Understanding Chinese ambition

Published On: January 8, 2020 08:42 AM NPT By: Dinesh Bhattarai

Dinesh Bhattarai

Dinesh Bhattarai

Dinesh Bhattarai, former diplomat and foreign policy expert, has served as the foreign affairs adviser of former prime ministers Sher Bahadur Deuba and Sushil Koirala.

President Xi’s declaration to help Nepal “realize its dream of becoming a land-linked country from a landlocked one” is highly significant. It also signals Beijing’s growing influence and diplomatic footprints in Nepal

Strategic culture, Professor Colin S Gray says, “rests primarily upon the interpretation of history and history’s geography.” In September 1949, the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference met in its first session in Beijing to make final preparations to declare the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. It adopted the Common Program stating: “The principle of the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China is protection of the independence, freedom, integrity of territory and sovereignty of the country, upholding of lasting international peace and friendly cooperation between the people of all countries, and opposition to the imperialist policy of aggression and war.”   

These fundamentals constitute the bedrock of strategic culture, and make PRC more sensitive to matters of image, reputation, and ideological justification.  The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) controls both domestic and international interpretation of China’s history, culture and trajectory of the modern world. Analysts and political pundits who have closely studied the Chinese strategic culture say it is a realpolitik with the Chinese characteristics, and its stated goal is to recover its traditional primacy in Asia and, when possible, return to first rank global leadership. “Return” and “rejuvenation” of national honor and removal of the “century of humiliation” remain parts of Chinese strategic culture.  

A former US intelligence officer Christopher A Ford interprets the Chinese strategic culture in terms of the evolution of a Sino-centric system of global order. It is depicted as both uniquely Chinese and focused on harmonious, civilizational “soft power” ability to cope with both ‘violence-friendly realpolitik’ versus ‘virtue-focused Confucian elements.’ Inspired by the ancient Chinese civilization of over 5000 years and its philosophy, strategic culture marks ensuring a new order that assures win-win solutions available for everyone.  Deng Xiaoping’s famous exhortation to his countryman to “bide our time and build up our capabilities,” shaped the initial years of opening up and reforms after 1979. It changed when President Xi Jinping told the 19th National Congress of CCP in 2017 that “China has stood up, grown rich and is becoming strong.”  He further said “it is time for us to take center stage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind.” He stressed that Beijing would no longer shy away from world leadership and would even aim to promote its economic model around the world. He added China is able to become a “global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.”  

President Xi has called for the development of a new “system of philosophy and social sciences with Chinese characteristics.” The uniqueness of strategic traditions is viewed as “China’s special gifts to the theory and practice of statecraft and international relations.” The Chinese see the power through the prism of ‘mandate of heaven thinking.’ Scholars have enthusiastically started discussing “China’s moment in world history” and argue that “with the renaissance of Chinese civilization, humanity will begin to enter the “Chinese moment in world history and China will fundamentally remake the world.” 

Elevating relations with Nepal
The visit of the Chinese president to Nepal came after a long gap of 23 years, coinciding with the onset of new geopolitics, geo-economics and geostrategy. The first point of the 14 points of the joint statement issued during the visit mentions the bilateral relationship between China and Nepal “entering a new phase,” and elevating “China-Nepal Comprehensive Partnership of Cooperation Featuring Ever-lasting Friendship to Strategic Partnership of Cooperation Featuring Ever-lasting Friendship for Development and Prosperity.”   Four of the 20 signed documents are related to law enforcement including border management, the supply of border security equipment, mutual legal assistance, and collaboration between Nepal’s Attorney General and China’s Prosecutor General. President Xi’s declaration to help Nepal “realize its dream of becoming a land-linked country from a landlocked one is highly significant. Elevating to strategic partnership demonstrates Beijing’s growing influence and expanding diplomatic footprints in Nepal. 

The contours of a strategic partnership stand much broader than mere political relationship, economic development and cooperation. Traditionally, strategic partnership was associated with security power and is considered not to be without far-reaching geopolitical implications. There should not be much doubt that as the most powerful state in Asia, China desires to broaden its access to South Asia, keep it free from the presence of competitors and other security threats including the possible hostile elements against China from Nepali soil. China appears to have taken the Nepal visit from a long-term geostrategic perspective as is reflected, among others, in President Xi’s warning that “anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones.”  This reflects China’s concerns regarding hostile forces using Nepali territory to undermine its unity, integrity and prosperity. Nepal is unequivocally committed to ‘One China’ policy and does not allow its soil to be used against its neighbors.  

Shifting geopolitics
The world has witnessed a tectonic shift in geopolitics in recent years. As Asia gains geopolitical clout, with the vital center of economic growth and rising political influence in China, the region is being seen as an intersection of emerging geopolitics, geo-economics and geostrategic elements of struggle for global primacy. Different studies put China as central element of 2015 US strategic partnership with India unveiling a joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region. The US National Security Strategy 2017 sees China as seeking “to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.” In December 7, 2019 issue, The Economist portrays United Nations as a new battleground between Chinese diplomats and their Western counterparts to fight back. It is said that China is trying to “translate Chinese policies into UN policies.” China has established first overseas base in Djibouti. These all point that China is no longer content to play second fiddle to the US but seeks to directly challenge its position in the Indo-Pacific region. Since Xi took office in 2012, China has dramatically increased its support to the UN. It is now the second largest contributor, after America, to both the general budget and the peacekeeping one. 

As a country between China and India, Nepal figures prominently in the strategic thinking of its neighbors and the world at large. Nepal’s foreign policy of non-alignment is to exercise strategic autonomy and maximize the benefits of economic cooperation.  Nepal judges every issue on its merits without “fear or favor” and forms its position that best serves its national interests. It is extremely important to have a stable and democratic Nepal for peace and prosperity in order to perform the challenging task of walking a tightrope and remaining constructively engaged with neighbors and larger international community by means of harmonious, healthy and trustworthy ties. Nepal needs to draw lessons from its history and geography to deal with a new set of complex and interlocking challenges staring at it. When liberal international order of over 70 years is fraying and new one is in the making, it is absolutely necessary that Nepal tread its path carefully and safely adapt its foreign policies.

The author was foreign affairs advisor to former prime ministers Sushil Koirala and Sher Bahadur Deuba 
Email: dineshbhattarai@tuicms.edu.np

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