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In the year 1990, Deng Xiaoping, the supreme leader of the Communist Party of China, had issued a 24-character dictum in Chinese. Translated into English, it meant: “Observe calmly; secure our position; Cope with affairs calmly; hide our capabilities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership”. After the formative decades under Mao that saw China adrift in every parameter of human development, Deng wanted the leadership to consolidate and stabilize. ‘Keeping a low profile’ or KLP helped China rebuild its crumbled economy and bring riches to its people.
In a revealing account of China under the leadership of Xi Jinping, renowned author Daniel Markey writes that the Deng era dictum no longer holds any water in the Xi era. The author is professor of International Relations at SAIS in John Hopkins University, Washington D. In his book published last year under the title “China’s Western Horizon – Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia”, he concludes that 24 October 2013 marked the death of KLP. After assuming office as the General Secretary of the CPC and President of China, Xi addressed the “highest level conference on diplomatic work in China since the beginning of communist leadership in 1949” on that day. It was in that address that he formally put an end to KLP and announced his own new policy of ‘fenfa youwei’, meaning, ‘striving for achievement’ or SFA.
China’s strategy has undergone a complete change after that. It was no longer a reticent middle power. It started flexing its muscles – both economic and military. Markey quotes an article written by law professor Jiang Shigong of China’s Peking University (described as China’s Harvard) in the journal ‘Open Times’ in which Jiang explained that the post-revolutionary Mao Zedong era could be characterized by China “standing up”, while Deng Xiaoping’s era was about “getting rich”. The focus of attention of Xi Jinping’s China, on the contrary, would be on “becoming powerful”.
Markey argues that there is a method in Xi’s mad aggression. While the ‘richer’ world led by the US turned its focus to the Indo-Pacific after President Barack Obama announced his “Asian Pivot” policy in 2012, and countries like India too turned their main attention eastwards under the Act East policy, China chose to turn to the West. To its West lay the great continental mass of Eurasia, a resource-rich land mass of enormous significance. Although China’s relations with countries in the Eurasian region date back to Jiang Jemin and Hu Jintao period, Xi certainly accelerated those engagements and built formidable relationships with almost all the powerful and big countries in the region.
Eurasia was originally the dream project of President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Denied a role in the European Union, Putin vowed to come back at them by building an alternative alliance with the singular objective of destroying the EU. The UK’s exit from the EU through the Brexit referendum was heavily influenced by Russian bots and hackers. Chinks in the NATO alliance were also exposed when Putin’s soldiers marched into Ukraine in 2013 and took over Crimea with impunity.
But Putin had a bigger ambition. He wanted American influence to be erased from Eurasia. A substantially weakened Russia could not have achieved it on its own. But Putin found a useful collaborator in Xi Jinping. China is more powerful economically and militarily today than Russia. When it started turning attention to its West under Xi, it naturally threatened Russia’s hegemony also. But Putin seems willing to cede space because he found a common cause with China. i.e. the expulsion of America from the Eurasian region.
Markey’s book is a vivid account of how China has spread its wings far and wide in Eurasia. Eurasia had witnessed three major initiatives in the past that led to building of West-centric world orders. The Congress at Vienna in 1814-15, the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War in 1919, and the Yalta Conference after the Second World War in 1945. All of them were European enterprises. This time round, the Chinese and the Russians could be leading the new international order in Eurasia.
In South Asia, Pakistan has emerged as a strong ally of China. It owes $40 billion to China. The Chinese are all over the country. They get preferential treatment right from the Lahore International Airport, where there is a special “Chinese Security Desk” manned by the Pakistani police, a privilege not available to the Americans or citizens of any other country. The Pakistan Army has raised a 15000-strong special force to guard the flagship China Pakistan Economic Corridor – CPEC. China also helps ISI in its machinations in Afghanistan.
Ashraf Ghani chose to make Beijing the destination for his first visit as President of Afghanistan in 2014. Since then, Sino-Afghan relations continued to grow despite the fact that Afghanistan enjoyed the support of America and India too. In fact, the hasty withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan recently was a strategic victory for China and Russia.
In Central Asia, one country that has come largely under China’s spell is Kazakhstan. Billions of dollars are pouring into that country from China and assets like oil companies are changing hands. Authoritarian leaders of Central Asia increasingly turn to China for their survival. Some of the regional powers including Kazakhstan came under American influence in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when even Putin had gone to President George Bush’s personal ranch in Chicago to extend support to his “War on Terror”. But now, that support has completely waned.
In the Middle East, Iran’s coziness from Khamenei’s time with China is an old story. China had constantly helped that country overcome American sanctions through clandestine support. Both countries have developed military relations too. Even the Saudis, traditionally the friends of the USA, have openly embraced China in their eagerness to ensure regional balance. King Abdullah introduced ‘Itijah Sharqan’ – ‘Eastward Pivot’ policy in 2006 and made a maiden visit to Beijing. Incidentally, that was his first ever visit out of Saudi Arabia to any country. Saudis think that the American wrath is “bearable”.
“American influence in the region is waning, however, at least in relative terms. The shock of 9/11 and the Iraq wars have fundamentally altered US relations with Middle Eastern states”, writes Markey cautioning “Less US influence in the Middle East could leave a vacuum for Beijing to fill”.
Beijing’s reach in the Middle East can be gauged from the fact that the first-ever cargo train to run between China and Iran passing through Central Asia and connecting China with the Persian Gulf by land concluded its maiden journey in February 2016. China’s BRI today connects it through rail and road with many European and Middle Eastern capitals.
Markey’s book reveals the deep penetration of China in Eurasia. He rightly concludes that in the great power competition, size matters. Markey’s observation that “access to Eurasian resources, markets, and ports could transform China from an East Asian power to a global superpower” may be a bit of exaggeration but is a serious danger to bother about.
This is a must-read book for all China watchers.