Over the last few years, we have seen an overtly aggressive China taking on many countries at the same time — from its neighbors like India, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to faraway countries like Indonesia, Australia, and distant Sweden. With the exception of a few all-weather friends like Pakistan and North Korea, the world at large is wary of China.
The recent brazen Chinese actions along the Indian borders continue to erode trust in China. The way China thinks and behaves today certainly reminds one of what Winston Churchill once thought of Russia. When asked in a radio broadcast what he thought about Russia, he said:
“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest”.Winston Churchill
Why So Aggressive China?
In China’s case, that key is the interest of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). And the CCP is the mirror reflection of their supreme leader. While the ethos of Deng Xiaoping’s era was ‘hide your strength, bide your time’ wherein the country progressed economically.
Xi Jinping’s era is about expanding the sphere of influence since the country has built its capacities. Beijing has more hegemonic ambitions now and its talk about the Asian century has gradually given way to a notion of the Chinese century.
Why has China become so belligerent in the international arena?
The answer to this question can be found by looking at China’s medieval past and how China sees the world. China has always seen itself as the center of the world, the land under heaven (denoted by the term tianxia). This center is the Middle Kingdom and is the core. There are a few concentric circles around this core with the first circle depicting people who can be accepted as Chinese, the next circle of the barbarians, then the tributary states, and the outermost circle belonging to people who are condemned to darkness.
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This concept is deeply ingrained in the Chinese elite who rule the CCP — thus they think expansionism is natural in a country’s evolution. Historically, China has always considered itself as a civilizational state. Only in the nineteenth century did the weak ruling Qing dynasty acquiesce to the thought of a nation state-based international system under the influence of European and Japanese powers.
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The CCP of today is more centralized than ever and has to deal with a host of issues such as people’s unrest over Coronavirus, rising unemployment levels, dissent from veterans of Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), displeasure shown by the non-Han Chinese over their status in the country, to name a few.
The confrontational stance that CCP takes in the region and beyond could well be a diversionary tactic to deflect people’s attention from within. This constant fear of an enemy just around the corner is a strategy to rally citizens into a nationalist fervor.
Take A Lesson From the US
China today is caught in a dichotomy — while on one hand, it refers to its superior past, its current actions reflect an inferiority complex. What else explains the way it uses its military might to intimidate or coerce everyone in its neighborhood.
The world’s other big power, the United States, while negotiating with its neighbors does not bring its military power to the table. Behaving like this, the US not only builds trust between its neighbors but it also shows how sure a nation is about its institutions and itself.
Watch: China Warns ‘Consequences’ If Treated Hostile By The US
Though China is a major economic and military power, countries in its line of fire need not be cowed by it. Vietnam has already shown how a smaller country can stand up to the Chinese over the issue of The Spratly Islands.
Nations have to think both in the short term to diffuse the crisis and long term to ensure that another problem does not come up. They need to build alliances to keep off a common bully. They say the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts. India, the US, Australia, and Japan coming together to form the quad is a great example of a very strong alliance.
The geopolitical and economic weakness of China should be exploited by countries as leverage.
India’s decision to ramp up Andaman and Nicobar Command is a welcome step as it strengthens India’s presence in the Malacca Strait where a vast majority of Chinese trade ships pass through. In the long term, countries have to build capacities on their own through economic progress. They need to do what China did decades ago — bide their time and build capacities.