realizing that it cannot go beyond a point against the US, either economically or militarily, Xi Jinping does not miss an opportunity to call Donald Trump even after when the US President publicly snubs idea to talk to him. Similarly, on Indian borders, the PLA is trying to test the resolve of Indian military. After the failure of its abysmal propaganda machinery, realising its failure to militarily win a war against India, it has started talking peace. On the Taiwan issue while it continues to threaten countries getting closer to it and maintaining its warships close to its waters, it has so far refrained from explicitly provoking the US.
The Chinese strategy of winning wars without fighting it, is at full display in the midst of all kind of Chinese aggressive designs around the world. The moral is simple: while increasing Chinese assertiveness is backed by its enhanced economic and military prowess, misinformation and propaganda too are among the most important ingredients of contemporary Chinese foreign policy and a country that withstands the Chinese pressure with a big resolve will compel China to go back to the drawing board, work out new thinking and strategies dealing with it.
Rajesh Kumar Sinha, MA, MLISc, MPhil, PG Diploma in Journalism is a serving Librarian with the Indian Railways, India. He has worked in print and web media for seven years and writes for Foreign Policy News (US), South Asia Journal (US), Eurasian Times, OPEN Journal and Rail Journal (India).