At a time when the United Nations has obsequiously legitimized the American occupation of Iraq and erstwhile opponents like France, Russia, Germany and China have quietly gone along with this, it is hardly surprising that the voices in India calling for it to accede to the United States of America’s request for Indian troops in Iraq have become much louder. Whatever lip service might be paid by some governments to wanting a multipolar world order, these very governments are falling over each other to assure the US of their goodwill and support and, by doing so, self-defeatingly strengthening the latter’s global hegemony. The standard justification given for such surrender is that governments need to pragmatically pursue their national interests and that this demands that they not offend the powerful and the temporarily victorious.
Different governments and elites only bring different levels of enthusiasm to this posture of subordination. Some, like the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in India, are more likely to see (and be seduced by) vistas of a highly fruitful “strategic partnership”; others like France, Russia, Germany and China are more disturbed than enthused by American power and its implications for their own future. Though this is obviously a more sensible response, it only highlights their own diplomatic-political failings in being unwilling to stand up to the US, for without doing this in subtle yet effective ways they cannot hope to move out of this disturbing situation.
Yet in many Indian circles Chinese foreign policy behaviour, in particular, is seen as a model of intelligent pragmatism worthy of being emulated. Where New Delhi foolishly wasted years pursuing nonalignment and thereby alienating the US, Beijing’s foreign policy realism helped make it a growing global power, Surely the time has come then to assess China’s foreign policy over the last decades to see just how much of a success it actually has been.
China never followed nonalignment and therefore, unlike India, always had to face one or both superpowers as a strategic opponent. It first allied itself with the Soviet Union against the US, then was hostile to both, and then from 1971 onwards hitched itself to the US in an entente directed against the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It adopted this posture because it believed that “Soviet Social Imperialism” was a bigger regional and global danger than US power and aggrandizement.
Whatever local leverage it might have got against its closer neighbour through this alignment with the US, as a political assessment of the then existing reality and future global trends, this was a monumental mistake. Far from China playing a clever “balancing game”, it so grossly overestimated Soviet power that after the systemic collapse of communism in east Europe and the USSR, it was put dramatically on the defensive by a US that could now turn its strategic sights on China.
The three basic goals of the Chinese elite are modernization, national power enhancement and national unity. Regarding the first, this is primarily determined by domestic policy choices and practices and here the Chinese record is certainly impressive. National power enhancement, however, is a relative, not an absolute, term. It depends not just on how strong militarily or economically China is or becomes but to what extent through diplomacy it can restrain strong outside challengers or eliminate tensions with them, especially with the all-powerful US.
Here China’s performance has been poor. Its bilateral relationship with the US is far from balanced. China is very much on the defensive. Its only point of leverage is the attraction of its huge domestic market to US producers and investors. But this has not prevented the US from repeatedly humiliating the Chinese government politically. The examples are numerous. During the build-up to the Kuwait war in 1991 when the US wanted a UN cover for its assault, China was told to abstain in the security council or lose its most favoured nation status. China quietly acquiesced.
In 1998, its embassy in Serbia was bombed and all Beijing could do was engineer some mild street protests. A spy plane violates its territorial sovereignty but China can do little more than cause temporary embarrassment to Washington before the latter is back in the driving seat steering their bilateral relations. The premier of Taiwan can be invited to the US overriding Chinese protests, as also Chinese political dissidents who publicly embarrass China over its dismal human rights record.
Worst of all, the military alliances organized by the US in east Asia over several decades not only all remain in place but US longer term military preparations directed against China, most importantly the ballistic missile defence programme, have qualitatively expanded.
As for the pursuit of national unity, that is to say the unification of Taiwan with the mainland, this remains a distant prospect. If in 1971 when China made its decisive turn towards the US, Mao Zedong and the rest of the Chinese leadership had been told that even after another 30 years there would be no such unification, they would never have believed it. After all, one of the central purposes of the entente then was to achieve with American assent that very unity, if not immediately then certainly in the course of some years, perhaps a decade or so.
Instead, this remains the one issue that can even lead to war between the two countries. In 1996 the US sent in its navy to the Taiwan straits forcing China, which had been militarily sabre-rattling, to fall silent. The status quo that persists favours the US. To the great frustration of China there is no timetable or actual process that Taiwan must follow to formally and practically become a part of the mainland. It can even continue to make noises about wanting independence which the US will not now endorse but which affords Washington an option that it can more seriously explore if Sino-US relations in the future do move more strongly and clearly in the direction of strategic enmity.
The brute reality is that China does not know how to handle the US. It is desperate to assure the US that it is not a strategic opponent but whether or not it becomes one is not really contingent on its own behaviour, but will be overwhelmingly determined by US ambitions to be a global hegemony and how it feels it must prepare for this geo-politically. Chinese diplomatic behaviour vis-à-vis the US is essentially impotent, weak-kneed and reactive. It desperately wants a more multipolar order but doesn’t know how to get out of the current global hub-and-spokes arrangement wherein the US is at the hub and other countries are at the end of the different spokes, linked to the US much more than to each other. To use a boxing metaphor, skilful diplomacy is about punching your weight, neither above nor below it.
But France, Germany, Russia and China are all, singly as well as collectively, punching far below their weight. Skilful diplomacy is about taking calculated risks, asserting one’s authority, letting the US know that you cannot be taken for granted nor bullied. The Chinese government’s broadly meek and subdued acceptance of US dictates in central and west Asia is not the expression of a pragmatic wisdom but of diplomatic cowardice and ineptness. That it shares these dismal attributes with so many other governments is no consolation. But can we in India at least be spared the pretence that diplomatic capitulation to the US is both wise and necessary'