The role China is playing


The Chinese foreign policy, or the grand design underlying it, is a fascinating study. It would be instructive for Pakistanis to pay particular attention to it. China is, needless to say, emerging as a significant power centre with an economy that might, at current rates of growth, overtake the size and strength of the US economy. Or, at any rate, it would certainly be number two in the world in another couple of decades — provided the rates of growth hold, or stay anywhere near present levels, and there are no political upheavals. Anyway the design behind the Chinese foreign policy requires to be studied.

The point of departure for the Chinese leadership is two fold: it conceives China to be a major player at the international level. Also, it prefers a multipolar world instead of the unipolarity that now obtains: a unipolar world dominated and led by the US confers undue advantages to it and imposes burdens and handicaps on others. Earlier during the cold war the Chinese also disliked the bipolar world. Therefore, the basic purpose of the Chinese foreign policy must be read as wanting to create a multipolar world in which the Chinese role would be one of the main shaping influences. It is true that the much of the action in the new Century, certainly in the coming decades, would be in Asia. China is one of the largest Asian states and its primary interest can only be in Asia, the most populous continent.

The third major Chinese interest, backed by determination as enunciated in the four modernisations programme of 1978 by Deng Xio Peng, is the need for peace and economic development. The Chinese leadership still regards China as a third world country that needs a good many decades of peace in which to devote all its energies and full attention to economic construction. The aim is China should be number one or at least number two economic power of the world. That would buttress its military strength about which the Chinese are not oblivious. Deng leadership began by reducing the CLA’s (Chinese Liberation Army’s) manpower — but in order to enhance its firepower. The CLA was asked to finance (foreign exchange) its own modernisation through the export earnings of its own industries. Although the CLA’s structures and methods might not be easily replicable, some of this strategy needs to be purposefully studied by Pakistanis.

Most recent moves by China illustrate its primary interest in peace and creating a multipolar world. Its policy of peace and economic construction requires that there should be no major war or armed conflicts in Asia or as much of Asia as possible — so that China may not be sucked into them. This purpose is illustrated by the recent visit of the Chinese leader Li Peng, the current Chairman of the Presidium of Chinese Peoples Congress, in which he has tried to rebuild bridges with India. The effort was and is to put the border dispute with India behind them and concentrate on political harmony, economic cooperation and free trade with India. Indian President K.R. Narayanan had played a notable part in rebuilding closer links with China last year when he visited China. Now the Chinese Prime Minister as well as the President is going to visit India while India’s Prime Minister has also scheduled to visit China. These moves represent a serious Chinese design: they want to draw India closer to China to whatever extent possible and have smooth and friction free relations with it. This is intended to be buttressed by great economic and trade ties. For the purpose, the Chinese are ignoring the grave provocations offered by Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes and Premier Atal Behari Vajpayee when they cited the Chinese threat as justification for India’s becoming an overt nuclear in 1998. Li Peng instead has declared on Indian soil that neither is China a threat to India or is the latter a threat to his country — a courageous statement to make.

Earlier the Chinese have been trying too hard to rebuild, on a more realistic basis, a good working relationship with Russia. This was sought to be reinforced by a strategic understanding between the two giant states of Asia. The strategic understanding that the Chinese have promoted issues from its belief in the desirability of a multipolar world that implies, at the very least a reduction of American role in Asia. The Russians have, given their economic compulsions, guardedly responded but in a positive manner. The Russian nationalist yearnings are pushing Russia into playing a great power role in Asia. The Chinese want friendly and close relations with Russia but without too many illusions. The Chinese have very realistically put the long, festering frontier dispute in Central Asia on the backburner and have worked out a detente on the question and the military confrontation between them is a story of a distant past. The border dispute has not been resolved through a de jure border settlement; it has been frozen de facto. Economic relations between China and the various components of the USSR are rapidly growing, particularly with Russia itself. China is buying the cutting edge of military technology from Russia just as much as India is doing. That is also aimed at sustaining the Russian economy. The Chinese want a Sino-Russian entente to play a pivotal role in the reshaping of Asia in the new Century.

The third leg of the Chinese trust today is the non-military containment of Taliban-dominated Afghanistan and to create a grouping of the Central Asian republics that would gravitate more toward China than to the west. But the Chinese are moving slowly and in small steps. Trade and economic cooperation are the preliminary moves. Although one of their main purposes is to ensure that the Taliban movement in Afghanistan is not confronted militarily that may suck in many others and unpredictable consequences may flow from that. What the Chinese want is to evolve something apolitical and diplomatic solution to the problems the Taliban have posed to their neighbours. They are quite hesitant about what to do. Part of the reason for this is China’s historical relations with Pakistan on the understanding that for Pakistan Taliban’s survival and security is a priority. And yet there is no earthly reason why the Chinese can possibly approve of Taliban and all that they represent. The Shanghai Five was the Chinese response to the rise of Taliban powers in Afghanistan. The Chinese have diplomatically rebuffed Pakistan on the question of its desire to join the Shanghai grouping. Nevertheless the Taliban remain for Pakistanis a subject of some delicacy and great importance. However, Taliban have caused the diplomatic distance between Beijing and Islamabad to increase through ineffable ways. It can be said the Chinese are more wary of Pakistan itself now and are veering away from it — insofar as it remains indissolubly wedded to Taliban. But none of it denotes a Sino-Pakistani rupture, only more weariness.

The Chinese, as noted here, are taking only small steps. In the recent Security Council debate on the Russo-American resolution imposing new sanctions on Afghanistan, the Chinese actually abstained. Earlier the Chinese had sent a delegation to Qandhar to discuss the subject with the Taliban directly. The delegation was led by Chinese ambassador to Pakistan. That showed how seriously they take this matter. Americans, as it should be wellknown, have been encouraging Russia to take a much stronger line against Taliban than they have hitherto done. Indeed the Americans have continued to egg on Russia to take military action against Taliban. In contrast the Chinese approach is more peaceable; they do not want a military conflict in Central Asia. They are, therefore, against the half-baked notions of creating a military alignment against Taliban in Central Asia. Nonetheless they want to see political steps being taken that would contain the Taliban to Afghanistan, if not to make them more moderate. The preferred methodology is a political alliance of what they regard as secular and modernist powers in central Asia who may later politically impact on Taliban and Afghanistan by non-military means. This is what Shanghai Five is all about. The Chinese, while they cooperate wholeheartedly and were part of the Four plus Two UN effort, they have quietly building Shanghai Five as a nucleus around which Central Asia can reorganise itself to preserve all that Taliban want to change.

All this has much to alter Pakistanis and make them worried. There is the danger that the Chinese might not remain as steadfast and dependable an ally as they used to be in the past. Indeed various factors have in fact intervened and the Sino-Pakistan friendship, although it has survived in substance, has undergone imperceptible changes, beginning with 1974 when the Chinese Foreign Minister adumbrated anew China’s Kashmir policy of all places in New Delhi. The old stance began to change from 1974 onward and by now it is no longer a blind support to Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir. China supports Kashmiris right of national self-determination. Kashmiris right of national self-determination is a multi-faceted proposition that is a long off from the position it had adopted in 1965 or earlier. Also Pakistan has to take note of the mainthrust of the Chinese foreign policy and to find a place within, or in consonance with, that grand design. It has to work constructively for the purpose. Apparently, Pakistan foreign office is not wholly unaware of the direction of China’s policies. It wanted to join the Shanghai Five because of that knowledge. The Chinese have been polite but there is no opening here. Can Pakistan convince all the other four, viz. Russia, Kyrghistan, Karimov’s Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that will work with them for the purposes for which the Shanghai Five was created? It is a hopeless task to convince all the other four that Pakistan does not share Taliban’s purposes. If so, it is sure to remain outside the ambit of Chinese purposes at least in this important area.

The issue is complex and complicated for Pakistan. The Chinese are primarily interested in ensuring that China, Russia and India work in greater harmony to ensure that the eventual security architecture for Asia should not be manufactured by the US alone or with its proxies help. Left to themselves, the Chinese would take Japan out of its tight umbrage with the US. How Japan evolves in the new Century is a subject of uncertainty for all. There is not much scope for the Japanese in an American dominated world beyond a somewhat privileged satellite of America. They have already reached a zenith of sorts, as already noted, through their economic prosperity. If the Japanese are to remain content with what they already have and can sustain their economically advantageous position in the Pax Americana: their dazzling prosperity in the fully globalised world economy that is the American aim and the acme of Japanese policies hitherto. But is this all for the Japanese? But if there is any uncertainty in the Japanese mind about their current status and if they happen to have other visions then the subject of what Japan will do in the new Century remains wide open. One of the problems confronting them will be for it to ensure that Asia would not remain wholly dominated by the tripartite axis of China, Russia and India; Japan might like to be the fourth pillar of this structure. Who knows?

The Chinese have forced a basic choice on Japan, as also on most central Asian nations: where would they be in the three power dominated Asia which, other things being equal, would produce regional economic combinations and schools of political thought? These political and diplomatic purposes are sharply at variance with those of the US, which has already put in place its economic architecture. The Japanese cannot continue to remain wedded to the present situation: it is an economic superpower that is finding it difficult to maintain its profit levels and an essentially satellite status (of the US). The combination of the two aspects — as an economic superpower and still being a second rate political entity — is not really possible. The present role is not a viable or satisfying role for the proud Japanese. The latter has also to choose between a militant or militaristic notion of greatness and the new ideas of economic strength with political flexibility and democracy; there is no escape from the choice in the decades to come. The Chinese have assumed a leadership role in Asia that can neither be grudged nor ignored.

What the US under Bush will do is a separate subject. For present purposes it is unimportant. The US position would seem to be virtually unassailable. It is doubtless an unmatchable superpower and this status is backed by a continent-wide and a most developed economy. True, the American conduct of political and economic affairs has made the US world’s greatest debtor, and a country that requires a large inflow of foreign money to sustain itself. But its political position and the inherent strength of its economic sinews ensure all that it desires. But the kinds of challenges that are now accumulating are of a different nature. None of these is of a military kind that makes most advanced and massive military power can easily face. These challenges would arise mostly in economic and diplomatic fields. The economic flexibility and innovativeness of the three- power axis, also face a challenge whether it can tackle the US supremacy and undo it with non-military means. It is too complex a question to answer which is hazardous. There are various other factors that will count in the final outcome. One of these, of course, is the European Union. Another is the actual state of the third world and what distractions it would offer to the major economic and political powers. All these are mostly imponderables and certainly unpredictable.

But the question of questions for Pakistanis is where do they come in. As one writes, Pakistan is once again being ruled by a military junta. There is no (essential) continuity of policies that is sustained by a national consensus. The position is that much of its independent life has been spent as a satellite state of the US in trying to be as useful to the US as possible. In his own view it has prospered on the basis of American largesse. It is quite true that the country is now beset with terrible economic difficulties. But on deeper analysis it would be found that they have arisen from the fact that the US has not been able to provide it with a quantum of military and economic aid that could sustain its disproportionately large military establishment. Which is why it has become a heavily indebted nation. Who would want Pakistan’s allegiance or at least cooperation in the emerging picture of Asia in the first and the subsequent decades of the new Century? Who would woo Pakistan?

Within the political life there is no system of consultation between the rulers and the ruled or any other institutional method through which the intelligentsia of Pakistan can offer its inputs to the relevant policymakers. There is near total adjuncture between the people and the rulers. But the point is the choice for Pakistan is much the same as for anyone else in Asia. It has to make up its mind about the likely political and diplomatic architecture of the new Asia that would largely be shaped by the three big powers of the Continent, viz. Russia, China and India. Japan and other Asian nations would certainly have some inputs which they have to agree upon and evolve. In these Pakistanis have to find a place for themselves. It calls for some deeper thinking and a reference to one’s inner drives and purposes that should determine the role that their country should play in the days to come.