Posted in: Geopolitics Posted by: P S Billimoria
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The Genesis of the Issue
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Since the outbreak of the pandemic, China has puzzled many by assuming the role of a global bully. Contrary to the Sino-British declaration of 1984, it subverted the democratic process in Hong Kong, and openly threatens to invade Taiwan, at one point, reportedly exhorting its soldiers to write goodbye letters to their families. Despite the ruling of the Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, (that it has no legal basis to claim the resources within its so-called “nine-dash line”), it continues to claim exclusive dominion over the South China Sea, and snarls at any international presence. It breathes fire at Australia for “daring to” question its role in the outbreak of COVID19 and threatened the speaker of the Czech Republic’s senate saying it would pay a “heavy price” for visiting Taiwan.
In June, the PLA walked into the Himalayan region bordering India, upsetting the equilibrium across an un-demarcated border (the “line of actual control”) which has sustained without a gunshot being fired in anger for more than five decades. Having first occupied a buffer zone area, it then had the audacity to unilaterally claim large swathes of the region to be its own.
While there may be strands of truth in the several explanations for this belligerence, (ranging from internal pressures to taking advantage of a distracted world), analysts are yet to formulate a coherent view of the problematic conduct.
When the cold war ended, military planners wondered which war they should plan for against which enemy. The belief that it was now a unipolar world ignored the fact that only one of the two communist regimes of the world had imploded. This consensus, coupled with the fact that the cold war had also exhausted the West, led it to brush the Tiananmen Square massacre under the carpet, after some clucking of tongues. Within a short time thereafter, China became a member of the WTO.
China knew that a kinetic war with the West was out of the question. The meltdown of the Soviet Bloc illustrated the dangers of economic isolation. The West did not realise the dangers of a totalitarian regime whose advent into the W.T.O now afforded it the opportunity to first ensure that it would not collapse under its own weight, unlike its Bolshevik neighbour and thereafter to strengthen its economic power to the point where it would seek to colonise much of Asia, Africa and Central Europe.
When China became a member of the W.T.O. in 2000-01, the West believed, in the words of President Clinton, that “It represents the most significant opportunity that we have had to create positive change in China”. Acknowledging that “China is a one-party state that does not tolerate opposition. It does deny citizens fundamental rights of free speech and religious expression. It does defend its interests in the world, and sometimes in ways that are dramatically at odds from our own”, Mr. Clinton then articulated the great blunder in the belief that “Membership in the W.T.O., of course, will not create a free society in China overnight or guarantee that China will play by global rules. But over time, I believe it will move China faster and further in the right direction, and certainly will do that more than rejection would”.
The engagement with China, in direct contrast to the shunning of the Soviet Union, was predicated on the expectation of its tariffs falling by half or more, enabling access to the biggest market in the world. Mr. Clinton’s words on that fateful day are telling. He went on to state that, “ … our companies will be able to sell and distribute products in China made by workers here in America without being forced to relocate manufacturing to China, sell through the Chinese government, or transfer valuable technology — for the first time. We’ll be able to export products without exporting jobs”.
One barely resists the temptation to scoff. Considering that it was the isolation of the Soviet bloc which caused it to self-destruct, one wonders whether the expectation of a communist regime changing “in the right direction” is attributable to the naivety of the times, or the fact that the U.S. and the West believed that supporting China’s entry into the W.T.O., was in their economic interests. Clearly, the threat perception from a “third world nation” failed to take into account a truism – that an economic system cannot be divorced from the political framework. While Karl Marx’s ideals are commendable, the difficulty is that communism, as an economic system necessarily requires a dictatorial form of Government. One does not have to be a historian to understand that the two (communism and totalitarian regimes) cannot be decoupled. Nor does one need to have studied history to know that Stalin and Mao were strongmen, who would not blink at genocide for the sake of their ideology. One cannot remember them today without thinking of Siberia and the gulags. China convinced world leaders, fatigued by the cold war and believing in the invincibility of the capitalist system, that it was only a different system of Government born, after all, of a revolution of the people but which was business oriented.
The scourge of the world was the communist regime of the Soviet Union and not its people, who were oppressed and denied of all rights, just as the Chinese people remain victims of the Chinese Communist Party. Unfortunately, the world has yet to realise the dangers of a totalitarian communist regime. A China believing in the supremacy of its Han ancestors and its culture and the inevitability of it becoming the dominant global power, cannot be persuaded to “change in the right direction” by doing business with it. The direction it sets out for itself has nothing to do with Western democratic ideals. Given this, it is not difficult to see why China (mis)used free trade to garner economic power. How they did so, and the propensity of the West to turn a blind eye as long as there is a perceived economic benefit is another story worth telling.