Regrettably, the intelligentsia of the ‘free world’ rationalized China’s ruthlessness as unavoidable in any interaction between liberal, open, and pluralistic polities and totalitarian ones

New Delhi: The honeymoon is long over. The strong anti-Japan allies in WW II are at each other’s throats. Two totally incompatible systems, ideologies, visions and preferences were in bed for several decades. The divorce will be messy.

In the last week of May 2021, the top US official dealing with Asia said that the era of engagement with China had ended, and henceforth competition would be the dominant paradigm, as the US worked under a new set of strategic parameters while the National Security Advisor claimed in June 2021 that China was increasingly isolated. Such comments reflect the broad bipartisan consensus on dealing with China. America is not used to being numero dos.

American officials say that Xi Jinping is largely responsible for the shift in US policy, citing the border clashes with India, the economic campaign against Australia and China’s abuse of everybody. As expected, China’s Foreign and Defence Ministries went apoplectic. They squarely blame the US for the downturn in bilateral ties, since China can do no wrong.

Over 30 years, an indulgent West got what it wanted from the relationship, the demise of the evil USSR, huge profits through cheap labour in China, and a vast market. And the fond hope that engagement with China would make it a more responsible player committed to international peace. While finding its feet internationally, China played to the western gallery. It was very cautious in its behaviour, working in international institutions, accepting global norms, and reassuring other powers that its rise would be peaceful. When China needed western technology and money, the “foreign devil” became the “foreign friend” but now that he has been milked, he is back to being the devil. A sly China filched, reverse engineered, acquired cutting edge technology and felt emboldened to challenge its benefactor and his buddies. Since the mid-2010s, thinking it had risen, China abandoned the “peaceful rise” mantra.

As my brilliant colleague Ambassador Saurabh Kumar points out, the larger question is how to deal with China, a State captured by a ruthless Communist Party that uses narrow nationalism (chauvinism) to legitimize its stranglehold on power. Regrettably, the intelligentsia of the “free world” rationalized China’s ruthlessness as unavoidable in any interaction between liberal, open, and pluralistic polities and totalitarian ones.

George Orwell wrote a novel called “1984” that deals with the consequences of totalitarianism, mass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of persons and behaviours within society. And how truth and facts within politics are manipulated. In 1984 (mark the year) President Ronald Reagan went to China. For many years he had sharply attacked “Red China” as an implacable foe of the United States (also Joe Biden’s language), but in 1984 he dramatically shifted his language by asserting that the United States could get along “with this so-called Communist China” since it was not an expansionist power and since it wanted American investment. China laughed all the way to the bank!

By 2020, Chinese gaslighting of international opinion had failed. The world wants to understand the origin of the virus. China seethes when this is raised and suggests global cooperation to tackle the virus. Its Man Friday, the WHO, nods vigorously.

In his New Year speech on 31 December 2019, Pingpong said: “We have friends in every corner of the world…China will unswervingly follow the path of peaceful development, safeguard world peace and promote common development.” It is the self-styled policeman of the world. And this while he was unleashing the worst ever bioterrorist weapon on humanity.

US friends and allies in Asia are confident that Joe Biden will not repeat the strategic failures of the Obama administration, namely, allowing the rise of China on American capital and technology in the foolhardy belief that a rich and powerful China would be less mendacious and a factor for peace and stability despite its gaming, and milking, of the framework of international relations and multilateral organisations. Just five years ago, Pingpong had promised Barack Obama that “relevant” construction activities in the Nansha (Spratly) Islands did not target or impact any country, and promised not to pursue militarization, even as his country was building airfields and bunkers on the islands.

China’s leadership has consistently betrayed and insulted those who sought to befriend it—Jawaharlal Nehru (of bhai-bhai fame), Soviet leaders who shared nuclear secrets with China, Barack Obama (of US-China partnership will define 21st century fantasy), Rodrigo Duterte (of I love Xi Jinping effusiveness). The only way to understand this behaviour is through a Chinese lens. Beijing’s aggressive foreign policy is an outgrowth of the government’s insecurity and lack of confidence. On one hand, the Communist Party is always mindful of its standing at home. There, its propaganda has crafted a narrative of China as a victim of foreign predation whose time has come to stand tall once again on the world stage (under the firm guidance of the party). That requires Beijing to take a tough stance in foreign disputes—anything less might be perceived as unacceptable weakness. On the other hand, China’s economic clout has convinced Beijing policymakers that they possess the power to assert their will over the universe.

In December 1978, Deng Xiaoping announced China’s open-door policy, inviting in foreign businesses and encouraging party members to “emancipate their minds.” Two weeks later, the first bottles of coke arrived, and Coca-Cola invested in a bottling plant to bring modern technology and foreign exchange to China. A salivating developed world (selling one handkerchief to each Chinese would mean a billion handkerchiefs!) rushed in with capital and technology. Slowly, imperceptibly, China turned the tables and instead of becoming the marketplace of the world, became the factory of the world. By 2008, after the success of the Beijing Olympics, China felt bolstered to proclaim that its communist system was better than any other. The world did not want to see the threat hiding in plain sight. Barack Obama was badly shaken when in 2015 the Chinese military called for a relationship of equals with the US military, so he reminded the world that the USA was the most powerful nation on earth. Period. In 2011, there was talk of a G-2: the two largest economies, members of UN Security Council, the most prominent rising power and the strongest “status-quo” power working together to address “pressing global challenges” including macroeconomic imbalances. China saved too much, and the United States consumed too much, so China recycled its export earnings, usually by purchasing American debt.

China had internal problems (corruption, poverty, wealth and income inequality, an ageing population, a weak social safety net) and China’s leaders spent most of their time worrying about how to cope. By 2020 it felt that its internal challenges would not go away any time soon, so it was time to divert attention and assert its universal supremacy externally. Galwan and the South China Sea confrontation followed. The world was lulled into a sense of complacency regarding Beijing’s long-term goals for China was never transparent about them. The world assumed the best, but China showed the worst. The United States gave China a seat at table of world leadership expecting China to defend and promote a rules-based international system (this is what the Bush administration meant by “responsible stakeholder”). Then China decided that, like the Arab’s camel, it needed the world to itself, and slowly wormed its way in, until the Arab (the world) booted it out. The message from Beijing is simple: America is broken.

“America’s Main Opponent is Itself,” proclaimed the headline in a recent edition of the People’s Daily, arguing that the “United States has arrived at its current situation because the design and operation of its political and economic system has gone awry, the inevitable result of the short-sighted pursuit of profit”. It would be easy to dismiss this as mere propaganda, for we don’t know just how deep the declinist consensus is in China, owing to the tight constraints on open discourse. What is certain is that the USA-China tango has reached a tipping point.

The EAGLE bill (the Bald Eagle is America’s national bird) has just been introduced in the US Congress, Ensuring American Global Leadership and Engagement Act, in line with American exceptionalism. Despite its obnoxious smugness, the American dream of liberty, the freedom of choice and the choice of freedom, is a universal desire, shared by billions. The anger and angst against China in the US (and elsewhere) is palpable. Many believe that it cheated and conned its way to US technology and investment. In a 2-hour conversation between the new US President and his Chinese counterpart on 11 February 2021, Joe Biden expressed concern over China’s coercive and unfair trade practices, its violation of human rights, crackdown in Hong Kong, mistreatment of Muslims, aggressive actions in Asia including Taiwan, and obfuscation over the virus. These are the issues that Beijing wants the world to forget. China’s hope that the Joe Biden administration would kiss and make up with China has been belied, and an anti-China grouping is emerging in the Indo-Pacific. “There will be repercussions for China and he knows that,” Biden said of Xi at a town hall event, after earlier remarking that the man does not have a democratic bone in his body. He told a bipartisan group of US senators that “if we don’t get moving, they (China) are going to eat our lunch”. As the virus clobbered America in 2020, the mightiest nation in human history floundered, with initial grief and disbelief giving way to anger. In May 2020, an angry US lawmaker tabled a bill in Congress to allow the American President to “authorise the President to recognise Tibet as a separate, independent country”. Following credible reports that the Wuhan virus was a lab-made pathogen being weaponized in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in May 2021 Biden ordered his intelligence agencies to submit a definitive assessment within 90 days. Since 2020, several top US lawmakers have introduced more than a dozen bills in Congress to counter growing Chinese influence and to protect America’s critical infrastructure. A US Congressman who introduced five bills earlier this year said that Communist China’s rise in military and economic power is one of the greatest security challenges the US faces today.

China is responding in the only way it knows how to, with abuse and threats. Since that is counterproductive, PingPong has asked his wolf warriors to tone down their vituperation and create a credible, trustworthy and lovable image of China. Can his machines be re-programmed so quickly?

Beijing has locked itself into chronic hubris. Much as Xi Jinping focuses on big tech aspirations, he faces mounting demographic and human capital challenges, with an ageing society and declining population. The Communist party (pun intended) is ending. Aware that it cannot afford to be the sole Rambo of the world, the US is re-engaging with friends and allies. G7, EU, NATO, Quad, ASEAN, India, are all sick of Communist China. Growing defence ties between India and the US and regular military exercises terrify China. The USA wants to normalize relations with Russia, and Russia has agreed (further isolating China) provided its interests are protected. During the Cold war, Moscow and Washington had reached a modus vivendi, a strategic stability with their respective spheres of influence in Europe and Asia and Africa. Such co-existence is not possible with Communist China that wants a totally Sino centric world.