This no-holds-barred approach of China won it immediate gratification in terms of low-hanging fruits in an increasingly polarised world.
China is the ace practitioner of realpolitik, wherein sovereign emotions and morality invested in the cultural, ideological, religious or even political moorings are not germane. It makes strange bedfellows across the continents to fructify its widely believed destiny of the expansionist “Chinese Century”, and its historical paranoia of regime-survival by aligning with the near-pariah states of Enver Hoxha’s Albania, junta-ruled Myanmar, Kim dynasty’s North Korea or even the Rawalpindi-controlled Pakistan. China is quick to pounce upon any opportunity to drive home a wedge-of-convenience to suit its own topical necessities, as historian Jon Halliday had noted on the Sino-Albanian alliance as, “one of the oddest phenomena of modern times, here were two states of vastly differing size, thousands of miles apart, with almost no cultural ties or knowledge of each other’s society, drawn together by a common hostility to the Soviet Union”.
Cold algorithms like “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” is the simplistic outlook that affords a “Communist” China to define an “Islamic” Pakistan, as an “all-weather friend”. A calculated empowerment of Pakistan as a counter-lever to India and the crucial alternate route for an economic corridor via Gwadar port (CPEC) clearly overrides any ideological dichotomy emanating from the treatment of its own Uighur Muslims. In the transactional and mutually-gratifying calculus of realpolitik, the larger geostrategic fitment of a Sino-Pak dimension is “iron-clad”, as opposed to the romantic imperatives of a “natural ally” in the Indo-US realm.
The second fundamental of the Chinese realpolitik has been the paradoxical “carrot and stick” that it routinely deploys to ensnare its neighbourhood and beyond. The border blockade in 2016 of the land-locked Mongolia (for Dalai Lama visit and economically cozy-up to India) and the brazen disregard for the unfavourable verdict in the petition by the Philippines at the International Tribunal, was rebutted by a stoic, “China does not accept any recourse to third party dispute settlement; nor does China accept any solution imposed on it”. Later President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines admitted to the soft-pedalling with China, despite its favourable verdict owing to the “cheque-book diplomacy” of China, wherein billions of dollars of Chinese investment in infrastructure were dangled, but only after the Chinese Premier had ostensibly told Mr Duterte, “we’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship. But if you force the issue, we’ll go to war”, literally intimidating and then “buying out” the Philippines. Similarly, in 2015, Xi Jinping had pledged an unprecedented $60 billion for Africa. Commodities like oil from Angola, Nigeria and Sudan, copper from Zambia and Congo, uranium from Namibia, the list of commodities for Beijing were irresistible. The “non-preachy” attitude of the Chinese regime was also a welcome break for the quasi-despots of the Zimbabwe and Angola, who were used to lectures on human rights and democracy by the West. Yet, while China’s trade to Africa has shot up from $10 billion in 2000 to $220 billion by 2014, murmurs of an imminent debt trap, portents of vassal states and China’s neocolonialism are increasingly gaining currency.
This no-holds-barred approach of China won it immediate gratification in terms of low-hanging fruits in an increasingly polarised world. The collateral benefit of an “anti-West” sentiment, automatically accrued to Beijing as the alternate superpower on the global sweepstakes, as opposed to a much-depleted Moscow.
However, chickens are coming home to roost, after the initial hoopla of China’s success via geostrategic initiatives like String of Pearls, Silk Route, “One Belt One Road”, etc. Today, virtually the entire Asean region (except the Philippines) is joining hands with Taiwan, Japan and South Korea in forming an anti-Chinese bloc. The muscularity of OBOR has the West-friendly nations in the Central Asian republics in a bit of a quandary after the optics in Mongolia. The opportunistic plunge in Kathmandu post the blockade of 2015 is a thawing memory with increasing normalcy with India.
But the recent baring of the basic instincts of China’s expansionism, following the recent Doklam impasse, has not gone unnoticed in Rangoon, Kathmandu, Dhaka or the other capitals in the emerging world. The perception of the imminent “strings attached” to Chinese realpolitik masked as beneficence, are shaping furiously.
Stoking the latent embers was the US President Donald Trump, who had earlier elevated China as the “number one problem”, in his run-up to presidential campaign. Mr Trump has not shied away from naming and shaming China as the “principal enabler” for North Korea’s hair-raising belligerence. Mr Trump called China’s bluff on North Korea with straight accusations of duplicitousness.
Beyond the meek protestations on Mr Trump’s obvious inelegance with diplomatic niceties, both Russia and China have recently supported UNSC Resolution 2375 against North Korea. that embarrassingly includes maritime interdiction of cargo vessels, restricts joint ventures, imposes debilitating sanctions, besides a host of other clause that tighten the noose around Pyongyang.
In recent times, China has rightfully been made to swallow the universal indignity of being held responsible for North Korea’s routine bailouts that have led to Pyongyang’s global blackmails.
Similarly, Doklam has again raised the question marks on Beijing’s expansionist intent, as it tom-toms its infrastructural “carrots” across the globe. Pakistan’s own credibility issues have magnified with its sharp swerves towards its all-weather friend, whereas the growing footprint of the Dragon in Djibouti, Maldives and in the newly-created artificial islands in the South China Seas, are feeding further fears. Recent calculations of the global cost that is directly attributable to the Chinese realpolitik are coming to the fore, like never before.