Japan is universally known as the Land of the Rising Sun and the Korean peninsula as the Land of Morning Calm. It is now time for a new template. Yes, be ready to acknowledge China as the indisputable “Land of Morning Warning”. This new proverb was introduced by none other than Chinese President Xi Jinping. On a chilly winter morning, the Chinese leader gave this well-crafted and well thought-out chilling statement, prima facie with an intention to replace the age-old adage on Japan and Korea by the Han ruler himself to put a Chinese stamp on the world arena. Henceforth, the new template of the old proverb “morning shows the day” will emanate from Beijing without the soothing words and sounds of the ancient proverb. The world at large may note or ignore it at its peril.
“China will have a say on all major international issues,” declared Mr Xi in a matter-of-fact manner, recalling imperial rulers of a bygone era. Surprising? Shocking? Not exactly! This is the new China calling to the world; to all the 223 states, including the semi-independent ones and protectorates. However, what remains undefined and unformulated is: what is the actual meaning or definition of “all major international issues”? Who is to define and decide these issues? What is the yardstick or the formula? Does it get its relevance through the eyes of the Hans alone or through a recognised international institution like the United Nations, International Court of Justice, World Trade Organisation or the World Bank? Each of these has some sort of universal standing, identity and acceptability with legal or semi-legal status on their own merit.
Let’s try to understand what Mr Xi has in mind. That “China will resolutely uphold the authority and status of the UN and actively fulfil China’s international obligations and duties” is a noble thought indeed. However, how will China, with its “veto power”, judge issues before the UN when connected to its self-interest? For instance, when the issues pertain to those between India and China, CPEC, the South China Sea, Tibet, Taiwan, Senkaku or currency manipulation, terror outsourcing, trade war or tariff hike?
Is China amenable to the verdict of international institutions? Did China listen when, in a significant court ruling on maritime territorial dispute between China and the Philippines, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) concluded on July 12, 2016 that “there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash’?”
Further, after considering the characteristics and features of the South China Sea, the PCA came to the conclusion that “none of the Spratly Islands is capable of generating extended maritime zones and that the Spratly Islands cannot generate maritime zones collectively as a unit”? Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), islands generate an “Exclusive Economic Zone” (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles and a continental shelf but “rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf”.
The PCA’s verdict notwithstanding, China’s brazen defiance has been going on unabated for quite some time. (In a striking way, China today is imitating the aggressive, abrasive and China-bashing militant Japan of the 1930s.) Reportedly, “China has created a large number of military installations and artificial islands in the contested waters since 2013 when the Philippines claim was lodged”. While unsurprisingly, the PCA verdict was rejected by Beijing, its legal application and its repercussions affect not only the Philippines but a number of other countries, including the United States.
These points were referred to as a test case to pose a question to the lofty idealism-preaching Chinese leadership, which vowed to have a “say on all major international issues”. How do the Chinese leaders defend, rationalise or interface this with their New Year statement that “China will resolutely uphold the authority and status of the UN and actively fulfil China’s obligations and duties”?
There are several other points too, the very mention of which or whose analysis are likely to be embarrassing for Beijing. Suffice it to state that the primary objective of China is to penetrate the vast geography of rich geology with sparse or declining demography without any legal recourse to international diplomatic norms and niceties.
The word “trap” used by Greek historian Thucydides in the 5th century BC, chronicling the magnum opus Peloponnesian War, comes to mind. It is all about unconventional and unorthodox ways to undermine and scuttle the rival, using indirect ways to avoid direct confrontation. Thus when Mr Xi emphatically refers to his grandiose BRI/CPEC/OBOR, it is the Thucydides “trap” at its best (or worst?).
Indeed, the OBOR/BRI/CPEC are major international issues, the ones conceived, created and carried by China alone. Hence, it is a “major international issue” where China has to have its “say”! Try having a closer look and the real picture will emerge before you. It is a parallel national goal to undermine the conventional and established global diplomatic order. It is a unique form of unilateral multilateralism of the new Chinese world order, in which no bilateral, trilateral or multilateral meeting, negotiation, convention, treaty are required to be mutually-signed or endorsed. Under the guise of promises for a series of “economic and infrastructure development” projects, financed and built by China, the Hans make a seamless entry/penetration across the terrain and territory of 70 nations. A sublime Thucydides “trap”, for all 70 nations, at its best.
The BRI/OBOR/CPEC, therefore, clearly stand as a parallel organisation competing with the likes of WTO. The classic ends thus: “In Europe, a China-led group called 16+1 brings together 11 members of EU and five non-EU central and eastern European countries into a political and commercial grouping. All 16 members are also BRI countries and several have signed up to Chinese-financed infrastructure deals, boosting Beijing’s influence inside European Union”. Isn’t it the “trap” of Thucydides? Has this “trap” turned into a “penetration” point-of-no-return? Is this the New Year message or warning to those like India who, under no stretch of imagination, can afford to play with the sovereignty that Mr Xi himself cherishes as China’s President? Hasn’t Beijing already trapped India economically and commercially in the last two decades? And is now steadily progressing to penetrate the strategic psyche of Lutyens’ landlords too, with a point of no return in the near future?