Heading a large country like China, President Xi Jinping naturally has many worries, besides pushing his pet project – the ‘China Dream’. The standoff between the Indian Army and the PLA at Doklam Plateau is continuing, with some indications PLA is making bunkers to dig in for winters. There is a cross-section that believes China intruded into Doklam to ‘force’ India in joining the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), even though China has been consolidating its strategic lodgment in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), which is Indian Territory, without reference to India. Sure, CPEC is the flagship project of China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative which is crucial to China’s future sustenance. But the most likely probability is that having got used to salami slicing territory along the Himalayas without much resistance, the annexation of Doklam Plateau must have been appreciated smooth-sailing. After all, when territories like Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia have been captured and occupied by Communist China, Doklam is a small morsel. The timing was perfect with PM Narendra Modi visiting the US; Doklam was to be swallowed without much ado.
India assisting Bhutan in countering the Chinese intrusion apparently shocked the Communist Party of China (CPC), and in turn Jinping who has accumulated total power unto himself. Chinese media (wholly state- controlled) went berserk launching dirty vitriolic, threatening war and whatnot. But that was not all. Luo Zhaohui, Chinese Ambassador to India and his deputy chief of mission Liu Jinsong, had the gumption of threatening India from Indian soil – unbecoming of diplomats for which they deserved to be kicked on their butts and booted out. Zhaohui even went and met the District Magistrate of Darjeeling with obvious ulterior motives while Liu Jinsong scurried over to Bhutan. Following Jinsong’s flying trip to Thimpu, Wang Wenli of China’s Foreign Ministry announced Bhutan had agreed Doklam doesn’t belong to Bhutan. If China thought Bhutan would be sullied into silence, it received a tight slap when Bhutan denied such admission altogether. Other Chinese lies included they had informed India of road construction in advance.
As it turns out, the Doklam standoff has become major embarrassment for China. What Jinping would do eventually amongst the war rhetoric and contrasting voices that conflict will mean harming Chinese economic interests in India, is anybody’s guess. But another major worry for Jinping is the raging feud within the CPC; Jiang Zemin-led Shanghai faction and Hu Jintao-led Beijing faction are reportedly engaged in covert war with the Xi-Jinping-led Zhenjiang faction. This is the reason China has not been able to announce dates for the 19th National Congress of the CPC beyond saying it will be held this autumn. As the ‘Core Leader’ of China, Jinping desperately needs to divert attention not only from these factional clashes within the CPC but also mounting unemployment and protests. All out conflict with India logically should be out of the question but he must ensure any aggressive move he makes doesn’t cause another embarrassment like Doklam, given that India would have war-gamed various contingencies. With the Chinese penchant of orchestrating incidents when senior Indian officials are visiting China or senior Chinese officials are in India, Jinping may show his hand during or just before the BRICS summit China is hosting; September 3-5. It can be any other time too but perhaps ‘before’ the 19th National Congress of the CPC, where major changes in China’s power structure will take place, and run up to which may witness zenith of the factional feud within the CPC. Events like Indian Navy joining the PLA Navy (PLAN) in a maiden maritime search and rescue exercise, chaired by Bangladesh under the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) coming November, may create impression of better tidings but makes no difference to China who despite closest economic relations with Taiwan intends to capture that country.
But another major headache for Jinping is the possibility of conflict between the US and North Korea. Thomas Reed, former US Air Force Secretary (himself having designed two nuclear devices) in his book ‘The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and its Proliferation’ pointedly states that China has intentionally proliferated nuclear technology to risky regimes like Pakistan and North Korea. More significantly, in his interview with US News, Reed explained that China under Deng Xiaoping, decided to proliferate nuclear technology to communists and Muslims in the third world based on the strategy that if the West started getting nuked by Muslim terrorists or another communist country without Chinese fingerprints, it would be good for China. In effect, North Korea and Pakistan are the eastern and western talons of the Chinese dragon poised atop the Indo-Pacific. Xi Jinping was a secretary in the Ministry of Defence when China invaded Vietnam in 1979 to “teach them a lesson” but returned with a bloody nose. Jinping is steeped in the same stream as Mao and Deng who opined “Tibet is the palm of China and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and NEFA (present Arunachal Pradesh) are its fingers”. So China invading Bhutan in Doklam is no surprise.
China has consistently supported North Korea despite sanctions, and is latter’s largest trading partner. China provides about half of North Korea’s imports and number of Chinese companies are operating in and trading with North Korea. China knows her recent announcement to stop imports from North Korea is a ruse especially since it has not announced blocking ‘exports to North Korea. China economic assistance to North Korea accounts for about half of foreign aid. Beijing provides such aid directly to Pyongyang enabling it to bypass UN sanctions. Actual amount of such aid maybe much larger than what Beijing says, given China’s strategic interests. China would love North Korea to strike Guam or a US nuclear aircraft carrier, and test efficacy of its covert cyber and space weaponry when US retaliates, but China wants it happen as per its own timetable. Definitely not now, when China is utilizing the US-North Korea tension as a strategic diversion to continue militarizing the South China Sea (SCS) and is consolidating her grip on ASEAN nations by knocking out opposition to her aggressive moves. And so, Jinping was visibly alarmed when President Donald Trump talked off military options being “locked and loaded”. Having tasted the ‘Rod of God’ at Tianjin on August 12, 2015, Jinping may have had visions of Kim Jong-un vapourizing along with his China-doctored posse, shattering China’s eastern nuclear talon in the process. Unease would have been more considering this is August and it was August when Tianjin was struck. So, Jinping personally rang up Trump on the night of August 11 to exercise restraint on North Korea. This was followed by the announcement that China has stopped imports from North Korea, without mentioning Chinese exports to North Korea. After all, China did not establish a Special Economic Zone bang on the China-North Korea border for nothing.
On the sidelines of the recent 50th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) held at Manila August 2-8, Wang Yi, Chinese Foreign Minister lied to reporters that China completed its SCS reclamation activities in mid-2015; recent satellite images show continued militarization activities of turning reefs in the Spratly and Paracel chains into islands, installing military aircraft and missile systems on them. Beijing continues to reclaim land farther north, in the Paracel Islands. Since 2015, China has dredged a new harbour, added 10 hectares land on Tree Island in the Paracels, recently completed a new helipad and installed wind turbines and photovoltaic solar arrays there. China scored a diplomatic victory at the AMM after sullying Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte into submission in return for billions of dollars worth of investments and aid. So, China got away with the ASEAN bloc issuing a diluted joint statement without mentioning last year’s decision by the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in favor of the Philippines in a maritime dispute, concluding that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights to the bulk of the SCS. Vietnam did express concerns about further land reclamations in SCS but without naming Beijing.
At the 50th AMM, China took another significant step under her concept of ‘Legal Warfare’ with ASEAN foreign ministers acquiescing to China’s demand that the Code of Conduct (COC) between China and ASEAN nations over the disputed sea must not be legally binding. But it is not a question simply about the whether the COC is legally binding or not, and whether an ASEAN-China COC can resolve issues in seas crisscrossed by international trade. According to Carl A Thayer, Emeritus Professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy, “The geographies of this dispute must be considered. What is the South China Sea? There is a definition by the international hagiographic organization, and then there is ASEAN’s definition and its treaty of nonnuclear weapons. Furthermore, there is China’s definition of it, so the geographies of the area need to be determined. The legally binding nature (of the COC) is another step and at present China seems to be pressing the foreign minister to sign the document and that would be non-legally binding, but some of the ASEAN members are saying that the national legislatures such as China’s National People’s Congress should ratify it with the United Nations.” But even if the COC becomes legally binding, who will enforce implementation with China trashing the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights to bulk of the SCS.
Post the ASEAN meet, the US, Japan and Australia denounced China’s island-building and militarization of the SCS, called upon China and Philippines to respect last year’s international arbitration ruling which dismissed much of Beijing’s claim in the sea, and emphasized that any COC must be legally binding. However, China’s chequebook diplomacy has bought over Laos and Cambodia, and now President Rodrigo Duterte. China recently threatened to attack Vietnam if Spain’s Repsol continued oil drilling in Block 136-03 in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone that China claims as disputed. China’s focus on Block 136-03 increased when it was recently discovered as a major oilfield, as disclosed by Repsol. Repsol has since stopped the drilling. It may be recalled that in mid-2014 also China had created a crisis with reference to HD 981, resorting to jostling Vietnamese vessels and threatening attack. In July this year, China publicly protested when Vietnam extended India’s ONGC’s lease in Block 128 of Vietnam in SCS. China threatening attack on Philippines (earlier) and Vietnam, and getting away are dangerous precedents that buoys Chinese aggressive moves.
Behind China’s couldn’t care less naked aggression lies Jinping’s obsession with pushing through his China Dream overlooking international laws, norms and behaviuor. As in the case of Mao and Deng, rules and boundaries are ruthlessly steamrolled under jinping. Militarization of the Indian Ocean Region by China is being undertaken in the same vein. The game of nukes continues. If there are reports of Pakistan (China’s other protégé) keeping tactical nuclear weapons packed and ready for shipping to Saudi Arabia, China will have no compunction in doing same for Iran, given the downturn in US-Iran sanctions. The question is how long is the world going to suffer this 21st Century Hitler? That articles have begun showing up about the balkanization of China are hardly surprising.