China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy under Xi - epitomized by its huge military build-up, border spats with India and territorial expansion in the East and South China Sea - is creating uncertainty and pushing other Asian states to bolster their own military spending and look for allies, writes Sujit Dutta for South Asia Monitor
By Sujit Dutta
Beijing’s decision to surrender many of its adhered positions and intended goals at this month’s BRICS summit, soon after it had called off its road building work at Doklam and settled for a mutual troop withdrawal agreement with India, have been widely seen as a Chinese retreat in the face of a firm Indian stand. China did not have much choice as the demands for stability in the run up to the Communist Party Congress, the need to showcase the BRICS conference as a success, and the rapidly deteriorating security environment in the Korean peninsula following North Korea’s provocative nuclear test, forced its hands to compromise.
But that does not change the fact relations have been deeply scarred by the beating of war drums and crass threats poured out by the Chinese official media and its diplomats through the 71 days of Doklam crisis. President Xi Jinping’s statement to Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Xiamen BRICS Summit that the future belongs to China and India, that they have much to gain from each other and need to embrace ‘Panchsheel’ (five principles of peaceful coexistence) rings hollow since, for 71 days prior to its decision to settle for a temporary truce, Chinese officials and hawkish official media castigated India as an enemy, and its military violated Bhutan’s sovereignty.
Doklam and Xiamen both underline that Beijing must not overestimate its power. It cannot unilaterally set the political agenda in a multilateral settings always nor throw its weight around to settle bilateral issues, especially territorial, taking success for granted.
China had boxed itself into a corner once its decision to grab Doklam from Bhutan was thwarted by Indian border troops at Thimphu's behest. Unprepared for India’s response, unable to militarily escalate the conflict without risking a wider war, and eager to end it before the Xiamen summit, Beijing accepted what India had officially proposed right from the beginning - disengagement and talks to settle the sovereignty claim.
At Xiamen, Beijing floated the idea of a BRICS+ by proposing to bring in an assorted set of developing states from three continents-Thailand, Tajikistan, Egypt, Kenya and Mexico - as part of its emerging and developing countries' initiative.
Besides the fact that it opened prospects for a future induction of favourite ally Pakistan, it was entirely random. India had invited neighbouring member states of BIMSTEC at the previous Goa summit. The Chinese initiative was simply a selection of those that Beijing wanted. It was not approved.
More striking was its acceptance to name Pakistan-based terrorist groups Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba in the Joint Declaration that denounced terrorism and its sponsors. At Goa, China refused to name these groups. Also, the Joint Declaration did not mention China’s One Belt One Road mission as something which BRICS endorses.
Through the five-year Xi era, China has discarded all talk of ‘peaceful rise’ and ‘harmonious world’ promoted by his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin.
Xi’s missions are ‘rejuvenation of China’, great power role and competition for global influence with the US. It is therefore unlikely that China would learn from these lessons and return to a’peaceful rise’. Acquiring more power, coercing competing states and dominating Asia have become China’s goals under Xi.
China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy under Xi - epitomized by its huge military build-up, border spats with India and territorial expansion in the East and South China Sea - is creating uncertainty and pushing other Asian states to bolster their own military spending and look for allies.
Future disagreements could hence escalate dangerously.
(Sujit Dutta is a China expert who teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)