Once again, things are falling apart (or should one say “falling into place”?). On the expected lines, in a manner that has almost become the hallmark of China’s international behaviour. This includes needless defiance, avoidable stubbornness, unnecessary obstinacy and mimicking of the archaic 19th century gunboat diplomacy of the British and other Western imperial powers that ruined the economy of the Orient and other Third World countries which had mineral and mining wealth bestowed by nature. What makes China, the inheritor of a glorious ancient civilisation, behave the way it consistently does these days? There are no straight answers available to the outside world — except perhaps to a few strategic policy decisionmakers in the top echelons of the Chinese political hierarchy. From the overall behaviour pattern of contemporary Chinese in the global arena, one can suggest a few thoughts based on facts and figures derived from open source material.
First, it’s now clear China wants to play a dominant role as a prelude to becoming, as it hopes, the “sole superpower”, playing the primary role of friend, philosopher and guide to most nations, if not all. Why? Because, it says, for far too long “China has been the (sole) sick man of the Far East” — suppressed by the West despite being the most populous nation with the fourth largest land mass (959,7000 sq km) after Russia, Canada and the United States. Further, the psyche of the Chinese leadership evolved and concretised after the Second World War. China saw a tiny nation, Japan, growing into a “superpower” from 1895 and remaining so till 1945, with a huge swathe of land of conquered Asian nations (supplying raw material), develop an “invincible” navy, an aggressive leadership and overlording it (over China) for close to two decades.
Moreover, in the faraway Occident, emerged another Japan-like power in the 1930s — Germany. With little access to the sea, a few overseas colonies (compared to the British or French), following the 1919 Versailles Treaty, a shattered Germany rose from the ashes to become a “superpower” which could simultaneously take on the whole of Europe, so much so that even the mighty United States became wary of its prowess, preferring to remain in “splendid isolation” as long as possible. All these “superpowers” were, however, like pygmies before the Chinese as hardly any could boast of a 5,000-year-old civilisation of high quality philosophy, commerce, economics, administration and knowledge. Yet, while China remained down; Berlin and Tokyo rose again, thanks to the diligence of its people, coupled with foreign funds. So what did China do? It undertook an arduous and long-term internal reconstruction (for nearly 30 years) before opening up to the external world in the beginning of the 21st century. Unfortunately, the “benign China” of ancient tradition and civilisation turned into the “belittling China”, thereby implying that whoever came in the way of China’s plan of action, thoughts and belief on terrain, topography, geography, mountains, oceans, rivers, hills or the likes of any immovable asset which Beijing had once read in the book of history, mythology, epic or novel as belonging to Beijing, would be “belittled”.
Seen in this background, the latest claim by Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang that “Doklam construction is legitimate” simply falls in line. In one stroke, China has conceded that “Doklam construction” is taking place and that “it will go on” uninterrupted, despite its proximity to India’s “Chicken’s Neck”, and its legitimate concerns. Why then do some Indians criticise Army Chief Gen. Bipin Rawat when he pointed this out in a matter-of-fact way? Was the Army Chief wrong? One certainly doesn’t think so. Diplomats are a privileged lot; they speak from the “high table”, but the general has to report the “reality” from the “hot terrain”. Therefore, there cannot be any disconnect between the “defence terrain” and “diplomatic-table” as the aims and objectives of both are the same.
But I think the real reason behind such behaviour by the Chinese is its basic potential (internal) nightmare — food and water. China’s population is 1.4 billion, and feeding this vast number first and foremost duty of the Chinese State, as no nation can aspire to be a superpower with imported foodstuff. Hence, agricultural land and water (for both drinking and irrigation) are sine qua non. Unfortunately, for China, here comes the real problem vis-a-vis India — sustained, impressive industrial and economic growth notwithstanding. While India has the fourth “most fertile land”, with 53.7 per cent of the total land area (after Bangladesh’s 61.11 per cent, Moldova’s 56.22 per cent and Ukraine’s 56.01 per cent), China, despite being the largest agricultural output nation, has just 15 per cent land which is cultivable. Add to this the massive urbanisation, resulting in a substantial loss of agricultural land, posing a threat to its future food security.
To make matters worse, it now transpires that water too constitutes a serious internal problem which could disrupt China’s ambitious planning — both internal and external. In fact, earlier too, water was a major problem, something that led Mao Zedong to quip in 1952: “The country’s south has lots of water. The north has less, if it were possible, it could borrow a little.” Thus was opened on November 15, 2013 China’s “central water route” between Zhengzhou-Shijiazhuang and Beijing, followed by the “eastern water route” between Shanghai and Tianjin on December 12, 2014. As China is in the process of developing “western water route”, its focus is now focused on the Himalayas — the ultimate inexhaustible source of water from where originate the mega rivers of South Asia. From the Brahmaputra in the east to the Sindhu (Indus) in the west stands the water reservoir, an area where also falls the Sino-Indian frontier — still a matter of dispute as control of its high watershed points are of supreme importance for food, agriculture and water for the two largest demographies of the world.
China’s inflexible attitude and unbending posture on Arunachal Pradesh, Doklam, Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, Ladakh, Karakoram Pass, Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir and the route along Sindhu (Indus) river ending at Gwadar (including the BRI, OBOR, CPEC) constitute the pre-emptive action of the possible internal imbroglio of Beijing, on its external affairs chessboard. The Chinese plan emanates from the basics — first, agriculture, arable land, food and water; second, seafood, fuel, gas from the ocean; third, indigenous industrial production; fourth consumer markets like India; fifth, land connectivity of the vast Euro-Asia landmass to avoid the “turbulent” sea; and sixth, technology from West. Doklam and the Sino-Indian frontier are irritants and eyesores to Chinese leaders. It’s a festering issue that can’t be wished away anytime soon.