September 19, 2008

South Asians at Beijing Banquets

By Bhaskar Roy

Any one, who has been feted to the famed Chinese banquet by the Beijing Mandarins is unlikely to forget it for a long time – both literally and figuratively. A rather acrimonious western diplomat visiting Beijing was on his way to an official luncheon when he was left stranded and sweating in the height of Beijing summer by his official Chinese limousine driver. In contrast, a high level South Asian official returned from a China visit so blinded that he could only talk about how honest and reasonable the Chinese government was, and how obdurate his own country had been.

But in this banquet season in Beijing for some south Asian leaders it is Peking Duck and quail egg soup, followed by Ganbei with the finest Mao Tai wine, served by mesmerizing hostesses. This is a fact, and the Chinese know how to host their real friends – “time tested”. “lips to teeth”, “all weather”, and those who are waiting to be included in these categories.

The Chinese leadership, which includes the powerful People’s Liberation Army (PLA), has been watching with some consternation if not alarm, developments in the region which could challenge China’s supremacy. It started with the 2005 proposed India-US nuclear deal on civilian use, followed by the movement last year in Pakistan to oust President and COAS Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the democratic uprising in Nepal which ousted China’s loyal friend, the monarchy, and possible fall out influence in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Gradual Indian access in Myanmar also threatened China’s virtual control of the country’s military supply, infrastructure sector, and oil and gas assets compounded China’s strategic concerns.

It was natural for China to look at the calculus of the region from the strategic security point of view. A reemphasis in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka was, therefore, imperative.

The train of visiting South Asian leaders specially invited by China either on the guise of the Olympic games followed by the Beijing Paralympics spanned August and September, suggesting some urgency. Pak Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and Nepal’s new democratic government Prime Minister and head of CPN (Maoist), Prachanda, were in China in August. September witnessed the visits of Pakistan’s new President and co-head of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Asif Ali Zardari, and Bangladesh’s interim government’s Chief Adivsor (de facto Prime Minister) Dr. Fakruddin Ahmed. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake will be in China in October. But China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi made clear more than normal support to Sri Lanka during his September 9-10 visit following his not so happy India tour. To crown these would be the tour by a heavy weight military delegation to China headed by Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, from September 22. All neatly stitched up. India is the exception from this bag, and no explanations needed.

Pak President Zardari’s China visit carries strong traditional relationship and alliance along with a potential American baggage. With the US decision to unilaterally take on Taliban terrorists on Pakistan’s soil, most opinion in the country including that of the army would lean towards Beijing, its tradition military and strategic weapons ally and Santa Claus. The ISI under severe US pressure would be delighted with these developments, and work even more to sabotage US counter-terrorism surge in Pakistan. Yet, on the other hand, Pakistan’s desperate economic situation with rock bottom foreign exchange reserves can only bailed out by the USA. Washington’s undeniable influence over the World Bank, the IMF, the London Club to name a few, need no emphasis. Although Pakistan’s armed forces are basically China armed, the US F-16 aircraft have become its plume of pride.

A critical aspect not generally discussed is Pakistan’s nuclear and nuclear capable missile arsenal. China supplied them with technology and manufacturing capability violating the international non-proliferation which has not stopped completely even today. This is not unknown, but tolerated by the US and the west for totally different reasons. Pakistan, generally, has emerged as China forward nuclear base against India. But this base can also be used otherwise in a future arrangement between the two.

Pakistani nuclear scientists have recently declared authoritatively that their nuclear establishments are secured with a 10 million dollars per year special assistance from the US. This is shocking news for China. Zardari will certainly be asked as to who will finally control Pakistan’s nuclear assets – Pakistan or the USA.

China sees the PPP led government as weak and susceptible to US pressure. The question, therefore, arises whether China will quietly support a return to army rule in Pakistan? The issue may be decided in the next two months or so depending on how Washington deals with Islamabad on the counter-terrorism issue.

India falls right into China’s unstated hegemonistic designs in the region. Beijing is disturbed that Washington’s strategy is aimed to enable India to envelop Pakistan in South Asia at the exclusion of China from the ombudsmanship of South Asia. They realize an India out of the bounds of South Asia cannot be excluded from enmeshing with the developments of South East Asia, where loud traces of ancient India is still espoused with reverence – whether temples of Indonesia, culture in Malaysia, and family names closeness with those of the Thais.

The urgency of China’s diplomatic and political initiative must be seen in the above context. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi assured Sri Lanka of China’s commitment to secure its territorial integrity and security. Bangladesh’s Chief Advisor was committed China’s “all weather friendship” by President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and Vice President Xi Jinping in turns – something not normal. China also committed to set up Bangladesh’s Ruppur nuclear power plant. Nepal has been alerted and assured China is aware of India’s plan of “:Sikkimization” of Nepal and China will not allow it.

Each of the Chinese statements and observations convey a strong message – that India must be countered through proxies, and the proxies have to be nurtured as they were done earlier to a substantial extent.

The developments bring into question the India-China strategic partnership for co-operation and development, the parameter for resolving the boundary issue, and the fast growing bilateral trade.

India may expect heightened pressure on the border issue. The signals from Beijing do not inspire confidence for a co-operative relationship in the Asian space. China may be working on a highly destabilizing strategy which may no longer remain with the boundaries of South Asia.

(The author is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience of study on the developments in China. He can be reached at grouchohart@yahoo.com)