China’s continued military modernization as its economy expanded and muscle-flexing in its neighborhood brewed concerns that China was buying time to play a more militaristic role in world politics. It is becoming evident that Beijing’s ambitions were inherent in the paramount communist leader Deng Xiaoping’s famous saying that it was necessary to hide capacities and gain time.
While Deng helped China accumulate more strength by his maverick leadership, necessary reforms and engendering a benign image of China, the succeeding regimes began to use that power in the direction to fulfill Beijing’s regional and global ambitions. China’s ambitious foreign policy objectives are no more hidden and President Xi Jinping not only declared his intentions to turn Beijing into a global power as he announced his vision to make China a leading nation in terms of national power and global impact by 2050 at the 19th National Congress of the Communist party, his ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) is unambiguously a step in this direction.
Chinese Sponsored BRI and Rising Concerns
The way BRI has been pursued has gathered more criticisms and cautions than applause not only from state actors but from international financial institutions as well concerning rising indebtedness among countries without accruing significant benefits to local economy, lack of transparency, disregard for an open and inclusive approach and sustainable financing.
The ambivalence underlying the Beijing-led projects is manifest in the objections that resonated in some of the Asian countries like Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar apart from the reports of rising indebtedness among other countries too. The Malaysian government led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad reportedly halted Chinese projects involving around $22 billion including a railway link along the country’s east coast. The government of Myanmar reportedly scaled down construction activities in the development of Kyaukpyu port.
Similarly, when the Sirisena government of Sri Lanka leased out Hambantota port to China for 99 years under debt pressure, it not only led to criticisms from public within the country but it provided a grist to the brewing contentions that the BRI is not merely a spate of infrastructural and connectivity projects rather it has military and strategic undercurrents. BRI has exposed developing countries’ inability to absorb massive loans even though they needed infrastructure and connectivity for growth and development.
India has expressed its concerns regarding BRI’s violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity particularly with reference to inclusion of Gilgit-Baltistan region into the CPEC project without India’s consent which it considers as its integral part although Beijing later clarified that the project has purely an economic and developmental purpose and it did not alter Beijing’s stance on Kashmir (a bilateral issue to be resolved between India and Pakistan) (M.K. Mishra, “Wobbling China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) hides more than it reveals”, South Asia Journal, September 15, 2018).
China’s Muscle Flexing in Neighborhood
China’s power reserve since Deng’s period began to assume a hegemonic design during the succeeding regimes with assertion of claim over disputed areas in the immediate neighborhood. Chinese assertion of indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea at the expense of the territorial claims of Vietnam, Malaysia and Philippines was manifestly driven by Beijing’s geopolitical interests to gain control over strategic sea-routes. Beijing’s non-recognition of McMahon Line as the international border between India and China, assertion of sovereignty in Arunachal Pradesh and occupation of Tibet served as indications of Chinese assertiveness as a rising power in world politics. China’s increasing arms supplies to the South Asian countries led to a perception that Beijing was continuously asserting its expanded military strength in the India’s neighborhood.
China while attempted to build up its image as a peace broker by engaging in Afghan peace process and mediating efforts to arrive at settlement of Rohingya refugee issue between Bangladesh and Myanmar, on the other hand, it turned out to be the largest supplier of arms to two of India’s neighbours – Pakistan and Bangladesh. Beijing supplied arms to Sri Lanka and Nepal as well. China concluded major agreements with Pakistan on defence production and military technology transfer.
Its military supplies to Myanmar of around estimated $2 billion raised lingering suspicions over Chinese intentions (H. Shivananda, 2011, “Sino-Myanmar Military Cooperation and it Implications for India, Journal of Defence Studies, Vol.5, No. 3, 2011, p. 120-123).These activities led many Indian scholars to argue that China adopted a ‘play now, fight later’ tactic which was explicit in its aggressive moves in the South China Sea following a period of peaceful cooperation when China’s economic penetration enmeshed these countries in a web that neutralized their ability to resist (N. Chanda, “Being Flexible and Tough with China”, The Times of India, June 7, 2014).
Quite similarly, there were reservations that Beijing in its apparent gestures of peace, growth and trade with India; it might be actually buying time to strengthen its military and economic strength. While China began to improve its relations with India in the mid-1980s, however, it took advantage of the improved relations by building a network of roads and airfields which later turned into its muscle-flexing along the border areas. New Delhi must have warily noticed as to how China has not only accumulated trade surplus and occupied Indian market with its cheap products over the years, but notwithstanding its economic engagement with India, it has not stayed away from bolstering Pakistan’s military strength.
Chinese aid without ‘strings’ is not immune from suspicions
While Beijing’s far-reaching influence in the African continent has been acclaimed as its benign image in China and among many African countries, its declaration of aid without any ‘strings’ attached, however, aroused suspicions among many countries and observers.
There are arguments that Chinese aid was channelized to realize various political objectives such as gaining continued legitimacy for its communist leadership and support for its One-China policy.
Rather than concentrating more on building human resource capacity in the continent, China directed its engagement in building heavy infrastructure which engendered perceptions that these might be used for strategic purpose. Beijing’s claim that its deployment of nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean was targeted at anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia and its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017 further corroborated such suspicions over Chinese intentions.
China’s Aspirations to be a prominent International Stakeholder have not received Praise
China’s President Xi Jinping pledged to contribute 8,000 troops for a UN peacekeeping standby force and has significantly enhanced Beijing’s contribution from 3 per cent in 2013 to 10.25 per cent by 2018 to the UN peacekeeping budget. While China has taken up an enhanced peacekeeping role as evidenced in Mali, South Sudan and Darfur, Chinese state media, however, chose to project it as a Chinese achievement showing tinge of nationalistic pride.
Further, going by the history of Chinese contribution to UN peace-keeping operations it becomes evident that Beijing contributed lesser troops to UN missions compared to less developed states like India Bangladesh and Pakistan for long. Statistics reveal that at the end of 2008, India contributed 8, 693 troops to the UN peace-keeping operations, Pakistan contributed 11, 135 troops, Bangladesh’s troop contribution was as high as 9, 587 while China contributed far less compared to these states with 2,156 troops (M. Dubey, 2013, India’s foreign policy: Coping with the Changing World, Pearson, New Delhi, p. 223). China’s sudden embrace of larger role in UN peacekeeping has raised suspicions that it might be training and preparing its troops by “providing them opportunities to improve its military operations other than war (MOOTW) and modernize its security forces” (L. Pauley, “China Takes the Lead in UN Peacekeeping”, The Diplomat, April 17, 2018).
A cursory look at Chinese role in the past while makes it clear that while China claimed all the privileges associated with a developing country status at multilateral forums, it showed, however, no interest in formally identifying itself with NAM and G-77 – two largest multilateral bodies of the developing countries. China remained content with an observer status within NAM; major statements of G-77 were issued as position papers on behalf of ‘G-77 and China’.
China apparently wanted a separate identity for itself, however, without forgoing the privileges that come with a developing country status. While China preferred to insulate itself from international law, trade and peace-keeping operations for long time, its attempts at strengthening South-South cooperation and assumption of a dominant role under BRICS arrangement are more understood as Chinese global ambitions vis-à-vis the developed countries of the west rather than a benign image China.